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Treviso’s Ian McKinley: ‘I’m happy when people don’t just call me the goggle guy’ | Sport

It is a measure of Ian McKinley’s character that rather than seek sympathy for losing the sight in one eye, or acclaim for his remarkable tale of triumph over adversity, he takes the greatest satisfaction from simply no longer being referred to as “the goggle guy”.

The story of McKinley, the Dublin-born fly-half who plays for Treviso – deserving of “a movie in itself” according to the Italy head coach, Conor O’Shea – has been told before but it is worth revisiting considering the 27-year-old has been called into the Azzurri’s squad for the autumn internationals, nearly eight years after the most horrific of injuries.

“That’s been a big challenge – to get out of the sympathy factor. People go: ‘Ah, isn’t it great that he’s trying to get back and play’ but I want to be taken seriously and I want Treviso to be taken seriously,” says McKinley. “I’m happy when people refer to me as Ian McKinley, they don’t refer to me as ‘the goggle guy’ because maybe that’s what it was like at the start.”

How it came to be that he is set to represent Italy is down to staggering perseverance but why it has not already come to pass for Ireland is the best place to start. A team-mate’s stray boot, when playing for UCD in 2010, was planted straight into his eye. McKinley had already made his Leinster debut. The diagnosis was a year on the sidelines but within six months he was playing again for Leinster.

Perhaps the most abhorrent part of McKinley’s story is that during his first comeback he was twice gouged in his good eye by an opponent. “That’s the part of the story that is not the prettiest,” he says. “I don’t want that to be the main point but that’s actually the reason I wear the goggles. I think it’s important that people know that.”

It was 18 months after the initial injury that, when sitting at some traffic lights, his retina detached, the sight in his left eye permanently going. Retirement followed, then a move to Udine in Italy to coach youngsters, and he had no intention of returning to the field until Italy were one of the few unions to sign up for a World Rugby trial for protective goggles in 2014. McKinley was soon turning out in the third tier of Italian rugby before a move to Viadana in the Eccellenza followed, then to Zebre as injury cover and finally to Treviso at the start of last season.

Another unpalatable part of McKinley’s story is that two years ago he was denied the chance to play for Zebre in Ireland because the IRFU had opted out of the World Rugby trial and expressed safety concerns over the use of protective goggles. More than 10,000 signatures on a petition later, the IRFU relented and there is the growing possibility of McKinley turning out for Italy against Ireland in Dublin in February.

“Italy has given me a huge amount – they were the first nation to sign up for the goggle trial,” says McKinley. “I know I’m never going to be 100% Italian – as my name suggests – but Italy is my home and I speak the language fluently. Italy has given me a second opportunity when others wouldn’t and for that I owe them a huge amount. I live here with my wife, we live near Venice – we live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.”

McKinley, of course, understands the interest in his “mental toughness to never accept no”, as O’Shea puts it, but he wants no pity; for McKinley is in Italy’s squad on merit.

“Things are a bit difficult – I won’t give away too much – but there are things that are a bit more tricky,” he says. “I’ve had to get my depth perception back because for people who lose sight in one eye, it’s difficult to do that. I’m left-footed so I can’t see the ball sometimes when I kick so I’ve had to change my angle, there have been a couple of adaptations but you’re constantly evolving.”

McKinley is also playing a key role in the recent progress made by Zebre and Treviso in the Pro14. Treviso have won at Edinburgh and beaten the Ospreys already this season and are Italy’s representatives in the Champions Cup, beginning away to Bath on Saturday.

“People will have regarded the Italian teams as the ones to pick up points against and obviously that’s frustrating but it’s up to us to right those wrongs,” adds McKinley. “You’ll see at the end of the year if it’ll be a breakthrough. There’s not much point in just winning a few games at the start of the year and then things going back to the way they were. The talent has always been there, it’s about channelling it.”

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