Ryan revelling in pressure to shoot lights out
Deadly marksman has developed into ice-cool operator, writes Liam Kelly
TIMING is everything in life and in sport. For example, if you were a Dublin hurler with ambition to win a national competition, you could forget it if you wore the metropolitans' colours from 1940 to 2010.
That's a long time and a hell of a lot of hurlers whose dreams never became a reality, until they ended a 72-year wait with that league title success.
And yet, at the start of 2011 Paul Ryan of Ballyboden St Enda's had no idea that he would be one of the chosen few to have the honour of bringing the league trophy back to the hurling Dubs. In fact, although he had made his senior inter-county debut back in 2008 aged 20, he wasn't even a first-choice player for Anthony Daly when the 2011 league started.
Conal Keaney, committing to the small ball game after opting out of Pat Gilroy's football squad, was the man for the frees and the '65s', and right glad were the Dubs to have his services. Meanwhile, Ryan had enjoyed a successful club career with Ballyboden St Enda's, winning five Dublin county championship medals with his club from 2007 to 2011 inclusive.
For 'Dalo's Dubs', though, he hadn't stamped his authority on the county scene, but once his form ignited at just the right time in that league two years ago, there was no looking back. Ryan can't argue with that assessment. As he says himself: "In 2011 – a lot of people might not remember this – but I was actually a sub and I nearly got dropped at the start of the year."
Daly brought Ryan (below) on as a sub against Waterford, Tipperary, Offaly and Wexford, and at that stage of the league, the Ballyboden man had the grand total of three points to his name.
Keaney wasn't doing a bad job at all, with 36 points (28 from placed balls) contributed in the four of five matches he played up to then. Then the turning point arrived for Ryan against, of all teams, All-Ireland champions Kilkenny on Saturday, April 2.
The Dubs carved out a draw – 1-17 to the Cats' 3-11 – and Ryan hit 1-5, including a last-gasp equaliser. Next time out, he was in blistering form away to Cork. Dublin beat the Rebels by 1-15 to 1-14, with Ryan hitting 1-7, six from frees.
And then came that historic league decider against Kilkenny which the Dubs made memorable – none more so than Ryan. He was the Blues' leading scorer on the day with 0-9, five from frees, as Daly's men defeated Kilkenny by 0-22 to 1-7.
"I was lucky enough to get a few good scores in 2011 in a couple of really tough games where I had to put them over, and then I kind of came to fruition. I got a few pressure frees and the confidence just builds. It's all about confidence really for a free-taker," says Ryan.
He went on to end the campaign as leading scorer in the hurling championship with 2-47 (53 points) on the board, six clear of nearest challenger Patrick Horgan of Cork. Ryan also played in the All-Ireland semi-final when a depleted Dublin ran Tipperary to within four points.
Last year proved to be the reverse side of the coin, as Dublin were relegated from the top division, and were finished in the championship in July. This year, renewed and re-motivated, they have set out their stall, and have the Walsh Cup and Division 1B trophies in their possession.
The league semi-final defeat to Tipp is put down to experience, and the next challenge is the Dubs' first Leinster championship outing against Wexford away. Ryan's mettle and his concentration will be fully tested in that game, as they are in every match, so I had to ask him: are free-takers born, or are they made?
In Ryan's case, he says the task just came natural to him from an early age. "I suppose I always stepped up to the mark for frees. I liked taking them, and then through all the teams from a very young age, I always took them.
"But when you come up on to the county team, you have to prove yourself because there's five or six lads there who can take them."
Any free-taker loves to get those 20-metre frees into the net. Ryan did that to perfection against Limerick in the Division 1B final, slamming a trademark blaster off his favoured left side for an important goal en route to finishing the game with a personal tally of 1-8.
Measuring risk/reward in those situations can only come with hard-earned experience, some of it good, some of it bad.
"You can get a bit excited if you're 20 metres out. You have to look at the scoreboard and see how the game is going, if you're up or if you're behind, and then you have to make the decision. The one against Limerick, I don't think they were expecting it.
"I kind of felt that about them, and the sun was in their eyes as well.
"You kind of weigh up different options and that's how you make a decision.
"They had a bit of momentum at the time, so if I missed it, it would have been terrible. I just took the chance and thank God it came off."