'We can't sit today thinking that everything is right. We've got to keep striving'
TJ Ryan endures sleepless nights covering every base in bid to keep Treaty rising clear of troubled past
The easy thing for TJ Ryan would have been to run, to declare his love for Limerick hurling as eternal, but not blind.
With fresh strife over-running their story last April, nobody with a conscience could have blamed him. In a county so prone to conflict that one row was becoming indistinguishable from another, he could have been forgiven a glance towards the same door through which his co-manager was about to exit.
That thought had to occur to him sitting in the Mackey Stand with Donal O'Grady, the evening of the National League semi-finals, as they discussed the Corkman's imminent departure.
An underwhelming league campaign had stirred up sparks of absurd county board vexation and Limerick were now headed for an opening Munster championship title defence against Tipperary in Thurles. A Tipperary team, seemingly, reacquainted with its mojo.
The outlook was bursting at the seams with compelling reasons to run.
Yet, for Ryan, the tug of Limerick hurling has been as strong and constant as the pull of gravity. His first act that night was to reiterate through an email to players that the following week's training arrangements would not be compromised. His second was to remind himself to breathe.
So here he stands now in charge of Limerick, with everything that entails. With its smoky history, its stories of devout rascals and drinkers and back-stabbers. With its riddle of the lost U-21s, its habitual anarchies, its 20 questions for Tom Ryan, its dressing-room war with Justin McCarthy, its perpetual sense of a county programmed to strike matches around gas leaks.
Ryan's life with the county has been soaked through with all of that chaos. He was 19 and a first-year debutant in '94 when they did their 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not' disappearing trick, having had one hand on Liam MacCarthy. And, for the next 12 years, he hurled harder than any man to rinse away the debris.
So he knows full well why the broader populace doesn't quite trust Limerick hurling. He recognises the scepticism behind outwardly friendly eyes. Limerick, the team that never truly functions without a full moon overhead, haven't won the MacCarthy Cup since '73. Who would bet on them winning it any time soon?
For Ryan, the gospel can only be sold in increments. Win tomorrow in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and they will have claimed back-to-back Munster titles for the first time in 33 years. A big ask? Well, beating Tipp in Thurles on June 1 was their first time to down the hosts in the championship at Semple Stadium for 41 years. Yep, 1973.
Little wonder, he was inclined to upbraid Limerick's doubters in the aftermath.
Ryan tries to explain now. "I wouldn't say it was a lack of respect, maybe being written off," he says. "It wasn't really directed at the national side of things, it was maybe more directed at home. These guys here (local journalists) would maybe know more about that.
"Like, there definitely was a bit of that. That's external stuff, it doesn't work every day and as far as I'm concerned it's definitely gone now. I probably understand a fair bit about betting myself and, to be honest, I thought they (bookies) got it wrong. I didn't think Tipp were 2/7 shots. It's 4/9 Cork now and I think they would probably be favourites to beat anybody at home.
"They're entitled to be favourites probably. They came within seconds of being All-Ireland champions. That's what we are facing now. I have to be fair. This time round I think it's probably right."
Beating Tipp lifted a weight. Had their defence of the provincial title perished limply at the first hurdle, Limerick hurling would probably be back where decades of prejudice happily consigns it. Now, suddenly, O'Grady's departure seems distant history.
Shane Dowling was quoted this week as saying: "I wouldn't say it had much of an effect really," and there was certainly no doubting the positivity radiated against Tipp.
Ryan, the county's U-21 manager last year and a senior selector for O'Grady's first Limerick coming in 2011, looked every inch the man in charge.
"Ah it was huge," he says of that victory. "Because I suppose in sport, when you win, it doesn't really matter how you did it. If you were basically doing sets above in the Gaelic Grounds, it would have been right now. Whereas, when you lose, everything gets questioned.
"It was probably just getting that out of the way. I knew what we were doing was right. I was happy the way we were going, happy with the preparation. But, I suppose just to get a bit of a monkey off the back, to say to people, 'maybe he does know what he's doing', there was a little bit of that alright."
Ryan's is a plain, no-frills style of communication, yet there was a hint of left-field thinking to their preparation for Tipp with some players taking to quoting US basketball legend John Wooden – otherwise known as 'The Wizard of Westwood' – afterwards.
Google the man and you encounter a tsunami of motivational wall mottoes. Ryan was a young player the last time Limerick defended a Munster senior title. That was '97 and they ended up losing their manager as well as the cup.
How champions comport themselves is important to him, hence the appeal of selling a Wooden message.
"Yeah, maybe myself and a couple of players had gone on the record about that the last time," he smiles. "Winning takes talent, repeating it takes character. We can use that now.
"We probably knew from last year that the mentality is there, but it is difficult. We need to make sure that the heads are right, that we prepare right, that training is right. That's really what we've been about the last number of weeks.
"I suppose you can never say confidently with Limerick (that things are coming together) with its history. At the same time, I would say this is a good period. To have minors and seniors in the Munster final two years in a row is a good achievement. There's a lot of good people doing an awful lot of good work in Limerick, definitely.
"But, we can't sit today thinking that everything is right. We've got to keep striving, keep looking for improvements."
He is disarmingly candid about the psychological challenge of overseeing that work now as, essentially, the public face of Limerick hurling. Inter-county management swallows great lakes of a man's time, sometimes even more voraciously than he might fully understand. Ryan openly admits to sleepless nights trying to pick the right team or plot the right game plan.
"Absolutely!" he says. "I don't know how to work this... basically you're entangled deep into something. It doesn't matter whether it's work or sport or whatever you are involved in, when you go down and put the head on the pillow at night and you are picking teams.
"Or I am driving through villages and I don't remember it (driving through) because you are trying to move fellas from corner-forward to wing-forward.
"And that might sound funny, but I think anybody who has done that and got involved in it, that does happen.
"To say this is easy street is phhhhhhh (exhaling loudly), far from it!"
But that very entanglement is still the thing that draws him?
"I suppose it probably is," he says. "Being involved in teams and playing, being involved in hurling the whole time. Now when you come closer to a game, management's role is to make sure that you cover every situation/scenario that can possibly arise on a given day. You try and sit down at night and feel comfortable that you have it covered.
"In fairness to the group of players we have, a couple of things went against us (the last day) and we responded very well to them. You'd take a lot of comfort from that and say all these things you went through were worth it.
"Conceding a goal straight after half-time, getting a goal that was disallowed – in fairness to the players they didn't let it affect them. You take a bit of satisfaction from that but, at the same time, you can't rest now. It's the next game and the next game and the next game."
You can learn a lot about a man from his heroes and Ryan, a big National Hunt fan, chooses Tony McCoy when asked which sports person he most admires. From this, we can surely deduce a liking for tough, inscrutable competitors.
So, for all the fire he will hope to generate from Limerick tomorrow, he knows too it will serve them best if delivered through unemotional eyes. He was a supporter in the Gaelic Grounds last year when John Allen led them to a first Munster senior crown in 17 years. This occasion will ask him, essentially, to be a different person.
"I wouldn't say I am in a bubble," he reflects. "I understand fully what is going on. I've been at loads of Munster finals and they are great days, great occasions to be a part of, but really the occasion is for the fans. It's a working day for us. I'll probably enjoy it on the bus going home if we've won the game.
"But us, as a backroom team, we'd be hard on ourselves, maybe looking for little edges all the time. So big pressure. It will probably be back to the sleepless nights again, basically looking and counting and seeing every player and every movement and trying to make sure you are ahead of the game. It's not easy. It's difficult.
"But we feel we are well prepared. I'm sure when you talk to Jimmy Barry-Murphy, he'll probably feel the same thing. So you'll have two well-prepared sides, two good hurling teams going at it hammer and tongs. It will come down to small things on the day."
"It will be a hell of a battle!"