When Football Becomes More Real Life Than Real Madrid
When we think of footballers, all too often we picture elite multimillionaire athletes. We envisage them at a team of unlimited resources, where almost any injury can be solved with a world-class surgeon in some exotic location.
The only worry being how obscenely large the next contract will be. Much like the company you may work for, there are those few at the top living that lifestyle, while the majority provide the support in the lower levels of the pyramid.
The story of 23-year-old Gateshead midfielder, J.J. O’Donnell, is certainly a reminder that for every player driving a Bentley, there are hundreds balancing the bills. J.J. has a condition called sesamoiditis. This is the irritation of sesamoid bones, which are encased in tendon. The most obvious example of this is the patella (kneecap). In O’Donnell’s case, this is inflammation of the tendon surrounding the sesamoid bones in his feet. These make up the ball of your foot, and are the primary pressure point in any kind of running activity.
Having the surgery to remove the affected bones, is a dilemma for many runners, as there does seem to be a 50% success rate. Even those that are successful have a lengthy recovery, and have to adapt how they run, given the lack of the two bones that absorbed most of the pressure from a stride. In every other instance of a professional footballer with sesamoiditis, non-surgical treatments have worked, but these have been exhausted with J.J. given the severity and presence in both feet.
As I mentioned previously, we think of footballers and the ACL tears that previously spelled the end of a career. Now they just hop a flight to the US, visit Dr James Andrews, and sit out a couple of months.
Players like J.J. O’Donnell have to rely on what their clubs can provide, and what their insurance policies will cover. In this instance, Gateshead faced the tough decision on whether providing private treatment for J.J. was a worthwhile gamble. Unfortunately, the Heed decided it wasn’t, and informed J.J. that he was on his own in this battle with sesamoiditis. This would mean a wait of up to 8 months for an operation on Britain’s National Health Service, who typically perform surgeries in a cheaper, dated manner that results in a longer recovery period. For a professional footballer, that can be the loss of an entire season, and a much tougher chance of securing a new club immediately after a year on the sidelines.
Many lower league players do have the benefit of support from the Professional Footballers Association, although J.J. did not qualify for their help as he had never played in the Football League. Brian Marwood, former chairman of the PFA, had hoped to help O’Donnell, but as J.J. explained to the Luton Town America podcast, that would potentially open the floodgates to players that wouldn’t ordinarily qualify. Throughout that interview, it was awfully clear to see an old head on young shoulders. Also, someone that is truly grateful for any help he has received, and appreciative of living the dream, even if not at the elite level.
It would take a moment of brilliance by two young Gateshead fans to help turn this story around. Lee Calder, 16, and Sam Jupp, 13, establish an online fundraising page to help contribute to the £7,000 medical bill that would see O’Donnell get the best chance at resuming his dream job. Gateshead fans, remembering the youngster that had scored the winning goal to send them to Wembley in the Vanarama Conference play-offs a year ago, flocked to donate what they could. As did Luton Town fans, where O’Donnell starred in the 2013 FA Cup win at then-Premier League Norwich City. In fact, fans from across the country and players that J.J. had played with, and against, in non-league football contributed.
The only disappointing thing was the absence of support from above. Wayne Rooney earns the cost of the sesamoidectomy in just 4 hours. Yet it was down to fans giving £20 here and there to get J.J. most of the way towards this lifeline. Even a 10-year-old donating £15 in a great example of being a supporter in more ways than just turning up on a match day. There was certain support from the higher levels of the football family. Not a glamorous name you would expect to see making the headlines on a UK newspaper, or a SportsCenter Top 10 play. Rather more, a hometown hero of O’Donnell’s Gateshead community, in the form of Sunderland striker Danny Graham. Graham provided the final £2,690 to help achieve the goal.
If the surgery is a success and J.J. does indeed return to the career he loves, maybe some fans can stop believing that the game begins and ends in the Premier League, and follow a talented youngster from Leighton Buzzard. If you prefer cheering on the anti-hero (I’m looking straight at you, Millwall and QPR fans!), you may also want to keep an eye out for older brother Chris, who is an assistant referee in the SkyBet Football League.
Whether you are reading this in North America or Europe you can donate to, or just keep updated with, the campaign at http://www.gofundme.com/jjodonnell