Boxing Pat Ryan's first love, but county finalists Emo reaping the benefits of astute coaching
Boxing is Pat Ryan’s first love but he produced further evidence of his notable influence on Gaelic football when his Emo team frustrated Portlaoise’s bid for an expected ninth Laois senior football championship in succession on Sunday last.
Over 25 years Ryan has built a formidable, if understated, reputation managing and training football teams in Laois. His latest venture sees him pitted against his native club, with the replay taking place this weekend.
His greatest coaching accolade is in the ring, however, when seeing Michael O’Reilly, the Portlaoise boxer, win a European gold medal earlier this year. Ryan had O’Reilly under his wing since he was nine and for all involved in the Portlaoise Boxing Club, where Ryan has spent 34 years as a hugely respected coach, O’Reilly’s gold was an unrivalled achievement.
At the end of last month Ryan assumed the presidency of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association.
But football has benefited from him too as the records show. Emo is the third club he has led to a senior county final, following Ballyroan (three times) and Arles Killeen. He was successful on two occasions over two separate terms with Ballyroan, winning a first championship in 42 years in 1992 in his first year on board.
The Arles Killeen he mananged was denied by a goal by Portlaoise in 2013. If he engineers a win for Emo on Saturday, and bridges a 43-year gap, it will surpass all of his previous accomplishments.
So, the inevitable question, how do they compare: boxing and Gaelic football, obvious jokes aside? “Everything is a battle,” he starts, “the biggest battle is with yourself.” And then he remembers a story from when he was coaching the Irish team at the European Youth Championships in Hungary in 1995. The boxer concerned was Cathal O’Grady from Enfield, a future Irish champion.
“He was boxing a Hungarian. And before we went into the ring Cathal turned around to me and, doing an imitation of (Chris) Eubanks with a slight lisp, said, ‘no matter what happens there are two ways I am coming out of here: scraped off the floor, or a winner.’
He knocked out the Hungarian, But he had to come off the floor to do it. And the battle was of course walking those steps to the ring, climbing under the ropes. And when you can negotiate all that, the butterflies do fly away if you want them to. It’s no different to when you go out on to a football field and pick up the corner forward or the corner back. You have to get on with the job.”
That bravado may have been what Ballyroan found so refreshing when Ryan took up the post as manager in 1992. A small rural parish like Emo, they had a disproportionately high number of talented players including the former All-Star Liam Irwin.
Three county final defeats threatened to see that generation go unrewarded until, under Ryan, they won the championship for the first time since 1950.
In the Leinster club championship they put out Kilmacud Crokes and Clan na Gael from Louth before being narrowly beaten in the Leinster final by Eire Og, the eventual All-Ireland finalists. Ryan’s work did not go unheeded.
In 1996 he managed the Laois ladies senior team which reached the All-Ireland final, losing after a replay to Monaghan. He returned to manage Ballyroan in 2003, and in 2006 they became the last club outside of Portlaoise to win a Laois senior championship.
He followed that with three years as Portlaoise trainer, winning three Laois senior championships and a Leinster title in 2009, the only provincial success during their current eight-in-a-row county title run.
He has, more often than not, been preoccupied with the underdog. It is a small miracle that Emo can survive independently, let alone be bidding for a senior football championship. They have what Mick Lawlor, their veteran, calls “a country club ethos”.
A couple of lads fly home from England at the weekends and they rely on a small pool of home-grown players. They can’t house large egos and rely on the group dynamic even though they have some very good footballers. They know their time at this level may be fleeting.
The former Laois and Emo player Paddy Brophy invited Ryan on board last year, to help them find their feet in senior football after rising from intermediate. The Heath destroyed them by 13 points when this year’s championship started in August - from that unpromising start they have made the final.
“Christ we didn't see it coming (The Heath defeat),” says Ryan. “We met next morning, went into the field, looked each other in the eye and had an honest conversation. We made a decision on how we were going to go forward.”
On the day they met Arles-Kilcruise in the semi-finals, Ryan was in Ennis contesting the presidency of the IABA. He succeeded in winning the election but not being with the team made for a strange and difficult afternoon. He had no updates and the suspense was finally broken when his son raised a sign from the back of the conference hall announcing, ‘A Draw’.
The replay was fixed for the following Thursday evening and, with Ryan back on the sideline, Emo turned on the style, scoring three goals to qualify. There is little he doesn’t know about Portlaoise who went into the final as unbackable favourites. How does he prepare a team for that kind of challenge?
“The thing I would say about Emo is (that) there is a wonderful calmness about them. They don't really fear anyone. With the number of players we have we shouldn’t be able to compete. But when you get players in a small rural area, the way they are able to cement together - you have that kind of energy coming into it.”
It was Paddy ‘Hasper' Farrell, trainer of the Laois hurling team that reached the 1949 All-Ireland final, who persuaded Ryan to get involved in the local boxing club as a kid. While he coached boxing Ryan also helped out Portlaoise juvenile GAA teams. His son played hurling and football for the club. His fingerprints are everywhere. He also coached Malachy McNulty, the current Portlaoise manager.
Boxing, he says, relies on close relationships and trust. He recalls a deal he struck in 1990 with one of his proteges Mark Lacumber. The boxer made Ryan agree to quit smoking if he won a national juvenile title. Lacumber delivered and Ryan didn’t break his promise. He smoked his last Major on a tour with the Irish national team in the summer of that year.
Last week he watched in dismay as Michael O’Reilly lost in his bid to reach the next Olympics, losing a disputed points decision to an Egyptian opponent at the World Championships. Ryan watched the fight at home with his family. “People can make up their own minds but there is no doubt in my mind, or those with the knowledge of boxing, that it was a bad, bad call. But we will have to live with that. We have to go back to the drawing board now and restart the whole process to see if he can qualify.”
He loves boxing - the people, the discipline, the solitary spells, the way it forms character. His club has produced over 100 national champions in his time coaching and he also spent five years working as an assistant coach to Katie Taylor. He is eager to see boxing extend high performance units into all the provinces. He believes Ireland can be the top boxing nation in the world.
He mentions his wife Betty and their three children without whose support he wouldn’t be able to do what he loves. Their house is one of divided loyalty as he plots the downfall of his native Portlaoise, with a tiny club last successful in 1972. The odds may be terrifying, but they go, as they did on Sunday, proudly and without fear.