Ryan’s new chapter in old story

PROUD TRADITION: Kilkenny hurling captain Lester Ryan at St Kieran's College in Kilkenny city, where he is a teacher. Picture: Pat Moore

Clara v Ballyhale Shamrocks
All things considered, perhaps the only surprise about one of the Ryans of Clara captaining Kilkenny to September glory in Croke Park was that it didn’t happen years ago.

For the Ryans of Clara have been wearing the black and amber for time out of mind. Usually with success. Rarely without making an impression.

Back in the late 1940s there was Father Harry, one of the most gifted minors to ever play for the county but lost to the priesthood shortly afterwards. More notably, there was Tom, who after hurling junior for Kilkenny moved to Enniscorthy and became the final piece of Wexford’s jigsaw, a character who by hook and crook kept the axemen in enemy full-back lines so busy that Nicky Rackard was able to roam free and wreak havoc from deep and whose grandson Liam starred for the Purple and Gold this summer as a teenage corner-back.

Their brother Liam didn’t hurl to a high level but he had sons who did.

Johnny was an All Ireland-winning minor in 1972, Harry in 1975 as captain and Lester in 1977. Harry went on to win a senior medal in 1983 and Kevin captained the Kilkenny team beaten in the 1985 U21 final. And along the way Johnny married Lily and they produced three little hurlers of their own. And one of them was the chap who gave that magnificent óráid on the Hogan Stand podium two months ago.

Lester Ryan’s life hasn’t been quite the same since.

He relives those moments by way of a rush of images. Brian Gavin blowing the final whistle and the world stopping. The subs rushing in. Some guy in a suit pulling him towards the podium. Ned Quinn reminding him not to forget to mention Glanbia. “And yet you want to see some of the Tipperary lads and commiserate with them. Us in the stand, them on the pitch. The ultimate win-lose situation. You want to shake hands with them and you want them to know you’re genuine.”

His speech had two key phrases: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine and Nach mbíonn an teorainn sa spéir, ach go mbíonn an teorainn san aigne.

The first translates, very roughly, as ‘People need each other’. The second says that limits are set not in the sky but in the mind.

Why those two lines in particular? “I wanted to make sure it was really relevant to Kilkenny, to the panel. That’s why I said Ar scáth a chéile. Because it’s all about togetherness, about the unit, about the panel. All 37 of us, from 1 to 37.” The line about limits was to reference the achievements of the panel both collectively and individually without having to single out Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh.

“Limits don’t have to be binding. I mean, look at Henry and his ten All-Irelands. How can you put a limit on the number of All-Irelands a man can win?”

The response was staggering. There were e-mails, text messages, letters, many of them from impressed Gaeilgeoirí in Galway. They have an Irish phrase of the week they stick up on the notice board in St Kieran’s every week; Ar scáth a chéilewas the phrase the first week of October.

It was all very different to the speech Ryan had given after the National League final back in May. That mouthful had brought its own worries.

He knew he wasn’t starting the same day in Semple Stadium. He had “a small bit of a speech” prepared but he didn’t know if he’d get to air it. What was the procedure if Kilkenny won but he hadn’t come on as a sub?

Would he even be allowed receive the trophy? In the dressing room beforehand JJ Delaney, the acting captain, came over and put Ryan’s mind at rest. “If Kilkenny win you’re going up for that trophy.”

Six months later Ryan still shakes his head in wonder at the generosity of it.

“JJ Delaney. One of my heroes before I ever got near the team. All the medals he has. And just to see him to do that, to have the thoughtfulness and say that. I took that out of the day more than I did lifting the cup.”

The journey to speeches and trophies has been a long one. Ryan didn’t make the county minor team. Not good enough at the time “and still a bit small”. Life changed when he was 20 and Michael Walsh saw enough in him to put him on what turned out to be an All-Ireland-winning U21 team. “It would have been easy for Michael to go with the regular guys, the minors from a couple of years earlier. He was the first man who gave me a real chance. “To throw on a Kilkenny jersey: you always think it could happen and then it did.”

Two years ago Clara’s rising generation at last began to realise the bright future long forecast for them. A Kilkenny intermediate title, Leinster intermediate success, All-Ireland intermediate success. They continued to ride the wave and it led them, fresh in the grade, to a county senior triumph last season, only the club’s second.

Ryan was promptly tossed onto a carousel that hasn’t stopped turning. At first it was great for the ego: the “absolute honour” of being Kilkenny captain and the small things that went with it, like going around with Rackard Cody, the team kitman, and being introduced to people. Yet the realisation that he’d be hard pressed to get his place was ever present. His method of coping was a determination not to allow the captaincy add to the pressure.

Burden? No burden. “That wouldn’t be right. What I tried to do was to bring no negativity to the dressing room. To lead by example with your attitude if you can’t lead on the pitch. The worst possible way is going out and being negative towards someone who’s starting.”

Not enough space has been devoted to the topic of whether membership of a high-achieving intercounty panel sharpens players in their professional lives. Has being a Kilkenny panellist made Ryan a better teacher of maths and accountancy? “It’s definitely given me an appetite for hard work. I’d be tough enough at the best of times with some of the lads. But it’s to help get them what they want and impart the value of hard work.”

Hard work. Grist to the mill of a man who works in a school just around the corner from Ryan’s workplace. On which point, one evening at home recently he came across the report of some Clara match from 1999. He turned it over and on the back was a piece with the new Kilkenny manager talking about the importance of – yes – spirit. What is it about Brian Cody? “He has this ability to make players hungrier and hungrier every year, no matter how successful they’ve been. He doesn’t speak to lads for the sake of it. He’s very approachable if you’ve a problem or want something like, say, a reference. He’s fair. But he keeps his distance.”

Tomorrow the wheel comes full circle and Ryan returns to where this crazy 12 months began against Carrickshock. The embers of last season’s Kilkenny showpiece and Clara, trailing, with a close-in free. Ryan had been practising them for years, long before Anthony Nash entered the public consciousness, Declan Ryan’s penalty style being his prototype. In college he and Martin Walsh, Tommy’s brother, used take them after training for a bit of fun. “When people wouldn’t go in goal for them any more you could see they were working.”

The one against Carrickshock he shovelled just far enough ahead of himself for comfort and placed it exactly where he intended, at the right height, a little to the left of the keeper. Moments later the final whistle sounded and Clara were county champions for the second time.

The first time was in 1986, meaning tomorrow’s meeting with Ballyhale Shamrocks is a repeat. Johnny Ryan, his dad, was centre-back, with a late goal from Joe Casey giving Clara a dramatic and improbable win. Johnny’s eldest grew up on stories of that golden afternoon. “A club like ours, with only one county title, you’re going to hear about it.”

Two titles now. And another generation of Ryans writing a new chapter in an old story.


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