Comeback kid McAliskey determined to make up for lost time
By Michael Devlin
Following Tyrone’s 2016 All-Ireland Championship semi-final exit against Mayo, Connor McAliskey took a month off football over the Christmas holidays before getting stuck in again to his winter training routine.
Having returned the Anglo-Celt Cup to the county after a five year absence, Tyrone’s season finished up on a disappointing note with a single point defeat to Stephen Rochford’s men at Croke Park.
McAliskey’s off-season was going well, but every now and then his thoughts would turn back to a moment midway through the second half when he should have struck for the game’s opening goal, only for Mayo keeper David Clarke to foil his effort. That memory kept pushing him on to improve and come back the next year.
“My target for 2017 was getting back to Croke Park, and to put right some of the mistakes from the year before," McAliskey told GAA.ie
“We knew we’d left it behind us that day, and from my own perspective, that miss was one of the things I was looking to put right.”
And so came a new season and fresh hope, and the Red Hands’ 2017 got up and running against Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup on a cold, wintry Sunday in Breffni Park.
It was a shaky start, the Ulster champions slumping to a four point defeat. More concerning to Mickey Harte though was the afternoon’s injury toll.
Michael Cassidy, Rory Brennan and Ronan O’Neill were all forced out of the game by injury, but most worrying though was McAliskey, who was stretchered off after a nasty clash. He remembers clearly the incident in question.
“It was in around the 50th minute. Ronan McHugh went up and broke the ball ten yards in front of me, and as I went in for it a Cavan player came into the side of my knee. At the time I remember there wasn’t much pain, but I was fearing the worst.”
McAliskey’s worst fears were realised several days later when the news was confirmed after undergoing scans at the Ulster Clinic in Belfast. He had ruptured a cruciate ligament, and his 2017 season was over before it even started.
“It was a tough pill to swallow, knowing all the county games and club games you’d miss. Those first few weeks were very tough mentally.”
Then there was the little issue of a new job offer, from Almac Group in Craigavon. “I’d been to the interview before Christmas, and they called me back just before I was going for the scan, to offer me the job. I had to hold on it for a little while until I found out the extent of the injury.”
He wouldn’t be back on his feet until April, but thankfully, his new company were obliging.
His next task was to set about his recuperation, and the time off allowed him to fully concentrate on making every effort to get back to the game. Instrumental were Tyrone physiotherapists Louis O’Connor and Michael Harte, who set out a long term recovery plan for the corner forward.
“It was all about small goals. I was over in the gym in Clonoe doing things like upper body exercises, on the rowing machine with one leg, going to the pool. Slowly trying to get a full range of motion, really.
“There were times though when you thought you weren’t making progress at all, and they were the toughest times.”
Sessions with O’Connor and Harte, and heading up to Garvaghy every so often to link up with teammates at training, were doing him the world of good though, especially chats with players who had also come through injury nightmares.
Niall Sludden suffered a double leg break in 2013, and Ronan O’Neill incurred a similar knee ligament injury to McAliskey’s back in 2012, when he was just 19. Both players made the long road back to inter-county football, and they offered encouraging advice for the mending McAliskey.
“Boys like Ronie and Sluddy were great to have around and to chat to, they’d been in my position and knew what it was like. I definitely took strength from talking with them.”
One of the best suggestions was for McAliskey to take a holiday and clear his head, and so after a few months of rigorous rehabilitation, he visited New York for a week with his girlfriend Anna.
“I had been working hard with my recovery, so we planned to go away. It was one of the best things I did. I came back totally refocused.”
After a few months, McAliskey was back to slow jogging, putting in 5k and 10k runs around the track at Garvaghy while his teammates trained. Eventually it was time to get out onto the pitch for light sessions, and the thrill of lacing up the boots and running onto the grass made him even more determined to keep persevering.
Looking on though as Tyrone collected a second successive Ulster title, McAliskey was always wondering would he could have brought to the table had fate not been so cruel.
“I thought the whole year I had a lot to offer. Walking around with the team on the pitch before the matches and being in the changing rooms, I could definitely have seen myself playing a big part for the team that year.”
Like 2017, Tyrone’s season came undone in the semi-finals in Croke Park, this time a clinical Dublin side sweeping them aside by 12 points. McAliskey’s work though was ongoing, and his eyes were firmly on turning out for Clonoe in the Tyrone Club Championship in September.
In a gripping first round encounter with Dromore at Carrickmore, Clonoe trailed by four points going into the last five minutes. Enter McAliskey, who helped the O’Rahilly’s stage a rousing comeback to win by a point. His comeback was complete, and returning to the county scene in 2018 was already on his mind.
Fast forward to January 2018, and Tyrone were kicking off another Dr McKenna Cup campaign. In a comprehensive win over Antrim on a scoreline of 4-20 to 2-11, a revitalised McAliskey contributed 1-1. It was an early sign that the corner forward was ready and raring to go and retake his place as one of Tyrone’s main scoring threats for Harte’s side in coming months.
After some worthwhile performances in the league, McAliskey stepped up to the mark in the Ulster Championship opener against to Monaghan, following injuries to fellow Tyrone sharpshooters Lee Brennan and Mark Bradley.
Both players made way early in the game, shifting the scoring burden onto McAliskey. He duly obliged, and despite defeat to the Farneymen, he ended up with a 0-6 tally and was regarded as Tyrone’s standout performer on what was an off-day for the Red Hands at Healy Park.
He underlined that intent with 1-8 against Meath as Tyrone squeezed through the first round qualifier in Navan, further positioning himself as the team’s current scorer-in-chief.
Lining out in at number 15 tomorrow against Carlow at Netwatch Cullen Park, he is hoping the partnership with full forward Richie Donnelly - another player making up for lost time after a lengthy injury lay-off - can bear fruit.
“The opportunities for scores are always there. There will always be critic and pundits who don’t think Tyrone have enough of a scoring threat, but with the way we play there will always be opportunities to put up plenty of scores, especially with Richie in there and myself playing off him.”
Eighteen months on from that day in Cavan, the next objective on McAliskey’s list is getting back to Croke Park, and from there, he hopes that the journey can continue.