A young man stood at the end of the corridor outside the home dressing room at Stockport County’s Edgeley Park ground on Tuesday night.
Connor Jennings had just come out of the shower. He had a towel wrapped around his waist.
A reluctant smile played on his lips and a vivid, angry, crimson scar ran across his pale skin from the front of his right shoulder, down the top of his arm towards his elbow.
Connor Jennings’ fairytale return from cancer demonstrates the magic only sport can provide
After being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, he had the cancer cut out this summer
Fairy tales are scarce down here in the fifth tier of the English football pyramid, where vaulting ambition and faded dreams make for awkward companions in the struggle to claw a way into the Football League.
But the 4,568 spectators filing away from County’s 5-0 win over King’s Lynn Town knew they had just witnessed the kind of beauty that only sport can deliver.
The scar marked the place where they cut the cancer out of Connor in the summer. They had found the tumour in his shoulder last January when he went for what he thought was a routine scan after he was injured in training.
He was already a crowd favourite at Edgeley Park by then because of the passion with which he plays the game but most assumed when they heard the news that, even in the best-case scenario, his career was over.
Surgeons told him the same thing. They said he had a rare form of bone cancer, chondroid sarcoma, and warned on several occasions that he would never play the game at any competitive level again.
A chaos of worries jostled for attention in his head. ‘He was in a position where he was not only looking at potentially the end of his career,’ said Stockport’s new manager, Dave Challinor, ‘but much worse stuff than that.’
Jennings, 30, famous among his friends for being so wary of the limelight that he frowned on his team-mates wearing T-shirts to show their support for him, was not just worried about whether he would live.
The 30-year-old striker has spoken to Sportsmail about his remarkable, inspirational journey
He was worried about his livelihood, too. And he has a young son, Ted, who was eight months old when his dad was diagnosed with cancer, and a fiancee, Jenny, who dedicated herself to caring for him after his operation.
He had had a brush with mortality before when he contracted meningitis and lapsed into a coma a few years ago while he was at Tranmere Rovers. ‘I don’t do small stuff,’ he said.
Before he arrived at Stockport last season, he had had a good career in the lower leagues and scored the winner in the 2019 League Two play-off final at Wembley for Tranmere but the wages at this level do not set you up for life.
Amid the distress, Jennings kept counting his blessings. The Stockport owner, Mark Stott, who has breathed new life into the club since he bought it in January last year, never gave up on him.
Connor and his brother, James, who was also on the playing staff, were everything Stott wanted Stockport to epitomise: passion, ability, responsibility to the community, players who put the team ahead of themselves. ‘They are proper human beings, those boys,’ said Stott.
The club made sure Connor saw a leading cancer specialist and that all his medical bills were paid. Connor never accepted he would not play again and his team-mates encouraged him to come to training when they knew he was feeling low.
‘There were some days when I just didn’t want to get out of bed,’ he said. The fans made a flag for him that was displayed at home games.
Jennings scored the winner in the League Two play-off final at Wembley back in May 2019
And then things began to change. His prognosis improved. ‘They had said a few times that I wouldn’t play again,’ said Jennings as he sat in the County boardroom on Tuesday.
‘They thought the operation to take the tumour out would weaken the shoulder too much. To begin with, they were talking about a replacement shoulder, a metal replacement, and realistically, to play at this level and above, that would not have been feasible.
‘Luckily, I was able to get a different treatment that preserved my shoulder more. When I was going into the operation in the summer, the surgeon had to pull out because he got Covid and so they got a substitute in. Luckily, everything went to plan.’
The hardest part of his recovery was not being able to pick up Ted to hold him and give him a hug. That lasted for a couple of months while his arm was in a sling but he gradually stepped up his recovery. Challinor, who has already made a hugely positive impression at the club, encouraged his return.
Ten days ago, Connor was given the all-clear to return to full training. On Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the King’s Lynn match, the phone rang at his home.
Paddy Madden, County’s top scorer, had been taken ill, there was a spare place on the bench and Challinor wanted Connor to take it. ‘Sometimes,’ said the County boss after the match, ‘scripts are already written. You just don’t know it yet.’
In the 81st minute, Challinor gestured to Connor that he should get ready. The supporters gave him a standing ovation when he ran on to replace Ollie Crankshaw with Stockport already 4-0 up. Then, in the first minute of added time, he peeled away from his marker and latched on to a cross from the right.
He signed for Stockport from Tranmere last summer and after taking several months off due to his condition, he made a scoring return on Tuesday night in a 5-0 win against King’s Lynn Town
He hit it first time across the King’s Lynn goalkeeper and it nestled in the bottom corner of the goal. The ground erupted. Connor raised his arms to the skies before he was engulfed by his team-mates. When the final whistle went a few seconds later, he took the plaudits of the crowd one more time and then walked towards the tunnel.
He looked up at Stott in the directors’ box and raised his arm towards him in a gesture of gratitude. Afterwards, as he sat in the boardroom, he talked of gratitude again. He said he still has hopes and dreams he wants to fulfil in football.
‘Sometimes, things are written in the stars,’ he said. ‘But it’s my job so I try not to get caught up in that. I feel I have to repay the club now by getting us promoted. That is why I came here and I want to repay the people who showed faith in me.
‘This is a second chance for me. Not everyone is fortunate enough to get a second chance when they get cancer and I am thankful for mine. It is a good story because it is a true story.
‘I am down the football pyramid, people get the connection a bit more, it’s more relatable. You know the fans, you feel the fans. It’s a bit more real. People will see I’ve come out the other side and if that gives someone hope or belief, that’s great.’
One day last week, Christian Purslow, the Aston Villa chief executive, said: ‘Everything good in English football sits in the Premier League.’ He was wrong.
If he had been at Edgeley Park last Tuesday night, if he had seen Connor Jennings beaming outside the home dressing room, if he had felt the power and the beauty of sport on that cold November night, those words might have caught in his throat.
Messi is still magical but he must work harder
It us still one of the greatest privileges in sport to watch Lionel Messi play live. Even on Wednesday night at the Etihad, there were still moments of pure magic.
A nutmeg of Raheem Sterling; the way he took the ball under pressure from a quick free-kick early in the second half and set up a chance from which Paris Saint-Germain should have scored.
But the moments of genius are rarer now and other emotions have crept in when watching Messi play. The lack of interest in working for his team in Manchester did not just feel startling and anachronistic, it felt like it was an insult to his team-mates.
Messi is one of the best we have ever seen but if he continues to phone it in like this, he risks tarnishing his legacy.
An independent regulator is needed
The findings of Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review of football were only released a couple of days ago and the screams and shouts of dismay from various corners of the Premier League have already started.
There are many wonderful things about the Premier League, many things to be proud of, many things that are inspirational, but let’s not forget just yet that its six leading clubs were ready to destroy it and the rest of the English game a few months ago because of greed by joining the European Super League.
That’s just one of the reasons why our game needs an independent regulator. The Premier League has to be saved from itself.