Ryan leading Limerick's 'lost generation' in rough waters
Published 26/05/2016 | 02:30
It's so far behind in the rearview mirror that it seems like a previous life. As a raw 19-year-old Ian Ryan humbled the great Darren Fay, scoring 3-7, and burst onto the inter-county scene in Limerick's shock 2008 qualifier defeat of Meath.
Only a year out of minor, Ryan confirmed the prodigious talent which lit up the fields of Foynes as a child and was nominated for Young Footballer of the Year. He also sampled the AFL lifestyle with Essendon but admits it was more of a "holiday" than something he considered.
Limerick football was his only passion and when the Treaty progressed further to contest Munster finals in 2009 and 2010, losing narrowly to Cork and then Kerry, he could have been forgiven for thinking that he was destined for a career on the verges of football's top table.
Things can turn quickly, however, and Limerick haven't contested a provincial decider at any grade since 2010. And they languish in Division 4 for 2017 after a disastrous League campaign in which they mustered only a draw from seven games.
With the likes of John Galvin, Stephen Lucey and Muiris Gavin all retired, Ryan is one of the few remaining faces from that exciting period. At 27, he is now an old hand - few of a similar age profile are present within John Brudair's youthful squad.
Despite going down narrowly to Kerry, after a replay, and Cork in successive Munster minor semi-finals in 2007 and '08, the Kilcolman NS school teacher (minor in '07) is the only survivor from those sides and bemoans the "lost generation" of footballers in the south west.
"People are only finding their place within the panel now and starting to step up and be heard in the dressing-room. To lose a lot of players from the dressing-room is very hard and especially those who were the major voices, people we go to on and off the field," he says.
"It was a big thing losing them but we often talk about the lost generation in Limerick football. The big counties are only hoping to get one or two through every year whereas if we get a good team we'd be hoping to get five or six, you're dependent on that.
"It really is frustrating, a lot of them would be close friends of mine so it's difficult to talk about it really.
"It's not that they haven't been asked, all you can do is ask and if you can't because of other commitments, be it personal or studying, you can't force someone to play. The management has definitely approached them all."
Guys that should be leading the charge, "in their so-called prime", are opting out, something Ryan believes is becoming more and more prevalent in counties where the likelihood of success is far removed from the Kerrys and Dublins of the football world.
"A lot of those players who left would definitely be capable of making the panel if not starting if they put their mind to it. The big issue is probably the serious time commitment that's needed," Ryan says.
"With Limerick you've got other sports, you've got hurling, soccer, rugby and football, there's options there to play other sports, but when you're winning it's very easy to stay at it.
"You're not going to retire if you've a chance of winning something. But people see there's not a bright future and say 'what's the point?'"
As a result, promising U-21 talents like Sigerson Cup winner Sean O'Dea, and Cian Sheehan, have been "thrown into the deep end" in the senior set-up in what is a "huge learning curve" for their rookie panel, with half of the squad under the age of 23.
Changes in personnel aren't the only differences Ryan has witnessed. When he started out football was carefree, an expression of personality on the playing fields. But dangerous corner-forwards like Ryan are one of the main reasons teams have radically altered their style.
"Tough," is his verdict on playing against sweepers and blanket defences. "It has gotten worse. It was man-to-man football and off you went, and then one sweeper started creeping in, but the last couple of years there's nearly two sweepers and there's 13 men behind the ball breaking out fast.
"It's very hard, you'd often come off the field and say 'that was brutal, I did nothing only kick a few frees and that's all I've been there for'. I watched a club minor game recently and it was man-to-man, 15 on 15. It was refreshing to watch it and I was thinking 'where is the sweeper?'
"When I started off my job was inside the '45' and not to come outside. Stay inside and get the scores, win the ball and take on your man, whereas now your first job is to defend. The game is always evolving but it's hard see it going full circle. We live in hope."
Ryan acknowledges Limerick got into a "losing habit" during the League but he feels the pep is back in their step ahead of Sunday's visit of Clare to the Gaelic Grounds. Given their recent familiarity he expects another "chess game".
"Two promotions in three years is some effort and they're on the up," he says. "They have great players in key positions, like Gary Brennan and Cathal O'Connor in midfield, so their forwards will always get a great supply. They've got fierce momentum and it's going to be hard to stop that."
However, having seen "more good days than bad" in a Limerick shirt, Ryan is ready to steer Limerick through rough waters.