“I’ve just got to be grateful Bruce has such a soft forehead!”
Eight years ago, as his eye slowly made its way back into place over the course of three weeks, it is unlikely John Jackson could have envisaged playing his 250th international cap in the lead-up to the 2019 EuroHockey Championships.
He became just the third men’s player to hit that total last month after Eugene Magee and Ronan Gormley. Few will ever match his fearsome reputation to compete, one of the players to embody the Green Machine through this golden decade.
Jacko was there to face the music after the Korean ambush in 2012, through the tears in the darkest of moments, pronouncing Ireland would make it to the Olympics. He was there four years later for the history-makers in Rio, coming good on his words.
Among the tears and sweat, there has been an awful amount of blood on his journey, most of it from a gruesome, life-threatening clash at the 2011 pitch opening at Stormont.
He was still learning his craft when he lined out for an Ulster President’s XI tie against NICS when a ball spun loose in midfield. Typically terrier-like, he pounced. Unfortuately, Bruce McCandless was alive to it too.
“I didn’t see Bruce coming so it wasn’t an ‘uh-oh, this is going to hurt’,” Jackson pieces together of the moment.
“When I was lying on the ground, I don’t remember the 30 seconds or whatever it was after. My head was throbbing and I couldn’t open my eye.
“The worst thing in my head was it was one of the first times my now-wife had come over to watch me in Northern Ireland. ‘Oh God, there goes our night out in Belfast, typical!’”
It was no typical bang on the head, a shattering blow which that not just threatened his career but his whole quality of life. The paramedics initially tried to stabilise his head in a neck brace for the ambulance trip.
“In hindsight, it might have been the worst thing they could have done. They were worried it was a neck injury but it was actually the side of my head which was sorest and they were putting padding on it.
“‘Please don’t put it there!’ I was rushed to the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald where they found multiple fractures to my cranium and to my cheekbone. I also had nerve damage from my forehead down to my lip.”
While half his jaw was soon to be titanium, it was the eye that caused the player to worry.
“My eye ended up not being where it should have – you couldn’t see my pupil. It had disappeared, sort of sinking into the back of my head. If you looked at me, you just saw the white of the eye!
“Bones will heal but whether you can play with one eye, I am not so sure!”
Jackson was working with Sport NI at the time who gave him all the time he needed to recuperate. Similarly, Irish coach Paul Revington made sure to provide every encouragement.
“It gave me a lot of thinking time. But I soon knew I would play again; it was just a question of what level? I really worried about my depth perception, tracking the ball and peripheral vision. With one eye, could I really play at international level?
“There was a lot of good people around. I was still a developing player – Revs kept me involved, saying: ‘whenever you are ready…’ That gave me hope, reassured me there was a place; I was determined to take that place back again.
“It was the build-up to something great. The lure of 2012 Olympics was always a big driver to get back to some sort of level.”
Slowly, after three weeks, the eye started to roll back around and into place. His return came on the indoor courts – guesting for Belfast Harlequins as Mossley did not play on the boards – initially with a scrum cap which he soon ditched.
He also counts himself lucky there were no longer-term issues like the ones endured by English Olympic gold medalists Alex Danson and Shona McCallin.
“You hear about the issues Alex Danson had and Shona McCallin and those awful things. I never had any problems with headaches or light sensitivity.
“I put my occasional grumpiness down to it! Touch wood, it’s all fine. I still get some numbness in cold weather too. But I don’t recount how lucky I am because it could have gone another way and something that could have stopped me from ever playing hockey again or worse.
“I guess I am lucky to an extent. I did get hit in the head but bones only take eight weeks to heal. God forbid I get an ACL or something like that or an Achilles and a year out. My wife was out for nine months with an ACL.”
And his career would pay testament to that; a breakthrough European bronze and an Olympic journey to Rio later – he was not about to let his second chance slip.
Antwerp will be Jackson’s sixth European campaign following another fine season for the 33-year-old. He was named in an English team of the year for an eighth time, this time with Bath Buccaneers in the western conference line-up having previously done so with Loughborough and Reading – he is the only non-GB player on the Loughborough honours board.
In between, he missed out on the World Cup in India due to work commitments but has been back with a vengeance for this year’s push for the Olympic Games.
He was back in time to be part of the FIH Series Finals in Le Touquet. That was a mixed campaign for the side, crucially beating Korea to guarantee a qualifier spot, but losses to Egypt and France in the final were described as “not good enough” by coach Alexander Cox.
With a bit of time to reflect, the objective was achieved and Ireland are in Antwerp with a group that has been able to avail of a solid build-up, encompassing trips to Scotland and Spain.
“France fell on a bit of a flat note, losing the final,” Jackson said. “We drew a line under that quite quickly with players coming back in from injury, others making themselves available.
“The Four Nations [in Spain], finished third, was maybe a fair reflection but could have been a lot better had we not conceded in the last 30 seconds against England and Spain.
“It has shown us areas we need to improve on and sometimes that is important going into competition that we know we are not the final product. In the Euros, you try to build every game and I think everything is aligning quite nicely.”
The recent series saw the introduction of former Australian international Tim Cross and Jackson reckons his singing has quickly brought him up to speed with what it means to be part of the Green Machine.
“He’s been stood beside me [for Ireland’s Call] so he has no choice but to learn the words! I boom it out – he might have just enjoyed listening to it the first few times because it is a belter of an anthem!
“Alex has had his finger on the pulse in Holland with Tim at Tilburg. He brings an enormous amount – with any Australian, he is insanely fit. He’s bossing most of our fitness tests; enormous energy, a high level of basics and is a great competitor.
“He fits nicely in the group and holds the same values a lot of us have. He is a nice age profile too, accumulated a lot of experience with the Kookaburras and in Holland.”
It does raise the wider question of nationality in sport. The Irish rugby team will likely feature CJ Stander, Bundee Aki and Jean Kleyn in the World Cup, all of whom solely qualify by residency.
Belgium’s women handed a debut to Abi Raye last week following 155 caps for Canada before taking three years off following a dispute with a former coach.
Cross did play eight times for the Kookaburras but is an Irish passport holder by virtue of his mother from Newtonards and Jackson says getting someone of that calibre in needs to be done.
“I don’t think we can afford to lose out on people like that. It adds an enormous amount and is something a lot of countries have looked at, in other sports as well and other countries in hockey.
“I don’t see why we should miss out if there is someone good enough and fit to play with the group. We need to encourage that. He has been great and I know he will have a really positive impact in this tournament and Olympic qualifiers.”
Jackson says it did raise the suggestion of whether Bray-born Fergus Kavanagh – a World Cup winner and Olympic medalist – could be coaxed into action. His brother Tom tried out for Ireland back in 2011 but it came to nothing in the end.
“It’s just me spit-balling as a player but getting the best guys available is what interests me,” Jackson adds. “I don’t know what the coach thinks of the organisation thinks and I will take anyone who can make our team better.”
Ireland get to see how much of an impact he will make starting on Saturday when they try and execute the perfect game to take down the Netherlands. After that, Scotland will be a tricky opponent but a win and a draw in their warm-up games means a slight psychological edge. Then its Germany in the final group game on Tuesday.
“Playing Holland first, we generally perform quite well against top teams in our first games in the Euros. Like Germany, they have come off the back of a long Pro League season and there is definitely opportunity to try and catch them by surprise.
“We are in a good place and had a pretty good preparation. A win against one of those teams and a performance against Scotland should be enough for a top two finish and then who knows in the semi-final.
“If that win doesn’t happen, we have to refocus and get that win over the lower-ranked side and the crossover games. You never know what will happen at the Euros but we have done really well before and I don’t see why it can’t be more of the same. We go preparing to cause an upset and a semi-final place.”
Men’s EuroHockey Championships schedule (all in Antwerp; Irish times)
Saturday, August 17: Ireland v Netherlands, 2.45pm
Sunday, August 18: Ireland v Scotland, 2.45pm
Tuesday, August 20: Ireland v Germany, 2.45pm
Thursday, August 22: Semi-final or relegation pool match
Saturday, August 24: Final, Bronze match or relegation pool match