It should be no surprise to see Gary O'Neill's name near the top of the goalscoring charts in the early stages of the 2014 campaign in the Republic of Ireland's premier division.
After all, the 31-year-old Drogheda United FC player has been a regular goalscorer for a number of clubs since making his debut as a teenager with Bohemian FC back in 2000/01. However, in September 2013, the idea of playing football was very far from his mind, as O'Neill's life was "turned upside down" when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
"I think it's the same for anyone who hears the 'c' word. I honestly thought I was dying – I thought that was it, I thought there was no hope for me," the striker said. "Straight away, I thought that was it – I thought I was done with football, football was at the back of my mind. First and foremost, my thoughts turned to my family and what I was going to do and manage things with them."
The reaction to O'Neill's diagnosis from the football community in Ireland was instant. A popular figure who had played for eight senior clubs, including each of the 'big four' in Dublin, O'Neill's plight inspired current and former team-mates to pledge their support, with fund-raising drives led by the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI), and supported by the Irish soccer media and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
Roy Keane – now assistant manager of the Republic of Ireland's senior team – donated to the fund, helping O'Neill pay his medical bills and also met the player to offer personal support, while former Everton FC defender Alan Stubbs made contact with insight on his own battle with cancer. "Roy came around, which was special for me," O'Neill recalled. "He's a hero of mine. I can't say enough about the man – he's absolutely brilliant. He still texts me the odd time and it gave me such a lift at the time."
Surgery in late September 2013 was a success and once his medical team gave him the all-clear to resume physical activity, Drogheda coach Robbie Horgan asked him to return for pre-season training, the club also offering O'Neill a coaching role in case he was unable to play again.
In Drogheda's second competitive game of the new season, O'Neill's late goal saved his side from an exit in the League Cup to non-league outfit Crumlin United FC, taking the game into extra time, with Drogheda going on to win 3-1. O'Neill then struck twice against former club Bohemians as the visitors fought back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2.
"It is an amazing story, having Gary back in the side and scoring goals again after all he has been through," said Horgan. "Gary has had great support and medical help but what he has achieved, recovering from a cancer diagnosis to play in the Premier Division again and score, is so good to see."
O'Neill admits he is surprised to be back: "When I was told back in September, I thought I had no chance, but everything went really well and all of the support I received was a massive help to me."
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