Ryan's reign built on solid foundations
THE No 7 knew little about the No 10 and wasn't really all that interested in finding out. He's good enough to be on a team for the All-Ireland final, so he must be handy. Best play it off the cuff after that.
That was Gerry McInerney's approach to the impending challenge as he lined up for the 1988 All-Ireland hurling final, where Galway were trying to win the two-in-a-row for the first time.
Tipperary had qualified for the final for the first time since 1971 and while most of their players were well known, the 20-year-old right half-forward was in his first season.
His name? Declan Ryan.
"I knew nothing about him other than he had forced his way into the Tipperary team, so he must be good. The whole focus for the Galway defence that day was to make sure that Conor Hayes got as much support as possible against Nicky English in around the goal. We saw English as the main threat, so Cyril Farrell had it drilled into us that we were to close down the space around himself and Hayes," said McInerney.
It worked well. Hayes did a tight marking job on English, while the rest of the Galway defence mopped up most of the breaking ball close to the square, thus denying Tipperary goal-scoring opportunities. However, with Galway concentrating so much on not conceding goals, more room was created further out.
It opened up some avenues for Declan Ryan, who helped himself to four points. Not that McInerney had a bad game. On the contrary, he was extremely effective, driving forward with trademark flamboyance, picking off two points which would prove so important in a game that Galway won by four points.
"Ryan was smart that day. We were dropping back to cover the full-back line so there were times when the ball came back out into a bit of space. He was there and got a few points that way. When I got a chance to get into space, I went forward too and got two points, which I was happy about. Ryan was a very good young player that year and you could see that he would go on to have a great career," said McInerney.
That career yielded Ryan every honour that hurling could bestow and now he's trying to emulate his playing achievements as a manager with his first All-Ireland examination now just two days away.
Hopefully, he's not superstitious, because, if he is, he will have noticed that his first senior final as a player ended in defeat on September 4, the same date as his first All-Ireland test as a manager.
It's a mere coincidence, unlike the rest of Ryan's career, which has now taken him into a most unusual position. He is one win away from leading Tipperary to their first All-Ireland double for 46 years, while at the same time being one defeat away from the piercing gaze of a very demanding county.
That's because he inherited Tipperary as All-Ireland champions, unlike his predecessor, Liam Sheedy, who had to build the team carefully over a few seasons.
Sheedy took some critical barbs along the way, especially after the hammering by Cork in last year's Munster championship, but it all came right a few months later when Tipperary not only won the All-Ireland final, but also wrecked Kilkenny's five-in-a-row dreams.
It's unusual for winning All-Ireland managers to sign off, but work pressures persuaded Sheedy to opt out, leaving Tipperary with the crucial decision as to who would replace him. Luckily, it wasn't nearly as complicated as might be the case in some other counties.
Even as rumours circulated that Sheedy would not be continuing, Ryan's name surged to the front of the contender list. An outstanding pedigree as a player was decorated by a successful managerial stint with Tipperary minors, several of whom are now central figures on the senior side. With Tommy Dunne, who also knew the young players extremely well, having coached them as minors and U-21s, it seemed a natural fit for the pair, plus Michael Gleeson, to take over.
Ryan's response to being sought for the senior role was sensibly pragmatic. "You never know if you'll be asked to take on the job again, do you? So you have to take your chance when it arrives," he said.
Besides, if he had declined the invitation and waited for the opportunity to come at some future date, he might not have the same level of talent at his disposal.
Ryan held on to most of the backroom team that worked so well during the Sheedy regime, ensuring a smooth transition of power.
Ryan and Dunne had played alongside Brendan Cummins, Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett on the 2001 All-Ireland senior winning side so, between that and his relationship with the players they had guided to the All-Ireland minor title in 2007, the new management weren't exactly strangers when they walked into the Tipperary dressing-room for the first time.
Ryan sees his role mainly as a facilitator, the man who ensures all the jigsaw pieces slot together.
"If everyone else is doing his job, the manager's role is less important," he said.
So far, the script for the new management hasn't had a single ink stain. Three imposing performances in the Munster championship were followed by a much tougher challenge against the carefully-constructed resistance offered by Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was exactly what Tipperary required, presenting them with a genuine test (which they passed) and, at the same time, introducing some welcome reality.
That was essential, especially as Tipperary still have to negotiate the highest peak of all. Ryan dismisses the last two All-Ireland final clashes between Tipperary and Kilkenny as largely irrelevant on the basis that each final takes on a life of its own and is not linked to the past.
Nonetheless, he knows that this Tipperary side are one win away from a success not achieved since 1964-65 by icons such as John and Jimmy Doyle, 'Babs' Keating, Donie Nealon, Tony Wall, Mick Roche and Len Gaynor.
Will they achieve it? Time to check back with McInerney.
"I have a feeling Kilkenny will win. Chasing the two-in-a-row brings added pressures for Tipperary," he said. "Kilkenny will be ready for one big lash. They were favourites last year and all the talk was of five-in-a-row.
"It's more low-key for Kilkenny this year, which suits them. I'd fancy them to a have a few points to spare after a mighty game."