Monday 24 June 2019

'I had 50 staples holding my head together - it would have been bananas'

Ryan McCluskey. Photo: Sportsfile
Ryan McCluskey. Photo: Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Unless he is showing you and urging you to look closely, you won't see it.

But above his two ears, a scar gouges through his hair, heading up to the crown of his head. His left eyebrow is ever so slightly raised to accommodate the steel plate that resides in Ryan McCluskey's forehead.

It was just a routine training match in May, the pace getting faster as the 2012 Ulster Championship approached, when he collided with a Fermanagh team-mate in training. His frontal sinus plate was shattered.

The surgeons could not enter the area through his eyebrow, with bone and matter floating in the area. So they cut the frontal bone of his skull, opened his head like it was on a hinge and inserted the plate. And despite all that, he still wanted a piece of the 2012 championship.

"I had a mad notion on my birthday. It was the 2nd of June and we were playing Cavan on the 3rd of June," he recalls.

"The qualifiers were two weeks later. I was back on the pitch on the Tuesday night, but with the multiple medications I was on, I had a mad view I was going to throw on a 'Petr Cech head cap' to play. It was never going to happen as I had 50-plus staples holding my head together. It would have been bananas."

He was 32 then. His mother Noreen and other family members urged him to give up Gaelic football.

"She wanted me to knock it on the head - no pun intended!" he laughs. And here he is now, 36 years young, 37 by the time championship rolls round.

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The last man standing, longest-surviving county footballer, and the last to have been named on a county panel in the last century.

And not from a county that have challenged year in and year out, but from the peaceful backwater of Fermanagh, operating in Division 3 and away to Westmeath this weekend. In a world of his contemporaries saying they just can't take the inter-county life anymore, he is a remarkable specimen.

Looking at him, with his body fat ratio of under 12pc, recently married to Donna and his daughter Eva Rose at home, the only obvious question to ask is… Why?

"I love it. I love the sport. I have nearly become institutionalised by the whole thing. But I enjoy the routine. I enjoy the fact that you are never going to get another platform in an amateur level, to be the best physically, mentally and medically.

"I suppose I wasn't good enough to get that chance to go away at soccer, (he spent years playing Irish League for Cliftonville, Dungannon Swifts and others) but to get that opportunity to play at this level is brilliant. I love all that.

"It has helped me build a bit of a profile for work, in terms of lifestyle off the pitch as well. It would be something I would find hard to take myself away from."

He's sitting in the brand new premises of 'Focus Recovery', his business venture in Enniskillen that launched this week, with ice baths, recovery trousers and foam rollers everywhere. People have been good to him.

MFC Sports have given him uniforms. County team-mates and soccer players from another former soccer club, Ballinamallard, have been in to freshen up their legs. But he is good with people, too. It is hard to imagine any player who has given more to the cause of their county, but given his origins, a symmetry applies.

Growing up in the Cornagrade Estate, he only had to look out his window to see Brewster Park, and wonder if sisters Caroline, Theresa, Jackie or Marion were going to be playing camogie, or his big brother Stevie would be engaged in football or hurling down below that day.

On big championship days he sneaked his way through a gap in the fence to gain entry, but if the fence was patched he might stand with his late father, Oliver, on the hill to watch the action unfold. His mother, Noreen, has been a fixture in Brewster Park, helping out for decades.

"Dad had very little interest in football, I think that's because Mum might have taken his interest and was that involved as well with the Gaels as well. And still doing it. Giving off about doing it, but still doing it the whole time!" he laughs again.

McCluskey had spent years working for the Devenish Partnership, which provided vital services for the people of Cornagrade and Kilmacormick, a designated area of deprivation.

"People might look down on others for being from there. They shouldn't because there are a lot of good people from the area, who have worked damn hard to contribute as much as anyone else to society and everything else that is going on."

He wouldn't put himself in that group, but he's already given over 20 years to his county.

Twenty years, and counting.

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