'Despite the abuse, I don't feel that I am under pressure'
Published 16/02/2013 | 04:00
Michael Ryan smiles now at the recollection. He doesn't even have to excavate deep into the recesses of his mind to locate the memory because the question was so loaded it almost framed the context of his season.
Waterford had just lost last year's All-Ireland quarter-final to Cork when a reporter asked Ryan about what kind of a deal he had with the Waterford County Board. "Two years," Ryan responded, quick as a flash. "Don't worry, I'll be around next year."
Ryan felt the necessity to clarify his position because the texture of his debut season had almost programmed him to think that way. There were times when he appeared to be barely hanging on.
After Waterford lost their opening three league games, Ryan lost two selectors, one of whom had doubled up as the coach. Sean Cullinane and Ken McGrath came in and were critical appointments in Waterford rescuing their season. At the end of the year, though, McGrath stood down as coach, and the drip-feed of departures on Ryan's watch has turned into a deluge.
Eoin McGrath and Eoin Kelly retired in the autumn; John Mullane walked away in January. Stephen Molumphy is gone for the season on overseas army duty, while Philip Mahony is travelling and won't be around either. Tony Browne is considering his options.
After Waterford lost to UL in the Waterford Crystal Cup last month, the Deise public just shrugged their shoulders. There is no great expectation surrounding this team. Waterford were favourites for relegation from the outset of last year's league. They're even firmer favourites for the drop this time around.
"If other people want to talk about relegation, fair enough," says Ryan. "But it certainly isn't on our agenda. Our target is the knockout stages. The three teams who lose the first game will be under pressure immediately. If you get too hung up on what might happen, it will strangle you. All you can do is stay positive, work hard and move on."
That philosophy has consistently sustained Ryan in this job.
"There was pressure on me last year before the first league game," he says. "Certain people tried to put me under pressure but I never felt it. I know that expectation and focus is there again now but pressure doesn't bother me. I always feel if you are doing the very best you can, you should never be under pressure."
Ger Cunningham, the former Limerick, Thurles Sarsfields and Newtownshandrum coach, has come on board with a part-time coaching role. Pat Flanagan, the highly rated physical trainer, is still there. Yet Ryan has still struggled to convince the locals that the Waterford panel is a more stimulating place than it was in previous years.
Despite a solid championship last year, the departures have further diluted the conviction in the county that Ryan can improve Waterford's lot.
Ryan's pursuit of respect has been a multi-layered challenge. He wasn't an inter-county hurler, while his coaching background was more in football, especially ladies football. Even before he got the job, 12 prospective managers were approached – four interviewed – and Ryan was appointed despite not being the unanimous choice of the executive.
"I knew it wouldn't be easy," he says. "I knew there would be pitfalls and that certain people wouldn't see me as the right person for the job. People said that I never played inter-county hurling, I wasn't high-profile enough, the fact that I managed ladies teams.
"But Jack O'Connor, Sean Boylan or Cyril Farrell never played senior inter-county. You have to give people a chance. I thought we didn't get fair coverage from a lot of people last year.
"Fair enough, there were some things that I did – especially on match days – that I wouldn't do again. It was a topsy-turvy year but I learned a lot, especially how to deal with different situations and different people. Some critics said we were in a crisis but I feel stronger now because of that. If the pressure comes on again this year, I'd like to think that I've come through hard times before."
Ryan is almost anticipating the heat that invariably comes with periods of transition. The average age of the panel is just 23, with 21 of the 34-man squad still at third level. When Waterford played Offaly in a recent challenge game, they started with just three of last year's championship team.
"There has been such a big turnover in the last three or four years that the public are going to have to be patient," says Ryan. "It is going to take time to gel all this together."
Ryan has been chastised before over that defence. Former Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald said last year that Ryan needed to "stop hiding behind talk of rebuilding", especially when so many of the panel had been there with Fitzgerald.
"Some of those guys may have been on the panel under Davy but they didn't make the team," says Ryan. "Before we met Clare last year, everyone was saying that Davy will know Waterford inside out. My line was that the Waterford players will similarly know Davy and some of them will feel they had a point to prove. Any maybe some of them did."
Fitzgerald certainly began the transition by introducing so many new young players. When Waterford played Limerick in their first championship match in 2011, Fitzgerald handed debuts to four players. Ryan, though, gave debuts to six players – four starters – in last year's Munster semi-final against Clare, five of whom were U-21.
Waterford didn't reach an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in seven seasons but two championship defeats from three matches doesn't carry the same negative load as it appears. In the Munster final, they created 12 scoring chances in the last 15 minutes and took just two. They were three points up late on in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork and missed four chances.
"One point would have won that game for us," says Ryan. "We had control and we just couldn't make it count on the scoreboard. The Munster final hinged on two errors that led to two goals. People might have been critical but if you look at that game compared to the Munster final shambles the previous year, there was no comparison.
"We all learned a lot and I would feel that our overall panel is stronger than last year. The fellas we introduced will be much physically stronger and will have more experience. We've brought in some more excellent young players. Maurice Shanahan and Paraic Mahoney will hopefully be injury-free. Darragh Fives, Shane O'Sullivan and Brian O'Sullivan are all back.
"The long-term benefits of Pat (Flanagan's) and Jimmy (Payne's) physical training will be more visible. The big question is whether or not we will have enough experience and scoring power.
"We need to develop that because it was scoring power which ultimately cost us last year. Apart from Seamus Prendergast and John Mullane, our forwards were genuinely not at their best. We know they can play better and we are expecting more from them."
Mullane's departure has left a huge scoring void. Some locals felt he may have hung around if he believed Waterford were going to be serious challengers this year. Yet Mullane met Ryan at the Ramada Hotel in Waterford the week he retired and told Ryan what he publicly aired the following day.
"Mullane has answered all the questions himself," says Ryan. "John told me in 2007 that he would play until he was about 30 and then he would pack it up. I speak to Mullane on a regular basis. John has said that he won't be back, but the option is always there."
Ken McGrath's departure is another huge blow but it was more cut and dried. "Ken wants to play on with Mount Sion for another year or two," says Ryan. "They have a lot of young lads and he feels they will benefit from the leadership he can give them. It is also hard to play on and be involved. Ken probably found it difficult in picking teams, selecting and not selecting fellas who he played with for years."
At face value, there is no denying the difficult road that lies ahead for Ryan and Waterford. It's in Ryan's nature to be positive and to envisage a return to those big days. And to tough it out if they don't arrive. Throughout his career, he has always had sharp survival instincts, as well as a passion for Waterford.
"I remember the hurt coming out of Thurles in 1982 when Cork beat us in the Munster final by 31 points," says Ryan. "It was nearly as bad the following year when Cork walloped us by 19 points. But my attitude has always been, 'Whatever I can do for Waterford, I'll try my best to do it'.
"I don't feel I have anything to prove to anybody else. Nobody enjoys managing more than I do. Despite the abuse, I can honestly say that I never felt under pressure. I have been involved in managing teams for 30 years. It's what I do. It's my passion and my hobby."
With a tough league campaign beginning next weekend, Ryan will be calling on all his survival instincts. Again.