Aiden O’Neill’s back-breaking road to A-League return and Olyroo contention

Cut down by a stress fracture in his vertebrae just weeks into the season, Melbourne City midfielder Aiden O’Neill has gained an important new perspective on life as he returns to chase A-League silverware and an elusive spot at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Arriving at Melbourne City from English Premier League side Burnley, O’Neill had big plans heading into 2020-21. 

Joining a squad widely earmarked as title favorites, he appeared set for an extended run of minutes in the heart of coach Patrick Kisnorbo’s team after starting the club’s first two games against Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United. 

Alas for the 22-year-old, fate threw an unwanted roadblock into his path.  

Complaints of a sore back in training following the Adelaide fixture forced him into an MRI machine for scans, which promptly revealed a stress fracture in his back.

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For O’Neill, who joined Burnley in 2016 but spent most of the intervening years on loan, it not only represented a hammer blow to his hopes of establishing himself at his new club, but also an entirely new experience. 

For the injury to his sacrum – a fusing of sacral vertebrae at the base of the spine near the pelvis – represented the first major injury he had suffered during his playing career. 

“I’m back now, but it was a long road,” said O’Neill. “It was my first serious injury, so it was tough for me. 

“The road to recovery was difficult but the staff [at City], they’re top draw. 

“I was doing a lot of pilates, strengthening all areas of my body to support my back as well. Lots of pilates, all sorts of gym exercises, I was doing a bit of Keiser as well, so all of that really, really helped.

“It was about eight weeks in that I was allowed to start running. Running, that was when I’d first knew that I’d done something; I couldn’t run properly and it was really starting to hurt my back. 

“I thought it was just tight or something but… turns out it definitely wasn’t just tight. Running was very difficult.”

Rehabbing what was effectively a broken back (albeit one its most minor variants) O’Neill was forced to watch on as City caught fire and surged to the top of the A-League table in his absence. 

Though he was a constant presence at the City Football Academy in Bundoora, his inability to join the main senior group in training and properly experience the emotions that come with a side riding high represented a learning experience and, it turns out, opportunity for personal development. 

“I was still around it all but it’s difficult when you’re injured,” he explained. 

“You really… it is tough because all the boys go out to train and you’re inside in the gym with the physios doing pilates, I was doing lots of swimming as well. It can be quite lonely at times. 

“I’m definitely going to have a different perspective of other people when they get injured and have a chat with them some days, make sure they’re ok and make sure that they’re involved. Because it can be really difficult. 

“Coming back, you miss the little things like being in the change rooms with the boys before and all that build-up before the game. 

“I enjoyed it so much being back on the bench with the boys and then coming on and winning 7-0 against Melbourne Victory, that topped it off for me.”

O’Neill started in City’s last game against Macarthur, and said on Tuesday that, if called upon, he’s ready to play 90 minutes against Newcastle Jets on Thursday – continuing what he hopes will be an extended run of gametime. 

As Graham Arnold revealed last week, A-League sides are set to retain their best U23 players for the remainder of the season and the finals, with the Olyroos squad that assembles at the coming Maurice Revello Tournament set to be made up of foreign-based players. 

For the City midfielder, this means that not does the run-home of the A-League season with City represent a golden opportunity to secure his first piece of senior silverware in his career, but he also a chance to construct a sustained run of form that will see him rise above the incredibly competitive field searching for a seat on the plane to the Tokyo Olympics. 

“It’s very important for me because I’ve had a little bit of time out from football [and] I think all of us U23 boys are all fighting for that spot to be on that plane to Tokyo” he said. 

“It’s very important. It’s lucky that we actually get to stay. 

“It’s a privilege to play for your country at the end of the day but we really want to have success here at the club as well.

“My main thing [in rehab] was just to get back playing first. I just wanted to get back out on the field and start training and actually running around. 

“You take it for granted when you can’t move but once I got back running, being back with the boys was unreal.” 

Header imgage credit: Melbourne City

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