Footballers' Lives with Ryan Catney: 'Stephanie saw the blood and bone and she was distraught.'
In the latest of our popular Footballers' Lives series, Cliftonville ace Ryan Catney discusses battling back from a horror double leg break, how he was inspired by Brendan Rodgers when a youth player at Reading and looks back on the Reds' back-to-back titles.
Q. What is your earliest football memory?
A. Playing in the Twinbrook estate, hitting the ball against a wall with nets painted on it. I let my kids go out now and I prefer them to do that than sit in with their iPads. I used to come home from school and then go out and kick a ball around. I played for Donegal Celtic in my early teenage years and they had a good youth set-up. Our age group won leagues and you can name an Irish League team from west Belfast. I went to Reading for three years after that and then when I came back from England I joined Lisburn Distillery under Paul Kirk, then got a move to Cliftonville.
Q. The double leg break you sustained at Crusaders in January was horrific. What happened at Seaview?
A. A couple of seasons ago I hurt my shoulder and was out for six weeks but it's been plain sailing until this one. This was a double compound fracture, both bones, the tibia and fibula, were snapped completely in half and the bone pierced the skin. I didn't know how serious it was. I thought it was my shin pad hanging out and I felt I would be back up after having a rest. The physio explained to me that it was my bone, not my shin pad hanging out. I didn't feel anything. I must have been the only person in the ground who didn't hear the crack. In the away changing room I could see the leg was straight and the foot was pointing at three o'clock. I honestly didn't feel any pain, obviously there was adrenalin there with it being a north Belfast derby. There was no excruciating pain, the boys have said I was talking to them on the pitch. Joe Gormley (Cliftonville striker) was with me in the changing room and he's a man of few words. I asked him was it bad? And he nodded his head. Marty Donnelly played the hospital pass and I keep him going about it. You would have expected better from Marty, one of the best passers I've played with!
Q. From your perspective was it a late, mistimed challenge on Crusaders defender Howard Beverland with no malice involved?
A. No, there was no malice on my part. I've heard rumours that I've tried to do this and that but I just went for the ball like I always do in every game. I was a second late, Howard got to the ball before me. If I was going in to harm someone, my studs would have been up. In the images you can see my studs pointing down. I don't get caught up in it too much. I've made 100 of those tackles in my career, two players went into a challenge at full pelt and there was no pulling out of it.
Q. There's been no correspondence with Howard since the incident, how do you feel about that?
A. I don't know what his thinking is, you'll need to ask him. I've heard a few snide remarks and he obviously thinks I tried to break his leg. I don't know why, he's the only one who thinks that. I don't understand where he's coming from, I'm the one who came off worse. If breaking his leg was my intention the challenge would have been different.
Q. You were in hospital for three days after the incident and had a few comforting calls, tell us about that.
A. I was trying to be positive and not let the injury get me down. I kept thinking 'I'll be back'. Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter came up to the hospital the day after when he didn't have to. I've thanked him for that. David Jeffrey, Ballymena United manager, called when I was high on morphine! I had numerous calls from players, team-mates and ex team-mates and messages from fans from clubs you wouldn't perhaps expect like Linfield, Glentoran, Portadown, Glenavon and Crusaders. Crues fans sent lovely letters to the Social Club offering best wishes. I also spoke to former Glentoran midfielder Scott Young about his experiences of a similar injury and he encouraged me to fight on.
Q. How did your family deal with the shock of your horror injury?
A. I've three boys, Mark is eight years old, Lochlainn has just turned three and baby Laochra arrived last month. They are keeping me busy! Lochlainn was at the match with his mummy and they were in the stand where the injury happened. Stephanie saw everything and was with me in the changing room afterwards, she saw the blood and bone and was distraught. Gerard Rooney at GymCo has helped me on the physical side but if it wasn't for Stephanie and the kids on the mental side I might have struggled. That's who I am trying to get back for, the kids who haven't really seen me playing. Stephanie helped me with the cage (on the leg) and with cleaning. If it wasn't for my family, I don't know where I would be mentally. They have always been supportive even though sometimes I'm sure I have been a nightmare to Stephanie, making her bring me to the gym. She was pregnant too. Mark plays for Cliftonville under-9s, he's a different player than his dad, he's a silky ball player, trying the tricks and flicks. I watch him train and play while Lochlainn is about to start. The wee one is hyper. I work for Shorts while Stephanie is cabin crew with easyJet. We got married last May at St Teresa's on Glen Road and there were only about 60 people at it. It was very small, not extravagant and we met through friends. Now I've been injured I am going to the gym and Stephanie hasn't seen a lot of me but she wants me to be fit again, you have to make some sacrifices.
Q. In your darkest moments, did you ever fear your career could be over?
A. I put it to one side and thought this has happened, I have to deal with it and take it in my stride. The injury happened, I can't go back and change it and I wouldn't as I would make the same challenge again. It won't change me as a player. I've always focused on coming back. I've turned 30 and I'm hoping to be back. You can never be certain when, I'll see how the rehab goes. I have to go back for another operation on November 7 to take a bit of bone from my hip and put it in my leg with a plate and place a pin in the fibula which hasn't healed as quickly as we hoped. The first tackle will let me know what my leg's like but the whole mentality is I've got to come back. Gerard Rooney has kept me on the straight and narrow, he's helped me with the rehab work. He has taken me under his wing and helped me with my diet. I just need to get back to prove to myself that I can overcome this. The game goes on and it's tough watching the boys train and get the new gear. You aren't part of it. Sometimes the doubts do come in, that's natural but I try to stay positive and believe I will be back. The club gave me a two-year deal with a testimonial in my second year and they have been great with me. I've another year on top of this one and that's security for me.
Q. Do you think referees are quick to punish tough tacking midfielders in the modern game?
A. At a higher level it's largely a non-contact sport. At Irish League level you can get away with a more aggressive tackle. It's probably going out of the game a bit but for some players that is their game. You can't take that out of some players, they give it and take it. Referees are more cautious and you can't be overly aggressive though. I can see why managers get frustrated!
Q. How did the move to Reading come about?
A. Playing for Donegal Celtic I then went on trials for about 10 different teams and I was going to sign for Leicester City. I had been to Reading when Brendan Rodgers, the current Celtic manager, was there and I thought I had a better chance there, Brendan sold it to me. He was amazing, even then. You didn't know what he was going on to achieve but coaching wise his sessions were immaculate, top class. He did demos and he had a wand of a left foot when he did the first one. He was brilliant. I knew he could be a great coach and it was great to see him manage one of the biggest clubs in the world in Liverpool and then enjoy success with Celtic. He was ambitious, just wanting to be the best. He was always good to me, picking me up from the airport, dropping me home to the digs, he was a bit of a chauffeur to me. I was 16 when I went over and coming from Northern Ireland, Brendan understood me. I was nearly three years there. Brendan left to go and coach at Chelsea and I was playing in the reserves.
Q. You went to Reading at a young age, how difficult was that?
A. It is young, I don't think you can judge a player from the ages of 16 to 18, you have late developers too like Liam Boyce. It's tough leaving your home and friends, speaking personally it is a bit young to try something like that. Players like Joe (Gormley), Boycie (Liam Boyce) and Stuart Dallas played in the Irish League and it has done them no harm. It's a man's league and it toughens them up and they have done well.
Q. How did you feel when you returned home?
A. A guy there wanted me to go on trials with a few clubs in London but I was released and only 18, I felt like returning home and when you do that it can be difficult to get across again. I've no regrets about it. I tried it but it wasn't meant to be. I joined the Whites (Lisburn Distillery) and it was a good period for me.
Q. How did the move to Cliftonville materialise?
A. I had a falling out with Paul (Kirk) and my contract was coming up. Francis Murphy was joining Cliftonville in 2007 and Eddie (Patterson) brought me in for a few sessions and it developed from there.
Q. What has been your best moment at Cliftonville?
A. The trophies are the highlight, the one that sticks out is the first League Cup win against Crusaders, we won 4-0 in the final. I always remember George McMullan saying afterwards that was the monkey off our backs and we could go on to bigger and better things. He was 100 per cent right. It was a special period for us with a great team. You look at the Scannell bothers (Ronan and Chris), George, Barry Johnston, Joe Gormley, Liam Boyce, Marc Smyth, there were great partnerships all over the pitch and Conor Devlin was in goal. I'm still playing so I'm not one for looking back but in the future we will be viewed as one of the best Cliftonville sides. When I retire it will be nice to reflect on.
Q. Are you thrilled to see Liam Boyce get his move to full-time football and prosper?
A. Absolutely, he's the best I've ever seen and played with. It's just natural talent with him, he has the biggest legs I have ever seen, it's scary. He wasn't even fit and he was the best player in our league. He's injured at the moment at Burton but with the full-time training he is so much better. He's just a top class footballer.
Q. If Boycie was the best player you played with, who has been your toughest opponent?
A. There have been a few but you tend to forget about players. One that always sticks out for me is midfielder Paul McAreavey at Linfield from 2006 to 2008. That period he was untouchable, a box to box performer and he could tackle too.
Q. Among your biggest disappointments with the Reds were the Irish Cup Final losses to Crusaders (2009) and Glentoran (2013). How tough were they to take?
A. The 2013 one was the most depressing. We were going for the treble after winning the league and League Cup. We were 1-0 up at half-time but we won the league too early and the boys will hold their hands up and say they were on the drink for six weeks! Boys weren't playing and we lost our edge going into it. We let ourselves down. My injury this year was a personal disappointment but as a team that was the lowest moment for me. Had we won the Cup we would have solidified our reputation of being one of the greatest Cliftonville sides. It just wasn't meant to be.
Q. Barry Johnston will not be happy if you don't give him any credit - your partnership with him was one of the great Irish League midfield combinations. How good a player was he?
A. He was brilliant. We were once told by Eddie Patterson that we couldn't play together and were too similar but Bressy (Tommy Breslin) came in and the partnership blossomed. He was just a brilliant partner, he was everywhere, all over the pitch chasing everyone. Trying to bring him back into the middle was a challenge, he was a nightmare. We bounced off each other and we backed each other up. I'll always remember when we squared up during the warm up down at Dungannon. It was a keep ball session, something happened and we had each other by the throat and I think we came to blows. The boys were looking at us thinking 'what are you doing' but nothing was said and we went on to beat Dungannon. We shook hands and forgot about it, we were winners, wanting to win. He's been my best midfield partner and winning the titles with him was brilliant.
Q. The squad that won back to back titles was exceptional, what was so special about that team?
A. It was a squad of players who clicked and you can't replace that quality of player. There was that togetherness and everything stayed in the changing room. Everyone hated us and we hated everyone. It was that mentality. Bressy said just go out and play with no fear. He's a football man, he wanted us to play good football. It was good cop, bad cop with him and Minto (coach Peter Murray). Tommy was softly spoken and timid while Minto was kicking down walls.
Q. Cliftonville boss Barry Gray made you captain, how did that make you feel?
A. That was a nice touch. I think loyalty played a part. We had a meeting and he said you're the type of person that represents the club, you know it inside out and it's a huge honour to be captain.
Q. Who was your favourite footballer growing up?
A. Roy Keane, always was. He was a midfielder with a huge passion for the game, he was my idol.
Q. What advice would you give to a young player hoping to make it?
A. Hard work is crucial. I try to instil that into my children, you can have the ability but hard work beats talent. You must live the right way and apply yourself in the right way.
Q. Do you ever see yourself playing for another club?
A. I don't. I have another year and a half with the Reds and I want to get back on the pitch and do what I am good at. If it ever came to it, I don't see myself playing for anyone else. I'll be 32 at the end of this contract. I'm more focused on returning to playing again and then we'll take it from there.
Date of birth: February 17, 1987
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Donegal Celtic, Reading, Lisburn Distillery
Cliftonville record: 359 appearances, 11 goals