Tuesday 25 April 2017

Declan Ryan was a Premier League player but can he be a Premier League manager?

Christy O'Connor profiles the man who has to fill Liam Sheedy's boots

Tipperary boss Declan Ryan will face Kilkenny at Semple Stadium tomorrow.
Tipperary boss Declan Ryan will face Kilkenny at Semple Stadium tomorrow.

A week after Tipperary lost the 2000 Munster final to Cork, the Tipp squad travelled to Dingle for a training weekend. During their first team meeting, the previous week's defeat was dissected, but there wasn't much need for forensic analysis.

The prognosis was pretty straightforward: the players felt that it primarily came down to the loss of Declan Ryan through injury.

"Well," said then manager Nicky English, "we can't very well put him in a deep freeze and take him out to thaw every May."

Two weeks later, Ryan walked stiff-legged on to Croke Park, a late addition to the Tipp substitutes for their All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway. It looked like the last time Ryan would appear in the blue and gold, but he returned in 2001 and produced what was easily his best year since 1997.

A few months after he won his third All-Ireland medal -- all in different decades -- Ryan quit after 14 years. A couple of days following that announcement, Babs Keating said that Ryan's "credit is as strong as anybody that played for Tipp in the last 50 years."

Ryan's standing is immense in Tipp and he has always commanded huge respect throughout the county. In many ways, it was almost fitting that he should take over as manager now, at a time when Tipp are reigning All-Ireland champions, with the potential to establish themselves as the dominant force in the game.

perfect

The fit seemed perfect, especially when Liam Sheedy's departure created such a shock. Initially, the selection committee went after English, but he was never really a runner because of work commitments. When that trail went cold, the committee immediately switched their focus to Ryan.

After the successful manager-coach partnership of Sheedy and Eamonn O'Shea, the committee, and the players, had always favoured a similar combination. When the committee initially consulted with the players about Sheedy's potential successor, the only names and options in the frame were English and Ryan, with Tommy Dunne working as a coach with whoever would bite.

Although he doesn't have the same experience, Dunne is regarded as one of the brightest young coaches in the game and was always perceived as O'Shea's natural successor as senior coach. With Dunne having worked alongside Ryan with the Tipp minors in 2007 and '08, the union was completely natural.

Ryan had some issues with the county board in 2009 when he didn't take the U-21 manager's job after he wasn't allowed to pick his own selectors, but that was never going to be an impediment to the committee pursuing him again. With Sheedy and his colleagues having built excellent managerial structures, Tipp were always looking for a management team which could maintain the apparatus already in place.

Although he had a quiet demeanour, Ryan was a totally selfless player and was always regarded as a huge leader in the dressing-room.

On the day that Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett made their championship debuts in 2001 against Clare, there was a photograph taken of Ryan with his arms around both players. It was almost identical to the one taken of Mick Galwey with his arms around Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer before they made their Irish debuts against Scotland in 2000. Both photos were loaded with the same symbolism of leadership, protection and guidance.

Galwey may have been more of a charismatic figure, but Ryan's status as the spiritual leader of that Tipperary team was just as indisputable. Ryan led through his presence and his aura, by deed rather than by word. Ten years on, that similar persona is sure to govern his style as Tipperary manager.

Ryan was a very driven player, but he still has a vastly different temperament to his predecessor Sheedy, who was primarily a facilitator who focused most of his efforts on man-management. Sheedy and his back-room team built and fostered a professional and ambitious culture, but that elevating environment was constantly monitored and strengthened through Sheedy's manic workrate.

The same volume of work may not be necessary now, but sustaining a similar degree of intensive attention to detail is a requirement Ryan will need to get his head around. Given that they've now had All-Ireland success, Ryan may need to be more attuned to players' needs and attitudes than ever before. Nobody knows how All-Ireland success will impact on a team, but that's something Tipp failed to cope with after 2001.

The trick for Ryan and Dunne is to maintain continuity, but to also stamp their own personality on the set-up with new ideas. One of the most noticeable aspects of the Tipp camp last season after the Cork defeat was how focused and relaxed they were, which was reflected in their play. Yet Tipp's game was also governed by their sharpness and calmness of mind as much as their speed of hurling.

The manner in which Tipp won last year's All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway really illustrated how mentally fine-tuned they were. In his three years as manager, Sheedy had only used Pa Bourke on two occasions, both as a substitute. He threw him on against Galway with just five minutes remaining and Bourke set up the equalising and winning points.

In the lead-up to the game, Bourke had been told that he would be coming into the game late and that he was playing well enough to have a defining impact. That's the kind of man-management and pre-match mental preparation that decides All-Irelands.

Is Ryan that type of a manager? As a player, he always kept to himself, rarely speaking in team meetings. Already, that style has been totally evident in his management. Some of the players would have been already aware of that quiet manner, though the members of the 2007 minor team confirm that he was well able to get his point across and that when he spoke -- softly -- they listened.

Dealing with senior players, though, is different. When Sheedy first took over, Tipp were on the floor and every player in the panel was vulnerable and had something to prove. Now? This squad is more experienced and are far more independently minded. Players want to be inspired, and challenged, especially when they were used to that experience under Sheedy. And even more so when Sheedy's whole philosophy was based on communication.

Ryan will do things his own way and he probably feels that there is no need at the moment to fully engage with the players. Or that his methods are a way of keeping players on their toes, especially when he has looked at so many new players already this season.

Moreover, Tipp are All-Ireland champions, are an experienced bunch, and Ryan is perhaps merely standing back and observing how they operate. When he feels that the time has come to step in and stamp his authority, then the players will have a better idea of what his style really is.

Some of Tipp's most experienced players will already be aware of how Ryan's mind works. He might rarely have said anything as a player, but during one warm-up before a training session in 2001, Ryan lost the rag, stopped everything and called all the players into a huddle in the corner. He felt the attitude wasn't up to scratch and they never had to stop a warm-up again.

Whatever style Ryan may have as a senior manager, or whatever his attitude is towards motivation and inspiring players, the one big advantage that he and Tipperary have is the huge support structure at their disposal.

At one stage last season, the former All Black captain Seán Fitzpatrick came to talk to the squad. During his discussion, Fitzpatrick spoke to the players about the Haka, its origins and what it represents to New Zealand. For a finish, Fitzpatrick became so animated that he almost did the Haka in front of the players, who took huge inspiration from the experience.

Fitzpatrick was accessible because he has close contacts with a Tipperary businessman. Those links are everywhere and are something that the measured minds in the county board and beyond are always looking to exploit.

Sheedy was always looking for an edge and the job absolutely consumed him. Ryan is a totally different type of personality, but he will still have to stamp his own mark on proceedings to help take Tipp to the next level.

Irish Independent

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