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Connor Jennings on overcoming cancer, being in coma and emotional Tranmere reunion

Connor Jennings spoke at length on overcoming cancer, scoring at Wembley after bing in a coma and an emotional Tranmere reunion.

Last Friday night would have been the day he made a return to Prenton Park, a bumper crowd was expected, but was cancelled in respect of the Queen’s death the day before.

This particular match, whenever it is rescheduled for – will see the Stockport player given the warmest of welcomes.

The 30-year-old forward spent four years with the Super White Army before joining the Hatters’ return to return to the EFL, which was finally achieved in May this year.

Jennings, who captained Wrexham years back, is described to being a quiet person and a modest character in interviews, but his story both during and after his spell with Rovers is quite something.

Brought to Tranmere by Gary Brabin in June 2016, he at first struggled to break into the Tranmere starting lineup and after making only 11 appearances by January 2017 with Brabin axed, Jennings was sent out on a month-long loan spell by new manager Micky Mellon to Macclesfield Town.

Speaking exclusively to the ECHO, he said: “We were unbeaten in the first month then drew one, then I did my MCL (medial collateral ligament) which side-lined me for four or five months. By the the time I got back, time on the pitch was limited because of the lads doing so well. I was pestering him (Micky Mellon) every day. Can I go on loan just for a month to get match fitness. After annoying him for about the 50th time he finally allowed me to go out for a month.

“I had it planned out in my head. Play five or six games then come back and give it a good go for the last three months of the season. Luckily it went to plan.”

When he returned to Tranmere in March, and that is where his fortunes and those of the club took a significant change for the better. He got into the side under Micky Mellon, guided Rovers up the table putting pressure on Danny Cowley’s Lincoln City.

Jennings scored six goals in April, a hat-trick in a 9-0 thrashing of Solihull Moors, but in the end Tranmere missed out on top spot to the Imps, so playoffs it was, and they reached the final at Wembley where they faced Forest Green Rovers.

Jennings produced 25-yard-strike with the scoreline 1-1 in the first half, then two further Forest Green goals crushed their promotion hopes, leaving the player and his teammates gutted.

“The goal was definitely one of the best moments that I had in a Tranmere shirt,” said Jennings. “But we had a few injuries leading up to it. Ultimately we weren’t good enough on the day. They (Forest Green) were our bogey side for a good season or two.

“It was 100% one the biggest disappointments in my career. I had never felt like that before. I was so invested in the club. I took it really hard and I think everyone did. I’ll always remember the bus journey back. I don’t think one word was spoken. I took it into the summer and had one of the worst summers ever.”

Having finished runners-up in the National League again, Tranmere were back at England’s national stadium 12 months later to face Boreham Wood in the playoff final. Jennings was in the matchday squad but he had not been expected to be involved at all.

With a short explanation offered by Mellon as to why he was missing from the team in the weeks leading up to the final, it later emerged that Jennings had been hospitalised with meningitis where he had been put into a coma.

“I just remember saying I wasn’t well. Little things weren’t adding up. I was smelling a bit more under my armpits and my carshare Rides (Liam Ridehalgh) was picking up on that. I was drinking a lot more water than I usually was. ‘Bloody hell, what’s wrong with you Connor?’ Rides said. This was on a Friday. Then I don’t remember much. I went into hospital that night and was in there for a week.”

He missed the last two league matches of the season and the semi final victory against Ebbsfleet, eyebrows were raised when he returned to be named amongst the substitutes for the final.

“I think I was back in hospital watching the Ebbsfleet match, I was absolutely terrified,” Jennings said, before adding: “I think I paid the physio off to say I was fine. I had about three days training and that was a trial to prove I was fine.”

Mellon told Jennings’ family that he would only be playing in a match if absolutely necessary, but this was no ordinary game of course. Not even a minute of it had been played before Tranmere were reduced to 10 men after full-back Ridehalgh was red carded for a wild lunge not long after kick-off.

Josh Ginnelly went off injured in the 34th minute, and this saw Mellon bring on Jennings. A week after he had been in a coma.

“I got the look from the gaffer. I’ve seen the look many times. I knew it was my time to go on. It was tough game mentally and physically,” said Jennings.

The match looked to be heading for extra time until Jennings got in on the act with 10 minutes to go, sent in a cross from the right that was met by the head of James Norwood, who sent their supporters wild, and ended their three year stint in non league.

“I still say it now, that was the best day of my life. The relief, the joy and the happiness. It was something I’d wanted from when I first signed for the club. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

12 months later, a late surge up the table saw Tranmere in the League Two playoff final and this was said to be Jennings’ finest moment for the club.

Locked at 0-0 in extra time against Newport County, a cross from Jake Caprice in the 119th minute was headed home by Jennings from close range.

Jennings departed from Prenton Park for a new challenge with Stockport County in the summer of 2020, linking up with his older brother James, whom he had played alongside at Wrexham.

On the 25th of March 2021, Stockport announced that Jennings had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

A statement on the club’s website said: “Connor had been suffering from pain in his shoulder for several months after a fall in training and following physio treatment was referred for MRI scans to investigate, it was during these scans that a suspected tumour was located within his upper arm.

“Following subsequent biopsies, this has been confirmed as low-grade chondroid sarcoma which is a rare type of cancer.”

Jennings reflects to the ECHO how the agonising wait for his diagnosis had been prolonged. He said: “It was a really difficult time because they sort or knew but they couldn’t confirm it. They’d seen a big tumour in my shoulder. Off the record they’d said ‘I think’ stuff like that.

“It was a really stressful time. I think I ended up having two or three biopsies because they couldn’t get it right and that delayed the process even more. Then they dropped it on me. Because it was during Covid all the appointments, scans and biopsies had been done with me on my own. When the results finally came, they said my wife could come into the meeting. I thought ‘Ahhh Jesus’. I hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. It was a real kick in the balls.”

Doctors privately warned Jennings that the likelihood was that he would never play competitive football again, however there were much bigger issues at stake. Connor’s son Ted was only eight months old when his dad was given confirmation of the shocking diagnosis and fiancée Jenny took on a full time role caring for him in the wake of his operation.

“It was very difficult to process. All my family were like ‘your health’s more important’ but I just wanted to play football. That’s my job. I had the uncertainty of not knowing if I was going to be alright and whether I could ever play football again and earn a living.”

With the full backing of Stockport owner Mark Stott, Jennings saw a leading cancer specialist, and the club covered all of his medical bills, not a given in the fifth tier of English football where money tends to be tight.

The initial plan by surgeons was to give him a replacement metal shoulder, which would have certainly ended his professional football career.

But an alternative procedure plan would preserve more of his shoulder, avoiding the metal replacement.

And it was down to what the surgeon could do on the day, but as Jennings was about to discover, his relationship with late drama continued.

He said: “I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen to me that day. I didn’t know whether they were going to get the tumour out, whether I would wake up with a metal shoulder or half a metal shoulder.

“But half an hour before the operation, the surgeon tested positive for Covid. It was the most nerve-wrecking day I’ve ever had. A substitute surgeon came in and said ‘I’m going to do your operation’. I thought to myself ‘oh my god’, my head was all over the place.

“I was putting it on his toes. So much was on the line for me. I pointed at him and said ‘you mess this up and you’ll be in trouble mate’. I was sort of having a joke, but he didn’t find it funny at all. I thought ‘oh god I might have annoyed him a bit here’!”

Thankfully, the operation was a success, as the surgeon performed a bone graft, using bone taken from another person who had died.

“It was like black market stuff,” said Jennings. “It’s unbelievable. They buy the bone from America. They had to source the shoulder from someone roughly the same age and size. They then get it shipped over. It was mind-blowing. Everything went well. It was just a case of praying that the bone grows into my bone. It was just a waiting game. A very stressful year and a half.”

“I think it’s [the bone] from Tiger Woods, because I’ve become a really good golfer! It’s amazing how it all happened and it all went to plan. I’m so thankful to all the staff and the surgeon.”

After having his arm in a sling for a number of months, he was able to hold his son again, showing improvements which only encouraged Stockport boss Dave Challinor to get Jennings back in training.

“Thirty seconds into my warm-up, I slipped and landed on my shoulder. Everyone was like ‘ahhhhh nooooo’. I just lay on the floor because I probably just expected it to hurt. Everyone was gobsmacked but luckily I just got up and got on with it. I’d got the bang out of the way and it got gradually better and better.

“I’m feeling the best I have now for a long time. And I’m very happy about that.”

In late November 2021, he was named on the bench for Stockport’s home game against King’s Lynn, got a standing ovation when subbed on in the 81st minute and scored in injury time to complete a 5-0 home win.

“It was a relief,” said Jennings. “To get on the pitch and think that I’d overcome it all – it was more for my families’ sake. I never questioned myself that I would make it back, but to achieve it and then score – it was just meant to be – much like my big moments at Tranmere.

“Getting cancer can happen to anyone, but you’ve just got to try and get over the hurdle it you’re lucky enough to do so. It’s made my partner stronger. You definitely never take life for granted.”

“I just think it’s going to be really strange,” said Jennings on when time comes to reuniting with Tranmere. “I’ll be in the other dugout and changing room. It’s going to be pretty bizarre for me. But since I’ve left I’ve always wanted to go back and play at Prenton Park again before my career ended. It will be great to see all the staff and the fans again.

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