Ryan's vow to keep going extra mile rouses Antrim
Waterford man has worked miracle with Saffron U-21s despite 'demoralising' start, writes Colm Keys
For his first session in charge of the Antrim U-21 hurlers in mid-July, Kevin Ryan travelled the best part of five hours north from his home in Waterford. When he arrived after his 250-mile journey, there were just seven players present and correct for training.
It got better but not by much in the weeks through a two-match Ulster championship campaign leading up to their All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford. Sometimes there were 16, but generally the figure would settle between 10 and 12.
If ever evidence was required as to what one victory can do for a team, the Antrim U-21s are living proof of it now – there has been no problem filling a dressing-room for training these last few weeks.
"We've had a full squad since the semi-final and one or two looking to come in," Ryan smiles.
Ryan admits that first session "demoralised" him at the time.
"It was decision time 'either forget this or pursue'," he reflects.
"I spoke with the team secretary that night and what we decided was to look at it as a two-year plan with the U-21s.
"We said we'd work through this year, get it out of the way and set up a very young squad next year and get them working early."
Ryan admits that apathy may have been an underlying condition because of some bad beatings taken in the grade over the years. But anyone missing generally had another commitment with a club hurling or football team, he concedes.
"You would have to consider what's after happening over the last 10 or 15 years. Last year they were beaten by 30 points, something like that, and lads wouldn't see they have a chance here," he acknowledges.
"When you try to get them together and it is also in the middle of senior club championship and they all give themselves a chance of winning that... it is kind of hard to convince a young lad who has been hammered for years at inter-county level, that if you do enough work you won't be hammered.
"That's one thing out of winning the semi-final. A lot of them will get belief. My whole ambition for the weekend is if they can be competitive and stand up to it on a big day, it would be more encouraging for the fellas over the next year or two."
Ryan is developing a habit of relative success with some of hurling's lesser lights. In his four-year stint with the Carlow seniors, they won a Christy Ring Cup and gained promotion to Division 1B.
This year, the Antrim seniors delivered a respectable qualifier performance against Wexford before bowing out. Now he has engineered the biggest shock in U-21 hurling for many years.
He saw Antrim as a situation where he really couldn't lose.
"It's not that I'm only interested in the underdog – I am very much a hurling person," he says. "I certainly see potential in Antrim. I see ambition in certain areas there and I know from talking to the power-brokers on the board that they are very ambitious to bring out what's there and unite the county somehow.
"It was attractive to me. It's not that you'd get a top team, but if you are with a top team the pressure is to keep them where they are or drive them further. It was nearly a no-loss situation."
Ryan admits the victory over Wexford was a "shock".
"Our whole ambition going down to Thurles was to be competitive and be in touch with Wexford and in the game as long as possible," he says. "By half-time that ambition changes and they had the hurling and mental strength to carry on. It was a shock to end up winning it."
Ryan's strongly-worded comments on the choice of Thurles as a venue for the final were based on the inconvenience for fans, not the team, he insists.
"For the team there is no issue and never was. The bottom line is people with kids won't be able to bring them down because it will be one or two in the morning when they get back home," he says.