FA Cup 2021-22: Stockport County’s Connor Jennings on returning to action after cancer surgery

FA Cup 2021-22: Stockport County’s Connor Jennings on returning to action after cancer surgery

by Emily Smith
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Eight months after his diagnosis for a rare form of bone cancer was revealed, Connor Jennings scored in his comeback game for Stockport CountyA couple of days after scoring in his comeback game last week, Connor Jennings’ mobile phone pinged.

It was a message from the surgeon who had performed a seven-hour operation to remove a tumour from the Stockport County forward’s right shoulder.

“She had read about me playing again and was really pleased,” says Jennings.

In March, Stockport revealed their number 11 had been diagnosed with chondroid sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

It left him wondering whether he would see his one-year-old boy, Ted, grow up.

On Friday, Jennings hopes to help National League Stockport reach the FA Cup third round at League One Rotherham United’s expense (19:45 GMT) after completing a remarkable return to action.

His journey from the operating table and serious illness to playing – and scoring – again is a tale of steely determination.

“It’s been a tough few months,” adds Jennings, who hopes his story will help others going through something similar. “But I feel like I’m coming out the other side.”

Twenty-two months after scoring Tranmere’s winning goal in the 2019 League Two play-off final against Newport at Wembley, it was revealed Jennings had been diagnosed with chondroid sarcoma’I wasn’t expecting cancer’Jennings, 30, is popular among Stockport’s fanbase for the passion with which he plays.

That was reflected in the hundreds of messages he received from well-wishers when the Hatters issued a statementexternal-link in March about the player’s diagnosis.

In the ensuing months there have been moments when Jennings has struggled.

“I went for a check-up after having some issues with my shoulder after a few falls in training,” he says.

“That was in February. At the time, I thought all I would need was a minor operation. I certainly didn’t expect to be told I had cancer.

“There were days when I just didn’t want to get out of bed.”

After a series of hospital visits, scans and specialist appointments, Jennings was given the news he had low-grade chondroid sarcoma.

Sarcomas are uncommon cancers that can affect any part of the body, on the inside or outside, including the muscle, bone, tendons, blood vessels and fatty tissues.

Sarcoma UK, the bone and soft tissue cancer charity, say 15 people are diagnosed with sarcoma every day in the UK.

Former Wrexham captain Jennings was warned on several occasions that he would never play the game at any competitive level again.

“He was in a position where he was not only looking at potentially the end of his career, but much worse stuff than that,” his manager at Stockport, Dave Challinor, says.

Jennings adds: “Due to coronavirus, I was on my own for a lot of the scans. Then I was told I could bring my partner, Jenny, to an appointment in Oswestry and it was there that I was told I had cancer.

“Driving away, there was a lot of emotion. I was thinking about my family, my little lad. Stockport had a game the next day. I thought to myself ‘there’s no way I’m going to make that’.”

Players from Connor Jennings’ former club Wrexham wore T-shirts in support of the forward before their home match with Stockport on 10 April’My head was scrambled’The operation to remove the tumour was carried out at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham but because of Covid-19 restrictions, Jennings was not allowed visitors.

Then, half an hour before the former Tranmere Rovers player was due to be taken to the operating theatre, the surgeon who was going to carry out the operation tested positive for coronavirus.

“My head was all over the place,” says Jennings. “They had to bring in a substitute surgeon. I was having a little panic.”

Stockport, looking to return to the Football League for the first time since 2011, have supported the player throughout.

Jennings, who praised the “amazing” NHS for its care, says: “I feel I need to repay Stockport and try to help them get promoted to the Football League. I want to repay the people who showed faith in me.”

Jennings underwent a seven-hour operation to remove a tumour from his shoulder’I’ve got a second chance’On the same night Manchester United were winning at Villarreal in the Champions League in their first match after sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a football fairytale was happening 13 miles from Old Trafford at Edgeley Park.

With Stockport leading King’s Lynn Town 4-0, Hatters boss Challinor decided to send on Jennings for the first time since his operation.

The 4,568 fans inside Edgeley Park gave him a hero’s reception.

Jennings had only been given the all-clear to return to full training a few days earlier and filled one of the nine places on the substitutes’ bench for the incredible 5-3 win over Bolton in an FA Cup first-round replay on 17 November.

“The reception I received when I came on against King’s Lynn will live with me for the rest of my life,” says Jennings.

With his dad, Seamus, and brother James – a former Stockport, Wrexham and Cambridge United player – watching on from the main stand, Jennings made it 5-0 after connecting with a 91st-minute cross.

“Sometimes, things are written in the stars,’ he adds. “To celebrate with my team-mates in front of our fans at Edgeley Park, it was an incredible feeling.”

Jennings, who has since raised hundreds of pounds for Sarcoma UK, faces years of hospital appointments and scans to make sure the cancer does not return.

But he is grateful to have been given what he calls a “second chance”.

“Not everyone is fortunate enough to get a second chance when they get cancer,” he says. “I’m very lucky.

“My advice to anyone going through something similar is to keep going and try to be positive.

“People will see I’ve come out the other side and, if that gives someone hope or belief, that’s great.

“I had a support network of family and friends. I don’t know if I would have got through the past few months without the support of my family, Stockport County and all my team-mates.”

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.

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