Thursday 29 September 2016

Vincent Hogan: Premier patience wears thin as Ryan sets out to build team true to his own steely hurling constitution

Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30

Michael Ryan is Tipp’s eighth manager since Brian Cody took over Kilkenny. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Michael Ryan is Tipp’s eighth manager since Brian Cody took over Kilkenny. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

In Tipperary another clock is always ticking and Michael Ryan will fully recognise the implications of that sound.

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Impatience is a natural setting for the county's hurling community and, right now, everything feels italicised by the need to make a statement. The very idea of losing to Cork in Thurles tomorrow triggers little bushfires of indignation, especially after a National League campaign that carried no conspicuous sense of a new philosophy.

Ryan's preference for more direct hurling from a team previously programmed to covet the creation of space never quite found coherent expression, Tipp being really neither one thing nor the other through March and April. If the league sent them in any direction, it was probably back towards compromise.

Circumstance forced his hand in many ways, yet nobody should doubt the independent mind now planning Tipp's way forward.

Nicky English tells a story that maybe encapsulates Ryan's character. It is of the county's Munster Championship opener against Limerick in 1991 and an injury to John Kennedy that triggered mild panic on the line. Ryan was Tipp's only available defensive substitute and Donie Nealon immediately instructed the 20-year-old to begin warming up for his senior championship debut.

But 'Babs' Keating had a different solution, believing that Michael Cleary could profitably be moved to half-back. When Keating saw Ryan (right) limbering up, he "almost choked" according to English in his autobiography, 'Beyond the Tunnel'.

Manager and selector argued, 'Babs' believing that Ryan was not yet ready for the cauldron of senior championship. He told him to sit back into the dugout, Ryan ignoring the instruction. After a brief stalemate, Nealon's voice prevailed, the young Upperchurch man going on to commence a distinguished senior career with Tipp that would stretch across the next decade.

"If 'Babs' had said to me at that age to get back in the dugout, I'd have gone back in," wrote English. "But Mick didn't give a damn about 'Babs' or anyone."

Backbone was always a calling-card of Michael Ryan the hurler and it is a quality he will clearly now need as manager too. He is on intimate terms with the issues contaminating Tipperary hurling having served as a selector to both Liam Sheedy and Eamon O'Shea. And Ryan has said himself that he doesn't plan on outstaying his welcome.

Tipp won a spectacular All-Ireland under Sheedy in 2010 and were just a 'Hawk-Eye' decision away from reclaiming it under O'Shea two years ago.

Yet they exist in a climate of scepticism and relentless questioning. The consensus view seems to be that they lack the very qualities that Ryan himself brought to bear as a county corner-back, maybe self-sufficiency being the most notable.

What he may have lacked in wristy art, Ryan more than compensated for with selflessness and courage. After Tipp shipped five goals against Cork in a Munster U-21 semi-final in 1989, they changed their entire full-back line for the replay. And there, as its anchor tenant at number three, stood Michael Ryan.

Tipp went on to win that U-21 All-Ireland and when 'Babs' equivocated on starting Ryan in the Munster senior final against Cork two years later (choosing a returning-from-injury Conal Bonnar instead), the omission seemed merely to stiffen the player's resolve. Bonnar and Ryan were close friends having soldiered together as county minors in '87 and now, as rivals, they were - briefly - chasing the one jersey. Bonnar recalls only getting a cast off his hand the Tuesday before that final.

"I was joking with him in training about how much I was looking forward to the final," he remembered this week.

"Mick's looking at me, going, 'Sure what have you to look forward to with that cast still on?'

"And I'm telling him that, even with only one hand, they'd still pick me ahead of him. I wasn't being serious. But, next thing, the team is named and I'm on it."

With Tipp's full-back line in trouble that day in Cork, Ryan got the call he craved and never subsequently looked back. The game ended in a draw and he is still remembered fondly for a crucible moment in the Thurles replay.

Bonnar remembers: "We were under fierce pressure when Mick met Tomás Mulcahy with a hit that stopped him stone dead. And it was a huge statement for a young fella to make. It told all the Cork forwards that they wouldn't be running through."

Michael Cleary remembered that moment this week too as one that "summed up Mick Ryan".

He reflected: "The hit was bang on time and knocked Tomás back on his arse. And that was a big, big moment for us. There was always a huge honesty and manliness about Mick hurling that I think everybody respected and loved.

"You have to remember, he was still an U-21 at that time."

So how will Michael Ryan fare as Tipp's eighth manager since Brian Cody was put in charge of Kilkenny?

In an era of tactical overload, will his approach come to be seen as dated or old world? Seamus Callanan acknowledged in January that Ryan was looking to "inject more physicality" into Tipp's game. But injecting physicality alone won't undo the high press of highly athletic teams like Waterford and Clare.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy introduced Mark Landers to the Cork set-up largely for the heat of his personality, yet found the new game was simply setting different demands.

The questions Ryan must address on Tipp's behalf probably reside somewhere deep within.

With Ronan Maher settling well at centre-back, they do look relatively sound defensively. But eight to 15? Tipp undeniably have the hurlers. The sceptics ask do they have the men?

Bonnar watched Tipp closely in the league and believes his old team-mate's hand was compromised. "The way Mick picked his original panel, it definitely looked as if he wanted to inject a bit of freshness and maybe introduce a more direct approach," acknowledges the Cashel man.

"But against Kilkenny, it was long puck-out every time, almost too direct and we couldn't win a ball. Then for 20 minutes of the second half against Galway, we couldn't get past their half-back line. I think maybe in going more direct, they were throwing away a game that Tipp happened to be very good at too.

"And I think Mick understands that they need a mix. Just playing nothing but direct hurling doesn't work in the modern game. You need to be more subtle than just having one approach. But Tipp had an awful lot of injuries too that I suspect probably interfered with his original intentions.

"He's a far braver manager than I think circumstances have allowed him be so far."

The winter retirements of senior figures like Lar Corbett, James Woodlock, Shane McGrath and Conor O'Mahony certainly suggested a desire for change had been articulated to the dressing-room and Ryan himself spoke earlier this year of welcoming what he calls "the young Turks".

He then culled six players from an extended squad after a March training camp in Breaffy House, including the ex-Kildare player, Conor Kenny, whose initial recruitment had seemed in answer to that desire for direct hurling.

But their first-round demolition of Dublin apart, Tipp did not summon a compelling league performance and, thus, arrive into championship not entirely sure of where they stand. Will they go long against Cork tomorrow? Will it be back to carousel forwards and space creation?

Or could Tipp maybe cannibalise some modern concoction of both?

A broad view holds that it isn't feasible to be torching the ground in May and still hoping to be championship-relevant come September. It is 11 years since Munster's champions went on to claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup (Cork in 2005) and, even more starkly, the last Munster team to win an All-Ireland having had to overcome three heavyweight opponents in their own province first was Cork in 1966.

Tipp's last All-Ireland victory (2010) came through the back door, of course, after a ten-points opening round Munster Championship trimming against Cork.

And Bonnar believes that trying to win both Munster and the All-Ireland from a preliminary round starting base has set Ryan a hugely forbidding challenge. "It'll be as difficult to win Munster as it would be to win the All-Ireland," he suggests.

"I personally think Waterford are the best team in Munster and Clare are way better than they were in the league quarter-final (against Tipp). So that probably puts us in third place in the province beside Limerick. And now Cork coming into a game as underdogs against Tipp ... f*****g hell, I played in a lot of those.

"You know Tipp wouldn't have won that All-Ireland in 2010 if they hadn't been beaten by Cork. Because that defeat forced them to make some dramatic changes. Like the whole philosophy of the team had to change. And I do think the philosophy of last year's team has to change if we're going to win an All-Ireland.

"I'm not advocating that we go out and lose to Cork, but you can't change the personality of a team in a year.

"In fairness to Eamon (O'Shea), he got us very close and did so playing exhilarating hurling. But that beautiful game isn't going to win us an All-Ireland. And I think Mick knows that."

Irish Independent

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