'You couldn't write it' - Conor McCrickard to face family and friends as Cork champions target Kilcoo scalp
Work placement took Conor McCrickard 250 miles away from his Liatroim home last year, yet this afternoon he comes up against the club from just down the road – as well as some relations and former school-mates – when his St Finbarr's side meet Kilcoo in an All-Ireland semi-final. Neil Loughran talks to the man himself, and some of those who know him best, ahead of what promises to be an unforgettable day…
IN another realm Conor McCrickard would have been getting his kitbag sorted, ready to head for Owenbeg where Down’s National League campaign opens against Ulster rivals Derry this evening.
If not in James McCartan’s plans at this early stage of the season - as unlikely as that may seem - McCrickard might instead be looking ahead to the start of the National Hurling League next weekend, and the possibility of lining out alongside brother Pearse Og and cousin Ruairi when Down welcome Carlow to Ballycran.
As it is, though, he finds himself an unlikely subplot heading into one of the biggest games in the club calendar, with the proud Liatroim man lining out against near neighbours Kilcoo when the Ulster champions take on Cork and Munster kingpins St Finbarr’s in this afternoon’s All-Ireland semi-final.
For those unfamiliar with the geography of that stretch of the Mournes, around six miles of mountain road separates the rural villages of Liatroim and Kilcoo, and some of the family connections that bind the two will be played out at O’Moore Park today.
For a start, McCrickard’s mother is a Kilcoo woman. Magpies full-back Ryan McEvoy is a distant cousin, so too brothers Miceal and Chrissy Rooney.
During their days at St Malachy’s, McCrickard hurled alongside both Rooneys and would have played with McEvoy, Shealan Johnston, Tiernan Fettes and Justin Clarke on football teams at the Castlewellan school.
For 60 minutes this afternoon, though, those connections will be put firmly to one side.
“I get on well with all them, they’re all good lads,” says the 22-year-old
“It had been talked about long before, that potentially this could be the case. I know how good Kilcoo are, how experienced they are. It’s no secret that they set out at the start of the year to win an All-Ireland.
“There’s been a wee bit of talk about it but I’m trying to stay away from it as much as I can. I’m really looking forward to going up against them, but all that there craic? I haven’t really paid attention to it.”
He can leave that to the rest of us then. So how has it come to this?
Short-term circumstance and an incredible, unexpected run that has seen the Barrs land only a second Cork crown since 1985, and a first Munster title in 36 years.
McCrickard, by accident rather than design, has found himself in the middle of it all.
Towards the end of last summer the Ulster University student relocated to Glanmire, outside Cork city, to undertake a year-long work placement with medical device company Stryker as part of his biomedical engineering degree.
The intention, perhaps naively, was to endure the eight hour, 500-mile round trip up and down the road as his beloved Fontenoys chased promotion from Division Three. Inevitably, though, it proved too much after a couple of weeks on the road.
“It just wasn’t possible,” says former Down forward Colm McCrickard, who was involved in coaching his second cousin across both codes from U8 right up to senior.
“You’d nearly be home quicker if you were coming out of England, at least then you’re not sat in a car for hours on end. It was never going to work.
“Nobody wants to lose a player of that calibre but, at the end of the day, it’s a stepping stone in his career. There were no ill-feelings at all, it’s a part of life.
“Everybody knows if there was any way at all Conor could’ve made it work, he would have.”
As a result, and with Down camog Sorcha McCartan already at St Finbarr’s, he headed down to the Togher club to see if he could do a bit of training, never with any intention of a transfer.
However, the more they saw, they more they realised McCrickard had plenty to offer as the start of championship loomed on both the football and hurling fronts – even if he was initially unconvinced.
“I was very hesitant to be honest with you,” says McCrickard, “my own club at home means a whole lot to me.”
“It was kind of a coaxing job trying to get him to sign for us,” admits Barrs goalkeeper John Kerins, the penalty shoot-out hero in the club’s county final win over Clonakilty.
“We could see him in training, we knew he had something to offer. There was no animosity or anything like that, he was welcomed with open arms.
“It so happened that we have another two lads from Tyrone [goalkeeper Packie O’Neill and midfielder Ben Grugan] there that kind of helped him bed in that bit quicker and, to be fair, he’s been top class all year.”
“To tell you the truth I wouldn’t have known too much about them,” says McCrickard.
“Obviously I knew the likes of Jimmy Barry-Murphy - who doesn’t know him? But besides that, it was only when I linked up and started to train that I looked into them a bit more, seeing how successful they’ve been in years gone by.
“But then the players here now are focused on creating their own history at the club.”
Since kicking 0-4 from play on his championship debut against Ilen Rovers, McCrickard hasn’t looked back. The semi-final saw him roam out the field before taking Castlehaven for 1-2.
“I could’ve probably finished up with 3-6 if I’d taken my opportunities…”
A point in the county final was followed by a 2-1 haul in the Munster semi-final against Eire Óg of Ennis, before the Barrs set up their date with Kilcoo by seeing off Austin Stack’s in the provincial decider.
The Cork-Down connection continued there too when McCrickard was replaced late on by St Finbarr’s veteran Michael Shields – the man who captained the Rebels in their 2010 All-Ireland final win over Down, blotting out the threat of Benny Coulter into the bargain.
“I was at that game with the family,” says the Liatroim man, “I was training a few weeks down here before I realised who he actually was…”
Even though he made his senior debut with the Down footballers last year, starting the Ulster Championship defeat to Donegal, this run at the other end of the country has catapulted Conor McCrickard to national attention.
Many in Down first took notice when, in 2017, he plundered 2-4 against Armagh for the county minors – then under the charge of current senior boss McCartan. For those who watched him come through the ranks, though, this latest success story has come as no surprise.
“Conor’s just a natural player,” says Colm McCrickard, “one of them boys who could probably turn his hand to anything, but the big thing about him is he’s willing to learn.
“If he was having a bad game, he’s not afraid to ask what he did wrong, or how he could get better. It’s alright having these brilliant players but, even if he scored 2-10, he would never sit on his laurels.
“We didn’t have big numbers, so Conor always was playing up. He was only 15 when our minor hurling team was beat by Slaughtneil in the  Ulster final.
“He was never big, but he’s so agile, he moves across the ground so quickly. No matter what competition you went to, everybody was always asking ‘who’s this fella?’”
Conor Fegan - head of PE at St Malachy’s - watched McCrickard’s talent flourish through the years, and then when the Castlewellan school stepped up to MacRory Cup level in 2017.
As a Newry Shamrocks clubman, he has also had the onerous task of trying to limit the Liatroim man’s influence when their clubs collided at underage.
“You’re trying your best to put boys on him and give him that extra attention but sometimes it gets to the stage where you’re nearly wasting your time,” he laughs.
“From the day and hour Conor came in here he was very quiet, unassuming. Sometimes you associate quiet footballers with maybe being soft or whatever… he was never soft.
“Conor always had a trick up his sleeve, you noticed him even in year eight, he’d have stood out. As the years went on he just added to that. And a bit like you see with the Kilcoo boys now, any time he gets the ball in a forward position, the first thought is ‘goal’.
“By the time we went up to MacRory, the word was out about Conor...”
Being trailed by the best opposition defenders, often double-marked, soon came with the territory – and that will stand him in good stead for today’s clash with familiar foes renowned for their defensive steel.
“He’s well able to for that,” says Fegan.
“Even then, Conor was also cute enough to know that if he was double-marked, he could take those two players out of the game and make space for others elsewhere. There’s no selfish side to him, he did what needed to be done.
“Obviously Kilcoo, as Kilcoo do, they’ll have their homework done. A lot of the boys will know Conor, so on both sides they’ll know what they’re coming up against. But Conor won’t be fazed.
“He’s a tough lad, well used to being tightly marked. The hurling stands to him as well, he can take that bit of physicality – that’ll not be an issue.
“He’s so unassuming, and all the attention he has drawn in the past few months, it’s just not Conor’s style. He’s a silent assassin. He’ll just want to get on with it and not have a circus around it.”
On that note the last word, reluctantly, goes to the man himself.
As he speaks, you can tell Conor McCrickard is uncomfortable with having the spotlight shone in his direction. However, when the seemingly inevitable plot twist eventually materialised, there could be no escaping the questions.
For him, though, the only place he has ever worried about providing answers is on the field.
“It’s funny,” he says, “ I’ve come down here for work placement and ended up with a derby match against the team who are a couple of minutes away from me at home.
“You couldn’t write it, you really couldn’t...”