KIERAN SHANNON: ‘God, I suppose this is heaven. And it was’

In the public memory, he’ll always be a moment.

Bearing down on the Cork goal by the Killinan End, firing it low past Ger Cunningham’s left, pumping his fist, in joy, in relief, then engulfed by a throng of jubilant supporters surging onfield with their flags, hats and rosettes, even wheelchairs. Whatever else he did in life Aidan Ryan would always have the Munster final replay of ’91.

But after the moment there’s still a life to live. Some stay in the limelight. Some go off the rails when they realise they can’t. Aidan Ryan just slipped away to live the kind of quiet life he likes to live.

For the last 20 years or so, home has been a beautiful grey-stoned house down a country lane in Knockavilla, a sleepy little village a couple of miles up the road from Dundrum House and its golf course that he and some of the team from ‘91 still occasionally meet up to play. The family cat sits lazily outside the front door, indifferent to your arrival. Ryan’s daughter, Sinead, and his wife Elaine give a warm greeting before Ryan himself emerges.

The Pat Spillane-like hair he used to sport is much thinner now and the boyish face of ‘91 is creased, reminding us as much as him that the forever young man in that forever moment is 47 now, but he’s still a fresh, lean man. He’s had back trouble pretty much since he stopped playing with the county before the turn of the millennium, the result of all those piggy-back runs and other antiquated training methods “we’d do for the sake of the parish and the county, very scientific altogether,” he laughs softly.

But he’s carrying no excess weight, something he attributes to being on his feet and knees all day as a carpenter, the trade he specialised in ever since he left school.

And he still feels young, most of the time anyway. “I find it amazing, how quickly the years catch up. Sinead’s just turned 13 and when I tell her that I’m away to meet the lads I hurled with, she’ll say, ‘Oh, back in the day.’

And of course for her it was back in the day but to me it still feels like only a few years ago I was hurling. I still think and feel I’m 22. But then when you go pucking with Sinead after five minutes and you run out of breath, you realise you are getting older.”

Twenty-five years ago, he could run all day. He could have run for Ireland and he did run all day for Tipperary and for Babs and all around the pitch too. As a kid he’d tear all around his parents’ farm as well, running with and after the ball while bringing in the cows and pucking it over their mystified heads for Bobby or one of his other brothers to catch.

He had a Pat Spillane-like engine as well and he as much as any player contributed to Tipp’s Munster famine being finally over in the summer of ‘87. He was an All Star that year, Spillane with a hurley, perpetual motion, roaming from wing forward, taking scores, leaving space and providing ball for Fox and English inside.

In some ways, the whole spirit and achievement of that Tipp team of ‘87 was personified by the two Ryan brothers.

Aidan’s elder brother Bobby had soldiered with the county since 1982. He had been captain for the Centenary Munster final against Cork only to have both his leg and then his heart broken that same Sunday in Thurles. A few days before Tipp faced down Cork again in the ‘87 final, the Ryan brothers were travelling to training with their Borrisoleigh clubmate Gerry Stapleton in the car when Stapleton posed a question for Bobby: if God was to tell you could have this Munster medal and nothing more or else take your chances and see what it brought you, which would you choose? Bobby conceded he’d settle for just the one Munster. It had been 16 years since Tipp had last won one and with Cork’s dominance of Munster back then a lot like Kilkenny’s in Leinster right now, he couldn’t chance that it could take 16 more.

Aidan’s mindset was bolder. He had won an All-Ireland as a minor in ‘82 and as Under-21 in ‘85 and another with the club in ‘87 and thought it was inevitable he’d win at least one with the county seniors.

In fact he was so cocksure of himself, the previous season when then team coach Tony Wall sat him down a fortnight before their opening Munster championship game against Clare to tell him he’d be starting in midfield, Ryan didn’t even bother showing up for the following week’s in-house A-versus-B game. “I thought I was God’s gift,” he smiles, shaking his head at the folly of his youth and the memory of watching Tipp lose to Clare from the stand, in his civvies.

But when Wall and his fellow selectors were replaced by Babs Keating the following autumn, Ryan quickly realised that the new management would see to it Tipp would have just the right measure of confidence to win things, and not just Munster.

It pains Ryan somewhat to see Keating in recent years leaving himself so open for a quote and for ridicule. Quarter of a century ago, Keating was young, bold, modern, brilliant.

He established a supporters club that would shower the players with hurleys, gear, even suits, all on the understanding there would need to be some payback in the form of silverware. Team trainer Phil Conway used tell them to take pride in their appearance. Polish your boots, shine your helmet: “If you look well, you’ll play well.” So when they got fitted up for their suits and would wear them before matches, Ryan used to feel “six inches taller”.

Babs’ approach though was rooted less in style and more in substance.

“He loved the idea of us all being in a ball alley on our own. That was his dream, for us to be in there any day we weren’t training together. He’d often turn around and say ‘Where’s your nearest ball alley?’ We had a farmyard wall at home so Bobby and I felt we didn’t need one but he used to tell us that wasn’t good enough, that we should have a backwall so the ball could bounce over our heads and we could then double on the rebound.

“First touch was a huge thing with Babs. He wanted you getting the ball into your hand as quickly as possible. He’d go mad if you went to block a ball that you could have caught because that was taking an extra touch or two. And he hated to see players in training just hitting the ball back and forth. You had to be hitting it hard at one another, straight into the hand.”

That pass had to be either five feet high or else had to bounce four foot in front of the intended receiver.

Those two games against Cork that summer were epic. The scoreline after 70 minutes gives you some idea just how epic: 1-17 apiece in both Thurles and Killarney.

“One of my abiding memories of those games is standing near Jim Cashman. And Jim, with this big smile on his face, turns around to me and says, ‘God, it’s some fucking game, isn’t it?!’

Jim had a way of holding his mouth when he was breathing heavy: he’d show his teeth, so it looked as if he had a perpetual smile on his face. And my brother Bobby ran by and said ‘I’ll wipe that smile off your face, Cashman!’ He thought Jim was taunting me! But Jim was right. It was some fucking game.

In the first half of the replay in Killarney though Tipp trailed 1-10 to 1-5. Before they took to the pitch again, Donie Nealon took to the dressing room floor.

“He walked around the whole room, in this loud but controlled, authoritative voice, saying that we had been too tense in the first half, too afraid to lose.

“His mantra for the second half was ‘total abandonment.’ We weren’t to worry about what happens next or winning or losing; just let ourselves go.”

It worked, especially for Ryan, and in the second period of extra-time everything just clicked. Babs was right: Cork were old. Ryan’s marker, Dermot McCurtain, was taken off.

Even John Fenton began missing frees. Michael Doyle started raining goals. Before Ryan knew it, he was looking up from the bottom of the stand watching his club-mate Richie Stakelum on the steps declaring the famine was over.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘God, I suppose this is heaven.’ And it was.”

The next couple of years though were purgatorial for Ryan. He had a middling display in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, overpowered by Pete Finnerty, and it knocked his confidence. A year later it was shattered altogether by Sylvie Linnane in the All-Ireland final.

“I never liked to overcomplicate things or wanted to know who I was marking. And I spent so much time focusing on Sylvie and discussing him with other people, I made a complete balls of it. Sylvie was too long to be sucked out to the half-forward line and let Nicky English one-on-one with Conor Hayes inside. Instead he just stayed where he was and could have a fag while being able to drive the ball the length of the field.

“We lost that All Ireland and I could see Babs had lost confidence in me after that. I was talking to him a few months later and said I was thinking about going to London. I hadn’t enough money to change the tyres of my car; just enough to keep the metre running in the flat, food on the table and petrol for the car to and from Dublin. Meanwhile I had friends like Ken Morrissey from Clare laughing down the phone talking about the great money they were making in London.

So when I mentioned it to Babs, he said the break over there would be the best thing I could do.”

Six months later he was back home. His 33-year-old brother Pat dropped dead the same day his fiancé was picking out her wedding dress with his sister.

Aidan stayed to support the family and was brought back onto the Tipp team for the first round of the championship but was subbed before the game was over. And though the year would end with his brother Bobby lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup, it hardly rivalled Killarney because back then, he used to start.

“We can all talk about hurling being a team game but at the end of the day players are human, they want to be on that starting 15 and being a sub is a cruel place to be. I only really enjoyed the training when I knew I was good enough to make the team. You didn’t want something bad to happen to anyone but at the same time you’d be a liar if you didn’t believe every cloud has a silver lining.”

He laughs recalling an image of Pat Fox one summer in the mid-90s. Fox’s game was on the wane but he still had something to offer yet and one night in training he drilled this ferocious shot. Who happened to be on the receiving end of it but Michael Cleary, who for some reason had ended up at the other end of the pitch and who also happened to be the team’s corner-forward at the time.

“Cleary ended up in hospital,” recalls Ryan, “and was very nearly not a father after. Of course Fox could only make a big joke about it. Next night in training he threw back the shoulders. ‘Right, in case any of ye feckers didn’t understand, I’m corner forward and that’s it!”

Ryan can smile at that memory but not when recalling ‘89. “Not making the team gutted me. I’d grown up walking into pubs and seeing John Doyle’s eight All-Ireland teams on the wall and John Doyle in all of them. And I wasn’t in that picture for ‘89.”

By the summer of 1990, he wasn’t even on the panel, his form slumped so poorly.

He never gave up though. Bobby had taught him the value of persistence, and at the start of 1991 a couple of good games with the club earned him a recall from Babs. He came on against Cork in the Munster final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to notch a point to help Tipp force a replay, and at half-time in Thurles, Babs told him he was on.

A few minutes into the second half and it seemed as if he should hardly have bothered. A Kevin Hennessy goal put Cork nine points up and when Tipp scored the next point, Ryan’s memory is that it raised only a white flag, not even a cheer. Within minutes though the Tipp team would prompt a level of crowd involvement unprecedented in modern hurling, a Pat Fox goal bringing the team back to within three points. A Declan Carr goal brought them level, before a point from Ryan put Tipp ahead.

Then came that goal, after Cork had committed too many men forward. It sealed the victory and with it, immortality.

“It was a fantastic moment for me. I knew then I was back. I was still only 26 and I had another few years in me.”

He would start in both the resultant All Ireland semi-final and final, the latter being the highlight of his career, eclipsing even Killarney. Finally he had made it onto the wall, alongside all those photos with Doyle.

He wouldn’t get to make any other. In 1992, Cork would strike back in easily the tensest and most ill-tempered game of a near-decade-long saga. In ‘93 Tipp would serve up in the Munster final the perfect performance Babs had been seeking from them ever since he took the job in the autumn of 1986, only for them to lose next day out to a middling Galway team.

The last time Ryan would get championship action would be in 1997 when Clare would deny them in both the Munster and All-Ireland finals. Ryan was togged out when the sides met again in the Munster championship in 1999 but when he asked his old friend and now team coach Nicky English in the warm-up if he was on the first 21 or not, English shook his head. “Nah.” Ryan appreciated such disclosure, and along with a certain sadness, felt a certain relief too.

“That game was played on a Saturday. The following Tuesday, Sinead was born. I now had a completely different life. I knew that day down in Cork that the door was closing on one side of my life and another was opening. My body was giving up, I was getting slow, I’d be 35 the following year.”

Sinead is the beacon of his life. He goes to most of her games, the only games really outside possibly Tipp’s that he goes to. “I enjoy those camogie games no end. There’s no pressure like there was us going down to Cork and lose and we were finished for the summer. It’s the game in its simplest, purest sense.”

He worked hard during the Celtic Tiger years without selling himself or anyone short and he’s working just as hard now, to pay the mortgage, without overdoing it either. Bobby’s working flat out, still on the family farm with his wife and three kids.

A couple of times a year he and a few of the old Tipp lads meet up with the wives, usually in the Park Avenue Hotel where Declan Carr works. The two Bonnars — Colm and Conal; the two Declans — Carr and Ryan; and then the two Ryan brothers — Bobby and Aidan. He hopes to meet up with a couple of the other lads in Cork tomorrow, all going well.

“There is still that bond. The one thing I would miss the most is being with a bunch of lads, running around a field, acting the mick and taking the piss.

The best you could do now at this stage of life is meet up with a few friends for a week’s skiing. Even trying to meet up in Cork, you’ll have a few lads saying ‘Can’t make it, one of the kids is sick.’

God be with the days when all you needed was some petrol in the car, 20 quid in your arse pocket, said good luck to the mammy on Saturday and you didn’t see her ‘til the Monday.”

Those old days playing Cork were probably the best of all. It’s like as if all those old games against them now seem to segue into one another. ‘84 with ‘85, ‘87 with ‘91, and Ryan leading the charge of the wheelchair brigade.

In his own small way he has helped make Cork-Tipp what it is. Just as Cork-Tipp has shaped a little part of him.


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