In the summer of 2013, Ruairi Croskery joined Manchester United aged 16 after catching the eye at the club’s Centre of Excellence in Lisburn. In his debut season, Croskery made 11 starts for the United U-18 team, scoring five goals; an impressive start to life at the club as he took the pressure in his stride. Unfortunately, injury hampered his second season and he was released by United at the end of his contract. In spite of this disappointment, he was determined not to let the setback deter him. He joined Linfield in January 2016 and has since made the move to America to play College football with Limestone College Saints, where he has excelled. Croskery, renowned for his ability on the ball with either foot, has also represented Northern Ireland at Under-16 level. This week, I managed to get in touch with Ruairi and we spoke about making the move to Manchester, his favourite moment in a United shirt, as well as dealing with the blow of being released by the club. The reality of being a young player at a club like Manchester United is that it does not work out in the same way for everybody. However, Ruairi, still just 22, is a great example to a young aspiring pro who has been knocked back as he refused to give up on his dream. Is enough done to protect academy players? That one is debatable, for me. Here is our conversation.
Morning Ruairi. When did you first become aware of United’s interest in you?
Hi Jimmy. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what age I was, but I was picked up at 9 years old by Eddie Coulter, a scout from Northern Ireland, who sadly passed away the day before I moved to Manchester. That was hard for me to take and I owe a lot to the man. Without him, I wouldn’t have got anywhere near Manchester United. I remember it was my second game for Lisburn youth. I had scored 11 goals in 2 games and he approached my dad and asked if I’d like to attend the Manchester United academy of excellence in Lisburn, which we were delighted by. After doing well for a few years there, they decided to send me over for a few trials. I did very well in the trials and then finally got offered the big contract by United.
How tough was it leaving home as a 16 year old? Did you receive much support from the club?
I have to say that it was easy for me, to be honest with you. I was moving to fulfil my dream and something I worked hard for all my life so missing home was never really in my mind. I was too excited and happy to have made it over the water at a big club. I moved with a good mate, Jordan Thompson, who I grew up with in the school of excellence. Also, the club did offer a lot of support. They always made sure we were okay; we had daily talks to ensure that we were happy and not missing home, or family. Therefore, I could not complain about the level of support we had at all.
There was quite a bit of upheaval and uncertainty when Ferguson retired; did that filter down to the academy?
I don’t think it was uncertainty, to be honest. It was just a shock and we were unsure just how big the changes which followed would be. There were a few small changes around the training ground when Louis Van Gaal arrived. I think the biggest one was that he did not allow us to eat near the first team. When he arrived, he blocked off a part of the canteen for them, but to be honest, it didn’t annoy us really. I think some managers have their own superstitions and ideas which they implement in order for things to work for them and the team.
A few United players who played in the academy in the past have said it can be a harsh environment. How did you find those early days?
I have to say I never found it a harsh environment. I built some good friendships during my time on trials, so when I moved to Manchester I had a good bunch of friends and knew everybody well. Therefore, when I moved I settled in very quickly and was involved in the banter with all the lads from the outset. Also, I always helped trialists who came over to the club because I knew what it was like coming to such a big club on your own; not knowing people. It was great to give something back in that sense as I understood their situation.
What is your favourite memory from your time at United?
On the field, it had to be scoring the winner against Everton to win the game in the 88th minute. It was a big league game and I think Middlesbrough were only a few points ahead of us in 1st place. We were 2-0 down after 20 minutes and it was my first game back after a long spell out due to injury. I remember I scored a goal to make it 2-1 before half time. In the last few minutes, Joe Riley whipped a ball in which dropped to my feet and I found the bottom corner! We went mental! It was such a good feeling on a personal level as my girlfriend flew over from Ireland to be there.
How did you feel upon departing the club; was that tough to take?
It was tough to hear the words that they didn’t think it was the right time to give me the contract. However, I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to get one due to a number of injuries I had. Unfortunately, I don’t think I was able to show them what I could provide as I never really was 100% fit and flying. I always seemed to have a few niggles here and there; but you just have to be strong and be mature about it. You have to move on through tough times and come out better on the other side.
The psychology of sport is becoming a big part of sport now; how much mental strength did it take to get your career going again?
Some people would say it took a lot, but I never have had it in my mind that I wasn’t going to make it, to be honest. I’m a very philosophical person and I believe everything happens for a reason. I’m still working hard and have the self belief that I can go a long way in this sport. It’s hard for some people but you got to have the right mindset in this field.
What do you think is most useful about looking into sports psychology as a player?
I think sports psychology is useful in terms of being able to see the positives when it may appear that there are negatives. I believe that being mentally strong can really add a lot to your overall game; and even off the field with your life in general. In sport, you have to beat tasks and challenges put in front of you on a regular basis. I think that looking at sports psychology really does help that.
Do you think enough is done to protect academy players in Britain?
I can’t speak for any other club really in England as I only have spent time at one at Manchester. Having said that, I think sometimes that some players do get better treatment but that generally is when the player is one of the more likely ones to make it. Perhaps that is just to protect them to ensure that they do stay at the club for the future.
Finally Ruairi, tell us about your career now and how you have got on in America?
America is going amazing for me, Jimmy. I’m playing on the right wing for my college team and I scored 9 goals and 7 assists last year. In addition, I made it on to the All Region team and was voted MVP for the conference tournament. Bearing in mind it was only my first year there, I settled in well, I think. However, I know I have a lot more to offer which is very positive going forward for the next few years.