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Paddy McNally back after physical and mental hurdles on 15-month injury journey

Paddy McNally has only ever once watched back footage of the injury that defined the past 16 months of the 27-year-old’s career.

Of course, those few seconds back in December 2020 when everything changed will never be far from the thoughts of the popular centre-back.

Modern medicine allowed what was previously considered a career-ending injury to prove career threatening...with McNally’s drive and dedication helping maximise every extra moment of hope from the difference.

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But that simple but significant shift in terminology cannot accurately measure the dark days of doubt or moments of light along the road to recovery resulting in McNally battling back to play his part in Portadown’s fight against Premiership relegation.

Portadown defender Paddy McNally on his return to the Premiership against Ballymena United after a 15-month recovery from injury. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

Today’s visit to Ballymena United is not only a return to a former club for McNally but another meeting against a side serving as bookends to his injury journey.

It was against Ballymena at Shamrock Park when McNally’s attempt to win the ball off Shay McCartan resulted in the long-term injury nightmare as the outcome of so many split-second decisions in the moment.

Last month he lined out against the same side, once again in front of his home fans, to signal a celebrated senior return.

Now McNally’s focus is on a final flourish to a top-flight season in which the Ports remain within the bottom two entering the closing four games.

“It really puts the timeframe into context when you consider Jacob Carney sent me a text over my return but we never actually lined out together in a match during his loan spell at Portadown before signing for Sunderland,” said McNally, who was diagnosed with a ruptured posterior cruciate, high-grade tear of the medial collateral, medial patellofemoral rupture and abductor tendon damage. “The actual injury was no-one’s fault...I’ve thought about it all a million times and so many small points go one way or the other for it to turn out the way it did.

“It was the longest period I’d been out of football since I started playing and the worst injury I’ve ever had in my career.

“I watched the video back with the knee surgeon but don’t like looking over it.

“It took four months of being in a brace then starting to walk slightly before small rehab sessions and building up my recovery.

“It was felt the best option would be not to operate given the complicated nature of the damage, so we decided on a brace to give everything time to heal.

“I had a really helpful conversation with Jim Ervin, who was team-mates with me at Ballymena United and has been through it all before.

“Early on your focus is about the rehab plan and recovery schedule.

“You have times when so headstrong and without any doubts about coming back as good as ever.

“But it would be a lie to say there wasn’t also a point where I felt really down, especially after sessions when I didn’t perform or produce what I wanted.

“Thinking back, I shut myself off initially to try and deal with the setback in my own way.

“It would be easy to sit and feel sorry for myself...but I think back across my time in football and feel I’ve managed to overcome so much.

“Different people told me I was not good enough to make it...so I’ve always needed that self-belief.

“I’m in a privileged position coming back from that level of injury but with the support and resources of a Premiership football club.

“But, also, there’s no way around it other than to do the work and so much of the hard graft is spent when no-one else is watching.

“It must be something like 80 per cent of the time it is just you alone putting in the rehab.

“It’s easy to put on a front and show everyone else that cocky side.

“I’m a big believer in the mental side of the game and the importance of that aspect in sport.

“When I was a younger player I struggled with inconsistency but spent time learning lessons in how to deal with everything.

“I’ve spoken to sports psychologists and looked into ways of getting that extra and vital 0.5 per cent.

“I’m always trying to focus on areas I can improve and ways I can get those marginal gains.

“Accepting you can only control the controllables definitely helped me during the whole recovery process.”

Despite the long hours alone dealing with the mental and physical challenges, McNally highlights the importance of support from everyone at Portadown.

“I travel to games with Howard Beverland and Michael Ruddy, so although it was a defence I had not played in before for my first game back against Ballymena, there was a familiarity,” he said. “I’m Portadown’s club vice-captain and enjoy the responsibility of a leadership role but for that Ballymena game I probably did focus more on myself.

“It was about getting over that first senior game back and coming out without any setbacks...then you’ve something to build on.

“I made a point of staying around the squad and club set-up as much as possible during my recovery time.

“I didn’t want to stay away and actually got so much out of being involved and it all helped me to feel connected.

“It was also natural to have doubts back in January when Paul Doolin came in as a new manager.

“I’d a great relationship with Matthew Tipton, I have so much respect for him as a man and manager and know he would do anything for me.

“Matthew was different class with me and I count him more as a friend above all else.

“But, since coming into Portadown as boss, Paul has been excellent with me and made it clear he wanted me back involved with the group but without rushing anything.”