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Football/Soccer

Cliftonville's Ryan Catney - the Viking warrior

Ryan Catney still recovering from his double leg fracture hopes to be back playing next season Picture: Hugh Russell

RYAN Catney leans to his right and points to where his shin bone pierced the skin.

The cage that encircles his lower part of his right leg is like scaffolding.

Because of this medical contraption it’s difficult to make out the tattooed images on his leg.

They're Viking images, he explains.

His son’s name Lochlainn – meaning Viking - is emblazoned around his calf.

The Cliftonville midfielder thinks it was fate the bone that pierced the skin missed his eldest son’s name by the tiniest of margins.

When we meet in a coffee shop in the centre of Belfast it’s seven weeks since he suffered the horrific injury, which resulted in clean breaks of his tibia and fibula bones.

The gruesome x-rays, posted on social media at the time, looked doctored, cartoon-like.

But they weren’t.

“I just remember Marty Donnelly’s shocking ball – which really was a ‘hospital’ ball and is something he hasn’t lived down,” Catney laughs.

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Ryan Catney is still recovering from his double leg fracture

“If there is one player that will have a good touch and give you a good pass it’s Marty. I’ve basically told him it’s his fault.”

Catney and Crusaders defender Howard Beverland are two of the most committed footballers in the Irish League. You put a ball between them…

“Howard Beverland came across full pelt and I was running full pelt – which isn’t really that fast – and the ball was there to be won and I was never going to pull out of a tackle,” he says.

“I’m hearing reports now that certain people think I tried to do him.

“If you want to do someone you’d go in with your studs up but all the stills show my boot pointing to the ground.

“People only have to look at my disciplinary record over the last 10 years and I’ve been sent off for stupid things, two yellow cards, never for violent conduct… I’ve never tried to do anyone in my life.

“I’m literally a second late and he’s caught up under my shin pad and my foot is just wrapped around his leg.

“People have a perception about me being a hard player but it doesn’t mean I would intentionally hurt another player. I never have and I never would.

“I can put on record now that I didn’t go out to hurt Howard Beverland.”

Lost in the mayhem of that day at Seaview was the fact that Catney was red-carded as he was stretchered off the pitch with a double leg fracture.

He recalls Crusaders players Declan Caddell and Michael Carvill wishing him well as he left the field.

Since Saturday January 21 2017 there has been no contact between Beverland and Catney.

No conciliatory exchange of texts, no get-well-soon card, no private Facebook messages and no diplomatic go-between. Nothing.

“Howard says that he’ll not hold any grudges. From that I think he thinks I tried to do him and I came out the worst. But that’s up to him…”

The 30-year-old doesn’t do negative energy. Mentally speaking, he's further up the road.

“I’m just concentrating on getting better,” Catney says.

He doesn’t replay the incident over and over in his head. He has physical scars but no mental ones.

Out of courtesy to this journalist, he recalls every last detail of the aftermath.

He talks in matter-of-fact terms and doesn't do my-life-flashed-before-me clichés.

And there's no trace of bravado when he says he didn’t feel any pain when it happened.

“I knew something was wrong. People were saying that they heard the leg snap. Ruairi Harkin [Cliftonville team-mate] who was the other side of the pitch said he heard it, but I didn’t hear or feel anything.

“I knew there was something wrong by players’ reactions. I didn’t realise the extent of it.

“The only time I saw it was when they cut my sock off. I was lying on my back and I kind of glanced at it. My foot was pointing at three o’clock. That’s when it clicked that it was bad.

“I still didn’t feel any pain – maybe the adrenaline was still pumping in me. But when Stephanie [his wife] saw the injury she ran out of the room in hysterics.”

For a potentially career-ending incident, Catney confers absolutely no deference to the seriousness of the injury, and treats it like a niggling calf strain.

“It’s a leg break. It’s just one of those things. I know it’s a wee bit gory but there are people worse off than me.

“I’m out of work for a while and I’m out of football for a few months. It’s only a couple of pins. I’m a big boy. I have to get over it.”

Catney's dark sense of humour has probably helped him come to terms with the injury.

For instance, he laughs when he thinks of Brian Maguire, a part-time physio at Cliftonville and ambulance driver, who was nearby.

As Catney was being carted into the awaiting ambulance, Maguire shouted in: ‘Keep him alive – he owes me money!’

Catney was grateful to Joe Gormley, his team-mate, who accompanied him into the changing rooms, into the back of the ambulance and up to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

With more than a hint of mock dismay, Catney remembers: “Joe was with me the whole time. You know what Joe’s like – you can’t get two words out of him.

“So I said to him: ‘Joe, what’s it like?’ And he said: ‘It’s not good.’

Surgery couldn’t be carried out until the following morning, as there was a patient requiring an urgent brain operation.

Literally, hundreds of well-wishers got in touch with him, among them David Jeffrey.

The Ballymena United manager’s timing, though, could have been better as Catney's pain-killing medication was at its peak when he rang.

“I remember David Jeffrey ringing me and I’m lying off my head on morphine [rolling his eyes, laughing]. He was saying: ‘Ryan, you never knew how much I thought of you…’

Catney doesn’t show emotion easily but was genuinely moved by some people that visited him in hospital.

“Stephen Baxter [Crusaders manager] came up to the hospital; he randomly came up on the Sunday night.

“We had a bit of a laugh. He stayed for 20 minutes. He didn’t have to come up. I’m not his player and I thanked him for that. Nearly every manager in the Irish League got in touch to wish me well.

“Michael Gault phoned me and I got a lot of messages on Facebook and I have to say a lot of opposing supporters which I didn’t think would happen; supporters from Linfield, Glentoran, Crusaders and Glenavon.

“Being so closely associated with Cliftonville, I was really shocked to get those messages – shocked in a really nice way. Some of the private messages I received were brilliant.”

Catney strikes you as an easy-going individual – a far cry from the on-field persona of the snarling, scowling, in-your-face midfielder; an absolute pest for the opposition, a kind of all-year-round panto villain who feeds off every jeer that rings in his ears.

Probably the most humbled he felt since the injury was two anonymous letters he received from Crusaders supporters that were mailed to Solitude.

“The two cards were filled both sides and just wishing me all the best. I don’t know who they are so I can’t thank them.”

So, will all this goodwill change him in any way – not if – when he gets back on a football pitch again?

Catney laughs at the image of him ‘going soft’.

“Probably not,” he smiles. “I can’t afford to. I wouldn’t expect them [opposition supporters] to treat me any differently.

“I can’t imagine playing against Linfield and their fans giving me high-fives in the corner.

“I use that. They know it. They wind me up. I wind them up.

“I’m not even like that in real life. I play up to it. It’s great. When they’re chanting your name, it means you’re doing something right and they’re leaving somebody else alone.”

Catney is not bullet-proof however. Rehab is like rollercoaster.

You have just as many ups as you have downs.

He may have been working up a sweat on a cross-trainer just three weeks after suffering the double leg break but patience is a virtue on the long road to recovery.

He was hoping to have the cage removed on March 28 but doctors have insisted a further six weeks is required.

He got in touch with Scott Young, who famously broke his leg on three separate occasions.

The former Glentoran midfielder warned him that he would face many “dark days but to stick with it”. The conversation with Young helped him.

It’s often the small things that frustrate him though. He still can’t shower properly. And putting on socks is proving a work-out in itself.

“Obviously it puts a lot of pressure on your family life. I’ve two kids [Mark and Lochlainn]. It affects them. It affects Stephanie.

“When I’ve got infections around the pins, you sometimes think: ‘I’m never going to get back. I’m retiring…’

“But I have to say, Stephanie has been absolutely brilliant. She gave me lots of sympathy the first three weeks - the last four not so much!

“I miss playing about with the kids, knocking the ball about, just wee stupid things.”

The two-time Irish League winner is out of contract at the end of the season.

He celebrated his 30th birthday last month and faces a hellish road back to full fitness.

He doesn’t entertain the thought of not playing football again.

“I don’t really know what will happen [regarding a contract],” he says.

“The fact that I’ve been there 10 years, hopefully the club will sort something out.

“I don’t want to say too much but I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

“I can’t envisage myself putting on a different shirt. I think I would lose the fire in my belly.

“It means something to play for Cliftonville. I know what it means to the fans.”

After spending his formative years with Donegal Celtic, Catney earned a move to English League club Reading where he worked under the inspirational tutelage of Brendan Rodgers, now Celtic manager.

He returned home after three years and signed for Paul Kirk at Lisburn Distillery.

It was only when his Whites’ team-mate Francis Murphy moved to Cliftonville he mentioned to the-then Cliftonville boss Eddie Patterson about getting Catney up to Solitude for a few training sessions.

Catney took up the offer and hasn’t looked back.

Consistently excellent in the Reds engine room for the last decade, the west Belfast man has won every honour in local football, bar the Irish Cup.

He has never taken for granted the success he's accrued at Solitude and feels privileged to have been part of the club’s greatest-ever team, moulded so skilfully by Tommy Breslin.

The Reds would not have achieved half their success without the uncompromising midfield axis of Catney and Barry Johnston.

“The togetherness was the team's biggest strength,” Catney says.

“Marc Smyth told the story, when we were warming up on the back pitch at Dungannon Swifts and Barry or me - I can’t remember who - gave a bad ball, and we had each other by the neck punching the head of each other.

“This was in the warm-up. But we wanted to win. We shook hands and won the game.

“We never talked about it again. George McMullan was our leader. He could play anywhere and be the best player on the pitch. Marc Smyth was a big factor in that team too.

“He will go down as a Cliftonville legend in such a short space of time.

“I’ve played with some amazing players, some of the best-ever Cliftonville players. That back-to-back league winning squad was a phenomenal time.”

He hopes to be fit again by early next season. How will he feel about making his first tackle?

“I can’t wait,” he says with immediate enthusiasm.

“The first tackle is going to let you know. I think it’s more of a mental thing. You have to try it. Tackling is a big part of my game. I’ll not back out of a tackle.”

He genuinely feels there is still some unfinished business in the Cliftonville jersey.

He’s made 359 appearances and has every confidence in adding to that tally.

But if you asked him how he would like to be remembered by the club’s fans, he pauses.

He finally breaks the easy silence.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I’m not into self-praise. I just do my job for the team and go home after the game.

“For Cliftonville fans, I hope they see me as a loyal foot soldier.”

Just like his tattoos, there is a bit of the Viking in Ryan Catney.

That warrior spirit doesn't die easily.

He'll be back, snarling his way through games, feeding off the opposition’s jeers, loving them for it and loving every second of it. Only more than ever this time...

 

Ryan Catney on…

Best player you played with:

Liam Boyce

Best player you played against:

Cesc Fabregas. I played against him at the U17 Euro finals in France when he played for Spain. I couldn’t get near him!

Toughest opponent in the Irish League:

I loved the battles with Shane McCabe, Robert Garrett and Ryan McCann. But the best was Paul McAreavey. For about two years in that Linfield team he was brilliant. He was box-to-box, he could score goals and I remember he put his studs into my head one day at Windsor Park and didn’t even say sorry. I thought he was a brilliant player

Best away ground:

Mourneview. I love the pitch, the stand and fans are on top of you. It’s the way all Irish League grounds should be

Most enjoyable game you played in:

Our first of four League Cup victories when we beat Crusaders 4-0. That was the trophy that spurred us on

Best day at Cliftonville:

Winning the first league title when we beat Linfield

Best XI:

Conor Devlin, George McMullan, Ronan Scannell, Peter Hutton, Marc Smyth, Barry Johnston, Ryan Catney, Marty Donnelly, Chris Curran, Liam Boyce, Joe Gormley

Biggest influence on your career:

Brendan Rodgers at Reading FC (U19 manager)

Best thing about the Irish League:

I just love it. I’m a fan of the Irish League. It gets run-down a lot but there’s more quality than people realise. You only have to look at the young talent in the league: Gavin Whyte [Crusaders], Joel Cooper, Mark Sykes [both Glenavon] and Levi Ives [Cliftonville]

The banter and the grief that you get, too. Some of the things I’ve heard shouted by Cliftonville fans from under the stand have been ridiculous. If there’s a break in play and you’re standing there, you find yourself having a giggle to yourself, thinking: ‘Thank God that’s not me.’

The best thing about playing at Solitude:

It can be intimidating when it wants to be when the crowd is behind you. For me, there’s nobody better. It’s an old-fashioned ground but it has character. It’s just home to me

Biggest joker in the team:

Marty Donnelly

Who do you sit beside in the changing-room:

At training, Marty Donnelly. Match-days, Eamonn Seydak is on my right and Jude Winchester is on my left

Childhood hero:

Roy Keane

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