Friday 20 October 2017

Summit

It is almost 21 years since Down man Joe McGrath was parachuted into the position of Waterford hurling manager.

A perhaps apocryphal tale from the time relates that the county board baulked at a request to provide two hurls for every member of the panel; stupidity in those days didn't distinguish between blazer and tracksuit.

Waterford would lose a championship match to Kerry under Georgie Leahy in 1993 and after Tony Mansfield's brief stint a couple of seasons later, the Deise would look beyond their borders.

Since then, the policy has been unquestionably successful, if emotionally over-wrought.

From Gerald McCarthy's gentle inculcation of belief, through Justin McCarthy's stoic implanting of skills and tactics that ended in a welter of recrimination, then Davy Fitzgerald's often divisive fire and brimstone, Waterford have emerged from the darkness.

But they remain blinded by the view of the summit. And so, impecunious once more -- we hear mournfully from secretary Timmy O'Keeffe that they may not be able to feed the players -- the Deise top brass turn to home and a man who can boast a record of involvement with 31 All-Ireland winning teams.

His accent may be seemingly more akin to Gift Grub then the gift of management, but it would be churlish to ignore what lies beneath 58-year-old Michael Ryan, the latest man slated to bring the Liam MacCarthy Suirside for the first time since 1959.

Two of the country's best hurlers, Mullinahone's Eoin Kelly and De La Salle's John Mullane, both beseeched him to train their respective club teams; this year, only a hurling classic of its age arguably denied Ryan's De La Salle a potential 32nd All-Ireland title after losing a thrilling semi to Clarinbridge.

Ryan won so many All-Ireland titles with the lady footballers from Ballymacarbry and Waterford that they are measured in gluts; when he was done with them, he did the same trick with Laois, before falling short with Dublin in the same year De La Salle were scything through Munster.

Did we mention he won the Inter-pros with Munster in '07 too? Ryan probably would, if only to iron out a kink in others' perceptions of him.

Justin McCarthy had him as a selector in 2007 and, with enough conspiracy theories about his relationship with De La Salle players to form a tribunal of inquiry, it is easy to see why Waterford's love for Ryan hasn't always been as enthusiastic as it should be.

When he was first interviewed for the Waterford job, he sat on his hands as the majority of the committee gushed praise upon Fitzgerald's shoulders, rendering his application academic.

Friends told him he was wasting his time, but Ryan wanted what was best for Waterford hurling; hearing his voice was an important facet of that and he was content to bide his time.

This time around, his passage seemed smoother once Fitzgerald decided to decamp to Clare. Or so it seemed.

With Kevin Ryan lurking in the wings -- the Carlow manager was reportedly invited back for interview within the last fortnight, despite initially being ruled out -- Michael Ryan still faced further obstacles beyond those of Peter Queally and Wexford football manager Jason Ryan. "There's great goodwill in the county now," insists Ryan, who recounts the 200-plus texts received since his appointment, beginning with Queally.

And Davy? "No," says Ryan. "Sure why would he? He's got his own worries now." Sod's law decrees the duo will enjoy early engagement in next year's championship. Ryan's decree on Waterford's fallibilities doesn't indict merely Fitzgerald, though.

"We've played some fantastic hurling, but we've never been consistent enough," he says. "Our fitness hasn't been good enough. Our skills haven't been good enough. Our attitude hasn't been good enough. We just haven't been good enough."

With Kilkenny and Tipperary jostling for the summit, these comments have stood alone as self-fulfilling prophecies this past decade since Waterford's Munster final breakthrough.

Ryan will demand more. He has always done so. A "very average" hurler himself, his twin brother Willie played opposite Brian Cody in the 1974 All-Ireland final, although their father had "absolute zero interest whatsoever in sport."

But he did inculcate in his sons a thirst for knowledge. Michael would spend countless miles traversing the counties in quiz-night combat with friend and former Waterford football manager John Kiely.

When St Augustine's convent in Dungarvan held a coaching seminar in 1978, nobody from Ryan's Fourmilewater club expressed any interest, so the moderate hurler went along for a look.

"I suppose I got kind of hooked," he almost sheepishly admits some 33 years down the line. A year later, he led his club to an intermediate title success against fierce rivals St Mary's.

Coaching has consumed him thereafter. And yet he styles himself more as a managerial figure, in the guise of say, Liam Sheedy, delegating to his hurling and conditioning experts.

"I remember an old San Francisco 49ers' coach saying that if it was all about fitness and strength, the army and navy would be in the final every year," he smiles. "We need more than that. We need to hurl. We need to want to win."

He bristles at those who sneer at his background in ladies football -- "leave 'em off." In truth, his recent hurling experience is easily more relevant, to which Kelly's South Tipp and Mullane's Munster champions can attest.

Even when turned down last year, Ryan believed Waterford would win an All-Ireland.

Now it is up to him to fulfil that faith on his own watch.

"If you always do what you always do, you'll always get what you'll always get," he says.

An overly simplistic epigram, perhaps. But given that Ryan is used to winning, one worth noting.

Irish Independent

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