Brian McCrystal’s winding road to Rás

Bryan McCrystal has shown himself a talent on two wheels and as a triathlete in recent years, but it was on the soccer pitch that the Dundalk man first created shockwaves. Ahead of the Rás, he spoke to Brian Canty.

Bryan McCrystal is the kind of athlete you just love hearing stories about.

In no particular order, he’s been an underage hurdles and high-jump national champion, has played soccer professionally with Leeds United, competed in triathlons for Ireland and is currently one of the best domestic amateur cyclists, with a truckload of silverware in all sports to prove his prowess.

The Dundalk man, 34, has two young kids and an understanding wife, but still has the ambition to be the best at whatever he chooses to put his mind to. For the time being, that’s cycling.

“I’m motivated to win. Nothing beats winning. And if anyone tells you different, he’s lying,” he says, days before one of his biggest ever tests in the An Post Rás which starts tomorrow.

“Winning motivates you, you have to be hungry. If that desire to win doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning there’s something wrong.”

His career in the dog-eat-dog world of professional soccer lasted just four years, but it’s a time he looks back on with many fond memories.

“I wasn’t good enough to make it,” he says rather matter-of-factly.

“I got to England and I got a pro contract on my own merits. I was spotted here in Ireland and I went over there when I was 16. But the time came, two or three years went by, and I didn’t show enough to make it to the next level, which was a regular starter with the reserves and into the first team at Leeds.

“I was probably good enough for what I actually did, which was the League of Ireland and Irish league up North, which is a good standard, but I was never good enough for the top flight in the Premier League.” Acceptance.

While he was at Leeds, McCrystal played in the big grounds, earned between £500 or £600 a week, lived a great life, bought a house back home and racked up quite a few Irish underage caps along the way.

Things looked bright and being a tall and imposing centre-half with natural leadership qualities, many viewed him as someone who could do a job for the national team down the line, like his fellow Louth man and friend, Gary Kelly, who was also at Leeds at the time.

It did McCrystal’s chances no harm either that David O’Leary was in charge, while O’Leary’s predecessor George Graham was also a fan. But the big man wasn’t sure how much he wanted to be there.

His form dipped, he was in and out of the team and before he knew it, on his way to lowly Exeter City. Just like that. And from being on the crest of a wave, he came crashing down to earth when even that deal fell through.

“I went around for about three months looking for a club and I had no offers. Then, all of a sudden, I got an offer from Exeter. They were in the Conference, the deal was done, I went to the house, carted all my stuff in the car down there.

“I played against West Ham in a pre-season friendly and was ready to sign the next day and all of a sudden there were budget problems and they didn’t have enough money to pay me. I was offered something but I couldn’t live on it so I just came home. I was sick of it. I was 21 then.

“It was a combination of poor wages and not really wanting it enough.

“The wages were around £300 or £400 quid a week, it wasn’t worth it. If I really wanted it deep down, in my gut, I’d have made it work, but I didn’t. I was probably looking for an excuse to come home at the same time. I had offers to go out on trial with teams in America but it never really kind of appealed to me. I never really got to the stage where I was going to every club and ringing them up. I was kind of thinking, ‘if I’m good enough I’ll get something handy enough,’ but I wasn’t good enough.”

Asked what his strengths were, McCrystal doesn’t doubt he had ability, just not enough.

“I was a centre-half who could play. I didn’t just hoof it up the field. I could play, there was a bit about me, I could pass. But I didn’t have enough pace or speed, that was probably my biggest problem.

“I was a good leader on the pitch as well, I could talk, throw a few fucks. I wasn’t a hard man by any means, I’d never go out with that image to batter fellas, but that was probably my mistake. Back then, we were told if you wanted to be a centre-half you do the simple things right and that’s get it, get out, kick it and don’t let the striker do anything. I probably wanted to show how good I was and I wasn’t that good, but a lot of kids do that. They want to get the ball on their chest, they want to put it on the ground, and they want to spray a nice pass 20 yards away, instead of getting it down and playing it five yards.”

The decision to come home was as quick as it was easy to make, but he still looks back on some incredible days, days he dreamt about growing up.

“We had no expenses, no rent or food or anything. We didn’t have one bill, no doctor, clothing, or boots. Anything we made was spending money. I probably had my head screwed on; I saved the money and I bought a house. I got paid out of my last year on my contract and I bought a house, a bog-standard three-bed semi-detached place and I was only 21.

“I’ve no regrets about anything I did, like quitting so early. People think I quit because I was injured but that’s not true. I quit because I stopped enjoying it, I was coming back from injury and breaking down a lot. I was playing with Newry City at the time and the manager came in and just didn’t like me, he didn’t rate me and I wasn’t getting a game, but I loved training. I fucking trained five days a week, twice with the club and the rest on my own. I loved it, loved it. And that’s why I’ve probably taken to endurance sports, because I’d have gotten pissed off in training if lads weren’t working hard enough, that’s the way I am.

“But I had some great days; playing over at Leeds rubbing shoulders with the best. They were a serious team then. It was a bubble we were in, a false life, it wasn’t real, you know? That whole experience being a professional soccer player, getting my few caps with Ireland, going abroad to places like South Africa with the Youths, incredible.

“But I stopped playing because I just didn’t like playing anymore. It wasn’t doing it for me; I was going to training and hating it. I was still getting a couple hundred pounds a week, you’d be getting that part-time easy. Money didn’t do it for me though, it was the love of the game and that’s why I quit it. “I quit in April 2007 and I signed up for the Dublin Marathon the following October and I just started running, just to get into something and the following year I got into triathlon.”

When he took up running, he started winning races; when he took up triathlon he started winning there too but it has been cycling where he’s made the most impact. And in 2014 he had something of a breakout year by winning a leg of the Kerry Group Rás Mumhan, arguably the hardest one-day race in the Des Hanlon Memorial, while he also claimed three other notable victories.

“People ask is it hard work or is it talent but I think it’s a bit of both,” he explains of his winning formula.

McCrystal spearheads a team of fellow amateurs in the Rás which starts in Dunboyne tomorrow and of the 200 riders who’ll start, around half will be like the Dundalk jeweller, in so far as they are not professional cyclists and better known as ‘county’ riders.

Since 2004, only a few county riders have won a stage of the Rás. Sam Bennett and Conor Dunne are two and they’re now riding professionally.

McCrystal knows the day of making a living from cycling are long gone but that isn’t dimming his ambition a jot.

“You need to work hard but you need a damn bit of luck to make that happen,” he said of his chances of winning a stage.

Asked which he prefers, his current or former life, he answers diplomatically;

“I could never say cycling or triathlon had it over soccer. It’s like two different lives but soccer gave me the best years of my life. I still have friends from it and that’s all I wanted to do growing up. People say to me; ‘imagine if you had been riding a bike at 15, how good you’d be’ but I had good times, I got to a good level in football, it doesn’t interest me and I’ve no regrets or nothing.

“Nobody rode a bike where I was growing up. The British cycling lads and Chris Hoy on the track, they went to the track because it was there and close to them. The same with Henry Shefflin in hurling, the local pitch is there and they’re immersed from a young age but there was no cycling where I was, so I’ve no regrets. Football would have given me the best years of my life, but cycling is something different and I love it.”


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