Photo: Nuneaton Borough FC

The years across the water have brought their share of magic for Irishman Damien McCrory, though the more recent instalments have been mettle-testers to say the least. It owes to the former Burton Albion and Notts County man’s fortitude that he is back on the pitch for the new season, and with a new club that ultimately ticked more boxes than most for the experienced left-back.

The start of the 2021/22 campaign has brought typical freshness and anticipation, with new players, new kits, new managers, and even an updated club crest or two. For teams throughout non-league, though, the wish for a season to simply run to its natural completion again is burning brighter than ever, with cause for added belief this time.

The return of matchday spectators is everything, not only for financially-beleaguered clubs, but to players desperate to feed off an in-game atmosphere again, and for the sense of routine and belonging missed by so many fans and personnel behind the scenes. An uninterrupted next few months is just what Damien McCrory would love, too.

The versatile left-sider enjoyed over a decade of first-team football across the whole of the EFL, and having been a Burton Albion favourite, he was similarly well received in his two years as a Notts County player. Nuneaton Borough’s capture this summer of someone who appeared in League One as recently as April 2019, and the Championship for two seasons prior, was certainly a coup.

“I’ve been quite lucky and blessed, because I was at Burton for seven years and then went to Notts, so I’ve been around the same area for nearly ten years, which is rare in professional football,” he explains. “I’m quite settled where I am with my family, my kids are going to school now, so I didn’t really want to move anywhere.”

“I had quite a few options, but they were up north, and some down south, London way. I just kind of weighed it up, and I was never going to move there, I was just going to commute, but you were probably talking about 500 miles a week, which I didn’t really fancy.

“When the gaffer at Nuneaton (Jimmy Ginnelly) spoke to me and I went and met him, it just fit in with what I was looking for really. With it only being 25 minutes down the road, it was a no-brainer in terms of staying local and being with my family all the time.”

His Notts County move two years ago was his first taste of non-league, and one that the Magpies hoped would be brief before returning to League Two. For this June’s play-off semi-final defeat in extra-time to Torquay United, he had only recently worked his way back into the matchday squad, and was not included.

He also had to watch on as Notts made it to Wembley against Harrogate Town last summer, having played 29 times under Neal Ardley that season, prior to the widespread chaos of March 2020 taking centre-stage.

“When I first signed, it was great, and then the first lockdown happened and stopped the season. From that moment, I was working really hard with our captain at the time (Michael Doyle), we lived quite close so we were going out and running together and doing fitness, because we knew we had a chance of going back and being in the play-offs.

“From doing the training, I did something to my knee, eventually had an MRI scan and needed surgery on that. Ever since that first lockdown, I would say the last year-and-a-bit has been a bit of a nightmare, to be honest, injury-wise.

“There have been dark times where I’ve been in that gym and doing rehab by myself, and I’m thinking ‘what am I gonna do, is this the end, is my knee ever gonna be right again?’ I would say the last year-and-a-half has probably been the most difficult time in my career, but I did stick at it, worked extremely hard rehabbing, and the physios at Notts County were absolutely brilliant with me; they kept me going on a daily basis.

“I managed to come out the other side and I was pretty much fit for the last five or six games of last season, and it was nice to come on as a sub (against Wrexham in May). I ended up doing pre-season with them as well, and the gaffer (Ian Burchnall) there was really good and looked after me, and gave me the platform to play some pre-season games.

“I believe Nuneaton came and watched a couple of them, so I’ll be grateful for that for a long time.”

He is not the only player with such career calibre to have featured for Nuneaton Borough in the past couple of years alone. From the current squad, that includes one-time Premier League striker Leroy Lita and ex-Coventry City captain Carl Baker (whose son Louis incredibly started alongside him last weekend against Leiston).

Together with the up-and-coming contingent, there are players too with vast non-league experience in the Boro ranks this season. After their well-publicised peril of not all that long ago, followed by the pandemic-fuelled struggle faced by so many clubs, they are trying to look ahead at Liberty Way.

After the dismissal of a winding-up petition in May 2019, manager Ginnelly, who had taken over his hometown team a few months previous and is now club owner, said of the donations made by people to help the club survive: “That’s not a sustainable model and I apologise that we’ve had to lean on them so much. It’s now our turn to stand up and be counted for them, to deliver a football team that the town can get behind.”

Following an inevitable relegation from the National League North in 2019, the Southern League Premier Central side are set on mounting a challenge to return to Step 2, and Damien has been encouraged since his arrival.

“The manager spoke highly of the club. He did say when he first joined and took over that they were in real trouble financially and it took him two years to stabilise it.

“By the sounds of it, he’s done a fantastic job there, but this season, he said ‘I’ve kept the club afloat, it’s financially okay now, and I really want to kick on this season’. The aim from the start of the season was to get into the play-offs and have the chance to go up a division.

“He told me about the signings that he’d made and the lads who were already there, and it just seemed like the environment that I wanted to be around. There was a push to go further up the leagues, and as a player just coming out of pro football, I’ve still got that hunger and bite to do well and have success.

“I was just excited to get involved and be part of it.”

In a division currently led by a Peterborough Sports team able to convince vastly experienced marksman Michael Gash to drop down from the National League, it will certainly be a challenge. Damien is one player who knows what a successful club looks like, and just how far it can go once the momentum starts flowing.

Seven years at Burton Albion brought a League Two title in 2015, before promotion again a year later as League One runners-up. There were then two seasons in the Championship, and one more year as a Brewer before ‘Damo’ bid farewell.

It was his happiest time in football, with a succession of managers whose approach seemed to resonate with him.

“The three that I had at Burton, three very different managers, but three that definitely did get the best out of me, and I looked up to them really. Gary Rowett took me to Burton in 2012, and he moved on to bigger and better things, but he definitely set the foundation at Burton.

“Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink came in, inherited a very decent squad, and he definitely pushed us on even further, with training regimes, with fitness. Everyone knew exactly what they were doing, what position they were playing.

“Then you’ve got Nigel Clough, who’s very old-school but he knows exactly how to get the best out of each individual and the team. Every player reacts to different things differently, but for me, it was a case of I knew when I played well, so I didn’t really need to be told.

“Other people might have needed that ‘well done, you were brilliant’ and that arm around them, but I felt like I needed to be told more when I wasn’t doing it. If I had a run of games starting and I didn’t get told I was doing well, I wouldn’t mind, because I knew I was doing something right by staying in the team.”

He would score in the final game of current Brewers boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s first stint in charge, a 2-1 midweek win at home to Millwall under the lights to put them two points clear at the top of League One in December 2015. Burton’s second that night came from Nasser El Khayati, later reunited with Hasselbaink at Queens Park Rangers, and it was rumoured at the end of that season that the former Chelsea star wanted to sign Damien as well.

Tactical preparation and fine details are all important of course, but would the Dutchman ever still unleash one of those sledgehammer shots in training?!

“To be fair, he did join in, in the shooting sessions, but in terms of small-sided games, his knees were quite bad. He did have quite a few operations to straighten his leg, his knee kept folding inwards, but seeing him in the shooting sessions, he used to rip the net off quite a few times!

“He could still whack a ball, that’s for sure.”

While Burton was the golden time, Damien had already tasted the promotion rush a few years earlier. Still only 19 when he signed for Dagenham and Redbridge in early-2010, he was brought in by John Still on a two-and-a-half-year deal, for an undisclosed five-figure fee.

That season ended at Wembley, in the League Two play-off final against Rotherham United. It was Damien’s left-wing centre that was taken down by Paul Benson, who swept home the finish in what ended as a 3-2 win, and with League One football for the Daggers.

The characters in the ranks included Tony Roberts, whose moonwalking goalkeeper exploits had won favour with the likes of Soccer AM at the time. He may now appear somewhat prim and proper as part of a Premier League coaching staff at Wolves, but the Welshman still stands out as one of the more off-the-wall personalities Damien has enjoyed being around in football, along with a fellow former shot-stopper who could never quite be done justice to with a quick description!

“Tony would definitely be one, he was a great character to have around the place. The one that probably stands out for me the most over my career is Stephen Bywater.

“I could literally just sit down with him and have coffee after coffee, because the stories, the things he used to come out with! He was a really nice guy as well, great pro, but he was just a mad man, honestly.”

Grappling to survive in professional football in England is a long way from life back home in Croom, County Limerick. He was grateful to head back to visit this summer after over a year apart from family.

Like so many promising players from Ireland who have made it, and many who ultimately haven’t, he came to England as a teenager. After a week’s trial at a Birmingham City side only recently out of the Premier League, he headed to another Championship club, Plymouth Argyle.

Although Birmingham wanted to take a further look at him, he had a deal on the table down in Devon, and in various ways, has never looked back since.

“I was only 16 at the time, so I didn’t really know what England was like. I’d come over to a few games in the Premier League, Old Trafford, Anfield or wherever, but I didn’t really know where places were, or where the best places to live were and stuff like that.

“I really liked Plymouth; it was quite far away but it’s such a beautiful place down there and the club’s got a great following. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and my wife now, I met her down in Plymouth.

“Her parents are still living down that way, so I’ve still got ties there, even though I left a long time ago. I suppose it’s still a second home really.”

As a youngster on the cusp of a first-team environment, was there ever the shuddering experience of an initiation to perform in front of a merciless squad?

“We used to do pretty much everything; carrying the equipment, cleaning the boots, dancing and singing in front of the first team in their changing room. Anything they wanted, we did, and made a bit of a fool out of ourselves, but I look back now and it’s definitely stood me in good stead for my career.

“Those couple of years probably turned me from a boy into a man really. (In my career) I’ve generally sang Irish songs, so no one really knew what I was singing!

“I’m definitely not one of those lads that would milk it and get everyone to join in.”

Once he found himself on the other side of the fence, as an established senior pro in his career, he has been a popular figure in the changing room. You might not have found him running the show with the pre-game music at Burton, but he was a grateful onlooker and listener on a few occasions!

“I was there for seven years, so there were players coming and going. Robbie Weir did it a few times; he used to put some dance music on, which I was quite a fan of!

“Lee Bell, he used to get involved but he used to get a bit of stick at times. Phil Edwards was another one; he was a surprise package actually, he used to put some playlists together and people would be like ‘oh, who’s put this on?’

“He was quite a reserved character, so I think he used to enjoy putting playlists together.”

Burton’s longest serving player before he left, there is one particular teammate link-up on the pitch that stands out to Damien as perhaps the strongest connection he has felt.

“There was a time at Burton where I was playing left-back and Jacques Maghoma was playing left-wing. The amount of times we destroyed right-hand sides, we linked very well, we knew what each other was going to do and what we wanted.

“He’s predominantly right-footed, so he’d cut in, which used to allow me to bomb on. I thought those couple of seasons, we really linked up well.”

There is of course a flipside to life marauding down a flank for a full-back or wing-back, and there are some names from opposing sides down the years that Damien would gladly never face again!

“The likes of Adama Traoré for Wolves; when he was in the Championship with Middlesbrough, the strength and speed of him was just ridiculous. I knew he was getting past me and I remember trying to just take him out, and he just went past me as if I didn’t even touch him.

“I ended up even hurting myself trying to bring him down! Another winger, at Bournemouth, Marc Pugh, he wasn’t rapidly fast but he was so tricky and used to chop the life out of people.

“I just never really liked coming up against him, because as a full-back, you’ve got to try and stop the cross at all times, and he used to just chop and chop and chop. The toughest one I’ve come up against is (Sadio) Mané at Liverpool.

“We played them in a cup game at Burton at the Pirelli, he had just signed from Southampton, so no one really knew what to expect of him. Let’s just say it was a game that I don’t really want to look back on and watch!

“He did twist me inside out a few times, but when I saw him doing it to all the Premier League defenders, it did soften the blow a bit!”

Away from wingers and forward players, he has his hands full a lot of the time these days in any case.

“I’ve got a six-year-old and three-year-old, so they do keep you busy. We enjoy a day out as a family, they spend hours at the park doing stuff, and to be fair, I get involved a lot, whether it’s climbing the monkey bars with them or something like that!

“Outside of football, I do enjoy a round of golf but it does take a long time, and you’re away from the kids and family a lot with football anyway. I get around it whenever I can, though.

It has been an arduous recent period of a career that has given him many days in the sun. At 31, time is certainly on his side to keep the ball rolling for a long while yet, injury permitting, and if he wants to, of course.

In a game that doesn’t always bless players with managers who inspire or connect with them, Damien has felt the benefit of some accomplished and driven characters in the dugout. So, can he see himself one day following suit, or is a different kind of life waiting in the wings for him long-term?

“I’m trying to get myself into coaching, with some sort of youth set-up. That’ll be the first step for me.

“Further down the line, when I get some experience, I believe I can offer a lot, with 15 years of pro football. I’d definitely like to start off in non-league and try and work my way up.

“Just put back into football what it’s given me really.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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