PADDY Murray was in no doubt. A few days after kicking eight points in Liatroim’s Down intermediate football final victory over Rostrevor, Pearse Óg McCrickard was at Croke Park being rewarded for his exploits in another code.
Claiming a spot in the Joe McDonagh Cup team of the year was an impressive feat considering Down had only managed to save their skins at the last, though it was McCrickard’s heroics that set the tone when Kildare were swept aside in that de facto relegation play-off.
And, as he prepared his side for an Ulster championship date with Teemore, then-Fontenoys boss Murray had no hesitation in drawing parallels with the most high-profile dual star Ulster has produced in recent times.
“Brendan Rogers is maybe somebody that springs to mind,” he told the Gaelic Life last November.
“In terms of Pearse Óg’s talents in hurling and in football, he’s an exceptional player,” added the Kilcoo man.
“I’ve seen most if not all footballers in Down and he’s definitely up there. If you had six forwards to line out on a field, he’s definitely in the top six in county Down.”
McCrickard’s brother Conor is currently part of the Down football panel under another Kilcoo man, Conor Laverty, having also played previously with the county hurlers.
The family name is synonymous with the caman code, yet all grew up loving big and small ball. Indeed, for Pearse Óg, it was never a case of one over the other, instead harbouring ambitions of wearing red and black for either - or both.
“Oh I did surely, that would’ve been my dreaming coming up,” said the 27-year-old, a teacher at St Malachy’s PS in Castlewellan.
“I just always felt that I was associated with hurling, and that probably impacted me – football-wise – somewhere along the line. I played U14, U16, minor, U21s with Down… when I was at the football, like Conor, I would’ve been solely focused on the football and then played hurling when the football was over.
“I don’t know if I just didn’t get the chance, or whether the demands of a footballer are a wee bit more than a hurler. I just can’t put my finger on it…”
Though he does believe one choice made during his St Colman’s College days may have given the impression his colours had already been nailed to the mast.
“I always go back to when I was in fifth year, I was asked onto the MacRory team, there was myself and Oisin O’Neill. He went to the MacRory, and I went to an Ulster combined colleges’ hurling team – anybody who was at the Allstar trials that year was into the trials for that team, and I ended up making it.
“I thought ‘this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent your province’, Mickey McCullough was the coach, and I felt it would’ve been silly of me not to give that a rattle.
“Oisin obviously went on to play with Armagh, so maybe something like that had a bearing.”
Yet still he got the call at the start of 2023, Laverty’s first year in charge, to come and have a crack at the footballers.
McCrickard jumped at the opportunity but, after finding himself on the bench in a 15 v 15 in-house game, it wasn’t long before he threw his lot in with the hurlers.
Even now, it is something that still appeals, though the way his career has evolved perhaps makes it unlikely at this stage.
“Oh, 100 per cent, I genuinely would. But I had surgery when I was 20 and it flares up a lot, I have to manage my load in terms of training and matches… I just feel that with football, you’re going to have to work your way up through the ranks.
“You probably couldn’t afford to be sitting out of a training session here or there to give your body a bit of a break, you’d have to be going all guns blazing, firing on all cylinders week in, week out to get your chance – and then you have to take that chance.”
Last year proved a difficult one for Down as they battled to secure survival in Division 2A and the Joe McDonagh Cup but, from a personal perspective, McCrickard was at the peak of his powers.
Having played a pivotal role in Liatroim’s Ulster intermediate title triumph, McCrickard hit the ground running from the off.
“Everything just felt right...”
Handed free-taking duties midway through the League, he popped over the late leveller that saved Down’s skin against Derry in Ballycran, before producing a tour de force against Kildare in Hawkfield in the last game of the year.
And, as they face into the start of a new campaign in Portlaoise on Sunday, there are a few ghosts that need laid to rest.
Having yo-yoed between Divisions One and Two in recent years, Laois were always likely to present the stiffest test Down would face in last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup – but the 31-point loss, coming off the back of an opening defeat to Kerry, was tough to take.
“That hurt because the next morning you’re waking up and seeing about Laois recording their highest ever win, most goals scored, biggest score in a half – all these different stats were coming out that we were on the receiving end of.
“It took a week or two for us to say we didn’t want to be the whipping boys. The Kerry and Carlow games were about performances, but we always knew it was going to come down to the Kildare - thankfully we put in our best performance of the year and got to stay up.”
Now, with the likes of the Sands brothers – Eoghan and Daithi – in from the beginning of the League, and Donal Hughes and Danny Toner back in the fold, the Ardsmen start with a strong hand.
A restructure of the League sees the second and third placed sides in Division 2A face off in a semi-final for the right to face the table-topper, and McCrickard believes Down can force themselves into the fray.
“If you can get to a League semi-final, God only knows what happens that day, if you’re coming off the back of a few results, who’s to say you can’t get back to a League final this year?
“It definitely gives you more incentive.”