JJ O'Donnell: Gateshead midfielder's return after injury 'incredible'
Returning to football after two and a half years out with a rare foot injury was an "incredible" experience for Gateshead midfielder JJ O'Donnell.
The 25-year-old was diagnosed with a foot condition called sesamoiditis in 2015, which put his career on hold while he underwent numerous operations.
However, he finally made his return with Gateshead against a Newcastle under-23 side on Tuesday.
"Emotionally and physically, it was incredible," he told BBC Newcastle.
Sesamoiditis is a problem with inflammation in the bones under the toes.
Before he suffered the injury, O'Donnell had made 32 appearances for the Tynesiders, scoring three goals.
Little was known about the injury which stalled the former Luton player's career when it was indentified, something which added to his concerns about ever returning to the game.
He has had operations to remove toenails as part of the treatment, as well as countless hours in the gym.
"I was the first professional footballer in the world to get what I had," he said.
"Two American footballers had it, but in soccer I was the first and nobody knew anything about it. It was the unknown and as such the rehab was experimental.
"I was told I only had a 50% chance of ever playing again. To be told that at 22, when football was all I'd ever known, was heartbreaking."
In a bid to stay in the game, O'Donnell worked for Gateshead in a kit-man capacity which brought its own issues.
"When the boys go out at ten to three to have a game of football, you know you can't," he added. "There were times I'd had to go and sit in the toilet on my own where I got emotional.
"I had a few ops to remove toenails that put me back but I kept going, spending hours in the gym on my own on a Sunday night to make the leg stronger."
Doing it for the supporters
The next ambition for O'Donnell is to return to first-team football, having reached this latest milestone.
There is enthusiasm to do so, not just from a personal perspective, but also to pay his thanks to those who contributed to his medical costs during the rehabilitation.
"It was a crowdfunded operation," O'Donnell said. "It's been well documented that Danny Graham put in money for me, and the Gateshead fans and fans in general came together.
"The rehab, care, support and fundraising has been a really great effort from the football family, and if I am successful it will all be worth it.
"It would mean a lot. I'm emotional just talking about it now. There will be a tear when I walk out onto the pitch."