Colin Ryan shocked Clare hurling fans when he opted out of the senior panel for this season. He’ll watch his former colleagues play Limerick tomorrow. But he won his All-Ireland last week. Playing soccer.
Tomorrow in Thurles, when the Clare hurlers finally take to the field in their quest for another Celtic Cross, a very recent colleague of theirs will watch on from the stands having already secured his All-Ireland medal for the year.
Last weekend, Colin Ryan made the long journey up to Buncrana as a member of another Clare team. Junior soccer in this country has its own inter-county competition, the Oscar Traynor Cup, and though this was the first season that he had been able to play the sport after Christmas since breaking onto the Clare senior hurling panel a decade ago as a teenager, Ryan had been an automatic selection from their first game right up to last week’s final.
As a youngster, when he was over at Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth on trial for a week, playing as a centre-half. These days he plays central midfield. You would think with him operating from there as well as being Clare hurling’s leading scorer of the past 10 years, that he’d get his share of goals but Ryan will openly confess that in over 30 games this season with either Clare or Newmarket Celtic, he hasn’t once found the net. “I’m more of a Michael Carrick,” he smiles, “a fierce man for the lateral pass.”
But that style and role suits him. Just slotting in. Keeping hold of the ball. Protecting the back four. And it has suited Clare. Last Sunday, thanks to a goal from Eoin Hayes, Ryan’s close friend and a teammate with both Newmarket Celtic and Newmarket-on-Fergus hurling, Clare edged the home side, Inishowen League, 1-0, in the Oscar Traynor Cup final to be crowned champions of Ireland for the second straight year.
The homecoming was decidedly low key compared to the one he would have experienced bringing the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to Clare in 2013. After pit-stops in Sligo and Tuam, the bus finally arrived back into Ennis last Sunday night at about 11pm. Ryan had work the following morning as a maths and geography teacher in the small Limerick village of Pallaskenry, so instead of making a big late night of it in his native county’s capital town, he just headed back to Newmarket for a couple of quiet drinks with Hayes and his other friends on the team that he’d also play club hurling with.
It was a lovely, off-Broadway ending to a lovely, off-Broadway season. Soccer in Clare might not have the glamour of hurling with Clare but for one thing you’re guaranteed games every week. Tomorrow will be the county hurling team’s first competitive game in nine weeks. Madness. Torture.
“I used to hate this time of year,” says Ryan over a coffee in a Clare hotel. “From the time the league finished to the first round of the championship, I absolutely hated it. It was like a second pre-season, even though you were just after coming out of a national league playing game after game after game.
“I loved the league, because training wasn’t going to be heavy-loaded, you were playing games week on week; in reality, that’s probably where you’re going to see the most improvement you’re going to make all year, because you’re playing all those games.
“But then after maybe a week off, you’re back into training, and it’s ‘Okay, we’ve got to do more, we’ve to get all this in.’ And there were times I’d be wondering — especially the last couple of years — ‘Are we getting any better here? Are we training for the sake of training?’
“I just felt at times we were doing things for the sake of doing things and making it feel as if we were training really hard.”
What he’s found is that more often than not, less is more. That taking a rest for two days, even three, leaves you fresher and better. He still hurls for the club and this year they’re playing far better and enjoying their hurling far more even though they’re training considerably less than they would have the previous two years. The first couple of seasons under Davy, he felt Clare had the balance right as well. Then it changed.
“I think in the GAA there’s a tendency that if we hear someone else is doing more, then we have to catch up with them. The other week I heard stories about Limerick doing five days out of seven. If I heard that as a player, the first thing I would be thinking would be, ‘God, I’ve to tog out five times this week.’ Mentally, that can be just draining.”
Ryan never shirked practice. He loved to practise, loved trying to get better. It’s why he’d often tog out at least five times a week. As a teacher, he could. Whenever school was out for summer he could meet up with Paul Kinnerk in the morning on some pitch in Limerick IT Davy had secured and together they could go and work on some part of his game they’d identified could be better. But what if he wasn’t a teacher? Or what about when he was teaching? The grind of collective training could be wearisome.
“It can get to the stage where if you’re training so much that any evening you’re off you don’t want to do anything. You’re wrecked, you’re tired, you want to just chill out. So you’re not going to do the things that were once enjoyable, like going for a puckaround with your friends.
“Newmarket soccer training is for an hour. I can arrive on the pitch at five to seven, togged, then warm up and be gone out of there at ten past eight. I can come home from school, cook my dinner, spend some time with [his wife] Louise, do a few jobs around the house if I want to.
“County training with Clare starts at seven o’clock. I’d come home from school at four. I wouldn’t eat dinner before [training], because training would probably be heavy, so I’d eat earlier in the day. Get myself right. Maybe go for a snooze. Leave home then at quarter to six. Hit some frees. Stretch. After training then you could have a meeting so you mightn’t get home until 10.
“Louise would have been kind of looking at me, ‘Are we going to do this?’ But you’d become so selfish and stuck in your world that in the end she wasn’t even asking. Because she knew well I was either recovering or tired or whatever. And I just felt that wasn’t fair.”
It wasn’t just unfair on Louise. He doesn’t know some of his friends in Newmarket are still his friends when they could go months without being able to hang out while he was hurling with Clare. Last year Davy Barrett, someone he’s hurled with since he was a kid, got married and Ryan couldn’t attend the wedding. Two other clubmates also walked up the aisle last summer and each day Ryan left early because he had championship the following week.
“People say there’ll be other weddings. But those fellas won’t have other weddings — or at least I hope they don’t. I think it came to a crux when I realised that.”
This year — by opting out of inter-county hurling for the season, maybe even forever –—he’s been able to make stags, weddings. He plays a regular card game with some lads from home. He can go for a couple of quiet drinks with his dad. Do those bits and pieces around the house. Upskill and get some more CPD as a teacher. He and Louise can go visit her sister in Kildare and dote on her new baby, or call to Ryan’s brother Neil and dote over his new child. Colin and Louise are expecting their own first child next month. It’s as if he has his own life back — that is, he jokes, until the new arrival changes all that.
The funny thing is he’s been able to fit all of the above in while playing as much sport and as many games as he ever has. He’s still captain of the local hurling team who have intentions of reclaiming the county title they won in 2012. In soccer there’s been that glorious Oscar Traynor campaign with Clare. Newmarket Celtic reached the quarter-final of the FAI Junior Cup, won the Clare Cup and were only pipped to the local league title on the last day of their season. It’s in stark contrast to the GAA with its oddities such as Clare-Limerick with, as he’s put it before, its “three-month build-up and a three-week post-mortem”.
“In soccer we might have a game at 11 on a Sunday morning and I can say to the management, ‘Listen, I have a wedding on the Saturday’ because one game isn’t the be-all and end-all.
“There’s just a different culture. In hurling because you’re playing one-off games I think people will do and say whatever it takes to win a game. And there’s such an emphasis on the opposition, whereas in soccer because it’s run over a season, it’s more about how you yourselves can improve as a team.
“The biggest difference though I really like about the soccer is that if things go wrong one week then you have a chance to atone for it the next week. You can get it out of your system very quickly. Whereas in the GAA, club teams who lost the first round of the [Clare] championship the other week won’t feel like they can put it right until the next round of the championship, even though that’ll be months away and they’ll have numerous league games before then. There’s a certain culture that championship is what you’re judged on, no matter what.
“We won the national league last year and I remember thinking after, ‘This is the first league Clare have won in 38 years and there’s nothing about it!’ We went up to Ennis, had a few pints, but it might as well have been any other Sunday night. It was just strange. Like, ‘Is that what the last three months have been for?’ And while you personally might get some sense of achievement from it, the world we live in means that if you don’t win an All Ireland, then your year as an inter-county player isn’t considered a success.”
At least though he has that All-Ireland from 2013. That made it a lot easier to take the year out. Although he would like if Davy Fitzgerald had given him more game-time last summer, Ryan is a Fitzgerald loyalist and will forever be grateful for what his old Clare boss did for his career and his game.
“When he came in back in 2012, we were at a crossroads. A group of us could have been journey countymen, playing for 10, 12 years without achieving anything. He changed the mindset.”
Ryan remembers the two of them sitting down and discussing where and how he could improve and Fitzgerald then creating the environment and structures for that growth to occur. Coaches were assigned to individual players to work on specific aspects of their game. Ryan, for instance, was one of a number of players identified as being poor under the high ball. Ruck ball as well. And so Paul Kinnerk would take him and his pod at or before or outside of training and work on those aspects. There was always something to get better at, or in the case of his freetaking, even better at.
At a glance, Fitzgerald’s first season seemed underwhelming, promotion from Division 1 followed by a first-round exit in Munster and a second-round qualifier defeat to Limerick. But Ryan knew and felt from the work Fitzgerald’s coaching staff had invested in him that he was a better hurler than he had been the previous year. He brought that greater confidence back to the club to inspire them to their first county title in 31 years. Then he brought that form into Clare for 2013.
He clearly remembers that season’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Galway. At half-time management switched him from midfield to wing-forward; the game had largely passed him up to then. The old Ryan would have feared the next move was to be taken off altogether. The new Ryan trusted himself enough to believe management trusted him as well.
“I just said to myself, ‘Right, let’s just reset here. Do what you’re good at. Get stuck in, get on ball, win a few breaks.’ And at the start of the second half a puckout came, I flicked it down, took the ball on and fired it over the bar. I remember running back out the field, thinking: would that have happened in previous years? Probably not. But I had the confidence because I had done the work.”
One of the many eccentricities of that magical hurling year was that while Clare won eight All Stars and Ryan wasn’t one of them, no player was more valuable or central to their whole operation. Over the course of both All-Ireland finals against Cork, he’d shoot 19 points, 12 alone in the drawn game. If he was off with any of his frees, if he wasn’t so precise and clinical, do they win that All-Ireland? No. They don’t.
Winning it was everything and more than he thought it would be. “The elation. The relief. That everything you put into it was worth it. Looking back, those 18 months, between Newmarket winning the county and then Clare winning the All Ireland, made everything worthwhile. You hear people saying that great teams go on and win more but even if you do I don’t think the feeling can ever be the same or better than that first one. To know that you’ve got to the pinnacle, it’s something that can’t be taken away from you. If you look at the number of great players who went through their careers without winning anything or at least an All-Ireland, it means it’s something I’ll always cherish anyway.”
He’ll still hurl away with the club. Some day he might even hurl again for Clare. He only turns 29 this year and there’s likely to be a round-robin championship next year, promising the kind of run of regular games which he loves. But for now he’s happy to have taken the break. One of the reasons he didn’t return for a second trial with Portsmouth was out of guilt for missing the first round of the Clare U21 championship. Even then at 16, he was playing U21 with the club and minor with the county. The game just consumed him and for a long time he was happy for it to do so. Now he feels he’s got a better balance.
“A lot of people thought I’d be back after the league but I knew in my heart of hearts that I wouldn’t and Donal [Moloney] and Gerry [O’Connor] had a general idea too. Obviously, they wanted to give me time and they said when we met at the start of the year to see how I felt a few months later on. But I was golfing in Ennis one day and I met Gerry and he said ‘Are you enjoying life?’ And I said, ‘I am, Gerry, very much so.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s that then. We’re not going to try to force you to play if you’re happy to make that decision.’
“I will go to the championship. I have some phenomenal friends playing for Clare.
“I’ll be fully supportive of them and I’m looking forward to going and not having that pressure. I’m sure there’ll be times I’ll feel a twang of regret because I still love hurling but I’m going to enjoy the day and the summer for what it is.”
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