Sunday 20 October 2019

The coaching nomad who's aiming to take Kildare on epic journey

After whirlwind start to career in Wexford, Jason Ryan is enjoying his time as Kieran McGeeney's No.2

Jason Ryan is hoping the Lilywhites can bloom this summer – starting with the clash against Offaly on Saturday.
Jason Ryan is hoping the Lilywhites can bloom this summer – starting with the clash against Offaly on Saturday.

Liam Kelly

CHAMPIONSHIP 2013 – a new campaign, a new perspective and a new role for Jason Ryan as a coach/selector with Kildare.

The big difference is that no longer do people ask "Jason Who?" when his name crops up in GAA circles.

Ryan has forged a reputation as one of the brightest and best coaches in the game, courtesy of his five seasons as manager of Wexford's footballers.

That's no mean feat, considering in late 2007 when he was appointed to the job in Wexford, Ryan was only 31, and by accepting the position, he became the youngest inter-county manager in the country.

And would you believe, he had never previously managed a team of adults at any level?

No wonder Ryan found it a strange experience to be sitting in front of Wexford officials and offered the job as of being county senior football boss. That said, there was no question about his qualifications for a man who could be described as a sporting nomad in more ways than one.

The Cork-born coach, whose family moved to Waterford when he was eight, was a qualified PE instructor and had spent his adult years coaching teams in variety of sports and in a number of countries.

While he had experience of coaching adults, most notably at Clongeen, who won the Wexford county football title in 2007, he had yet to experience the actual management of adult teams.

BRILLIANT

So, here he was, getting the opportunity to fill that gap in his CV.

Ryan recalls: "Clongeen won the senior football that year. That was great fun, a brilliant experience.

"A few weeks after they won, I got a phonecall from the chairman of the Wexford county board, asking would I meet him for a chat.

"I did that and then met up with a committee and got offered the job.

"It was a bit surreal. It was hard to comprehend what we were actually talking about. I had never managed an adult team, so the first adult team I managed was a county team.

"Wexford had got to a National League final in 2005, they'd been in the previous four Leinster semi-finals. They had been a Division 1 football team two years prior to that, so it was all a bit crazy.

"The Clongeen connection got me the job. There's absolutely no doubt about it. At the time it would have been a few weeks after my 31st birthday. Looking back, they (Wexford) took an incredible risk.

"I often think, if it hadn't gone well – and I'm not saying it went well, there were some good days and there were some days I'd prefer not to think about – it could have put football in the county back years.

"Before me, working backwards, Paul Bealin did a good job; Pat Roe did some fantastic things with them, so it would have been a shame for it to go back again.

"In some ways, maybe the fact that they'd done well and I had tough acts to follow added pressure to what I tried to do, but yeah, I still shake my head wondering how I got the job."

There was also the issue of facing the players. Was that a problem for him?

"I was shaking inside because I'd never spoken to a group of adults asking them to do things," says Ryan. "I'd spoken at staff meetings and as a coach okay, but nothing like that.

"When you're dealing with players as a coach, you have a crutch there all the time. The manager is there and the manager often dictates what you say and what you don't say.

"Ger Fox, the Clongeen manager, was brilliant. He gave me a lot of freedom at Clongeen and I was grateful to him for giving me the opportunity, but I was daunted by meeting the Wexford players.

"The tactic I came up with was to meet them one by one, face to face, so then, when I eventually met them as a group, the ice had already been broken.

"I already knew who was who and that helped me get rid of any apprehension. It meant that when I met them as a group, I knew what I was going to have to work on.

"That was good to start with. From there on, I was able to develop, I'd like to think, some positive relationships with the players."

Fair comment, and it showed in results. On his watch, Wexford won a Division 3 title, they had two promotions, got to an All-Ireland semi-final in 2008 and contested two Leinster finals against Dublin.

Tantalisingly, Wexford had the Dubs on the ropes in 2011. They came agonisingly close to winning the provincial title, but it wasn't to be and Pat Gilroy's Dublin went on to win the All-Ireland.

Off-field, the media involvement that comes with being an inter-county manager was a new experience.

Here, too, Ryan was thrown into the deep end after his appointment.

He recalls: "It was my first radio interview. The first question I was asked was: 'What do you say to the Wexford people that are disappointed that Sean Boylan, Mick O'Dwyer, and so on weren't given the job?'

"And the second question was: 'what do you say to the people that are wondering, now that there's a former Waterford player in charge of the Wexford senior footballers, is there going to be a Mayo man in charge of the Wexford senior hurlers next year?'

"So, those were my first two questions. Nice one!"

NERVE

The interviewer may have touched a nerve at the time, but if Jason Ryan has a message for coaches and aspiring top level managers, it's this: "Don't limit your ambition just because you weren't an inter-county player or an All-Ireland winner."

He said: "Just because you've been an exceptional player doesn't mean you're going to be an exceptional coach and it doesn't mean you're going to be an exceptional manager.

"It may very well be that you're going to be a good coach, but there's no guarantee.

"That should be highlighted a lot more, especially with the clubs.

"Traditionally, clubs, when they go looking for coaches, they'll say: 'He was a good player, we'll bring him in.'

"And for kids, often they listen more if it's a good player in front of them.

"That shouldn't necessarily be the case. Sometimes you've got to earn your stripes as a coach or manager. There are some great examples out there. Look at Sean Boylan and what he achieved with Meath.

"I would recommend for people who want to get into coaching to start at the lowest level. Start with kids. They're a great challenge, because they're so impatient, they get bored so quickly, so you've got to be on your game to keep them interested.

"Another thing, do people upskill enough in the GAA or sport in general, or do we do the same thing over and over?

"I was doing a strength and conditioning course at Setanta College. A lecturer there came to one guy and asked him: 'How long have you been coaching for?

"And he said: 'Seven years.'

And then the lecturer said: 'Now, are you coaching for seven years or have you coached the same thing once, but then repeated it for seven years?'

"And, with that, a little light bulb went on in my head.

"If you keep doing the same thing, you're going to get the same results at best and the chances are that all the rest of it is not going to develop.

"I would say to aspiring coaches 'get confident, get experience, and try to get some success'," he concludes.

Ryan has walked the walk in that respect.

A hurler and footballer with the De La Salle club in Waterford, he played underage football and hurling for his county and also senior inter-county football with the Deise and with London.

He was also a soccer player with Waterford Bohemians as a schoolboy, and has always taken a broad view of learning from all kinds of sports.

Ryan played hurling and football in London during his time as a PE and biology student at St Mary's, Strawberry Hill in London, and did post-grad work there too.

Later, during a stint as a PE teacher and then as head of PE at Salesian School in Surrey, he coached athletics, soccer, cricket, basketball and rugby, and even had to get a trampolining qualification as part of the job specifications.

Ryan did plenty of travelling from his London base on school holidays, including a stint as a soccer coach with the MLS in the USA.

For four months he was attached to the San Jose Clash – now the Earthquakes. The job was to coach the soccer gospel on behalf of the MLS and his beat was the west coast, ranging from Sacramento down to an area close to San Francisco.

That soccer sojourn in the States perfectly illustrates the pilgrim's progress that has been Jason Ryan's fascinating coaching career to date.

However, his time with Wexford and now his involvement with Kildare has made Ryan a much sought-after figure who will be operating at the top level of gaelic games for a long time to come.

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