Ryan Murray – looking forward not back

An ACL injury put an end to Ryan Murray’s season, but the Antrim sharpshooter says he’ll do everything in his power to make it back in 2024, Niall Gartland reports…

IT’S no exaggeration to say that 2023 has turned out to be a bit of a write off for experienced Antrim forward Ryan Murray.

He lined out in their Division Three opener against Offaly but a quad problem meant that his playing time clocked out at a shade under 100 minutes across the entirety of the remainder of the league.

Worse was to follow in the championship. He managed 45 minutes in their disappointing Ulster Championship defeat to Armagh, and that was that – he sustained an ACL injury in a club game for Lamh Dhearg prior to the Tailteann Cup and it could be another six months before he takes to the field again.

It’s a frustrating enough period. His other sporting love is golf and that’s been placed on the backburner, and he also missed out on Antrim’s surge to the semi-finals of the Tailteann Cup, where they gave a good account of themselves in Croke Park against the eventual champions, Meath.

That said, Murray recognises the folly of getting too disheartened about the whole thing and his progress post-surgery has been grand.

“I did my cruciate about ten weeks ago now. I was playing up in Creggan with my club, and it was a movement I’d probably done a million times playing football.

“But whatever way I twisted my knee, I ruptured my ACL and did a partial tear of my MLC.

“I got surgery six weeks ago and it’s going dead on so far. The first few weeks were slow and painful but I’m moving more freely now and I’m able to get into the gym and do more rehab.”

He continued: “It’s unfortunate but you can’t get too down about it, it’s part of playing. I’ve been lucky enough, I’ve been playing away for 11 years for club and county at senior level and haven’t had any serious injuries, just a few hamstring and muscle issues.

“This year has been unlucky, I picked up a quad injury at the start of the league, then I did the knee, both on the left side. You try to connect these things and wonder if it’s connected but there’s no point wrecking my head about it, it’s about looking forward now.”

The Antrim footballers had their best championship run in years, taking the Tailteann Cup to their bosoms, eventually bowing out at Croke Park to Colm O’Rourke’s Meath. Murray didn’t just pack his bags and go home after sustaining his season-ending injury so he still felt very much part of the squad.

“I was still very much involved, I was at all the games and around the changing room. Before getting surgery I was still doing a right bit of rehab, so I was with the physios and strength and conditioning guys at training.

“Andy McEntee (pictured) and the rest of the management team were about, and personally it was still good to be involved. I haven’t been to Croke Park often in my career so that was a good experience, even though I obviously wished I was still playing.”

It wasn’t what you might characterise as a trademark Antrim season of modern times. More often than not in the decade past they bowed out in the first round of the qualifiers, but this time around they built up momentum in the group stages of the Tailteann Cup and there was a real feel-good factor about the team.

Murray commented: “In days gone we’d get a big game here and there in the Ulster Championship with a big crowd. Then we’d go into the qualifiers and might pick up a win or two before coming up against a big Division One side. It’s seen as a day out by others but for the team itself, it makes it difficult to build up momentum.

“That’s what I was hoping would change with the Tailteann Cup and you could see this year through defeating teams around the same level, we built up momentum. The team had more time together, the management had more time with us, it was definitely a positive experience.

“We were still disappointed not to get over the line against Meath, we had ample chances to win that game. But it was Andy’s first year in with us, we stayed in Division Three, got to the semi-finals of the Tailteann Cup, so the building blocks are in place going forward.”

Another positive of the year that’s been was the impact of young and relatively unheard of lads who more than made their mark on the starting team. In discussions about Antrim over the last decade, the usual names get bandied about – something that has annoyed Murray personally even though he’s one of them – and it bodes well for the future that there’s a new brigade coming through.

“It’s maybe something that’s annoyed me over the years. The media will chat about how Antrim are without x, y and z – the same names get thrown about all the time.

“This year there were players who featured in league and championship who weren’t even particularly known within the county itself, but Andy and the management were more than happy to throw the lads in when their chance came up.

“We showed towards the end of the year that we have a strong panel. The likes of Dominic McEnhill shot the lights out, Cathal Hynes came in for a game at midfield and kept his place, the Finnegan brothers hadn’t played county football before and they were playing for us, so it definitely bodes well going forward.”

As for his injury, it’s impossible to rush these things but Murray has set himself a target of returning in time for a possible Division Three final appearance next year.

“The way ACL injuries are, there’s usually a set in stone period of nine months from getting your surgery so that would take me up to the middle of April.

“With the league being a bit earlier now than in the past, it’s leaving it tight.

“But I’ve got my goals set and I’ll be doing everything in my power to get back playing. Once you take a bit of time out and you’re injured, you realise how much you actually enjoy playing, so there’s a sense of hitting the reset button.

“Hopefully the lads will have us in a position to play in an extra league game than everything else and I’d be setting my sights on getting back for that.”

Murray also has no choice to sit out his club Lamh Dhearg’s championship campaign. Their senior footballers have got off to a strong start in the championship, but they’re not the only show in town in the club as they field right across the codes.

“There’s been a big push in recent years,we started up camogie this year. My niece Robin Murray played the other night when the ladies won the Division Two title, they went unbeaten all year and they’ve been promoted into Division One now.

“The ladies and the committee set a goal to put more energy into things and it’s paid off, we now have our senior ladies and men’s footballers in Division One.

“Where we’re located, we’re not quite in the city, not quite in the country either. We’re on Hannahstown Hill as you head out to Glenavy and Crumlin when leaving Belfast.

“Even some of the other lads in the county aren’t quite sure whether to call us city boys or culchies. It’s nice to have our own sort of identity, I feel it’s a special club but I suppose everyone says that about their own club.”

Murray pocketed a senior championship medal with Lamh Dhearg in 2017 but they haven’t really pushed on in the intervening years, though they did reach another final in 2019, losing after a replay to standard-bearers Cargin.

“We’ve always been at senior championship level and that’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on, and have always been competitive since I started playing.

“Coming out of minor we were up against a really strong St Gall’s side and we all know what they went on to achieve.

“We were knocking on the door and came up a bit shy, then we got the championship in 2017 which we thought was a bit overdue. We probably rested on our laurels a bit thinking another one was just around the corner.

“On the whole Antrim is getting more and more competitive, Cargin have been dominant in recent years but the likes of ourselves and Creggan have picked up a championship and others are knocking on the door. It’s a much more competitive landscape than in the past.”

All being well, Murray will be back playing again next year. But time will tell whether he’ll still be around for the long-awaited redevelopment of Casement Park, in theory due to be finished in 2025. There’s nothing he’d love more, however.

“The Casement Park thing gets a bit of momentum for a while, is the chat of the place then seems to die off a bit.

“It’s tricky to motivate yourself to think it’s definitely going to happen though there have been some positives in the last while. The chat of the Euros might get a bit more energy behind it.

“When you’re getting to my stage of the career, having turned 30, sometimes you need those extra incentives to keep you ticking over.

“The last time I played in Casement was in 2013 against Monaghan in the Ulster Championship, it’s over 10 years ago now. I’ve had a whole playing career really of not playing there.

“I’d love to be able to play in it again. I work as a civil engineer and to have a stadium on my doorstep of the scale of Casement would be unreal for the whole area.”

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