IN FOCUS: Kevin McCloy – Derry’s defensive rock

Not every county star burns brightest early in their career, but Derry’s Kevin McCloy took a late march to greatness. Michael McMullan went to meet him…

IF you are looking for a definition of a late developer, you’d do well to find a better example than Kevin McCloy.

Along with close friend Paddy Bradley, they were Derry’s last All-Stars after the Oaks danced with the Dubs in the summer of 2007. McCloy was pulled outfield by Conal Keaney and got on enough ball to pick up another man of the match award – even in defeat – on the way to cementing his All-Star.

An underage football career that offered nothing more than a paltry u-16 ‘B’ league is a million miles away from the exciting new Lavey revolution at the cutting edge in the top grades.

Last Thursday, McCloy, an engineer by trade, was at the epicentre of what will be Ireland’s biggest wind farm in between Crossmolina and Belmullet on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard where he spends part of his week on a jointly funded project between Bord na Móna and his employers ESB.

After the 200km journey home, the dinner was squeezed in before watching Lavey u-15s hit four goals on their way to another county final.

Pulling into the driveway last Friday, the first thing that strikes you is two sets of goalposts, with orange and black nets, at either side of the lawn. A cluster of cones tell you it’s a GAA house.

Kevin’s eyes dance with excitement as he speaks of his role coaching the u-7 team his sons Cillian and Rory are part of. Michael is with the u-11s and their daughter Cassie plays on the u-9 team his wife Cathy coaches.

It’s a picture painted in vibrant clubs across the land, but Kevin McCloy’s first step on the bottom rung of the development ladder was so different.

His father Michael passed away when he was just three months old, with his mother Marie left to raise for kids under the age of four.

“Times were tough growing up, it was tight going for her, but we got everything we needed,” Kevin begins.

“My mother was from Loughgiel, I wasn’t much of a hurler, but whatever I got came from the Glens.”

Behind the modesty of his prowess with the camán, Kevin holds four senior hurling medals and came close to Ulster glory with the wee ball. He was on the Derry hurling team that also chinned Offaly in their Ulster-winning season of 2000.

When the Mayogall school team needed ferried to blitzes, often it was Marie who answered the call lift and lay them.

There were no u-7s back in the day when his brothers would be driven to Lavey u-12 training, but Kevin was deemed too young. But even at that age, the persistence that took him to the pinnacle of the game was evident.

“I would’ve hidden in the boot of my mother’s car and unclipped it when we landed at Lavey pitch,” he laughed about his first sporting memory. “I was out too quick and she couldn’t get me back into the car again.”

It was the beginning and heading towards his teens, the 1991 All-Ireland winning team and Derry bringing home Sam Maguire two years helped instill an initial interest to aim for the top.

“In those days, you looked up at the lads up the road (his neighbours Henry and Seamus Downey), Johnny McGurk and all those guys…they were warriors of their time.

“I thought it was going to be like this all the time with Lavey and Derry going to be at the Holy Grail all the time, but as we found out that doesn’t happen every year.”

He was goalkeeper in his early years at St Patrick’s, Maghera, winning a D’Alton Cup medal between the posts before outfield. He turned down an invite to join the MacRory panel as a goalkeeper during fifth year before leaving to pursue his studies at Ballymena Tech.

His club career was lingering in the ‘B’ leagues growing up and he decided to park football after a back injury. His part-time concreting job was growing into a full week of work, providing a very welcome additional income to help.

By minor level, Dan McCloy and Tony McCormick coaxed McCloy back to football. He was still hurling at the time and was part of Lavey’s team to win the first ever Ulster Minor Club title.

“I decided to give it another lash,” he said of his football comeback. “I always said that in the back of my mind I wanted to play county minors and time was running out.”

With no MacRory Cup pedigree or a club team lighting it up, McCloy went under the radar of minor selectors.

Chiropractor Marie McElhinney eventually got to the bottom of the troublesome back injury, but he was on and off the senior football team during his first season, under John Brennan’s watch, in 1997. An ankle injury forced him out of their Ulster Club hurling series and a final defeat to Dunloy.

Paddy Crozier was central to McCloy’s stepping into the inter-county arena and he joined Henry Downey – who was still playing – in Lavey’s management ticket for 1998.

As Derry headed towards the National League final, McCloy remembers getting a call to report for his club debut, a feisty Easter Monday fixture with Ballinderry.

“I hadn’t got a look in earlier in the year,” McCloy remembers. “Being students, we were down in Dublin, on the lash, watching Derry and I got a phone call for the match the next day.”

After a night in the night spots of Dublin, it was up on the train the next morning for a starting berth at midfield.

“I had a right good go at it, it was a real baptism of fire and I went on from there,” he remembers.

After making his championship debut in a win over Newbridge, on a day Seamus Downey notched 1-8, McCloy retained his wing-back spot for a quarter-final with Glen.

Lavey were four points ahead at half-time but Enda Gormley was giving them trouble until McCloy was moved back to full-back. It closed the door and a Fergal P McCusker penalty was all the Watties had to offer in the second half.

“I was then always been branded as a number three,” McCloy said of the turning point in his career.

Goals from Collie McGurk and Fergal Rafferty saw Lavey overcome Ballinderry in the semi-final, but an injury to Henry Downey left them short in the final against a Bellaghy team making their first step towards a three in-a-row and Ulster glory.

Paddy Crozier had been around enough Derry underage teams to know McCloy ticked all the boxes needed to join the u-21 panel.

“I was reluctant to go because all the boys would’ve played minors and wondered who was this lad coming in,” McCloy admitted.

But once he secured a spot in the heart of the Derry defence, his performances did the talking for him and he fitted like a glove.

“We beat Armagh and I remember going into the Tyrone game with a couple of broken ribs,” said McCloy.

Physio Ann Boylan had “999 on speed dial” and was dubious of his involvement.

Derry prevailed but Ciaran Tavey’s semi-final exploits saw the Farney County on their way to the title. McCloy’s first county season was only a stepping stone. His display on Enda Gormley changed a path on its way to the top.

“At that stage I didn’t think I was good enough to play senior football for Lavey,” McCloy admits. “And there I was with Brian Scullion on one side of me, an All-Ireland winner. Henry Downey was in front of you, Johnny McGurk out beside him. This was stardom, with Brian McCormick up the line; you were playing with boys you idolised.”

When Eamonn Coleman took stock ahead of the 2001 season, a new full-back was prominent on his wish list.

McCloy’s stock had risen. Joe Gormley had a word in his ear at a wake one night, taking note of how he had marshalled his son, telling him the Derry number three jersey would soon be his. Neighbour Harry Boyle conveyed a similar message.

“When a couple of boys tell you that, your head gets a bit bigger but you don’t really believe it in your heart,” said McCloy, who just kept his head down.

Coleman was in Lavey one afternoon to run his eye over any potential call-ups and Kevin remembers it like it was yesterday.

“Young McCloy…come over here,” Kevin recalls, sitting at his kitchen counter, matching the former Derry manager’s Loughshore accent to a tee.

“You’ll come up the road for us, we need a number three,” Coleman continued.

McCloy accepted. It was a long way from hopping out of the boot of his mother’s car all those years ago to join Lavey u-12 training.

“There was the pre-Christmas league, so it was a baptism of fire going into that winter,” McCloy said.

Broken ribs and a punctured lung against Mayo forced him out of UUJ’s Sigerson winning squad and after losing weight, it was January before his Derry return.

Training alongside the Downey brothers demanding high standards in Lavey was one thing. County level was a massive step up again.

It was the days of the poorly lit, uneven, back pitch at Owenbeg. No paint on the goalposts, no ball stops and barely a ball in sight. It was the slog zone.

“There were men crawling off the pitch and I had never seen anything like this before,” McCloy outlines. “Going to Derry, you were playing against 25 or 30 of the best, so there was no let up.”

Being asked in by an icon like Coleman, Derry’s All-Ireland winning manager, McCloy threw everything at it.

While they weren’t “bosom buddies” McCloy had a lot of respect for his manager and his people skills. Everyone was treated differently, as they needed to be.

He compares it to GAA camps now, where the regimental plan is king. Players have to follow suit or don’t bother getting on the bus.

“Eamonn used to keep me behind after the odd training session in my first year,” said McCloy of those early months.

“McCloy…get over here,” he’d bellow at the tail end of a gruelling session. What had he done now?

“Your problem is son…you’re quick, but you can’t turn,” Coleman told him before spending 20 minutes working on his reactions.

McCloy stood with his back to his manager, reacting to balls being lobbed left and right with Coleman bellowing at him to get after the skidding leather the second it passed his shoulder.

“It felt a bit like Rocky when he was catching the chickens,” McCloy recalls. “You can imagine that after a training session with Damian Cassidy and Martin McElkennon, you are ready to drop off your feet, but if you look back on it, it was one of my weaker aspects.”

When the championship came, McCloy made his debut against Antrim, but was replaced by half-time in a game he has filed at the back of his memory bank.

“I was so disappointed going home that day…I thought that’s it, I was taken off and I’d blown my chance.”

By the time they headed to Clones to face Tyrone, the ‘AN Other’ announced at training was to give Niall McCusker every chance to recover from a knock.

On the Saturday night, McCloy picked up the phone and rang his manager, needing to know where he stood. Getting your mental preparation for afternoon on the bench is a world apart from standing in the firing line against the Red Hand attack.

“You just be ready…you just be ready, that’s what he kept on saying,” McCloy said of Coleman’s response.

His head was all over the place and there were no words exchanged when he filed past the management getting on the bus in Magherafelt the next morning.

When McCusker went off, Fergal Crossan was shuffled into the full-back. The other subs getting the nod ahead of him left McCloy in limbo as he watched Derry leak three goals in defeat.

He shot the breeze with fellow panelist Ronan Rocks that night over a pint in Bellaghy. With his inter-county future tossing and turning in his mind, he weighed up the first year of the Qualifiers and stuck to his guns of committing to the Derry cause.

By the time their rematch with Antrim in the ‘back door’ came around, Sean Marty Lockhart had been under the weather with flu all week and McCloy got the nod. He didn’t look back as Derry went on a journey to within minutes of an All-Ireland final as Matthew Clancy’s late goal quashed the county’s best chance of landing Sam since their historic summer of 1993.

“I lost a county final in ’98,” said McCloy, talking about his disappointing moments. He throws in a 2010 defeat at the hands of Ballinderry into the mix when they were almost home and dry, only to be sunk by two late goals.

“I got sent off late on along with Enda Muldoon…that was the toughest day with the club.”

SKIPPER AND BOSS…Paddy Crozier and Kevin McCloy celebrate league success in 2008

After captaining Derry to the 2008 National League, losing to Fermanagh and Barry Owens’ late goal was a sucker punch. However, 2001 and their All-Ireland exit is the number one regret.

A return to see Derry take on Galway this summer in Croke Park brought it all back. McCloy ranks Rory Gallagher’s side a “more rounded” team with a better structure, but that the 2001 crop had better players.

After beating Antrim, there were no big hopes, but things began to snowball with Coleman getting them revved up for a Tyrone rematch in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Going down on the bus, the atmosphere painted a picture of focus. The Derry mindset was right. Backward steps weren’t welcome. Within the first ten minutes, McCloy, Lockhart and Gareth Doherty’s names were in Pat McEnaney’s book.

“It was like dominoes in the full-back line. You just knew everyone was up for it, they were as much as us,” McCloy said.

There was always an edge to the Tyrone games, stoked by Coleman’s ability to know what buttons to push. He’d scour the bus and shuffle from seat to seat on the bus. A chat to test the temperature before getting a player primed and moving on to someone else.

Beating Tyrone set up a clash with Galway and on the eve of the game the discussion came around to match-ups with McCloy assigned the role of picking up Pádraic Joyce.

Sean Marty Lockhart was ahead of his time in terms of individual preparation, dishing out golden nuggets of Joyce’s locker of tricks.

“He was showing me the dummy, how he showed the ball,” McCloy said. “He had all the footage for anybody we were playing, all the forwards and the three subs that would come in.”

It worked a treat with McCloy holding him scoreless from play, but it was Galway’s unanswered tally of 1-6 in the final quarter that did the damage.

The salt in the wound was Joyce’s 10-point tally in the final after their smash and grab mission against Derry.

The Oakleafers reached the All-Ireland semi-final again in 2004, losing to Kerry, but as the years went past McCloy’s form continued to improve, culminating in an All-Star at the heel of 2007.

“There are certain years you feel you are in that groove. In 2005 I thought I was in good shape and playing well…2007 was the same,” he said of another summer building momentum in the Qualifiers.

It was a year that saw the passing of Eamonn Coleman and seven Tommy Freeman points sending Derry packing against Monaghan in Ulster.

Only 500 Derry fans turned up to Clones for the start of the Qualifiers, a one-point win over Armagh with a late Coilín Devlin winner.

McCloy was handed a role on Oisin McConville and kept him on the periphery of the game before curbing the aerial threat of Barry Moran in a win over Mayo at Celtic Park.

It was victory with a cost, with McCloy breaking a finger only to soldier on for the next round, a win over Laois in Breffni Park.

“I was just taping it together and then the hand started to swell,” he said. “I went to the hospital in Enniskillen and they didn’t let me home, they sent me straight to Altnagelvin.”

McCloy insisted any operation was put on hold until after their All-Ireland quarter-final.

“They told me my finger will fuse together and that’s the way it will be for the rest of my days with the risk of having to get it cut off,” he said of the medical advice.

“I was thinking that no matter what he was going to do to my finger, I was going to play. The operation took an hour and the knuckle had to be reconstructed it was that bad.”

With pins and screws in place, McCloy’s season appeared to be over.

“I came out of hospital in a bad state,” he recalls. But manager Paddy Crozier floated the suggestion of getting a custom made cast.

Missing a date with the Dubs in a Croker cauldron wasn’t an option. McCloy cut off the original plaster cast, took out the stitches and slipped on his new cast. With a pair of gloves and the finger tapped up, he’d be ready to rock.

McCloy hadn’t trained since the win over Laois, but he insisted to Crozier he’d be ready.

In the build-up, a reporter – after turning down a phone interview – travelled north to Lavey to meet him at Lavey pitch. He was sworn to secrecy about the Derry defender’s heavily bandaged hand. One mention in the press, and that would be the last interview.

McCloy enlisted the help of neighbour and former Derry Ladies senior star Mary Jo Boyle.

“It was mind over matter,” McCloy said. “I was sitting in her house and she was putting the acupuncture into the hand. I was hopping…the sweat was dripping off me.”

She gave the assurance that he’d be ready. It was down to a late fitness test in the car park of the team hotel in Castleknock. Could he catch a ball? The first two or three balls were dropped.

“For the next one, I knew I was going to have to catch the ball no matter how sore it was,” said McCloy.

The ball nestled in his clutches. The test was passed and he was in, despite the colour draining from his face with pain.

A concoction of painkillers came next. It was all about getting through the early minutes until the wall of noise from Hill 16 and adrenaline would take care of the rest.

Paddy Crozier had enlisted McCloy with picking up Conal Keaney, knowing he’d operate in a roaming role just ahead of the full-back line.

ROVING ROLE…McCloy picked up Conal Keaney in Derry’s 2007 clash with Dublin

“It was less hands on,” McCloy recalls. “It was one of those days that every ball seemed to land into me. I didn’t have to go for it in the air and didn’t have too much tackling or blocking to do.”

It was enough to secure another man of the match performance, even in defeat, on a day he felt Fergal Doherty should’ve been the recipient.

“Fergal put in a serious shift in the second half…he kept us together,” McCloy said. “When I watch it back, we had them rattled. Every time we missed a goal chance, it gave them another lift. We were cutting them open like cheese every time.”

It wasn’t to be and Derry, despite throwing every ounce of energy at the game, went up the road with nothing to show for it. McCloy’s journey was one that saw him grimacing with pain after a shoulder charge to prevent a goal.

Derry were hanging on when Mark Vaughan beat the rest of the cover along the end line, ready to square the killer pass.

“If I had missed him it was game over,” McCloy said of the challenge. “I think I put him into the front row and when I got up I was sore. I ripped all the muscles from the shoulder down into the groin and ended up eventually needing a double hernia operation.”

His performances were enough to convince the All-Star judging panel, with Paddy Bradley also getting selected after years of nominations.

“There was excitement going down the road. Big Fergal (Doherty) was nominated for one too and would’ve deserved it for his time with Derry,” McCloy said.

It was followed by a trip to San Francisco, which Kevin and Cathy joined into a holiday in Las Vegas.

He put injuries behind him to lead Derry to the National League final with a high-scoring win over Kerry in Parnell Park. It was fitting that Paddy Crozier was manager, given his recommendation of McCloy to u-21 selectors and handing him his championship debut with Lavey.

When Sean Boylan came on board as Ireland International Rules manager that year, McCloy was right up his street as someone who handled himself in the rough and tumble or the hybrid game.

“(Anthony) Tohill was in the backroom team, ‘Bomber’ (Eoin Liston) was there. I remember the first couple of training sessions, I lorded it and thought I was a shoo in,” said McCloy, but it didn’t end well.

After a clash with Dessie Dolan, he McCloy broke his kneecap and a trip to Australia was gone.

“I remember being in serious pain afterwards and they sent me for a scan afterwards.”

There was also the matter of a relegation battle with Greenlough that evening which Lavey got by with the skin of their teeth.

“I went on to mark Enda Lynn and the pain was excruciating, so I had to come off ten minutes into the second half. I don’t know how I lasted so long when I saw the damage.”

McCloy played on for Derry until 2011, with Brennan at the helm. Donegal and their youthful general Michael Murphy were on their way up and McCloy knew it was the end for him. Being sent off on a second booking against them in the league defeat was the beginning of the end.

“You could play a forward role if you were 33 or 34,” McCloy said. Defence was a different ball game. The head was fine, but the speed was starting to go.

He was dropped for their semi-final win over Armagh and feels Brennan bringing him on the final was a token gesture with his appearance in a Qualifier defeat to Kildare his last in red and white.

Brennan’s call for “no rash decisions” fell on deaf ears. McCloy’s inter-county career was over.

The loss of Paddy and Eoin Bradley (the latter a week before the final) left a hole in Derry’s attacking threat. McCloy felt Donegal were still well placed going into the final, but ‘Skinner’s’ form could’ve made all the difference.

Brennan was back on board with Lavey for the 2014 season. McCloy managed his own training methods to tune the body. Aqua jogging was used to babysit his groins and hamstrings into fine fettle for the season ahead.

But it all ended after he suffered a cardiac arrest 10 minutes in a championship game against Magherafelt when he was awarded a free-kick he never got to take.

It was a night of prayer from the stand and terraces in Owenbeg as medical personnel worked with Kevin to save his life.

“I came out that day and it was probably the best shape I was in for years. I had no sores, aches or pains and felt in good shape,” he said.

His career was absent of heart complaints. A bit of asthma was as much as he had to manage.

With a defib fitted inside him, Kevin’s form deteriorated back to square one within a year and a half.

“It took us until 2018 to find out what exactly was going on,” Kevin points out.

He is back playing a bit of recreational indoor soccer to keep himself tipping away. It’s not full pelt, but mixed with some weights and walking, he has accepted his lot, albeit it’s difficult coming down from a career of top level sport.

“I look at the four wee ones around me now and accept that this is normal,” he said. “I was never a good man at training by myself, I got the extra yard when I was training with a team.

“I look back on it and count myself lucky and unlucky at the same time. Why did this happen to me and I can’t do any real physical stuff for the rest of my days? But then I’m lucky to get home to my family, we have had two more children after it.

“For that reason, football is at the back of the ballpark where there are other things to worry about.”

SUPPORTING CAST…Kevin pictured with his wife Cathy and their children Michael, Cassie, Cillian and Rory after her success Lavey in the Sunday’s Derry Junior Ladies final

In the days since his interview, a Derry club football medal has made it into the McCloy household with Cathy adding success to previous championship wins with Drumquin and Glen.

“She’ll have the bragging rights…it will go with the ones I won with the wee ball,” Kevin laughs. And he’s happy the kids are playing GAA without insisting on it.

“That’s where I would have them, but if they want to play anything else I won’t hold them back wherever they go.”

Swimming and a bit of soccer with Maghera Strollers offers another avenue.

What’s for them won’t go past them. They don’t need to look outside their own house for inspiration. Sporting careers don’t all follow the same tangent.

He was a late bolter, but Kevin McCloy managed 17 years of senior football for Lavey and 11 at county level as Derry’s defensive rock.

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