West Ham’s forgotten man O’Neil running last laps of road to recovery
Hammers midfielder targeting a return in the new year
There is one player in the recent West Ham team photo that is yet to even kick a ball in training this season, let alone on the pitch.
That player is the Hammers’ forgotten man Gary O’Neil.
The midfielder was signed from Middlesbrough on a two-and-a-half year contract less-than 10 months ago, but in April, O’Neil’s world and footballing career was rocked when he found himself on the end of a sliding challenge from then-Aston Villa player Nigel Reo-Coker.
Having taken the full brunt of the tackle on his ankle, O’Neil crumbled to the floor in agony.
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“It was quite strange because I didn’t really see him coming,” said O’Neil, who is currently undergoing his rehabilitation at West Ham’s Chadwell Heath training ground.
“He (Reo-Coker) sort of came from behind me. I wasn’t aware he was there at all so when I got hit I wasn’t ready for it.”
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Having fallen to the ground in pain, O’Neil attempted to get back to his feet, and that is when the former England under-21 captain knew that his injury was serious.
“I didn’t know instantly that it was that bad,” he said.
“I spoke to Rollsy (Andy Rolls, West Ham’s head of sports medicine) when he came on and then tried to stand up and it was only then that I realised I was in trouble.
“It was only when I had the scans and saw the specialist that I found out how serious it was.”
It was very serious. Following a scan, O’Neil was advised that he would need an operation immediately and received a shocking answer when he asked what the chances of making a full recovery were.
“I asked the surgeon what are the chances that I will be okay, expecting him to say 99 or 90 per cent and he said 50/50 – and really it was then that it started to sink in how serious it was,” said O’Neil.
“It was a matter of trying to deal with that as quickly as possible, get the operation done and then crack on.”
Thankfully for O’Neil, the two-hour operation on his right ankle was a success.
“They (the surgeons) are pleased with it,” he said.
It has been a long time since the dark days of April for the 28-year-old midfielder, and O’Neil revealed that there had been times when he thought that he would never recover.
“There was a spell when I first came off crutches and started to walk and try and do some work in the gym and it just seemed impossible that this ankle was ever going to get near to where it was before,” he said.
“I just couldn’t see how it was going to get where I needed it to, and it has got a lot, lot better, but that was probably the worst time, the middle four months, where I was trying to do stuff and the ankle wouldn’t let me, it was so frustrating.”
So what has the path of rehabilitation looked like for O’Neil since his operation?
“Early on it was completely non-weight bearing and I had my foot up for 55 minutes of every hour,” he said.
“After that, I got in the gym once I could walk and started doing some work with the medical team just trying to strengthen the calf because obviously there is a lot of muscle wastage.
“There was a lot of swimming, quite a lot of bike and unbelievable amounts of strength work for the ankle, basically just to try and get it as strong as possible.
“It was tough for the medical staff as well as I don’t think they have had any injuries like this one, so it was tough for them too to try and find the right balance and they were relying on a lot of feedback from me.
“It is just a little bit nerve-wracking every time you come to do something new, getting your brain to trust the ankle to do it.
“We are starting to do new stuff now outside, we are doing some running and trying to get that started.
“At the moment, everything is really good and we are just upping it a little bit to try and get me closer.”
With O’Neil on the right road to recovery, how much longer does the midfielder think he will be watching from the sidelines, before he is fit enough to join in with West Ham’s promotion challenge?
“We haven’t really set a date,” he said.
“When I first did it, it was about a year, so I am a long way ahead of that providing everything goes well.
“That is the only thing because you can’t tell from day to day if you need to ease off it for a week or a couple of weeks.
“I guess we are talking about January or February time.
“Getting back to running and training is one thing, but having been out so long, getting ready to play is going to take a while as well, so I would say some time in the new year.”
When O’Neil is ready to make his comeback in a claret and blue shirt he knows it will be hard work to get into a Hammers midfield that contains names such as Kevin Nolan, Henri Lansbury and Matt Taylor.
“Yeah it looks (like it will be difficult) won’t it?,” he said.
“At the minute I’m not too worried about that, I just want to be in a position to have half a chance to be available.
“I’m looking forward to getting my boots on again and getting involved in some training and kicking the ball about will be good for me I think.”
O’Neil is one of a few faces to have survived from West Ham’s ill-fated 2010-11 campaign and the midfielder believes that the atmosphere has changed at the club as a result of Sam Allardyce’s appointment.
“I think it is a little bit more focused which Sam demands,” said the midfielder.
“You have goals and he wants you focused on them and that the only important thing is three points and winning promotion.
“That is all we are worried about and come May, if we have done that it’s a good season and if we haven’t it’s a failure.
“I think it is a good place to work in when you know what it expected of you.”
So what does O’Neil make of his new boss?
“He’s good, I’ve got on with him really well,” he said.
“It is a bit different for me because I’m not involved, but he has been fantastic with me.
“He told me to get myself fit as soon as possible, but he knows the nature of the injury.
“The lads really like the gaffer as well so I’ve got a good feeling about this season.”
Having watched the Hammers from the sidelines this season, O’Neil has been pleased with the start that West Ham have made to their Championship campaign.
“I’ve seen all the home games and I don’t think we are firing on all cylinders yet, but there has been a big change around,” he added.
“I expect us to get better as we go along. When the hard months come, then you will see the strength of our squad kick in.”