Ryan’s move centre-stage earns acclaim
Latest graduate of Kilkenny system is rewarded for outstanding rookie campaign
Kilkenny hurler Lester Ryan with his GAA/GPA Player of the League Award at Croke Park on Monday. Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill was awarded the football player of the league. Photograph: Inpho
It’s one of manager Brian Cody’s basic tenets so it’s hardly surprising his players have absorbed the message: no one’s entitled to a first-team jersey and it’s a privilege to be part of a Kilkenny panel.
Yesterday in Croke Park Lester Ryan was presented with the GAA/GPA All Star Player of the League award, sponsored by Opel. His emergence, or more accurately eruption onto the senior hurling scene, is enough to reduce other counties to tears.
As Kilkenny refuse to relax the county’s grip on the game, any number of aspiring rivals could have done with uncorking such a maturing talent as the Clara centrefielder, who has just turned 25 and is in his third season on the senior panel. But instead it’s the relentless winners of the past four national inter-county titles – two league and two All-Irelands – who have most conspicuously strengthened their playing stock during the recent league campaign.
Injury played a part in delaying his rise but it also played a role in creating his opportunity with All Stars Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice as well the immensely promising Cillian Buckley all laid up at various stages of the league.
Three All Star forwards were also missing in the recent league final win over Tipperary. Ryan is now pressing for a championship start and the county hasn’t been slow over the years to reward consistency in the league.
“I think being part of the panel in the first place is a huge honour,” he says, carefully nodding to the collectivist ethos. “You know you’re part of something big. And being on the panel and pushing everyone else in training, you know you’re part of a set-up.
“But personal ambition would dictate that all players want to get on the team. So in that sense, you’re trying to push for a place on the team. It’s more enjoyable playing in Croke Park than being in the stands in Croke Park.”
Opportunity came knocking in this season’s league and Ryan has answered convincingly. Selected for all seven matches, his displays at centrefield earned him yesterday’s award and featured a total of 1-9 – including three-point hauls in both the semi-final and final – as well as energetic attention to primary duties.
He says the involvement with his club Clara’s march to an intermediate club All-Ireland title in February kept him out of the panel in the early weeks but ensured he was match fit when the league started.
“The focus was on the club first and foremost at the start of the year as we were still playing. We played the final at the start of February and it was only two weeks to the Galway match when I did go in to the Kilkenny panel.
“I didn’t really have the head focused on combinations and permutations, and as regards who’s in or out. It was just when the team was named on the Friday night, I was on it. That was the Galway match. From there on in, I just kept at it.”
He reminds you that no-one actually springs fully-formed from obscurity on to the first team without the toughest auditions in the game – Kilkenny training sessions.
“Coming from having trained with Kilkenny, the standard is very high in training. Especially the training matches. After that it’s about trying to get the most out of yourself for the matches and stay going for the 70 minutes. The hardest thing is getting used to going for a 60-minute match to a 70-minute match. You really feel those last 10 minutes.
“But once you get used to it, it’s about having your head right every time you go out and getting a performance. It’s very intense. Every match is intense. It is intense, physical, fast. Your head has to be in it from the start or you’re going to get blown out of the water.”