‘I was lucky – a bit fur­ther in and I could have had brain dam­age’

Black­burn’s Corry Evans feared the worst af­ter his nose was driven 2cm into his head by an ac­ci­den­tal boot in the face

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By James Ducker north­ern foot­ball cor­re­spon­dent

It is when you study the X-ray of Corry Evans’s skull that you bet­ter grasp the force of the im­pact it sus­tained, and the scale of the dam­age he suf­fered. The images of his blood­ied, con­torted face – nose split and eyes al­most welded shut through bruis­ing – are pretty grue­some and briefly left him un­recog­nis­able to his three star­tled young chil­dren. Yet the X-ray pro­vides a jig­saw of the wreck­age caused by an ac­ci­den­tal high boot to the head and, at the same time, a re­minder for the Black­burn Rovers and North­ern Ire­land mid­fielder of how much worse things could have been.

He was hit with a force equiv­a­lent to some­one plant­ing a ham­mer di­rectly be­tween his eyes and his skull is now held to­gether by a series of ti­ta­nium plates and a maze of al­most 50 screws. But the sit­u­a­tion could have been so much more se­ri­ous and, as Evans re­lives that dark day at Ewood Park in Jan­uary in gran­u­lar de­tail, it is still pos­si­ble, six months on, to de­tect the re­lief in his voice.

“With the frontal lobe, there are two lay­ers be­fore you hit the brain,” Evans ex­plains. “I was lucky – I only pierced the first layer. There’s sort of an air gap be­tween the next layer and then it’s your brain, so the sur­geon said I was very lucky that I didn’t pierce the sec­ond layer be­cause that’s straight into the brain – frag­ments of bone into there and there’s a risk of brain dam­age.”

Just over a fort­night ago, Evans made his long-awaited re­turn to ac­tion, scor­ing in Black­burn’s 3-1 win against Bris­tol City and earn­ing the man-of-the-match tro­phy. It was the sort of eu­phoric feel­ing Ryan Ma­son never got to ex­pe­ri­ence again. Thir­teen months af­ter frac­tur­ing his skull in a game for Hull City against Chelsea in 2017, the mid­fielder was forced to re­tire. Ma­son’s in­jury was one of the first things to cross Evans’s mind when a CAT scan in hos­pi­tal re­vealed a frac­tured frontal lobe. A shat­tered eye socket he had guessed at, a bro­ken nose, too, but a frac­tured skull?

“When you hear that, you just think the worst. I couldn’t quite be­lieve it,” he re­calls. “‘Ca­reer’s done, how am I go­ing to get back?’ I’d seen sim­i­lar in­juries – Ryan Ma­son at Hull. It ended his ca­reer ul­ti­mately. So, that was in my head at the start.” If he is hon­est, though, Evans knew some­thing was not right when he saw his wife, Lisa, whis­per­ing in the ears of Black­burn’s med­i­cal staff and re­peat­edly glanc­ing anx­iously at her hus­band af­ter he had been brought into the treat­ment room at Ewood fol­low­ing the col­li­sion with Tom Clarke, the Pre­ston North End cap­tain.

It had been a fran­tic start to the derby and Evans re­mem­bers clearly the mo­ment when he went to head the ball, only to be caught full by the studs of Clarke’s boot as his op­po­nent tried to hook the ball away. “On the sweet spot, as the sur­geon called it,” Evans says. “The im­pact of it shat­tered my face straight away. They gave me oxy­gen, got me in the chang­ing room. I had my head in a bucket and there was just blood pour­ing out of my nose.”

Evans re­mem­bers his mother, Dawn, go­ing “re­ally quiet”, but Lisa was more pre­oc­cu­pied by the in­dent she had spot­ted in her hus­band’s head. It later tran­spired that Evans’s nose had been pushed back two cen­time­tres into his head. “The sur­geon likened the force of it to be­ing hit in the face with a ham­mer or base­ball bat, or even be­ing in a car crash,” Evans says.

That brief time when Evans was left to won­der whether, at 29, his ca­reer was over was hard to stom­ach, but Dr David Richard­son, his sur­geon, was quick to al­lay con­cerns, and the sense of re­lief upon hear­ing he would play again was over­whelm­ing. Yet there were tough mo­ments still to come, not least when Evans re­turned home be­fore surgery and saw his chil­dren – Si­enna, seven, Ari, four, and Cleo, three – for the first time since the in­jury.

“I walked through the front door and the kids were like, ‘Oh God, who is this?’” he says. “My youngest turned to my wife and wanted pick­ing up, as if to say, ‘I don’t know this man’.”

The op­er­a­tion at Ain­tree Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal lasted al­most six hours. “They sliced from one ear, right over the top of my head, to the

‘The sur­geon likened it to be­ing hit in the face with a ham­mer or base­ball bat’

other ear and then ef­fec­tively peeled my face off right down to my eyes,” Evans says. “I’ve got a lot of screws and metal plates in my face now and had 58 sta­ples across the top of my head.

“They had to fix my nose as well, so they stitched splints up the in­side of it to keep every­thing in place.”

While Evans was left in no doubt that his skull would heal, the scars were men­tal as much as any­thing. “There’s al­ways that doubt about head­ing a ball again, but it was more be­cause of the num­ber of times peo­ple would ask that ques­tion – it gets put in your head,” he says.

“What re­ally helped al­lay my fears was when I went to get my sta­ples and nose splints out about eight weeks af­ter surgery and Andy Mitchell, the head physio at Black­burn, asked the sur­geon, ‘If Corry was a boxer and he had to fight in the next four weeks, would you rec­om­mend he could?’

“The sur­geon said: ‘Yeah, it’s fine, the bone will be stronger than ever.’ When you think about how bru­tal box­ing can be, that was very re­as­sur­ing to hear.”

As were the mes­sages of sup­port from sports­men who had been through sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. Tom McIn­tyre, the Read­ing de­fender who re­turned to play af­ter suf­fer­ing a frac­tured skull in 2018, was one of the first to con­tact him. Evans also reached out to Sam Ward af­ter be­ing moved by an in­ter­view in which the Great Bri­tain hockey player talked about his fa­cial frac­tures and near-blind­ness in one eye af­ter be­ing hit by a ball. “Sam was great, he told me how he’d coped and how he was nearly back and aim­ing to go to the Tokyo Olympics,” Evans says.

If there was an up­side to the lock­down and foot­ball’s sus­pen­sion for Evans, it was the re­al­i­sa­tion that his sea­son was not over. It was just a shame there were no fans present to toast his re­turn last month. “It was bril­liant to be back on that pitch,” he says. “I think you be­come a lot more ap­pre­cia­tive.”

That day against Bris­tol City did not go en­tirely to plan, though. Evans sus­tained a bro­ken toe and so, once again, finds him­self side­lined and out of tonight’s game away to Cardiff City. He says 2020 “feels like it’s been some­what cursed, but I’m try­ing to stay pos­i­tive about it all”. Af­ter all, he knows things could have been worse. Much worse.

Fa­cial im­pact: An X-ray shows the maze of screws used to mend Corry Evans’s skull, while pictures taken be­fore and af­ter surgery show the dam­age from a high boot that laid him out while play­ing for Black­burn Rovers in Jan­uary

Na­tional duty: Corry Evans tracks Ger­many’s Toni Kroos while play­ing for North­ern Ire­land

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