Barnsley FC defender Conor McCarthy on completing his comeback story after 345 days out, making friends for life and Michael Duff

AN EFL Trophy opener watched by less than 2,500 spectators at a sparsely populated stadium on a Tuesday night is usually not the sort of occasion that provides much to get excited about.

For Barnsley defender Conor McCarthy, it was different. He had circled the date of September 5 in his diary for some time.

His team’s appointment with Grimsby Town at Oakwell represented the red-letter day when life would truly start to get back to normal again. Doing the day job that he is paid for.

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To the uninitiated, the Irishman underwent knee surgery last autumn after rupturing his ACL in the home game with Charlton Athletic on September 24, 2022.

Fit-again Barnsley defender Conor McCarthy. Picture: Simon Hulme.Fit-again Barnsley defender Conor McCarthy. Picture: Simon Hulme.
Fit-again Barnsley defender Conor McCarthy. Picture: Simon Hulme.

Some 345 days later, McCarthy reached the end of his long road and had closure when he stepped out in the colours of Barnsley on a first-team match-day. He is now finally able to turn the page and pen a new chapter.

On whether he'd counted down the days, McCarthy said: "Quite a long time... I had a bit of a countdown on my phone. It was 345 days since my last competitive game.

"It was always my burning ambition (to play on Tuesday). I had a daily reminder and it was something to look forward to.

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"The old manager, Michael Duff, was excellent with me and I couldn't pay him enough credit. Everyone knows that he dealt with similar injuries throughout his career and it was about compartmentalising things and dealing with it during my rehab.

"It was the 'small wins', going from walking to jogging to running. Touching the ball, sprinting and changing direction - they are all the small wins.

"Ultimately, it was playing in the (under) 23s, with 45, 60 and 90 minutes and then ultimately getting back in the first team.

"It's been a long road and something I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. At the same time, it has taught me a lot of things about myself. I wouldn't say I am grateful for the injury, but it has taught me things."

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Fortunately, McCarthy was blessed with the emotional intelligence and sense of perspective to cope with his near year-long absence better than most.

Alongside his rehabilitation work, he has used some spare time available to start a Masters degree in commerce after graduating in economics from University College Cork (UCC) in 2020. He is now half-way through it.

But it has still been undeniably hard at times and bad days have arrived.

Tuesday and Wednesday will have been good days.

A 'good sore' was how he was expecting to feel after his exertions against Grimsby, with the gloss on the night arriving by being handed the captain's armband by Neill Collins - and leading the Reds to a 2-0 win.

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The Corkonian, 25, readily admits that he had been impatient for a first-team return for a fair while and pestered those who have got to know him better than most.

They chose not to listen and stuck to the pre-planned schedule and McCarthy fully acknowledges that they had his best interests at heart. A bit of tough love from people who he now calls friends.

The defender, who signed a three-year deal with the club in the summer of 2022, continued: "To be fair, the sport science and physio team are probably sick to death of me because as footballers, all you want to do is get back out on that pitch.

"I thought I was ready to play two months ago, but they have been in the game enough and seen these injuries enough that if you come back too soon, there could be a risk of re-rupture.

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"So it was ultimately making sure I was strong enough to play in a ninety-minute first-team game and thankfully, it's happened.

"I have been really close with the sports science team of James Walsh and Matt Cook over the past few months and I consider them as friends. It's the same as with the physio Vikki Stevens who has been really excellent with me.

"They are the things people don't see and they are unsung heroes. If ever there was a day I was feeling down, they were always in my corner to gee me up.

"If they could see I was down, they'd be a shoulder for me to rest on as opposed to cry on."

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Happiness at the sight of the former St Mirren defender making his long-awaited first-team return in midweek was shared further afield as well across the Irish Sea.

While everyone of a Barnsley persuasion was delighted to see McCarthy step out across the white line again in a competitive fixture, it also represented the end of a journey for his family and friends back home, who will have been with him every step of the way.

It was something duly recognised by his manager.

Collins commented: "You have got to remember that. It is not just Conor who has been through it, but his family. Because they are the people closest to him and they support him.

"They should be proud of his comeback. He has done great and is desperate to fight for his place here."