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McCluskey's remarkable longevity a rarity in the modern game

By Declan Bogue

When Donegal captain Michael Murphy made his way up the Clones steps to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup in June, one Fermanagh player stayed close to the back of the dugout and looked on longingly: Ryan McCluskey.

That he didn't get playing on that day came as no surprise.

In the first league game of the year, Fermanagh were in trouble with a Wexford revival gaining traction, before manager Rory Gallagher sprung McCluskey from the bench.

Around Brewster Park, the voice of the man brought up only a couple of hundred yards away could be heard booming out instructions to the players around him as he stymied the Wexford flow and secured two points.

It was the last time he played for his county, a reoccurrence of a hip injury leaving him unable to play at that level, no matter how much he wanted to.

Retirements nowadays are mostly announced through Twitter and, when McCluskey's was posted on Monday, there was a certain inevitability to it.

Most of the tributes noted that he was criminally overlooked for an All-Star in 2004 and 2008. But his performances seldom dipped anyway as he re-invented himself from tight-marking corner-back to controlling centre-back and finally as a sweeper.

He was the longest-serving inter-county player, first appearing on a subs' bench for the county in 1999. To put it into context, his county career spanned 20 seasons. In that time, Fermanagh had nine different managers.

Careers with longevity normally have a good reason for it. Sean Cavanagh played under just two different county management teams and his career finished with a truckload of medals and personal awards.

McCluskey didn't even win a league medal, and was perhaps unfortunate that the run of success enjoyed by Enniskillen Gaels came at the start of his career, with aging players pointing out that as a young man, you don't tend to savour these triumphs as you should.

Careers such as his are not appreciated and, at times, the Fermanagh support did not appreciate him.

Instead of lauding his composure on the ball, the support would howl for it to be kicked long.

What cannot be disputed is the changes that have come to the game since he first came onto the county panel.

Twenty seasons. Could a career ever last that long again?

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