Tom Ryan’s reign in the 1990s was a colourful one as the Treaty stood on the precipice of All-Ireland success before coming up just short and the fall-out still leaves a bad taste a quarter of a century later
Tom Ryan was ‘no social animal’ by his own admission. The idea of forging personal relationships with his players held no appeal for him.
“I don’t think I ever phoned a player when I was manager … or that a player ever phoned me,’ he asserts, with Charles Hanley left to deal exclusively with communications. A lifelong Pioneer, he had no great reason to visit many pubs.
“You’re considered an oddball,” he suggests, the Irish tendency to consider non-drinkers as somehow suspicious something he is acutely aware of. The manager of a factory on Thomas Street in Limerick city, Ryan’s professional life made demands on his time that required a strict demarcation between it and his inter-county responsibilities.
Distant to the point of being indifferent about players’ personal lives, he zealously stressed the importance of impartiality. For the period of time that they could be called his players, there would need to be some kind of a significant bond there, nevertheless.
“I brought them out into the middle of the pitch in the Gaelic Grounds,” he recalls of an early encounter, “and I told them, ‘I can’t guarantee that we’ll win a match, but everyone sitting here tonight is of equal importance.’ I hated people having favourites.”
Mark Foley’s unforeseen rise into the senior panel (and his ability to stay there) owed much to Ryan’s philosophy of fairness. “After a week or two training,” Foley remembers, “Tom pulled me aside. ‘You’re in here because you’re good enough. Don’t think you’re here to make up the numbers’.”
Although his championship debut would not arrive until 1995, the Adare native was made to feel a part of things from the very beginning. “Even though he was trying to win an All-Ireland with Limerick at that stage,” Foley explains, “Tom was determined to help every player in what they could do to improve.”
Despite this determination to nurture players, however, Ryan remained most comfortable at a remove.
“I wasn’t there to be loved. I didn’t give a damn what they thought of me.” A master motivator from his days with Ballybrown, he was as happy if his players hurled well only out of a desire to spite him.
“Not one of my players ever invited me to their wedding,” he remarks, no ounce of regret or sadness in his voice. “I’d be under no illusions what they thought of me.”
Married a few years after Ryan had drafted him into the Limerick panel, Foley is not convinced it was a lack of fondness for their manager that resulted in players often mirroring Ryan’s indifference back to him.
“All I can say is that if I thought Tom Ryan would’ve enjoyed one second of being at my wedding,” he says with a laugh, “I would have asked him. Yes, he was the boss, but there was a huge respect there. He wanted to do everything possible to win for Limerick. You have to respect that.”
After all, at the root of everything for Tom Ryan was Limerick. Perhaps he did not want the job when his name was put forward, but Ryan scarcely seems a man who will do what he does not want to do. The ‘F**k You’ he reserved for the county board would only have carried him so far.
Whatever reluctance did exist disappeared. Once in the door, it was his top priority to win an All-Ireland. Or second, maybe! “You represent Limerick when you put on that jersey,” he states, the importance of that detail, something he carried from his own playing days. “I wanted us all to represent Limerick accordingly. I insisted on that first and foremost.”
“I was dealing with a group of Russians,” utters Ryan, the political engineering within Limerick GAA an able match for the Soviet-era Kremlin. Across the 15 championship fixtures he oversaw as Limerick manager, Ryan’s team won all but five of them.
In that 1994-97 tenure, only Clare and Offaly, All-Ireland winners in three of the four years, won more games. Twice Munster champions, only a relative handful of Limerick hurlers from previous decades had enjoyed such success.
Undoubtedly of lesser importance, the National League was still won in 1997, too. “Ultimately, the history books will record in black and white the names of those counties that won All-Irelands,” Ger Hegarty states matter-of-factly, relative success holding little sway when he reflects on Limerick’s failure to achieve their ultimate goal.
It is an outlook Ryan understands, if not exactly one he shares. Nevertheless, coming from a former player of his and one directly involved in the struggle for success, Ryan can stomach it.
Nobody wants to be on the losing side, especially when you had worked so hard to come so close to winning. No, the gnarled aspect of Ryan’s outlook on his years in charge owes more to those who felt entitled to share in the grief of Limerick’s losses without first offering something worthwhile to the cause.
As Ryan foresaw when taking on the role of Limerick manager in late 1993, sooner or later, he was bound to collide with the people whose motives he never properly trusted anyway.
One of Limerick hurling’s most successful managers, Ryan has a few things left to say about the county board.
Playing and coaching have always gone hand-in-hand for Ryan.”‘I was managing teams from about eight years of age,” he insists, laughing at how incredulous it sounds.
“You couldn’t make it up – I was always in a kind of managerial role … captain, trainer, selector … and player all at the same time.”
A formidable enough hurler to represent Limerick in the successful 1973 All-Ireland final, the same tough exterior that would characterise his managerial demeanour was already there in the player.
“Ballybrown were playing Patrickswell, and Tom was a bit injured, so they threw him in at full-forward,” Liam Lenihan recalls hearing of the man he soldiered through the 1990s with as a Limerick selector.
“Now, Tom’s mother happened to be in hospital at this time and the Patrickswell goalie came out just before the match started.
“‘How’s your mother getting on Tom?’ Well, Tom just looked at him. ‘If you don’t stay inside in your goal, you’ll be within in the hospital and can ask her yourself’.”
It was not toughness alone that defined him, however. If Ryan often seemed content to keep the outside world at bay, it was only because he had a lot on his mind. No more than Paul Kinnerk or his like today, coaching and management occupied an incredible amount of Ryan’s thinking time.
Although he has enjoyed watching Limerick win All-Irelands in recent years, he is quick to share his distrust of the ‘showbiz’ surrounding the modern game. “It’s not hurling at all,” he remarks of the style Kinnerk has Limerick playing.
And yet, stylistic preferences aside, it is impossible to look back on Ryan’s time in charge and not take into consideration how close he came to doing what Limerick have only recently managed to achieve.
The extraordinary work Kinnerk has done to become an elite hurling coach has been vindicated in Limerick’s success. The same strenuous effort put in by Ryan has been largely forgotten in defeat.
“We had a supreme sports team, and we were classed as losers,” he states. “It is a sore point for me.” Although, by Ryan’s admission, the county job was not on his radar in late 1993, it was a role he had spent most of his life preparing for, in one way or another.
A fanatical sports fan, from a very young age he had been captivated by teams and individuals that had excelled beyond the world of GAA. Born in 1944, he was fortunate to be coming of age during a relative flurry of high-profile rugby matches in Ireland.
“I based a lot of my own theories on the All Blacks,” he explains, the 19-year-old Ryan well-placed when New Zealand took on Munster in Thomond Park in 1963. “I looked at them and thought to myself, what have they got that makes them so special?
“I studied them and found that their speed, their aggression, and their determination, put together with the skills that they had … that became the basis of my whole coaching and managerial concept.’
At the beginning of that same year, as England was overrun by extreme winter weather conditions, another inspirational figure of his, Matt Busby, was guiding Manchester United through a series of exhibition matches in Ireland to keep his players active.
Avidly researching what he could about coaching, the ability to improve a player’s performance level has always fascinated him. Closer to home, Seán Boylan in Meath captured Ryan’s imagination in later years.
“I love Boylan,” he admits, “Mick O’Dwyer too. He was a rogue, but you need a bit of that as well.” Through the likes of Busby, Boylan, O’Dwyer, and indeed, Alex Ferguson also, Ryan identified, in their longevity, a shared characteristic to be prized.
Each had found a way to balance the demands of managing down toward the players and up toward the decision-makers across years and years in their respective roles.
The success which ultimately eluded Ryan may have helped him navigate dealings with the decision-makers better, but he may well argue that not one of Busby, Boylan, O’Dwyer or Ferguson had to deal with the Limerick County Board.
Little under one week after the 1996 All-Ireland final defeat to Wexford, Ryan was summoned to a meeting at the Gaelic Grounds to discuss his future as Limerick hurling manager. Or so it was written, anyway.
“Nobody summoned Tom Ryan to any meeting,” he states definitively. “I’m one man you wouldn’t summon to a meeting. The Irish Independent had been fed this information, you see, so I rang the county secretary, Jimmy Hartigan.
“‘Tell me, what’s this I’m reading this morning about being summoned to a meeting? What’s that about?’ He replies, saying, ‘Well, haven’t we a meeting scheduled?’ I told him that we had, but I hadn’t been summoned to it.”
Following Limerick’s second All-Ireland final defeat in three years, tensions were fraught among county board members. Although it was routine for such a meeting between the officials and the management team to meet at season’s end, the ‘summoning’ of Ryan to said meeting indicated that relations were now far from cordial.
“They were trying to be clever, you see, but I knew who I was dealing with,” explains Ryan. “So, I said to Hartigan, ‘With any meeting, the first thing we have to have is an agenda.’ I told him that I wanted that agenda on my desk by 5pm or there would be no meeting.
“So, they panicked. About six of them got together very quickly and they put down their thoughts in writing. That was a mistake. They did it so hurriedly that they even printed the mistakes just so they could have it out.”
Unbeknownst to all involved, the infamous ’20 Questions’ were about to be asked.
Mike Fitzgerald, one of the three county board members who had sat with Ryan on the night he had been appointed manager in the Woodlands Hotel three years earlier, explained to Henry Martin in more precise detail how this regrettable document came into being: “It was felt, rather than having an ad hoc discussion, that there should be an element of control to the meeting and ask the management five or six questions. Some of the officers were missing on the night, and when it finished up, it was felt that they should be consulted if they had anything to add.
“The list of questions finished up at 20 and some of them were sensitive. Some of them were a bit petty and should never have been put down in print. They should have been summarised into four of five questions. They were never meant to be an official document.”
The unintentional nature of these questions being put to paper is reflected in the mistakes Ryan referenced being printed on the final document. Dated Monday 9, September, Martin’s Unlimited Heartbreak provides a complete run-down of the questions that the Limerick County Board wanted answered:
1. Why did we lose the match?
2. Were Tom’s selectors privy to all plans associated with the team?
3. The exact role of Dave Mahedy?
4. Are the hurley carriers justified when players on the panel have to go up on the stand?
5. Why was Mike Galligan not included in the first six after it was indicated he could not play games prior to the All-Ireland and was told by Dave Mahedy that he may be on from the start if Owen O’Neill was not fit?
6. Were the players given any instruction with regard to decorum and behaviour for the final? Dave Mahedy was present while it (the behaviour prior to the throw-in) was happening.
7. Why was it (the behaviour prior to the throw-in) allowed to happen? What happened on the Monday night prior to the final?
8. Players pestered for tickets – What was done about it?
9. Lack of punctuality during the weekend.
10. Why did the team come out so quickly after half-time?
11. When Sandra (Marsh, Limerick GAA PRO) asked Tom re: Shaws jerseys was referred to Dave Mahedy who said ‘We are getting f**k all from Shaws.’
12.Is there a necessity for the two girls Cora and Sinéad?
13.Involvement of three selectors in Kilmurray Lodge: re Munster final and All-Ireland final Monday?
14. Was there any pre-planning done in the event of a team losing a player on the day?
15. Do the selectors accept any responsibility for us losing the game?
16. Do they think that Dave Mahedy is the right man to train the team?
17. Does Tom (Ryan) feel that the best interests of Limerick Hurling are served by he continuing on as Manager of the Senior Hurling Team? This bunch of players have reached and lost 2 All-Irelands. Would it not be better to make a fresh start under a new Manager?
18. Was there any instruction given to Joe Quaid to vary the puck-out and make use of the extra man in the 2nd half?
19. Do ye think the players were treated properly?
20. Have any monies been handed out to any member of the management that has not since been given to the Supporters Club?
Time has not softened Ryan’s outrage over this incident. “They were a disgrace,” he declares, incredulous still at how he and his backroom team were treated by the county board. “I walked in and the whole Politburo were there, all 14 of them sitting around a table.
“‘If you think that I’ll answer these questions, ye are making a big mistake. You can shove them up your f*****g arse’.
“That was the language I used. I didn’t spare them.”
‘Limerick: A Biography in Nine Lives’ by Arthur James O’Dea is published by Hero Books and is available in all good bookstores (and also on Amazon as an ebook €9.99, paperback €20 and hardback €25)