‘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
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