McCrickard back and raring to go as Down gear up for League
2022 was a mixed bag for Ruairi McCrickard but, with his injury woes behind him, Ruairi McCrickard is relishing a return to red and black. The Liatroim man speaks to Neil Loughran…
THE fairytale finish didn’t quite come but, after a rollercoaster ride, Ruairi McCrickard can still reflect on an unexpected journey that, ultimately, brought him back to where he wants to be.
It was this time last year, after all, when he received the news that surgery would be required after suffering a second shoulder dislocation in a matter of months, ruling him out of Down’s entire League and Championship campaign.
And it looked as though worse was to follow.
Having gone under the knife in April, and been warned a “six or seven month” lay-off awaited, there was also the very real possibility that Liatroim’s club campaigns - on both the football and hurling front - could be done and dusted by the time he was ready to return to the field.
“Ah listen, it was very frustrating at the time.
“I got the first dislocation in the 2021 club championship, then I was three or four months into the rehab, back playing with Down, when it happened again in the McGurk final.
“It’s hard sitting on the sidelines - never mind being injured, it’s more the mental side to be honest. You’d just be kicking yourself, wanting to be out there. Unfortunately it’s just one of those things that’s part and parcel of sport.”
McCrickard was never resigned to his fate, though, and after coming back ahead of schedule, found himself in a race against time to be ready for the Down IHC final against Carryduff in early October.
Under the stewardship of Antrim native Colly Murphy, who had led a resurgent O’Donovan Rossa to the 2021 Antrim SHC decider, Liatroim were a major force to be reckoned with – and Ruairi, alongside cousins Pearse Og and Conor, lived out their childhood dreams as they helped edge the Fontenoys from one triumph to another.
“We’d be fairly tight, the three of us… we’re basically brothers like brothers,” said the 25-year-old, whose father Jerome was a club and county stalwart towards the end of the Millennium, and was also part of Marty Mallon’s Down management team before Ronan Sheehan took the reins.
“You look up on the pitch and you know where they’re at. We spent many an hour out in the front garden together, playing away, plenty of wrecking and fighting matches but I think that helped get us where we are today.
“The stick was never out of the hand – it was the first thing you grabbed when you were going out the door. It was the same for daddy and [his brother] Pearse from their time, they would’ve been out, knocking about granny’s garden.
“It’s just in the blood.”
First Carryduff were conquered as Down crown was claimed but, after seeing off Castleblayney in their first Ulster outing, all bets were off.
Underdogs against Antrim champions Clooney Gaels, Liatroim upset the odds before getting the better of an experienced Middletown side in the provincial final on an unforgettable afternoon at Corrigan Park.
The journey ended at Kingspan Breffni a week before Christmas, Mayo’s Toureen too strong in that All-Ireland semi-final showdown. But, considering the entire year could so easily have passed him by, McCrickard admits it was “something special” to be a part of.
“Something just clicked when Colly came in with us at the start of the year - I can’t put my finger on it but the boys decided ‘right, heads down, let’s give this a good rattle’.
“We sort of knew we were going to push for the Down championship, and anything on top of that was going to be a bonus, but we knew there was potential to push on.
“Everybody bought in, and we had that team talk near enough every time we went out – we are the underdogs, we are sitting bottom of the pecking order here. We had nothing to lose. That’s what gave us a wee bit more fire in the belly.
“It was great to be a part of.”
And as one chapter closes, so another reopens.
Having become a mainstay of Sheehan’s side at full-back, missing out on one of the county’s most memorable years in recent times was tough to take.
With Division 2A survival the objective, Down surged up the table thanks to victories over Carlow, Meath, Westmeath and Kerry, the push for promotion brought to a halt when the Lake County gained revenge in the League decider at Semple Stadium.
Then, after a topsy-turvy Joe McDonagh Cup campaign, the Ardsmen saved their skins on a dramatic final day, a late surge seeing them past Meath and securing a third crack at the competition.
“It was a shock to some people how they went, but the boys put in serious effort,” said McCrickard.
“It’s not like it’s something that just happened - this has been ongoing and building since I’ve been involved in the senior hurling set-up. You can see that upward trajectory, Ronan and the management team are putting in serious effort, they’re getting the right men in.
“It really has paid off the last number of years.”
One of those men is a familiar face too, with Cork legend Diarmuid O’Sullivan returning to Sheehan’s backroom team after a stint with his native county alongside Kieran Kingston.
Having grown up watching ‘The Rock’ in action with the Rebels, McCrickard insists O’Sullivan’s presence has given everybody a lift ahead of the start of the League this weekend.
“It’s been phenomenal to work with him.
“As a young lad he was one of the players you’d have watched, my inspirations would have been Diarmuid, Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh.
“The connection he has with the players, whenever he speaks the whole changing room listens. All eyes are on him, it’s surreal almost. Everybody has that much respect for him.
“It’s going to be tough, we know that, but I can’t wait to get back out there.”
THE number one priority for Down will be exactly the same as it has been in the previous two National League campaigns – securing their place in Division 2A.
Having spent the guts of a decade trying to get there, too much progress has been made to slip back now. Last year’s campaign – finishing top before losing to Westmeath in the League final in Thurles - exceeded most expectations and allowed supporters to dream of rubbing shoulders with the Limericks and Kilkennys of this world, but for now the Ardsmen are only concerned with consolidating.
And, with only two home games this time around - as opposed to three last year - it is shaping up to be a tougher assignment, with Offaly in Sunday’s opener at Ballycran as tough as it gets at this level.
Boss Ronan Sheehan welcomes back Ruairi McCrickard after last year’s injury frustrations, as well as the dynamic Tim Prenter, but will be without experienced pair Eoghan Sands and Donal Hughes (both travelling).
The Ardsmen have also bid farewell to one of their most solid performers in recent decades, with Conor Woods deciding to walk away from the inter-county stage after a superb career in red and black.
However, there is plenty of exciting young talent coming through the ranks, and Down will be hoping the likes of Tom McGrattan, Finn Turpin, Niall McFarlane and Declan McCartney all can make their presence felt as the campaign unfolds.
Sunday, February 5: Offaly (h)
Sunday, February 12: Kildare (a)
Sunday, February 26: Carlow (a)
Sunday, March 12: Derry home (h)
Sunday, March 19: Kerry (a)