Daniel McDonnell talks to Sligo skipper Richie Ryan about the ups and downs of a colourful career ahead of tomorrow's cup final
SO, this is living the dream. July 2006, and a pre-season friendly in Lincolnshire where Boston United are welcoming Barnsley to their patch. A young Irishman named Richie Ryan is making his debut for the hosts.
Manager Steve Evans sold the club to him a few days earlier by promising that he would encourage a passing style. Music to the ears of a skilful 21-year-old from Tipperary trying to get his career back on track.
Early on, the midfielder acts on natural instinct. The goalkeeper gathers the ball and Ryan beckons for him to roll it out on his direction. He collects, looks up, and executes a complicated through ball for experienced former Premier League striker Julian Joachim that is only thwarted by the offside flag.
The incident has long faded from the memory by the time he makes the walk to the dressing-room. Soon, it is to the forefront of the agenda. His Scottish manager is apoplectic.
"What the hell are you getting the ball off the 'keeper for?" Evans screams at the confused newcomer, as the opening gambit in a detailed character assassination. "I don't bloody care who you've played for."
It proceeds from there for the majority of the interval. Others stare at the floor, not knowing where to look. The victim is so perplexed by the severity that he has to stifle a laugh.
He trots back out for the second half to be met by the smiling face of Colin Healy, an old pal from Sunderland who is now in Barnsley colours. "Was that you he was bawling at in there?" he asks. "Yeah, that was me," Ryan confesses. "All the best with that so," Healy grins.
Suddenly, the new two-year contract is beginning to look like a sentence.
FAST-forward to last week. With a smile, an older, wiser Richie Ryan is recounting the story. That was the tip of the iceberg at Boston. It was a period rich in black humour.
Still, it serves as a warning for the future. Ryan is the captain of Sligo Rovers, and the favourite to lift the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow afternoon when the Premier Division runners-up lock horns with newly-promoted Shelbourne.
On Monday, the 26-year-old is out of contract, just like he was 12 months ago when an unfathomable suspension denied him the chance to be part of the glorious victory over Shamrock Rovers.
That's the reality of professional football in Ireland. Winter is spent on a baggage carousel. Outside observers look at Ryan, an extremely talented footballer, and wonder why he shunned trial offers last December and opted to stay in Sligo at the end of a year where his peers had voted him the best in the land.
The explanation is that he's been there, done it, and realises the danger of presuming that the grass is always greener. "A lot of people in football talk sh*t," he says. "You don't know who to believe. So that's why I stayed in Sligo. Paul Cook (manager) knows how I work, and I know how he works, and that was the main factor. Simple."
It's possible that, this time around, he will pack his bags for a distant place. An attractive offer from England would be the preference, but it can't just be any old deal. He values his sanity too much to jump at the first available option.
REWIND to 2003. Sunderland are breaking records for scoring the fewest goals and collecting the lowest number of points in a Premier League season. For the raw, fair-haired Irish recruit, this is a good thing.
Mick McCarthy spots the ability in the tyro from Tipp and considers it a low-risk opportunity to further his education.
Ryan hails from an unlikely football background. He is a native of Templetuohy, and indebted to his parents, Richie and Marie, who drove him to Dublin every weekend where he learned his trade in the famous schoolboy nursery that is Belvedere.
Seven members of his age group were lured to England. They experienced mixed fortunes. Eddie Keys, a prodigiously talented left-back, picked Leeds and banjaxed his cruciate twice to finish the dream before it had even started. Ryan was ahead of the game. He was just 18 when he made his Premier League debut, a 76th-minute substitute in a Tyne-Wear derby with Newcastle. Two weeks later, he was introduced at half-time in a drubbing by an Arsenal side fronted by Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
The slight catch was a persistent hip complaint. Every time he turned rapidly, he felt a sharp pang of pain. He spoke to the medics. They advised him to wait, hinting now could be his only chance to make a lasting impression on McCarthy.
Alas, the issue was more complicated. Pre-season was spent in agony and initial treatment missed the real problem and wasted three months. Another specialist detected the issue, an outgrown bone that needed shaving. Ryan, alone and away from home, was driven to the wrong kind of distractions by boredom. He was a man about town.
By the time he recovered, a season had passed. McCarthy said that if he came back in July in good shape, a first-team chance would follow.
So, Ryan regrouped, enlisted the help of a Tipperary boxer named Johnny Doran, and spent five days a week in a bootcamp. He reported in July '04 in the best condition of his life. "Mick didn't know what hit him. I don't think he expected me to bother my arse," he reflects, before his cheery tone changes.
"And then I felt let down by him because he didn't stick to his word. He never gave me a chance."
Ryan was appointed captain of the reserves, the so-called bomb squad. "A bad thing," he explains. "You're the leader of the reserves." The insinuation is that you belong there.
The Black Cats stormed to promotion, but Ryan was pulled aside towards the end of the year and told he was free to go. McCarthy encouraged him to say yes to a loan stint at Scunthorpe that led to a permanent deal. Life in League One started well until a sending-off at Walsall made him a peripheral figure.
In the summer of '06, he was on the verge of signing a one-year deal at Port Vale when Evans extended the invite to Boston, dangling the carrot of a two-year deal on the same terms as his Scunthorpe contract. Bad move.
It got steadily worse after the Barnsley debacle. Evans, now the larger-than-life manager of big-spending League Two club Crawley Town, presided over a colourful era at Boston that included a brush with the law over his tax affairs. The manager's family were a big part of the operation. His brother was chief scout.
For a time, there was no physio. One morning, Ryan ducked out of training runs when a battered knee could take no more.
Evans was furious. "You don't want to run because you're not in the team," he raged, following it up by threatening to bring the chairman down with the release forms that accompany a sacking.
Ryan snapped. "Tell him to bring down all the money I'm owed as well." The first team hadn't been paid for three months. He was persona non grata and yet when he lined up a January switch to Royal Antwerp, Evans blocked it. "I thought that was horrible when he had no intention of playing me," he recalls. "He used to call me a five-a-side player because I passed the ball."
Circumstances eventually got him that move to Belgium. "Luckily for me and the rest of the lads, Boston went bust at the end of year. They even tried to go into administration five minutes before the end of the season so they wouldn't get deducted 10 points the following year," he chuckles.
They dropped to Blue Square North, while Ryan adapted to a new environment, working under Englishman Warren Joyce, who was in situ because of Second Division Antwerp's arrangement with Manchester United. He savoured the experience so much he stayed longer than his pals Sean Doherty and Henry McStay. It was only when Joyce relocated to the Old Trafford reserves that the mind turned to home.
In the summer of '08, Cook called and persuaded Ryan to follow Doherty to the Showgrounds. For 18 months, he struggled. The attitude and fitness were below the required level.
"I suppose I just had to screw my head on and respect where I was," he says. "I didn't know what to make of the league or Sligo, and there was a little bit of taking things for granted. But I got to the stage where I realised that if I didn't have the right attitude then I wouldn't have a job."
What was Plan B? "Not a clue... I'd probably have ended up back home driving for my dad's hackney service. I had that moment of looking in the mirror and realising that I needed to have a look at the way I do things."
From there, he flourished. In 2010, he was outstanding, with Cook's expansive style suiting him perfectly. The armband was another compliment.
The only sour point was the ban that confined him to a spectating role on this weekend 12 months ago. He was unimpressed by the FAI's dated suspension laws then, and remains unhappy with the hierarchy because of the uncertainty of the bigger picture.
"I'm at the same crossroads as last year," he explains. "This is where Irish football lets itself down. Nearly every player in the league is free to go. You can't keep coming to this situation every October. It's tough for the clubs because money isn't being generated all the time and then you have the FAI slashing the prize-money, which doesn't help.
"You can't expect fans to keep coming to games if the league isn't being appreciated at the top."
On a weekend that is supposed to accentuate the positive, it's demoralising that one of the country's leading lights is almost resigned to moving on -- if not to England, then somewhere else that can offer a clear long-term plan.
"I don't know where I'll be next year," he sighs. "Hopefully, I'll be playing football."
Wherever he goes, Ryan will be trying to do it the right way. The backdrop may change, but the philosophy stays the same.