Faith paying off for McCluskey
Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30
If life had have worked out differently almost 20 years ago, Ryan McCluskey might have had a career in German soccer, rather than becoming the second-longest serving player in modern-day Gaelic football.
As a schoolboy, McCluskey was on the books of Arminia Bielefeld in the Rhineland, a town that is twinned with his native Enniskillen.
However, youth terms were not enough to tempt a 16-year-old who had grown up between the two points of his Derrin Road homeplace and Brewster Park, 300 yards away.
"Even though I enjoyed certain parts of it, I struggled the rest of the time. I missed home. If it had worked it would have been brilliant to take the chance of full-time football," McCluskey recalls now.
"But the language was the hardest barrier. It turned me off and I was just too young, at 16."
He still retained a love for soccer and weighed in for spells here and there with Cliftonville, Portadown and Ballinamallard.
In 2007, he played in the Irish Cup final for Dungannon against Linfield, but since then he has earned his reputation as a player known for his longevity, still performing to a high standard, having turned 34 the week after Fermanagh beat Antrim the Ulster quarter-final.
"It's nice to have been able to play at county level for so long. It's something that I have fairly enjoyed, but there were a few years out too when I played a bit of soccer," the Enniskillen Gaels man points out.
"You hear so much bad publicity about players over-training, the fact they have no life and all that. It's something that I have really enjoyed, I have to say. Nobody ever put a gun to my head and forced me to do it.
"I have spent my life doing it, giving that commitment, but it's something I have enjoyed. Why shouldn't you enjoy being the best you can be? You work with so many health professionals and specialists in this field as well, it's been great."
His career has gone on for 14 years now but he has still no medals to show for it. That's not to say that ambition does not burn within.
"When you are playing at this level you do have goals and you do have targets," he reveals.
"Players can come out and say they don't have one eye on winning an Ulster Championship at the start of the year. But I think they are lying, and they are only fooling themselves.
"It's the same for every county. We set out at the start of the year to work as hard as any side and that is your first target for the year."
Achieving all their targets has brought Pete McGrath's side to the Ulster semi-final against Monaghan on Sunday in Breffni Park, a game that 'Clucker' is relishing.
"It is a massive game, it would be fantastic to get to an Ulster final again," he said. "That would be something special. If would be a chance to leave 2008 (when they lost to Armagh after a replay in the final) behind us."
Talk of 2008 brings us naturally to Malachy O'Rourke, Fermanagh's manager that year, and the first county manager to re-cast McCluskey out of the tight-marking corner-back mould, and into the creative, graceful conductor at centre-back.
McCluskey was particularly grateful for the switch, which apart from adding years to his career, he points out: "Meant I could touch the ball more than twice in the game!
"He did a great job with ourselves as well and nearly led us to an Ulster title. I will never forget that. I am grateful for everything he did for us.
"He definitely gave us a bit more added belief and made us think that it really was possible."
And his admiration extends to O'Rourke's support staff.
"It would be unfair to just highlight Malachy. He had the likes of 'Dropsy' (Leo McBride) in training us, Peter Leonard worked behind the scenes as well. Everybody that was involved that year added something to it.
"We know we have that ahead of us in the semi-final; he will have left no stone unturned with Monaghan, as he has proved over the last few years, and we are facing a massive task as underdogs. But it's something we are looking forward to."
Perhaps he doesn't have that many chances left. Maybe he deserves one last go.