GAA Football

Fermanagh's Ryan McCluskey looks back on an eventful career

Inter-county football's longest serving player Ryan McCluskey concedes that he is nearing the final curtain, but between hurling roots and careers in Gaelic football and soccer, he has packed a lot into his 36 years. Cahair O'Kane takes him back through a memorable career that might not be done yet…

Ryan McCluskey is the longest-serving player in inter-county football.

“That moment when you realise you might never get your hands on an Ulster Senior Championship medal as a player.”

THE axe hovers over Ryan McCluskey’s head as it does every man eventually, but still he refuses to cede defeat.

He is 36 now and knows well that nothing lasts forever.

“I’m under no illusions, if maybe it’s not this season it will definitely be in the next year or two. The biological clock has been ticking,” admits the inter-county game’s longest-serving player when faced with no alternative.

Four days after Fermanagh’s Ulster preliminary round defeat by Monaghan, he took to Instagram to share the depth of his post-match gloom.

The two hands to his head, an expression that bears the pain of finality. The caption at the head of this interview offers no remorse for his soul.

It is pretty much all he has ever dreamt. 2008 was the closest the county has come to crossing the threshold, taking Armagh to a replay in the provincial final.

By then, he had learnt to deal with it. His football career spans back to before the qualifier system and includes plenty of heartbreak in both Gaelic football and soccer.

Life was much tougher. Caring for his late father, Oliver, while he was terminally ill brought perspective, but it offered him a keener appreciation of what he’d achieved in sport too.

He took time out of work but continued to juggle Fermanagh and Dungannon Swifts, helping the latter to an Irish Cup final in 2007.

His soccer career included an Irish Cup final with Dungannon Swifts, as well as spells with Cliftonville, Sligo Rovers and Portadown.

That was the one that got away in soccer terms. They led Linfield 2-0 in a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw, but Blues 'keeper Alan Mannus saved three times in the shootout to snatch glory away.

Football was a release from life during that time and it was when his father passed away in the lead up to the final that McCluskey really saw the good in people.

“I’d talk about battles and stuff. You only think you have battles on the pitch but it was what was going on off the pitch at that time.

“I’d taken time out of my work to be at home with my father, to help him and support him. Watching that was the worst battle.

“Coming through that, as much as it was horrendous at the time, it has given me strength during the years since. As much as I found it tough, and tough to talk about for a while after that, it gave me strength.

“I have a lot of love and respect for everyone at Dungannon. The club and the people were very good to myself and my family when my father was ill.

“The club couldn’t have done any more for me. The people who still remain friends were excellent.

“The support of the Linfield squad even was humbling. It’s amazing how sport can play such a role in somebody’s life during the tough times.”

As a teenager, there was the offer of scholarships in America and a youth contract in Germany.

His native Enniskillen was paired with Brackwede, a suburb of Bielefeld. After earning a schoolboy cap for Northern Ireland, McCluskey went on trial to Arminia Bielefeld for a week.

“I was like a big child, I couldn’t stay away from home. That was the bottom line.

“As much as I loved being away, I loved getting home to family and that was a big thing for me.”

Yet when he finished up at St Michael’s, McCluskey headed across the pond to Sunderland to take up a three-year Sports Science course.

It almost led to him missing out on Fermanagh’s unprecedented run to an All-Ireland semi-final, by the end of which he had earned himself an Allstar nomination.

For the first two years of his studies, he travelled over and back to play in the National League. It was a lonely sojourn, especially given that there were no direct flights from Sunderland, so he had to drive up to Edinburgh first.

But he loved his time in the north-east of England. There were regular trips down to Leeds on the weekends when he wasn’t flying home to play a bit of ball for Young Irelands.

“There were a few occasions where the referee might have called me over and I knew the first thing to do was to go down and hold my arm or my leg so that the physio could come on and remind me what name I was under.

“Playing on a pitch with a burnt car in the corner, and when the ball went into it the referee would bring the ball in ten metres from it and throw it up.”

Through Frank Quinn, a Down native who was Sunderland’s physio from 2002 until 2005, they managed to organise a St Patrick’s Day game of Gaelic football between the then-Premier League club’s Irish contingent and a Sunderland University side.

Played at Chester-le-Street cricket club, they went in against the likes of Kevin Kilbane, former Dublin minor hurler Niall Quinn and McCluskey’s former Cliftonville team-mate Michael Ingham among others for an hour’s non-contact football.

The test the following morning was the only one he failed in three years.

Two years of trekking back and forward lent itself to a neglect of his studies and ahead of the 2004 campaign, McCluskey spoke to new manager Charlie Mulgrew about opting out of the panel for the National League.

There was always an eye on returning and armed with a 2:2, McCluskey returned home. Tom Brewster had been away travelling as well and both were still out of the picture for Fermanagh’s championship opener against Tyrone.

“We hid in the corner of Clones because we were afraid of getting stoned by someone that didn’t know the full story.”

They watched as Fermanagh confounded all the pre-match reports of discontent and the fact that they’d lost ten from the previous year’s panel to push the All-Ireland champions to the wire.

The Enniskillen Gaels clubman was an Allstar nominee in 2004, but almost didn't play that year.

Fermanagh would recover to go all the way to Croke Park, by which stage McCluskey and Brewster were back involved. They would play such memorable parts in the famous win over Armagh, with Brewster kicking the winner and McCluskey recovering from a tough start to put the straitjacket on reigning Footballer of the Year, Stevie McDonnell.

Losing the semi-final to Mayo after a replay, having squandered a host of chances across the two games, sucked the young corner-back into despair.

“As much as the good days were great, there was the disbelief of crumbling in the semi-final and not being able to deal with it.

“It was absolutely horrendous. I took a week off work after it. I can’t say I know what depression is but I can’t have been a kick in the arse off it after that.

“I couldn’t handle the fact we were so close and nothing came from it.

“It’s something you learn from but it probably sticks out more than the games you’ve won, which is mad.”

**

THAT doesn’t seem 13 years ago but it is.

In that time, McCluskey has watched all his former foes disappear from the field. At 36, his inter-county career outlasts Stephen Cluxton’s by 14 days.

He made his Championship debut against Donegal on May 13, 2001, nudging him ahead of the Dublin goalkeeper, Longford’s Dermot Brady, Sligo’s Mark Breheny and Tyrone’s Sean Cavanagh, all of whom made Championship debuts that summer.

The debut almost came a year sooner when the late Pat King called him into the squad as they reached an Ulster semi-final against Armagh in 2000, but he saw no game time as the Ernemen suffered a 0-13 to 0-12 defeat.

“The naivety on my own part when I was a young, spoilt child coming on to the scene, I didn’t play for a while the following year. There was a bit of stupidity and naivety there.

“Pat, God rest him, had given me the chance to be on a squad and be on the bench that day, and of course I wanted to play that day. There was no way I was ready at that stage, but I had it in my head that I was. The toys went out of the pram.”

Ryan McCluskey is the longest-serving player in inter-county football.

He was always destined to represent Fermanagh, one way or the other. As he came on to the senior scene, Enniskillen Gaels were in their pomp, winning seven of the eight county titles between 1998 and 2006, and reaching two Ulster Club finals.

But his family’s first love was hurling and thus, so was his.

Long before Ryan McCluskey had graced Croke Park as a footballer, he stepped on the hallowed turf as a hurler playing in the INTO half-time game during the 1992 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway.

His brother Stephen was a talented hurler and his four sisters were all fine camogs at a time when it was at a relatively high ebb in the county.

“Most of our time would have revolved around being down in Brewster Park.

“Hurling would have been everybody’s first choice, my own included. I absolutely loved hurling.

“A couple of my sisters ended up playing hurling on the boys’ sides because they were as good as the boys.”

He managed a couple of senior hurling games as a teenager before the game began to die off and a blossoming football career took centre stage.

And he loved soccer too, borne out of trips over Scraghy Mountain to watch Finn Harps with lifelong friend and future Fermanagh team-mate Shane McCabe and his father Hugh, who sadly passed away last month.

Cliftonville, Sligo Rovers, Dungannon Swifts and Portadown all appear on his playing CV and he has the distinction of having won a game in Europe, helping the Swifts beat Lithuanian side FK Suduva 1-0 in a UEFA Cup qualifier at Windsor Park in 2007 before they lost the second leg 4-0.

“You’re always torn between both. I still believe if you’d taken one completely away from me at that stage, I still would have had that need and want to go back. I was lucky to get the opportunity to play both.”

The role he has played for Fermanagh has changed over the years. Initially he was the go-to man-marker but the passage of time saw his ability to read a game utilised in a different manner, operating as the team’s sweeper in recent years.

The pressure of circumstances in 2007 led to a disagreement with Charlie Mulgrew after he was dropped for a League game in Cork having been due to start. He proved a considerable loss that summer.

But winter would bring with it an opportunity to revisit priorities. Malachy O’Rourke came in and the toll of travelling to Dungannon, the loss of his father and escaping serious injury in a car accident himself just before Christmas persuaded him to throw the lot in with the county side.

He did go back for a spell with Portadown a few years later before he was again persuaded to fly solo by one of those former on-field foes.

“A large part of that influence would have been when Peter Canavan came on board.

“I’d marked Peter a number of times and my respect for the man was huge. Once we had the conversation about fully committing, it was a no-brainer.”

Even to this day, though, he struggles to shake the urge to juggle both sports.

“It nearly happened again,” he says, revealing that former Ballinamallard United boss Whitey Anderson tried and almost succeeded in coaxing him out in the last couple of seasons.

The mind was telling him yes but the body said no. The biological clock that he talks about ticks towards 6.30pm on Sunday, when he will take the field at the Athletic Grounds.

There’s no intention of letting it be the end of the line. Recent history between Armagh and Fermanagh lends itself to the belief that, with both coming off humbling defeats, it’s there to be won.

And if you want an eyelet to Ryan McCluskey’s belief, it is in the unwavering conviction that the Ulster title will some day come Fermanagh’s way.

“If it is the case that it doesn’t happen as a player, I’m hoping it will come somewhere along the line in a managerial capacity.

“It’s a love for the game. No matter what happens over the next number of years, as much as I’ll try and take a bit of a rest when that day comes, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I wouldn’t be able to stay away from it.”

For now, it’s about holding the axe off again. Another week first. Then maybe another year.

Don’t be surprised if he’s still out there chasing that Ulster medal next year.

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