The statistics tell the story of Brandon O’Neill. His heat map sprawls to within touching distance of all four corner posts. He’s attempted and completed more passes than any other this season and if possessions are anything to go by, no other has been more involved in play this season than Sydney FC’s workhorse. The stats make for impressive reading for any player, let alone one who spent a year of his childhood confined to a wheelchair, wondering if he’d ever be able to kick a ball.
Well before he ever hoped to play in an Australian football grand final, O’Neill was dreaming of simply playing an organised game at a suburban park. But just before Christmas 2001, when he was seven years old, a moment of enthusiasm left those plans in tatters.
“It was at a school disco when I first felt the pain. I was doing a knee slide – which was the trend at the time – to impress all the girls. It was around Christmas time and I felt my left hip become sore,” said O’Neill, who is now 25.
Days later, the true extent of that injury began to surface. At a local Christmas parade, O’Neill had to be carried on his father’s shoulders as the severity of the pain from his hip became unbearable, searing with every step.
“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t put pressure on it so we started thinking it could be something more serious,” he said. “I was off school, I couldn’t put any pressure on it and I went into hospital and I was diagnosed then with perthes disease.”
I thought I wouldn’t be able to play sport, I wouldn’t be able to run around with my father and be a kid.
Perthes disease is a condition of bone deterioration at the hip joint caused by issues of blood supply. O’Neill was immediately confined to a wheelchair, unable to put any pressure on his joints. An active kid was cast into the role of a spectator at playgrounds for a year that seemed like an eternity. However, the ever upbeat O’Neill didn’t wallow in self pity.
“I didn’t approach it in the way of thinking the world is over,” O’Neill said. “I just remember it being part and parcel of life. I felt like this was what I had been dealt. I was in a wheel chair, people knew of me in school and I was always really well looked after.”
Just like with his tackles and passing in the A-League, timing was everything at his point of diagnosis. Having caught it early and at a young age, O’Neill had a chance of avoiding serious long-term complications and potential early onset of arthritis but there was little certainty he could play football.
“That was the biggest thing because I thought I wouldn’t be able to play sport, I wouldn’t be able to run around with my father and be a kid,” O’Neill said.
To be have any hope of playing, he underwent rigorous rehabilitation at a young age. He tried to swim to maintain some mobility but found inspiration through a more unorthodox tool.
“I played a lot of playstation. I always thanked the playstation network for bringing out FIFA when they did,” O’Neill said. “It was a long year but I was just so grateful for what my mum and did and the positive mantra that they kept instilling in me to make sure that if I did the right things, I would still be able to play football.”
After a year, he was able to walk. Six months after being out of a wheelchair, he began to jog and he didn’t wait much longer before joining in a game of football.
“I remember one day being able to kick a ball around with my cousins and that was just a huge highlight because I just watched them do it for so long, more than year,” he said.
“I ran home screaming ‘Mum, Dad! I was able to kick a ball, get me into a team now, I am ready’. They were a bit taken back because of what happened. To my dad’s credit, he pushed it with my mum a lot and they put me in the same team with my two cousins, Mark and Leigh.”
He was like a duck to water when thrown on to a pitch and the stardom that eventually followed hasn’t washed that memory for O’Neill.
After establishing himself in the engine room of Sydney FC, he has reached out to several kids suffering from perthes disease to help them overcome it as best as possible.
In an unofficial capacity, he’s raising awareness and providing support and there will be no better way to inspire hope than by winning the A-League title on Sunday.
Dominic Bossi is a football reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.