Richard Sadlier is determined to fight his way back to fitness after two major hip operations that threatened his football career. Philip Quinn spoke to the brave Dubliner

RICHARD SADLIER should have become the first Belvedere player to play in the World Cup finals, but a nightmare injury put paid to that dream and now the burgeoning career of the Millwall striker hangs in the balance as he recuperates from a make-or-break second hip operation.

To put Sadlier's prospects of a full recovery in context, he was told by his surgeon prior to the first operation in April that there was a 25 per cent chance he would have to give up playing.

Six months, and a second operation later, Sadlier is sipping in the last chance saloon but an optimistic streak shines through.

"I've no doubt I'll be back playing again," he insisted. "If everything goes according to plan I will be off the crutches on January 7 and ready to resume full training with the first team in February." Sadlier's second operation has left him without cartilage in his injured hip and he has been warned to prepare for the onset of arthritis and the probability of needing a hip replacement by his 40s.

They were risks he was happy to take. "I wasn't going to accept my career was over at 23," he said. From his Bromley home, Sadlier lives about half a mile from former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy but that distance must have seemed like half the world away when he realised his World Cup dream was shattered last April.

Only two months earlier, Sadlier had been training with Roy Keane before making his full international debut as a substitute against Russia in Dublin.

Things could not have been going better for Richard and he had been provisionally assigned one of the 23 tickets on Ireland's Orient Express. But, then, on March 2 his progress came to a shuddering halt in McCarthy's home town of Barnsley. "I remember having a shot blocked and I felt this pain shoot into the side of my hip," he recalled. "It eased off a little and I was able to play on and finish the game. I didn't know then that there was something seriously wrong.<ep>"I missed a couple of games but kept playing on through the end of March with the aid of pain-killers because we were pushing for promotion and there was the possibility of going to the World Cup finals with Ireland.<ep>"However, bit by bit I became aware I was fighting a losing battle. I had less movement and more pain each time I played." Sadlier pushed himself through the pain barrier with Millwall and struggled through against Rotherham on April 1 before accepting his season ... and World Cup ambitions ... were over.

"When I finally went in for the operation on April 26 I was taken aback when the surgeon told me there was a 25 per cent chance I wouldn't make a full recovery," he admitted."I didn't tell anyone, not even my parents, probably because I was too scared to believe the worst myself, but I knew that my season was over and that the chance of going to the World Cup finals was gone.

"The injury also put the breaks on a possible move to the Premiership as Sunderland stalled on their plans to bring him to the Stadium of Light as a replacement for Quinn. Sadlier rested through the summer as Ireland scaled the troughs and peaks of the World Cup experience, aware that at 23, he had time on his side to work his way back into the fold. He returned for pre-season training with Millwall but things soon took a turn for the worse.

"I broke down after a few days, so I took a rest. I tried to pick things up again in August but I quickly broke down again. "I struggled on for six weeks but I was in a lot of discomfort with the hip and, when I went back to the surgeon who had operated on me, he confirmed my worst fears ... I was back to square one.

"The surgeon laid it on the line that to play again at the top level I needed another operation ... and that, even if it was a success, I'd suffer from arthritis later in life and need a hip replacement by the time I was 40.

"I thought to myself `hold on, this isn't happening, I'm only 23' but the alternative to a second operation was to give up the game and I didn't want to do that without a fight."

On October 15, the day before McCarthy's final game as Ireland manager, Sadlier underwent the second, critical, operation before embarking on a waiting game once more.

"I've been crutches ever since and I've found out how tough it is to get around but it will be worth it if things work out for the best in the end. "By early January I'll have reached a threshold of discomfort and the surgeons say whatever pain I have then won't get any worse. All being well, I'll hack on and get back training right away.

"I know I can get back playing and I am determined to do that. I want to play for Millwall and for Ireland again and I intend to do it."Richard joined Belvedere from Leicester Celtic a couple of weeks into his U-16 season, having declined an invitation to sign for the Boys in Blue during the summer. "With all due respects to Leicester, I was playing in a comfort zone there and I was never going to get to England doing that," he said. "I'd heard a lot of great things about Belvedere so I decided to give it a go. It was the best decision I ever made in football. "Gerry Mooney, Peadar Behan and Vincent Butler were running the team and I owe all three of them so much. To some people it might seem that having the three of them together meant be a recipe for `too many cooks' but they all have different qualities and worked really well together. They were a class act.

"Richard has always been very self-critical and he is particularly grateful to `The Belvo' for improving his self-confidence and general attitude. The U-16 season ended in disappointment for Richard and his team-mates as they were beaten by Manortown in the final of the Paul McGrath Cup.

The following season was a case of `so near and yet so far' as the team won the U-17 Premier League but lost 1-0 to Dundalk in the Leinster Youths Cup final ... Richard missed a `sitter' ... and were beaten in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland U-17 Cup and Tab Cup.

Millwall came calling after that summer and an international debut soon followed as Richard was called up for an U-18 international against Finland at Dalymount Park. His star soared to new heights over the next few seasons, both at Millwall and with Ireland under Brian Kerr and Richard formed an effective strike force with Robbie Keane at the World Youths Cup finals in Nigeria in 1999. That's a partnership which could yet flourish at senior level but, for now, Richard just wants to get back playing.

His struggle to overcome injury underlines just one of the pitfalls lying in wait for anyone chasing their dream of becoming a professional footballer but, if determination and dedication count for anything, it won't stop Richard Sadlier from climbing even bigger mountains.