Wednesday 24 January 2018

Michael Ryan is a no-nonsense embodiment of substance over style

Michael Ryan's ethos reflects his upbringing at a club of modest means and no pretensions

Tipperary manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Pakie Ryan died earlier this year, while still president of Upperchurch-Drombane GAA club. An uncle of the Tipperary senior manager, Michael, he is fondly remembered. He had a glint in his eye and a glass-half-full outlook on life. He called Upperchurch home: a quiet rural village retreat, far from the madding crowd, postcard pretty.

Some years ago the club brought out a DVD in which Pakie was one of those asked to recall moments on their journey. The sound quality is poor, the production isn't deluxe, but it seems to chime with the story of a club of modest means and no pretensions. One where substance often reigned over style.

Manager of Tipperary Michael Ryan with County board PRO Joe Bracken, right, celebrates at the end of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Manager of Tipperary Michael Ryan with County board PRO Joe Bracken, right, celebrates at the end of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final game between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park, Dublin. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

They spent most years in junior and intermediate hurling and sometimes had to punch above their weight, pitted against bigger clubs, better players. Over time their reputation for tenacity and hard work became a trademark like their black and amber stripes. Any team with designs on becoming a better hurling outfit would not prosper on those attributes alone. But old habits die hard.

At one point in the DVD Pakie recalls a moment before they left the dressing room to play the famed Thurles Sarsfields. He'd just overheard a few of his players plotting to physically intimidate the opposing goalkeeper.

"I said, listen, we are going to play hurling and if we don't bate Sarsfields hurling then we don't play. I am fed up with 'the Church' fighting. We wouldn't bate flies off a cowshite, I said. We had a right (good) team that time."

Here in this scenic part of mid-Tipperary, surrounded by rolling green hills, Michael Ryan grew up and still lives. Anyone raised as a hurler here did not have it handy. They were surrounded by stronger, more illustrious rivals. Mostly it was about doing what they could with limited resources. In 1998 they won the county intermediate final against Ballybacon-Grange, one of their finest moments, and they've had brief spells in senior hurling, first making the grade in 1967. In 2009 they reached the mid-Tipp senior final for the first time and lost by three points to Drom & Inch, their neighbours, and later made the county semi-final, beaten by Sarsfields.

But most of their time has been living off more modest pickings. Paddy O'Riordan from Drombane is said to be responsible for the largest personal scoring feat in an All-Ireland hurling final when Tipp beat Kilkenny in the first decider on Jones' Road in 1895, before records were verified. Four Drombane hurlers were on the first All-Ireland winning team in 1887. The next All-Ireland senior medal winner from the club is believed to be Michael Ryan, 25 years ago, having only come on to the team that summer.

Ryan was interviewed on The Sunday Game that night in September 1991, from the team hotel, fresh-faced, 21 years old. The future looked bright. Tipp have won only two All-Irelands since. That would be his only medal. He is old enough to remember the lean times that preceded Tipp's resurgence under Babs Keating. He is well versed in their recent frustrations, having been hitched to the management teams of Liam Sheedy and Eamon O'Shea.

Here in Upperchurch they know him best. They admit that there were better hurlers at 12 and 13 in the parish but Ryan did not become a county player due to dazzling stickwork and fancy wrists. He improved when others stalled and maybe took things for granted. For two years he made the county minor and under 21 teams at both codes. His brother John was seen as the more gifted hurler, playing three years with the county minor hurlers, but Michael went on to have a bigger impact.

"Maybe John wasn't as athletic as Michael," says Conor O'Dwyer, the club chairman and former player who represented the county at senior football for several years. "And in fairness to Michael, he was very athletic and very good on his feet and had a great sense of timing in the tackle. I often think that if Mike Ryan played rugby he would potentially be an international because he was so strong and so good on his feet for a big man. Certainly, I would say Michael Ryan got every single thing out of himself."

O'Dwyer hopes Ryan will take over or contribute to the local team when his stint with Tipperary is done. Today will see the club provide the county manager and the team's full-back, James Barry, while the county chairman Michael Burke is from there as well.

"We aren't like some neighbouring clubs who are used to having guys playing with Tipperary every second year," says O'Dwyer. "When you go to Croke Park and you see the Upperchurch-Drombane name in brackets in the middle pages of an All-Ireland programme that's a nice feeling and it's not something we are regularly accustomed to."

Barry's father Seamus played for Tipperary, and another local hurler, Phil Lowry, won a league medal in the 1960s. But such honours are scarce. Most of their history was about survival, simple aims, keeping the club going. O'Dwyer's father, Jim, a club trustee, recalls the different fields they had to rely on before settling on a permanent home in Drombane in 1970. One had a river at the bottom where many a ball was lost.

They lived on stories. Pakie Phelan, who was part of the management team in 1998 and numerous teams in the past, tells of one player who arrived to a match under the influence and when told by the priest looking after the team to pull on the ball he admitted he was seeing two. The priest replied: "Well pull on one of them".

What did this parish have a reputation for?

"Drinking maybe," says Conor drily. "We'd have a reputation for pulling hard, wouldn't we Pakie?"

Pakie nods.

"Would it be fair to say that Michael Ryan would fit the mould of the traditional Upperchurch-Drombane hurler?" asks Conor

"He would," says Pakie. "Mike Ryan was a tough man."

What would visiting teams expect here?

"There would be no holding back," says Conor O'Dwyer. "They mightn't have the most talented players of all time but playing against them you'd know all about it. And still would, to be fair."

* * * * *

This is the environment that shaped Michael Ryan, who now works for a branch of Glanbia and also runs a farm, as well as helping to raise three girls, the last of whom has just started school, the eldest now in Leaving Cert year. All of these things offer perspective but he is well aware of the pressures of managing Tipperary, the expectations that follow the team, the curse of Kilkenny and Brian Cody.

He knows that when Kilkenny defeated Tipp in the decider seven years ago it was only their second All-Ireland final win over the Premier County since 1922. He knows how Tipp have lost four of the last five championship meetings, one a humiliation. He's been in plenty of losing dressing rooms. When Ryan took over from Eamon O'Shea he went about applying some of his own characteristics to the team, or the ones be believed in. He wanted deeper resilience. More substance. Tipp had the hurling, it was commonly accepted. So what was missing?

In Drombane we meet county chairman Michael Burke, Phil Lowry, who has been a club officer for almost 40 years, and John Shortt, who is a lifelong follower.

"I was vice-chairman of the board and we were in the dilemma when Eamon O'Shea was facing into his last year, we weren't sure had we him for the last year, but the then chairman Sean Nugent and myself decided that we would come up with something different," says Burke. "And we came up with the idea that Michael would be a manger-in-waiting for the last 12 months and work with Eamon. I see the transformation in so far as it is two different styles. Eamon O'Shea gave it 110 per cent, he gave it everything he had. Mike Ryan is the same. But two different people. Different characters. I would put Mike Ryan in the same mould as Brian Cody, from the little I know of Brian Cody. From the amount I have seen of Mike Ryan in action this year he has a serious attitude. He is very frank and direct. And he doesn't mince his words. He calls it as he sees it. And the players have huge respect for him for that.

"Most managers are appointed in October and November and you are into training a week after. Mike had time to pick his backroom team, the people he wanted, and he wasn't afraid to do that. There were some eyebrows raised when Denis Leamy, the former rugby international, joined the backroom team. But he has made a huge contribution as well. There is a side of Mike's character that if he feels somebody can add something to the team he will bring them in."

Phil Lowry talks of life growing up in the parish and being surrounded by big names, like Holycross and Moycarkey. "Most of my hurling life we were intermediate, we never made senior. But having said that, we tried and tried, and people before me, the people who were involved nearly killed themselves trying. We had players but we hadn't enough of them."

At a county convention in the late 1980s they decided to go back down to intermediate for their own good. It took until '98 to get back up again. "In that intervening period we had some great divisional wins, some great matches, the parish was alive with hurling," says Burke. "But it took longer than we expected. We celebrated in '98, it meant so much, 58 went to the Canaries for a holiday afterwards."

Burke has seen Ryan's work close at hand since taking over from O'Shea. "He set out his stall with the players, from day one, with a clear message; how it was going to be. He brought them all together and his backroom team and went through all that very clearly."

And what did he expect, essentially?

"Honesty. You have to be truthful to what we are trying to get out of you. And if you do it well we'll get the best out of you. We'll put everything in place to ensure that comes out of you. But at the end of the day, the manager has to be the boss.

"From my point of view, being from the same club is great but it can have its downside. After being appointed one of the first things he said to me was, 'I expect you to be the first to tell me when I need to go. You have to be honest enough to tell me'."

Phil Lowry knows that there were people who doubted the wisdom of Ryan's appointment, seeing greater benefits in a clean break from previous management structures.

"I would say people from outside here would have said, 'ah we're on for more of the same'. Like what we had with Eamon O'Shea, and we are not running down Eamon O'Shea, but we knew it would be something different. He would have a different attitude."

Burke interjects: "We weren't sure if Eamon was going to stay on and we needed him for another year so to get the whole jigsaw in place, he would help prepare Mike for a year - it was just something different. Sunday will tell whether it works or not. At this point I think it will work."

John Shortt says be brings a more direct style of hurling. "But you need a bit of everything. I mean it didn't seem to be working the last day (against Galway), direct hurling worked in the Munster final, long balls into the square caused panic."

Ryan is the eighth manager to serve Tipp since Cody took over. The team Ryan has been building is with a mind to facing Kilkenny at some defining point in their journey. Burke says they could not have prepared better and he raises the point that the last Tipp minor-senior double, back in 1949, had a local hurler, Willie Perkins, on the minor team. That may be a good omen.

"There is a huge desire to win," says Burke. "Now you are playing Kilkenny, They are master craftsmen at winning."

"I think we need to win," says Lowry. "We have been there or thereabouts and we need to win this."

Shortt sees it no differently than any day a Tipp team takes the field: "If you don't need to win, what's the point? We need to win both of them actually. We have an exceptionally good minor team. But then we had an exceptionally good minor team when Michael was on it (1987) and Offaly bet us."

Do you think they will win, John"

"I do."

Kilkenny's reputation not a worry? "If we are afraid of their reputation we shouldn't be there. Okay you have to respect them what they've done for the last 15 years."

Lowry thinks of 2010 and leaving Thurles after winning the All-Ireland under 21 title by a landslide margin, a week after winning senior. James Barry was part of the under 21 success and optimism levels were sky-high.

"I thought we'd have five won by now," he says.

* * * * *

Pakie Phelan is full of mischief, and at any stage might recite some old club ballad or tell another yarn. But now he is asked to call it. "Tipp will win it," he says earnestly, "but it'll be a close one."

Why? "Because Mike Ryan has physicality put into them. And they'll stand up to Kilkenny. This time." There is a long pause. "It'll be a awful defeat if we don't win it." Why is that?

"Because it'll set them back a bit."

Conor O'Dwyer expects a close match, with Tipp winning. "I think Tipperary have more talent than Kilkenny. And if they can match them for physicality then I think they will win it. I think the addition of John McGrath in particular has given them more cutting edge but they certainly need to improve on where they were against Galway; that won't beat Kilkenny."

On the club's DVD, Hurling in the Hills, some kids are asked for their impressions of a county final win as they leave the match venue. Giddy as a goat, one young lads tells of the impact of his cousin Sean Purcell. "My cousin Sean Purcell came on as a sub," he says breathlessly, "he got the winning point and his back was busted!" The veracity of this cannot be checked at this point, nor does it really need to be. All that needs to be appreciated is that in Upperchurch-Drombane a man who comes on to score a winning point in a county final is one thing; a man who does it with a busted back is a hero for life.

In more recent years football has made a greater impression and the junior win of 2002 was followed by intermediate success last year for the first time. They are now a senior football club and the mid final against Loughmor-Castleiney is only a fortnight away.

"So," says Conor O'Dwyer, "we are hoping in two weeks' time we will be mid senior football champions, ironically enough after trying to win one in hurling. We have never won a senior hurling title or a senior divisional hurling title. Every year starts with that ambition to win a mid senior hurling title, we have never managed it."

But first the small matter of today.

Michael Ryan, had he not the job he has, would be taking to the field at half-time, in his best suit, waving to the crowd and nicely relaxed. Who would have thought that of the players that won that All-Ireland, beating Kilkenny 25 years ago, he would be where he is now. Or that Tipp would. Or Kilkenny for that matter. In that final he is seen thundering out with the ball, breaking through tackles, winning frees, the kind of rallying interventions that lift teams and winds up a crowd by appealing to something undeniably raw and primal.

He can't hurl for Tipp today. But if the team can bring what he offered on the field then he may achieve something even greater outside the white lines. If he gets one over on the greatest manager hurling has known, then Ryan, the embodiment of substance over style, will have had his finest hour.

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