Bryan McCrystal reckons he had everything needed to make it as a professional footballer bar talent.
Bryan McCrystal reckons he had everything needed to make it as a professional footballer bar talent.
The Jenkinstown man held a burning desire from his childhood to qualify as an elite-level player, ever since the day he walked into Bellurgan United’s grounds and encountered the late Michael O’Connor.
A Leeds United scholar once upon a time, he accepts being much closer to his 30th birthday before hearing his true calling. Hugely dedicated to training, McCrystal was a natural fit for sport to an extreme degree and so he’s still pushing his body to the limit nigh his fourth decade.
The one-time soccer hopeful is now a competent triathlete, an Ironman who has been spending the last few weeks testing himself against peers at a virtual level.
“The only downside to it is honesty from your competitor,” he says, smirking. “He might type in that he’s 60 kilos when he might be 90 kilos.
“I wasn’t really a man for virtual racing and riding until now, I’d no problems jumping into the garage and training while watching a movie or listening to a podcast, but it’s got me over the last few weeks. It’s just exploded because of the circumstances.”
His daily routine, as can be charted via his Facebook page, involves sweating himself to a soaked state on the bike, commentating into a blog post for a spell. There is serious entertainment value as he drops expletives every so often to translate his pain, but you’re also glaring through squinted eyes, wincing at the point to which the 39-year-old is pushing towards.
“It’s how I’m built,” he adds. “It’s who I am, what I am and what I’ve done all my life.
“I just know that as I’m getting older and wiser, I’m a better person when I’ve exercise in my life. When I take that break bad habits creep in and they’re not good for me. Even mentally, it’s very important for me to keep doing exercise.
“As long as the head wants to do it, the body will follow, because it’s the governor. I’ve been broken a couple of times where I just didn’t want to do it anymore, but you claw yourself back. Once your head switches off the body switches off and if you let it go too long, it’s very hard to come back from.
“As you get older, you can’t switch off as much. When you’re young you can take a summer out or a couple of months out and fitness will return, but you have to keep at it as you get older.
“I’m 39 now and lucky enough I’m not a guy who suffers from injury, but you do feel pain a wee bit more after sessions than you did a few years ago.”
McCrystal is the hasty type, he concedes. Spontaneity is the result of his make-up. He was passing the Carrickdale Hotel in the spring of 2007 when he decided that football was no longer for him. Within 24 hours his contract at Newry City was ripped up. A week or so later he heard a radio clip advertising the Dublin Marathon while driving over Hill Street Bridge. He pointed for home and booked himself a place, went training with Jim Gonnelly and the North East Runners on the following Sunday, and completed that November’s course - his first attempt - in under three hours.
Not content with running’s monotonous nature or its training nine or 10 times per week format, he joined Cuchulainn Cycling Club having opted for a career in triathlon.
At the beginning he was opposing fellas 10 years his senior, mentally teasing himself into bettering them in spite of their greater experience of the pursuit. Now the tables have turned and McCrystal’s focus lies in holding off juniors.
Over time he has gradually become a more long-distance type. Ironman events have been attempted and completed. He has the approach of a professional and so is disinterested in dwelling on achievements.
But, in the Challenge Roth (Germany) of two years ago he finished high-up in a field containing the world’s best, negotiating the 3.8k swim, 180k bike ride and full marathon in eight hours seven minutes, an Irish record. Everything went right and so it was a rare occasion in which to appreciate his accomplishment.
“It was a personal reminder to tell myself, ‘Jeez, you’re not too bad’.
“As an athlete, you’re your biggest critic. You always want more, you’re never satisfied. Every training session and drill you feel you can do better, but for that split moment, I gave myself an ‘ah, you’re okay’.
“But you soon forget about it, because you move on. I’ve done long-range distances since and haven’t found that result. You are happy for a time, but it’s very quickly forgotten because you move on to the next target.
“Other times I’d be crossing the line and everybody would be saying how brilliant it was, but deep down I just knew that I’d failed in myself because I didn’t get the best out of myself. I’d remember parts of the course that I’d done wrong. It’s very much like a puzzle in terms of getting it right on the day and moving pieces.
“When you do go through a rough patch, where you think you’re finished and you can’t come back, when you do go through the process of turning up at a race giving yourself a hard time... I’ve been at the start line not wanting to be there, but ended up winning the race. Then you’re like, ‘what was the big deal about?’
“Every athlete, every person has doubt in themselves; that inner-doubt is always there and it will always be there. It’s what’ll get you out the door to be better.
“I’ve certain situations in life and in races where if I’m at that point, I always think back to a certain race or time where I’ve had this feeling before and it turned out okay. You have to have that mantra, you’re still Bryan McCrystal and you’ve done this or that; reminding yourself that it’s not all bad. You just have to have that calmness, especially before an event.”
His time at Leeds stemmed from a run of fine displays for Dundalk Schoolboys League in the Milk Cup. McCrystal became a magnet for cross-water interest.
“I just had a worldie of a week,” he recalls. “After matches I basically didn’t have time for showers. Scouts wanted to talk to me, my father and Tommy Connolly to get me over to England for trials.”
Short stints at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool followed for the boyhood Manchester United fan, before he found and settled in Yorkshire with The Whites. The Elland Road men had won the FA Youth Cup the year before - 1997 - courtesy of a side that included future England internationals Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and Paul Robinson.
He quickly flourished, but then came a downward spiral and a rather disappointing end.
“My only fault over there was that I lacked a bit of talent,” he quips. “I had the commitment.
“I witnessed lads over there throwing away their opportunity, I was scratching my head looking at them every morning with attitude problems. I was first out of bed every morning and every day I thanked whoever that I was there, but I used to see lads my age going out smoking and drinking and wonder what they were doing.
“Why I didn’t make it eventually was just down to talent and a bit of luck.
“Luck plays a massive part in making that final step as a professional footballer. I was doing quite well, I was captain of the U19s as an 18-year-old and in regularly with the reserve squads - I was travelling and training with them.
“During the week we’d be called over to the first-team pitch and there I’d be marking Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink; getting thrown around the place.
“I had a manager at U19 level, Dave Merrington, that loved me because he could trust me. I was an organiser and a fella who could play a bit - I probably thought I could a bit too much and didn’t do the ugly side enough - but he personally had a falling out with the club.
“We played a match on the Sunday and came in on the Monday to news that he’d left. With that a manager was dropped down into our team and I went from being the U19 captain, with the reserves and training with the first-team, to the following Sunday not even being on the bench for the U19s. He just didn’t like me and that ate me.
“What used to happen - and probably still does at clubs - there is an element of bullying and they’ll bully you until you go; they’d ignore you, stop talking to you and interacting with you. It’s a form of bullying that you’d see at school. I could handle that, but there’s lads who you’d see were broken. They’d nearly force them out. You’re made to feel worthless.”
David O’Leary was in the top job at Elland Road and was fairly successful before the club landed in financial ruin. His book, relating to the dramatic 2000/’01 season, was titled ‘Leeds United On Trial’ and drew the attention right away.
The Whites’ season was shadowed by criminal proceedings against three first-teamers - Woodgate, Lee Bowyer and Michael Duberry - following a brutal assault on a student, Sarfraz Najeib, in the city centre.
Bowyer and Woodgate, now in charge of Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough respectively, were accused of taking part in the attack, while Duberry was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Their mate at the time, McCrystal, was on that same night out, but had nothing to do with it. It was a case of being tarnished by association. He rejects the notion that the incident had any bearing on his failure to progress further in England.
“I’ve never actually spoken about it before,” he says, more than willing to engage in discussion.
“I was there that night, but I’d nothing to do with the incident and if I had I’d have been in a lot of trouble. I was with a number of lads who were there and there’s nothing really more to it than that.
“It’s something that happened. I’d no part to play in it that those lads had, but I was there and they were my friends at the time.
“It’s got absolutely nothing to do with me leaving England, it was football reasons and football reasons alone that I left.”
His sister, Eve, is a World and Paralympic champion in cycling, with her partner Katie-George Dunlevy. The pair would have been going for their third successive gold medals at Tokyo had this summer’s games gone ahead.
But the postponement may have a silver lining. It may now even be a family affair in Japan with Bryan involved with Paralympic triathlete, Cork’s Donnacha McCarthy, who is blind. McCrystal is his guide and so they meet once a week for training. The games’ delay leaves the duo very confident of participating in 12 months’ time.
“It would have been very difficult to get this year, but I’d be confident of making it next year because there’ll have been another year of training Donnacha. I think he’ll be a lot stronger then.”
Not bad for a man lacking in talent.