IN FOCUS: Ryan McAleenan’s road to recovery

Ryan McAleenan hoped to pull on the Down jersey again but he suffered a career-ending injury and it undoubtedly took a mental toll on the Warrenpoint defender

By Shaun Casey

RYAN McAleenan can still remember the feeling. The crushing collapse of his world caving below his feet. His career was over. Playing football, his driving force in life, the thing that from a young age brought him so much joy, was no more.

“I wrecked the knee at the start of last August (2022)” recalls the former Down defender. “That all of a sudden finished me.”

A cruciate injury kept him out for Down’s Ulster Championship run in 2017 as they reached the provincial final for only the second time in the last 20 years, but McAleenan had mounted a comeback to wear the red and black again.

However, five years on, it was all over.

“I have no cartilage in my left knee, so it was just really all of a sudden because the year it happened was probably the best my body felt for a long time. Then around the end of July or the start of August, it was getting stiff, really, really bad, I could hardly train.

“I went for an MRI just in case and then went into Chris Connolly, he did my operation (ACL) in 2017. Chris is straight to the point, and he said that my knee was in really bad shape and unfortunately, that’s the end of football and there’s nothing really you can do.

“I would be bow legged so anytime I walk or run, all the pressure was put on to the right-hand side of my knee and it was bone-on-bone. Throughout the day, I could hardly walk.

“I had to get a big operation then at the start of November. It’s called high tibial osteotomy, I had never heard of it but it’s basically a controlled break to help realign my leg, and there’s three screws and a plate to keep it in place.

“He said running wise it’s very unlikely that I’d even be able to go out for a run myself and that this was sort of an operation to get me back walking pain free. When he told me all these things, I’m sport mad, and I was just in complete shock.

“I just burst out crying and my wife, my fiancé at the time, was with me and I just couldn’t stop. Whatever he told me after that was going in one ear and out the other because I just went into my own world.”

In public, McAleenan put on a brave face. He was still part of the Warrenpoint side that were mounting a challenge in Down as one of the top contenders for the Frank O’Hare Cup, planning the downfall of the dominant force in the county, Kilcoo.

“Because Warrenpoint were getting to the crunch time of the year in the championship, I felt I needed to put on a bit of a front and pretend I’m alright.

“Warrenpoint went on a really good run, got to the championship final and the boys were constantly asking me how I was getting on. I was saying I was grand; I was loving still being involved but deep down it was killing me.

“The main reason I left Down in 2021 was because there was a goal and a target from our team since maybe 2018 to win the Senior Championship. I just got myself that obsessed with trying to win one, I was willing to do whatever it took.

“I felt in the build-up, before I got injured, there was a good environment and I thought that we could give it a proper rattle. So, from being a big part of it to sort of feeling on the outside, it was tough personally.

“And there’s no point in really trying to hide it. Even the night before our championship final (which they lost to Kilcoo), our management team put together a motivational clip where family members were wishing us the best of luck.

“All the boys were coming out pumped but I got into a car, and I just broke down crying. I don’t know why; it was just the emotion of it all. It felt like I wasn’t part of it, and it was just killing me that I couldn’t help the boys get what they all deserved.

“That really, really frustrated me. Obviously if they had won, I would have been absolutely delighted for them and over the moon, but I just felt at the time that I wasn’t having any input, or I couldn’t help the boys get their goal.”

That was tough, but the next few months were torturous. McAleenan went under the knife in November and while he had experienced the physical toll an operation takes on the body before, it was the challenges in his head that needed surmounted.

Stuck in the house all day, on his own most of the time, McAleenan fell into a slump. The 32-year-old schoolteacher couldn’t work from home, couldn’t walk, and was left alone with just his own thoughts for company.

“My wife was away out to work, and I was spending a lot of time by myself,” explained the Warrenpoint clubman. “I wasn’t able to drive. I wasn’t able to go out for a walk. I wasn’t able to go to the gym. I had no release at all.

“When you’re spending so much time by yourself, you’re constantly thinking and that was when everything just completely hit me for six.

“I didn’t really tell anyone and then obviously Claire realised that I wasn’t my normal self.”

That’s where the turning point came. It was clear McAleenan needed help and his wife encouraged him to go and get some. He contacted the GPA and the dark clouds hovering over his head began to part. The GPA offered a ray of sunlight.

“Claire advised me to go and speak to someone to help with that transition. I just thought of getting in touch with the GPA and straight away I was meeting up with Arron Graffin, he’s the GPA representative from around our area.

“Within 24 hours, I was meeting him for a coffee and the support that he and the GPA offered were unbelievable and they got me into a thing called the transition program that they run.

“It involves 12 past inter-county players who have recently retired and have struggled with it. It’s such a blow and if anyone knows me, I am obsessed with Gaelic, it’s all I’ve known and after I got this news, it was a complete loss of identity.

“I didn’t really know who I was or who I was going to be. Then when I got in touch with the GPA, they were sort of pinpointing that there’s a lot more to Ryan McAleenan than a footballer, there’s more I can offer.

“I was explaining to them that my confidence went at that stage. I would be a very outspoken social person normally, but I found myself getting very nervous when I was around a group of people because it had just knocked my confidence.

“Through the different steps of that transition program that the GPA set up, they helped set us individual goals and how to get yourself out of that slump.”

And what a difference a year can make. This November, McAleenan will be out in Africa planting trees for a charity called Warriors for Humanity, set up by former Galway dual player Alan Kerins.

“One thing I said to myself was that I was going to try and put myself in as many uncomfortable positions as possible to get myself out of that slump. Then the opportunity came up to do this fundraiser and be the part of this organisation.

“There’s an opportunity, I’m going to go for it, but I know how you financially tight a lot of people are at the minute, and I hate asking for money, but for me, it’s an opportunity that I’ll never get again.

“And I’m very fortunate that I have a principal, Noella Murray, who understands what I’ve gone through, she’s massively into Gaelic and sport.

“Luckily, she allowed me to go on the trip, she gave me the go ahead because this is during the school time. And she’s not only letting me go, but she’s also offering different ways the school can help with my fundraising efforts.

“It’s around the end of November and each each person is set a target of trying to raise £10,000. You can do it by contacting different businesses or different friend groups, different fundraiser efforts.

“I’m still working on things and still working on trying to get my confidence back and this is where the project comes into it. Getting experiences like this, hardly knowing anyone from the 45 people that are going will help bring myself out of my shell even more.

“I know one or two – Arron is going and Alan Kerins, who used to play football and hurling for Galway, he’s going. They’re really the only two that I know so again it’s a pretty daunting experience at the minute but it’s something that I’m pretty committed to doing.”

Through the GPA, McAleenan got involved in the programme and they’re commitment to helping him has opened his eyes to the hard work that goes on behind the scenes that no one else really knows about.

“We had a weekend down in Galway at the beginning of May where 12 of us went down on the Friday afternoon, and basically did a load of activities. The likes of Paul Murphy who played hurling for Kilkenny was there.

“You had Emlyn Mulligan who played for Leitrim and people like that, just talking about how they struggled with the process of finishing up. Some of them weren’t forced into retirement, some of them just due to age or different commitments had to stop with different things going on in their life but they still struggled with that transition of not playing sport.

“You go from doing it four or five nights a week to having nothing. I felt that weekend was probably the turning point for me because it gave me a sense of focus and commitment and drive, this is what I need to do to get myself out of this slump.

“We do Zoom meetings every couple of months, and we just check in with each other in terms of making sure that we all achieve whatever goals we have set – for example, did you meet up with that friend or did you do whatever activities you said you were going to do?

“I found after I had finished playing that I wasn’t meeting up with any of my friends or anything.

“You get to the stage in life where you see all your friends at football, and the only other times you see them are at a stag or a wedding.

“The only person I’d have spent any time with was my wife Claire, so I felt very alone at that time. One of my target I set myself was to meet up with two or three friends a week for a coffee. And again, I was very committed to doing that.

“With all of those simple strategies and techniques that they talked about over that weekend, gradually, I could see myself getting back to where I was pre-operation and pre-the-news that my Gaelic career was done.

“I’ll be pretty straight about it, obviously my wife Claire was unbelievable as well because she was the reason I got in touch with the GPA, but if it hadn’t of been for the GPA and the support they gave me, I’d still be in that slump.

“It was just how quickly they got back to me. It was within 24 hours, and I was meeting up with someone and all of the different things that they put me through, it’s unbelievable.

“And Arron is texting me constantly and we’re meeting up for coffee every two or three weeks and they just go out of their way to do anything for you. They’re just genuinely nice, trustworthy, honest people.

“The transition programme I’m going through at the minute is a yearly thing. So, we met up at the beginning of May, we meet up on Zoom once a month and then we’re meeting up again at the beginning of December for a weekend.

“The GPA has said that they’re always going to be there for us, whether that’s in ten years’ time, five years’ time, whatever. Just having that, that’s invaluable having that support system there for you at any time you need it.

“I don’t think they get enough praise for what they do and the people they help, people don’t realise and they’re not looking the publicity of helping the likes of me but the difference they have made to my life over the past year has been unbelievable.”

While McAleenan’s career on the field came to a premature end, it opened another door and another challenge.

Warrenpoint player-manager John Boyle asked McAleenan to join his management team and become a club coach, an opportunity too good to turn down.

“I’m a PE teacher and coaching has always been something that I loved, and I always saw myself doing when I eventually did retire. I coached our minor and u-21 teams when I was only 23 or 24.

“The only reason I stopped at the time was because I started playing for Down – with the commitment I couldn’t really do both. So, I do love it, I get a kick out of it, I have a massive passion for it.

“I’m one of those people who will watch any level of football. Even my wife now, if we were going for a walk along the park and I saw an u-14 or an u-12 game, I’d be trying to get her to stand and watch 10 or 15 minutes of it.

“The coaching has helped in the sense that I know what my passion is. I know how I can fill that gap rather than feeling completely lost, not knowing what I’m going to do.”

There’s still challenges that come along with that of course. The white heat of championship battle still demands that raw excitement that all GAA players experience. But McAleenan has learned to deal with that emotion and enjoy his involvement.

“We were playing our local rivals Burren (in the first round) and there was a sense that I wish I was playing, but it wasn’t a really emotional one like it was last year. I still felt like I had an input, and I was making a difference.

“I think I’ve just come to accept it now and I’m okay with not being able to play anymore, I’m totally fine with it. People are still constantly asking me how I am in terms of not being able to play and I’m genuinely all good.”

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW