'I will look everyone in the eye and expect they'll do the same'
New Waterford boss Michael Ryan faces the biggest test of his management skills, writes Damian Lawlor
AFTER two decades diligently building his reputation, always in search of the top job, Michael Ryan's appointment as Waterford senior hurling manager was ratified in scarcely five minutes last Monday night.
"You work towards this all your life," he reflects. "The competition to replace Davy Fitz' was extremely stiff and at one stage I felt the momentum was maybe against me. All sorts of stuff was flying around but then you suddenly get a call and after 20 or 30 years coaching teams all over the country, the job is yours."
And then the madness begins. Over 200 texts within a few hours, messages of goodwill, a press conference, interviews, photographs. He knows life won't be the same for the next two years but he doesn't care. It's his time.
Since ending his playing career with Fourmilewater and Ballymacarbry, Ryan has barely paused for breath in gathering coaching honours, mostly in ladies' football where he has an incredible 32 All-Ireland titles with a variety of teams.
Having served as a selector under Justin McCarthy in 2006 and '07, he declared his interest in replacing the Cork man only to see Davy Fitzgerald get the nod.
He then took Mullinahone for a year before moving on to De La Salle where he enjoyed county and Munster club success last season, losing an epic All-Ireland semi-final by 3-22 to 1-27 to Clarinbridge in dramatic fashion. And when Fitzgerald moved on, he was better set this time around.
"The contest to replace Justin was very rushed and I wasn't ready in truth," he shrugs. "This time I had my team in place. I firmly believe there is no better backroom team in Ireland than ours and once I had everyone on board, I met the county board twice, made a presentation the first time and got a recall."
His backroom team drips with quality. Renowned physical trainer Pat Flanagan, who made his name with the Kerry footballers, has clocked in for the 260-mile round trip from Castlemaine to Waterford two or three times a week. Nicky Cashin, another man with rich hurling lineage, will commute from Kilkenny, while Brother Philip Ryan, a game-specific coach who has worked extensively with the Laois hurlers, is also on board.
Yet despite all that, there was still talk that Ryan would fail in his bid for the job.
Not everyone was convinced he was the right man. He also had to deal with unfounded speculation that one or two players might drop out if he got the nod while there was also a rumour that his old club, De La Salle, were unhappy he got the gig. It was crazy stuff.
Reflecting on these hindrances, he rolls his eyes to the heavens like a man weary of the world of GAA politics.
"Water off a duck's back," he sighs. "There was some stuff out there but it was all untrue. The truth is I'm starting with a clean slate; I will look everyone in the eye and expect they'll do the same. Overall, the amount of goodwill towards me has absolutely knocked me for six. Peter Queally was also in for the job and sent me a lovely text wishing me all the best. Jim Greene from Mount Sion contacted me, likewise Fergal Hartley, Paul Flynn, Dave Bennett. Everyone just wants to see Waterford doing well."
Ryan is approaching his role as a man-manager primarily. The buck stops with him but he accepts that one man can't do everything.
The Liam Sheedy-Eamon O'Shea-Mick Ryan model that landed Tipperary the 2010 title is the way forward, he reckons.
"Brian Cody is the guy I'd admire most but Tipperary have redefined the way things are done now in most counties," he says. "That's the way I'll operate. My backroom team will have a full hands-on approach but I'll oversee everything. I'm not a stubborn man but by God if something needs to be done, or a hard call is to be made, I'll be the one doing it."
He becomes the first local to manage the Déise since Tony Mansfield in 1995, but suggests that being a native shouldn't matter all that much.
"Justin and Davy both claimed Munster titles and Gerald (McCarthy) started the ball rolling before them, so outside managers have left a great imprint on this county," he points out. "That said, we haven't won an All-Ireland yet and we have much work to do. I'll create a fierce spirit and bond, the players need to get stronger and physically fitter, more mobile and winning our first All-Ireland since 1959 remains the target."
The Fitzgerald era was relatively successful, but by the end the defensive style became a source of irritation. "It won't be a case of two men up front. It'll be a mix of defence and flair," he says. "People are paying hard-earned money to watch us and while our first job is to win games, we'd like to entertain along the way. We'll be looking for that bit of flamboyance whilst trying to lock up at the other end. I can't see us leaving the likes of John Mullane and Shane Walsh up front on their own -- they'll need a bit of support if we're to win big games. All we're looking for is consistency. We've beaten every team in the championship except Kilkenny over the past 13 years but we've never managed to string five or six championship wins together in the same campaign and that hurts. It's something we'll try to rectify."
He'll employ an open-ended panel and states that players who are not at the squad's first meeting and fitness test next weekend should not worry unduly. Outsiders who impress with their clubs will be summoned while he will jettison those who slacken. Five youngsters are already earmarked for a call-up, though he insists youth won't be a requirement.
What, then, is the status of 38-year-old Tony Browne?
"We'll sit down with him and see what he thinks, but did Tony do anything last year not to merit a call-up? No, he didn't, he maintained those impeccable standards as usual and I would have no problem with him being part of our squad simply because he is in incredible shape physically and his hurling remains out of the top drawer."
It won't be just a team, squad and backroom team that Ryan will have to mould into one big brotherhood -- he'll also have to work closely with a financially troubled county board that only recently admitted it might not have the necessary funds to feed its teams after training.
An old-school manager, Ryan will offer his full focus and devotion free of charge and understands the pressure that the board -- and Waterford GAA in general -- is under.
"This whole thing about not getting fed after training has been exaggerated," he reckons. "It won't come to that. I'll be running a tight ship. I have my people in place and don't require anyone else. Priority number one is to build a squad, ask them to work with us, build a spirit and get people talking about us again. I won't be afraid to ask business people outside the GAA to row in behind us and support our team if needs be."
Away from sport, Ryan is a successful builder who has worked hard to establish his company. He knows only too well the challenges the country faces at the moment and is aware that some of his players might be out of work and may experience hard times.
"We've had great lads and I'm just hoping the players are honest and open with me, which goes for their personal lives too. I will do all I can to help them but it's going to take time to see what makes different lads tick. I know them from club level but I'll be bringing those relationships to a new level now."
A two-year term has been agreed and his first task is to find a new goalkeeper to replace the recently retired Clinton Hennessy. A good league would set them up nicely for a Munster semi-final against Davy Fitzgerald's Clare. Fate has a habit of throwing up that sort of pairing.
"I can't look that far ahead yet. We'll have to meet up first and get the lads' gym schedules started. Then we'll tear into the hard stuff in January. But it will be a gradual process, no point in looking too far down the line."
He'll lay down the foundations and build from there. He has a record of winning trophies but this is the biggest challenge, and the biggest opportunity, he has faced so far.
Whatever else, he won't fail for the want of hard work.
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