Enigmatic Ryan can be answer
Low-key boss has history on his side in Tipp's bid to retain title
Published 09/05/2011 | 11:30
Perhaps the strangest thing about the man plotting Tipperary's All-Ireland defence is how little the game knows him. That is his choice, no question.
Declan Ryan would be happy for people to see him as some obscure figure who had no more than a hiccup of a career in the county jersey. To look beyond him, in other words. He never did interviews as a player and endures them now simply as an obligation of management.
Yet a case could be made for him being Tipp's most important hurler of the last quarter of a century.
He is, after all, the only member of the All-Ireland winning team of 1989 and 1991 who was still there when Nicky English's side lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2001. English left nobody in much doubt at the time that Ryan was, essentially, the on-field lighthouse, guiding that young team home.
He retired afterwards, slipping into blissful obscurity until called upon to succeed Liam Sheedy as Tipp's minor manager in November of '06. Tipp had just won an All-Ireland in that grade, so -- to some -- it seemed a poisoned chalice.
Yet, with Ryan and Tommy Dunne at the helm, the All-Ireland was successfully retained in '07. A happy portent for 2011?
Ryan's natural self-effacement makes it difficult to know quite how seamlessly he can slip into a role filled with such dervish intensity by Sheedy. Emotionally, the Portroe man was an open book and in selectors Eamon O'Shea and Michael Ryan, he had two kindred spirits. Ryan, by contrast, has the sideline demeanour of a curator.
In his autobiography, Babs Keating was unequivocal that Tipp would not have won the All-Irelands of '89 and '91 without Ryan. Describing his skill level as "incredible", Keating declared the Clonoulty man to have been "the difference between winning and losing."
Yet, Babs often struggled too to understand Ryan. He found his occasional off-days inexplicable and would fail abysmally when trying to divine information from him.
"Declan's name was always the first to be pencilled in on the team," wrote Babs. "The problem was that, if something was wrong, you couldn't find out what it was. It was nearly impossible to have a conversation with him about it. You could try to talk about it and he would look straight through you and give no response whatsoever. It was all the more frustrating because he was so good."
Taking charge of a dressing-room of current All-Ireland winners is a challenge, fundamentally, of communication. Even most of the younger players coming through in Tipperary now, do so with All-Ireland U-21 medals in their pockets. So it would be easy for hubris to undo many of the qualities that carried Tipp to the mountain-top last September.
Ryan's greatest challenge, then, will be to sell the appeal of humility.
This year's Munster Championship opens with Tipp v Cork again, a routine that -- for both -- must be becoming a little tired. Denis Walsh's team brought their hurling to an electric pitch in the corresponding fixture last year but they've done little to back it up since.
Their League form was, largely, mediocre and the loss of those closing two fixtures -- against Wexford and Dublin -- ratcheted up the pressure on a manager whose winter eviction of Sean Og O hAilpin from the panel remains a case for Mulder and Scully.
Tipp, by contrast, looked to have plenty in reserve and, if anything, seemed uninterested when trudging to a concluding draw with Wexford when the door was still open to a place in the League final.
It was as if Ryan had seen enough in their 18-point Salthill destruction of Galway in the previous round -- unequivocally the stand-out performance of the League.
The most striking thing about Tipp's Championship form last year was their easy facility for goals, the higher the altitude reached. Much of the credit for that was given to the now-departed O'Shea, a keen student of running angles, support play and the type of movement that creates attacking space.
After having a bad day in that opener against Cork, Tipp's scoring return in the five games that carried them to the Liam MacCarthy: 3-24 v Wexford; 0-21 v Offaly; 3-17 v Galway; 3-19 v Waterford and 4-17 v Kilkenny -- spoke of a team completely at ease with its game-plan.
Can Ryan, Dunne and Michael Gleeson see to it that such spectacular returns continue?
Given how they profited from being rerouted through the qualifiers, it is a moot point whether Tipp will even prioritise the Munster Championship this year. Defending champions Waterford will certainly believe they have every chance of another successful campaign after wintering smartly under Davy Fitzgerald.
To finish third in Division 1, given their experimentation in the League, was an achievement that should have triggered more plaudits for Waterford.
Their win percentage under Davy Fitz is remarkable and, if the aesthetes carped against the staid militarism and tactical adherence that so flummoxed Cork in both of last year's Munster finals, no one could deny the basic intelligence of Waterford's plan.
Realistically, Tipp and Waterford look the pick of the province, albeit Cork are always capable of pulling lightning from the sky.
As for Limerick and Clare, everything we know about them is asterisked by the suspicion that Division 2 hurling is an incubator for bad habits and false dawns. So take what you like from last week's game between the two. We are inclined -- for now -- to reserve judgment.
That said, Donal O'Grady has at least rehabilitated Limerick after the lost year of 2010. And Waterford are wary of being pitched cold into a semi-final against opponents for whom June 12 will long ago have been daubed in neon as a day to stand up and be counted.
No dressing-room will be motivated higher than Limerick's this year and, if O'Grady can marry that energy to a smart game-plan, they could be dangerous. Likewise, Clare will see June 19 as a massive opportunity to make a provincial final that, frankly, not many expect to see them in. "One big performance". That will be the mantra of both O'Grady and Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin.
Yet, in any preview of this Munster Championship, Ryan has to be the cover story. Can a first-year manager return Tipp to the pitch that, last September, made them look such an uncontainable force? His history suggests he can. But the traps will be aplenty.