Former Hatter JJ O’Donnell is desperate to take to the field for Gateshead against Luton in the FA Cup on Sunday and show his appreciation towards the Town fans he hails as saving his career.
For the 26-year-old almost had to quit the game three years ago after being the first professional footballer to suffer from Sesamoiditis, a condition which caused inflammation in the bones under his big toe.
On hearing the news, Luton supporters donated in their hundreds to a gofundme page set up by two Gateshead fans, that, along with a helping hand from then Sunderland player Danny Graham, raised the £7,000 he required for an operation.
Speaking exclusively to the News/Gazette about the gesture and his first meeting against his old side since, O’Donnell said: “It’s a fairytale. I’ll say it openly, I don’t think I’d be involved on Sunday if it wasn’t for Luton fans, as I wouldn’t have got back on the football pitch.
“The amount of effort they put in to raise as much money at the time was incredible, and I’m so thankful to everyone at the club for what they did for me.
“The supporters, Simon Parsell the physio, when I did my rehabilitation, he helped me and it if wasn’t for the football club itself and the terrific support the club get, then I don’t think I’d be out there, because I wouldn’t be back on the pitch again. So it’s a club that means an awful lot to me.”
The amount of effort they put in to raise as much money at the time was incredible, and I’m so thankful to everyone at the club for what they did for me.JJ O’Donnell
O’Donnell, who scored three goals in 51 games for the Hatters during his four years at Kenilworth Road was always a popular player on the terraces, with many Luton fans wishing him well ahead of the game.
He added: “I’ve always had a great rapport with them, coming from Leighton Buzzard which is just round the corner and a lot of my friends were Luton fans, my PE teacher was a Luton fan and it just shows what the club is.
“Sunday will be an emotional day for me and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I’ve left.
“I’ve always had a great relationship with all the Luton fans and then the draw came out and there were some lovely messages I got from all of them.
“I’ve got a lot of time for them and will be lovely to see a few old faces and thank them for what they did for me.
“If I could thank them all individually for what they did for me face to face than I most certainly would as it was an incredible gesture, and it’s a club I can’t speak highly enough of.”
On what it was actually like trying to recover from the injury, O’Donnell said: “I was the first professional footballer to ever have it, so that was the rareity of what it was.
“In layman terms, I was playing with bruising underneath my big two. So every time I went to run, basically I was treading on a bruise.
“I tried everything to fix it and ultimately I had to have an operation to take the bruising out of my feet.
“I didnt play for two and a half years, my last game was Bristol Rovers on December 19, 2014 and I didn’t come back until just gone.
“I could have easily given up, I just kept going and going and going.
“I tried everything and I promised my family I wouldn’t give up. There was loads of set backs, I had to have my big toenails removed four times each and then I had to remove them permanently.
“All the evenings I was in the gym on my own, 10 o’clock on a Sunday night just as it was closing and I was in there, trying to get my leg stronger to give myself a chance of playing again.
“It was horrible, but it’s all worthwhile now I’m able to be on the pitch again and play football again.”
O’Donnell admitted he was one of the few who was cheering the draw when it came through that Town would be making the trip to the north east, adding: “It’s incredible. I knew the numbers before the draw even came out, that we were 39 and Luton were 11.
“When it got drawn that we were at home, as soon as 11 came out, I was up almost cheering almost, ‘get in.’
“The boys looked at me to say what’s going on here? As I knew straight away. It’s just a great draw.
“Some people say stories write themselves and for me that FA Cup draw just wrote itself.”