KIERAN SHANNON: Just an ordinary man

It’s the kind of voice you hardly hear anymore in inter-county hurling management.

The others might still retain their regional accents and occasionally let their frustration slip past the veneer of unflappability by talking of Red Cow roundabouts, maor foirne bibs and referee conspiracies, but there’s still something polished, refined, worldly about them.

Michael Ryan is a throwback, a mix between D’Unbelievables’ Timmy Ryan, Limerick’s Tom Ryan and Derry’s Eamon Coleman with his strong west Waterford accent, ruralisms and unabashed pride and joy in being his native county’s senior hurling manager. Whereas Justin looked and acted like a movie star and Davy was a rock star, Ryan is, by his own admission, just “an ordinary man”, nothing special, nothing grand.

He’s had to work for everything he owns, particularly this bainisteoir bib. There was a certain snobbish suspicion in some quarters when he was handed it by the Waterford County Board last autumn.

His unsophisticated manner may have had something to do with it. He was dismissed as a football man, and a ladies’ football man at that, his interest and record in hurling and at winning again and again conveniently overlooked and downplayed.

When Waterford lost their first three league games and he lost two selectors only months into his tenure, the sceptics resurfaced, some dedicating two-page spreads across national newspapers to the matter. A lesser man would have caved in but Ryan kept his head when all about him were losing theirs and blaming it on him.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t faced adversity and setbacks before. The year John Mullane coaxed him to manage De La Salle they were beaten by 15 points by Ballygunner in the first round of the county championship only to come back and beat them by eight points in the county final and go on to win Munster.

The Waterford ladies’ footballers were beaten in four consecutive Munster finals by Kerry before they became one of the most dominant sides ever in Irish women’s sport. You think three league defeats was going to derail him? He’s been at this game a long time — hurling, coaching, winning.

It wasn’t like he never held a hurley in his life or coached a young fella how to hold one. He won a county minor medal with his native club Fourmilewater, played with their adult teams up until he was 32. His brother Willie played on the county U21 team that lost the 1974 All-Ireland final to Kilkenny. His son Shane was a county minor panellist two years ago.

It was actually at a hurling coaching course in Dungarvan in 1978 given by missionaries Ned Power, John Power and Joe McGrath that Ryan really caught the coaching bug and a year later coached and trained the club to a county hurling intermediate title.

Even when he was guiding the Waterford ladies to All-Ireland after All-Ireland football title he coached the Newcastle hurlers in the other half of the parish for a few years in the Tipperary county championship.

Then when he finished up with the ladies’ footballers, teamed up with the senior hurlers as a selector in ’07. He’s been working with the best since. Justin. Eoin Kelly in Mullinahone. Mullane in De La Salle. All he’s done is work with the best or make others the best.

He’s even won All-Irelands in places you’d never have guessed. Throughout the ’80s Ryan and his friend John ‘Jackson’ Kiely, the former Waterford football manager, toured the country as a quiz team and were almost unbeatable.

When Kiely entered Where In the World, a TV quiz show he’d eventually win, Ryan noticed his tendency to pause before answering. To prepare Kiely for the pressure of prime time TV, Ryan would bring down a ruler hard on Kiely’s knuckles any time he’d slow up for an answer. It might have been unorthodox coaching but it was coaching and it’s something he’s been doing and winning in for about 30 years now.

How did he get into it and become so good at it? It’s best that he tells you in his own wonderful distinct voice — unrefined, uncut, uninterrupted.

“My final year U21 with the football club [The Nire] we had a really good team, good enough to win a championship. But we didn’t prepare well and we played Tallow in Cappoquin.

“We lost and I lost all my front teeth the same day from an elbow in the mouth and coming off the field my mouth was all bloodied but I still had a go at one of the selectors. We did no skills coaching; we’d just train once a week in haphazard fashion. So some fella said to me, tongue in cheek, ‘Well, why don’t YOU train the team?’ I said, ‘I will train them next year!’ And I did and we got to the county final in Dungarvan. At half time we were up 0-6 to 0-1 but there was a hurricane.

“You wouldn’t have given us a chance. We won 0-6 to 0-4. None of our forwards scored that day but our midfielders did and that was enough.

“I got involved then with my own hurling club. I was playing full-forward and coaching the team and we ended up winning the intermediate championship. But then in ’82 we were out of the hurling and the football by May. For years my sister and my wife had been asking me to help out the ladies’ footballers so I said okay but went down with the sole intention to get out of this as quickly as possible.

“I can still remember walking through the goalposts and seeing these 14 girls playing a match. The first thing that struck me was their enthusiasm. They hadn’t much of the basic skills but they were buzzing. So I let them play away for 10 minutes and then concocted a plan in my brain that we’d train so hard that they’d never again come back. So we threw away the balls and for 45 minutes I ran the living daylights out of them.

“I remember one player getting sick. Then I realised they wouldn’t let me walk away with just that, so I said, ‘Girls, you’re so unfit, we’ll train again tomorrow night’. The next night there were 16 there. So I was in trouble.

“There was a very good team in Waterford at the time called Dunhill. But we had a very young team in Ballymacarbry. We worked very hard all year and in the county final we beat Dunhill because we were fitter and livelier and ran them into the ground in the second half.

“After the game we were in Stradbally. I was delighted. One of the girls had bought me a pint and I thought this is all over, they’re going to win the championship for years now, they won’t need me around. Just as I took a sip out of the pint someone said, ‘When’s the Munster club championship starting?’ I nearly died.

“So what do we do? We trained through the winter and got to the Munster final. It was played in a farmer’s field up in Ballyclough. There was thistles and cow shite and everything about the place. There was three-quarters of a goalpost up one end. They threw a bit of cloth on thistles for corner flags. St Enda’s from Cork hammered us. But I had the bug then, so we trained really hard for a few years.

“We had setbacks. We got beaten in more Munster finals but then we won one and then we won the All-Ireland and we’d go on to win 10 of them. For seven years we were undefeated. A few years in we basically became the county team. We won a junior All-Ireland with 12 Ballymac players and stepped up to senior. We lost four Munster finals in a row to Kerry. The fourth year I thought we were really set up to beat them in Cappoquin. They beat us out the gate.

“I remember looking over the wall of the Blackwater to see if there was enough water to jump in. Three players retired, two of them All Stars. The rest of us said we’d give it one more go.

“Kerry were going for 10 in a row. We stopped off going up to Listowel and the girls were in the foyer of the hotel and I remember walking around and looking into their eyes and saying we’re really ready for this. After 17 minutes we were seven points down. Then someone for them took a shot that came back off the crossbar. Áine Wall scored a goal for us. Catriona Casey scored another goal, and at half time we were two points up.

“I remember Marie Crotty giving an interview to Radio Kerry after the game. I still get emotional when I think about it. She said, ‘For the last four years we came to play Kerry. Today we came to win’. There’s a huge difference. We went on to win five All-Ireland senior titles. But it was tough, I tell you, and it all turned on something like a ball coming back off a crossbar.

“It went on for 24 years the ladies’ football, when it was meant to be just 24 hours. I stepped down in Breffni Park in Cavan in August 2006. I had three daughters on the team and it’s hard to be objective; you’re either too hard or too soft on them. A couple of months later the men’s county board rang me and asked would I be interested in going as a selector to Justin McCarthy, that I had something to contribute.

“I really enjoyed ’07 with the hurlers. I remember us beating Kilkenny in the league final. I spoke in the Kilkenny dressing room after the match. Everyone listened, you had their eyes as well as their ears. I said to myself, ‘These guys are real hurling men’. They were just so respectful, so genuine, and they still are.

“We then won Munster, had two cracking games against Cork in Croke Park. Lost to Limerick in the semi-final. Hugely disappointing. But that was a good Limerick team. It wasn’t complacency that got us in the semi-final.

“The following year Justin rang me at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, saying he had stepped down as Waterford manager and that Seamie [Hannon] and Nicky [Cashin] had as well. He asked me what I was doing. I said I’d think about it which I think surprised him. An hour later I phoned Justin and the county board chairman to tell them I was resigning as well. I was disappointed but I never had any problem with the players.

“It’s a pity how it finished. Justin McCarthy did more for Waterford hurling than any other man on the planet. He was a top, top class coach, and I think that’s how everyone in Waterford will remember him. The following year I got a call from Eoin Kelly, Tipperary, asking would I meet him about coaching Mullinahone. It was a chance to work with one of the greatest forwards to ever play the game and as a man he’s a class act as well.

“The first few months of the year he could barely get out of the car his back was so bad but any night Tipp weren’t training he was down with us, gathering water bottles.

“I was meant to go back but then I got a call from Mullane, asking would I coach De La Salle. I said I’d have to talk to Mullinahone first. I met Eoin and Paul Curran and after an hour of talking Eoin said to me, ‘Look, you can’t turn De La Salle down. They’re a Waterford team, Munster club champions’. So I went for it.

“The challenge for me was to win the All-Ireland club championship. We won a great Munster championship. Then it was Clarinbridge in the semi-final. I was sick for a couple of days afterwards but it was the best game of hurling I was ever involved in. I remember the following day I went down to Wexford to see Waterford play a league game and on the way home the Clarinbridge manager Michael Donoghue rang me. I thought that was class, that he went to the trouble of finding my number and phoning me.

“Of course I was interested in the Waterford job. At the end of ’09 I got a call asking would I go in as a selector. I said no disrespect to Davy but the only way I’d get involved with the senior set-up again was as manager. In 2010 I threw my own name into the hat but Davy was ratified again and he was entitled to: he’d won the Munster championship and that’s never easy to win. Then when he stepped down, there was another interview process and I got it.

“Look it, I came into this job knowing inter-county management was going to be a difficult job. We got off to a rough start with Nicky and Brother Philip [Ryan] stepping down, but I never felt under pressure because I still had confidence in the players and myself. I went back to Ken McGrath after talking to him earlier about becoming involved. I knew from ’07 what a great thinker of the game he was. So I met him in his house and he had a load of notes with a series of questions written down that we went through. On some issues we agreed, on others we modified. Then Sean [Cullinane] came on, the three of us sat down and we now have a fantastic relationship.

“Man management is a big thing with us. You have to talk to players one to one. Often players have problems in their lives and if you can make them feel better and valued, why not do it? Look it, coaching men, coaching women, there’s little difference. It’s still all about commitment, attitude, communication. Hurling, football, they’re different games, but you’re still dealing with people.

“We’d be big into letting players express themselves. I felt that Waterford had their own distinct style of playing hurling and if we were to bring the team on we’d have to go back to playing our own brand with a basic structure to go with it. People have said that Waterford’s dream game is to win 4-25 to 4-21.

“I wouldn’t be into that, I don’t think Justin was either, but you have to play to win rather than not to lose and Sean and Ken would be much the same.”

He could talk all day. About John Mullane and the levity as well as the skill he brings to the group. Team trainer Pat Flanagan. Tony Browne and how he seeks the edge and longevity; a few years ago when Flanagan was still training Kerry, Browne went down there to spend a week with him to pick up some tips. It will be another couple of years before Waterford feel the full benefits of Flanagan’s methods, reckons Ryan, and you wouldn’t put it past Browne not to be still around then either.

Either way, Waterford will, Ryan insists. They might not have the box-office names they had in the past but in a few years’ time some of them like goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe will be household names all right. Some year they will go all the way, maybe even this year. His team finished the Munster final strongly, he feels; the problem was they only converted two of their last 13 scoring chances. They’re buzzing, he says. And so is he.

“I never enjoyed a game as much as I enjoyed that Munster semi-final against Clare. The only time I felt we were in trouble was with the late free but Eoin Kelly beside me said ‘Socky [Stephen O’Keeffe] is going to save it’.

“I loved every part of it — the build up, the intensity of it, it was just a complete honest game of hurling from both sides. Nobody will ever enjoy this job as much as I am at the moment. Just working with good players who are so keen and interested.”

In that way they’re a bit like theBallymacarbry ladies from ’82. It’s 30 years on from that formative summer night and the ordinary man’s extraordinary journey rolls on.


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