Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ryan – old school and proud of it

Waterford boss has always been able to get the right answers to the hard questions

Waterford hurling manager Michael
Ryan has been involved with 32 All-Ireland-winning teams, including the Deise’s ladies footballers, whom he has led to five titles
Waterford hurling manager Michael Ryan has been involved with 32 All-Ireland-winning teams, including the Deise’s ladies footballers, whom he has led to five titles
Michael Ryan in his days as Waterford Ladies Football Manager

Christy O'Connor

Eight days before Clare met Kilkenny in last year's League semi-final, the Banner panel set off to climb Carauntoohill. By the time they had set up camp, ate some food and traversed to the bottom of the mountain, it was almost midnight when they started to ascend Ireland's highest peak.

Eight days before Clare met Kilkenny in last year's League semi-final, the Banner panel set off to climb Carauntoohill. By the time they had set up camp, ate some food and traversed to the bottom of the mountain, it was almost midnight when they started to ascend Ireland's highest peak.

Each player had a headlamp. Two guides were directing their path. Visibility was limited to a couple of feet. As they made their way up the steep Devil's ladder, some of the inclines were almost vertical.

Every step of the 3,414 feet ascent was an ordeal. The squad arrived on top around 2.30am and rested for 10 minutes. After the descent, they collapsed into their tents around 4.30 They were in a stupor from tiredness, but the trip was still deemed a hugely successful team-bonding exercise.

When Clare met Waterford in the championship two months later, the Waterford squad gathered in the Park Hotel in Clonmel before departing for Thurles. Waterford manager Michael Ryan told the players that story about Clare climbing Carauntoohill. He had read about it that morning. Then, borrowing a famous line from Brian Clough, which he skewed for his own benefit, Ryan posed the question: "What are people who climb mountains good at?"

ERUPTED

Ryan looked at the players and said nothing. They were all waiting for the punch line. Then he delivered it. "Climbing mountains."

The whole room erupted in laughter. It lightened a mood that had been heavy with tension. Then Ryan finished up his speech. "Lads," he said, "I never heard of a game being played at the top of a mountain. So, let's go and win this match".

Ryan was not being dismissive or disrespectful of Clare. In his own unique, understated and unsophisticated manner, he was just trying to puncture the widespread perception that Clare were fitter, stronger and better prepared than his side.

Ryan is a throwback. With his strong west Waterford accent, he has often been compared in the past to the Timmy Ryan character in D'Unbelievables. Old school. He has always been comfortable in his own skin. He has

never hidden from whom he is.

During that Clare-Waterford match last year, the TV cameras scanned to the sideline just before substitute Tommy Ryan was being introduced. His manager caught the front of Ryan's jersey and began shaking him.

It looked like a Pat Shortt sketch, but Ryan later admitted that he grabbed his player – someone who had been waiting for a chance – by the scruff of the neck because he wanted him to grab the game in a similar way. In an era of supremely sophisticated, structured and guarded management, there is something refreshing about Ryan's humble, open and liberal approach.

After Dublin beat Limerick in the Division 1B final in April, Ryan could be seen mingling with the Dublin players on the pitch. The act could have been interpreted as disrespectful to a fellow Munster county after a painful defeat, but Ryan's intentions were untainted. He wanted to arrange a challenge match with Dublin. So, he just went onto the pitch and asked Anthony Daly.

Ryan can be serious when he wants to be, but his core coaching and management philosophy is almost a mirror image of his own character. "If you are too serious and uptight, you can't perform properly," he once said.

There were times when there appeared to be no enjoyment in the job for Ryan. He lost a selector and a coach early last year, while Ken McGrath walked from his back-room team at the end of the season. When John Mullane and a host of other players left at the outset of the season, it fostered the belief that Waterford were going nowhere under Ryan.

Ryan always had a hard neck and sharp survival instincts. A team that were favourites for league relegation were within one score of topping a cutthroat division. He has also managed to keep the side ultra competitive, while overseeing radical reconstruction over the last 12 months.

Ryan's pursuit of respect in this job has been a multi-faceted challenge. He wasn't a former inter-county hurler, while his coaching background was more in football, especially ladies football. Even before he got the job, 12 prospective managers were approached, four interviewed and Ryan was appointed despite not being the unanimous choice of the executive.

He is primarily a delegator now, but he has been managing teams for nearly 40 years. His first success came in 1977 when he took over The Nire U-21 footballers as a sole manager-selector and guided them to a county title.

One of his most underrated achievements was leading the Waterford U-21 footballers to a landmark Munster semi-final win over Kerry in 2000. It was an empire built by Ryan.

He never had any interest in ladies football until Ryan's wife Catherine and his sister Bernie pleaded with him in 1982 to train the Ballymacarbry ladies football team they both played on.

He went down one evening against his judgment, but with a plan hatched in his mind to extricate himself from any impending request of commitment.

He decided to put them through such a savage training session that they would never want to see them again. It was so brutal that some got sick. He told them afterwards that they were so unfit that they'd have to train again the following night. There were 15 there and he thought that would be the end of it. But the following night, 17 turned up.

Ryan created a dynasty. Ballymacarbry went on to win 14 Munster club titles in 16 years, bagging 10 All-Ireland club titles in the process. Between 1988 and 1996, they were unbeaten in the country.

When Waterford won their first All-Ireland senior title in 1991, there were 14 Ballymacarbry women on the team. A job that was supposed to last 24 hours lasted 24 years. He finally stepped down as Waterford ladies manager in 2006, because his three daughters were on the team by then.

WEDDING

His eldest daughter Michelle is 27 and has taught some of the current young Waterford players in Lismore. His son Shane is on the county U-21 hurling

panel.

Managing the Waterford senior hurlers was the job he always craved, but Ryan has always been drawn to big sporting events. He was there when John Treacy and Barry McGuigan won World Cross-Country and boxing titles. He has been to FA Cup finals.

He says himself that three pints is as much as he drinks. When he attended a wedding in Doneraille last weekend, he drank water all evening. Three Waterford players were also present and Ryan wouldn't do something he had asked the players not to.

In total, Ryan has been involved with 32 All-Ireland winning teams, but he has also won All-Irelands in places you'd never have guessed.

Throughout the 1980s, Ryan and his friend John 'Jackson' Kiely, the former Waterford football manager, toured the country as a quiz team. They were almost unbeatable.

Ryan has always been somehow able to find a way to get the right answers to hard questions.

Irish Independent

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