After a battle with leukaemia, Pat Ryan is comfortable carrying Cork’s great expectations

New manager isn’t fazed by the pressure inherent in the job, but you’d expect nothing less from someone calmly managing his illness

Pat Ryan had seen the whole picture.

For two years he sat in the cockpit while Kieran Kingston worried about sudden drops in cabin pressure and flying on one wing.

In 2016, their first season together, Cork made unscheduled landings in some hairy spots, miles from their dreamed destinations. Tipperary mauled them. Wexford beat them in the championship for the first time in 60 years. The bitter public inquiry dragged on for months.

“We made an awful lot of mistakes the first year, as a group,” says Ryan. “You could see it, we were kind of learning on the go.”


The second season was far better and Kingston considered staying for one more year. Ryan tried to convince him that one year wouldn’t be enough.

“I would have said, ‘There needs to be a cultural shift here.’”

In the event, Kingston stood down as manager. The players wanted Ryan to step in. He didn’t. He couldn’t? Not then.

That was the start of the dance. The widespread belief in Cork that Ryan was a perfect fit for the job sired the glib conviction that he would do it in the end. He had the mind for the modern game, and the manner. But none of this was a secret. When Waterford needed a new manager in the late summer of 2018 they chased Ryan and fixed his attention.

“I interviewed for the Waterford job and I was half-taking the Waterford job, to be honest. I met the players, they were fantastic. I met the board – excellent. I was down below in Dingle, away with all my family, and I won’t say I baulked at it – that’s the wrong word – but I just felt it would have been wrong for me as a Cork man to go off and do that job when Cork hadn’t won an All-Ireland, and we hadn’t done enough.

“I’d been involved with those players and I just felt I hadn’t . . . My plan at the time would have been to go back in with Cork again [at some stage]. I was down in Dingle and I said to myself I wasn’t going to go. Just decided below there.”

Then his world turned upside down. Ryan had a cough that he couldn’t shift. It was a nuisance, but it never crossed his mind that it might be sinister. His sister-in-law convinced him to have it checked out. Less than a week after he turned down the Waterford job he went for tests. The diagnosis was stunning: chronic myeloid leukaemia.

“It was a shock at the time. People thought the reason I pulled out of the Waterford job was because I got sick. It wasn’t. But it was lucky that I had pulled out because they would have announced my appointment on the Friday or Saturday, and I went in for tests on the following Tuesday or Wednesday. I would have had to pull out of the job then. I was lucky in that way.

“I was out commission then. I was out of work for a good bit. You get chemo first of all to start to kill it, and then you have to find the right tablets. The first tablet didn’t work for me. The second tablet, my liver was failing on it. Came off that, went on another one for 18 months and got fluid around my heart and lung out of that one.

“There’s a picture of me when I got the U-20 job [in 2020]. I didn’t know that I had fluid around my heart and lung at the time and I have a big, huge red head on me, all blotchy, and my hair is actually white. My hair is grey anyway, but it was white. It was the tablets caused all that.

“My health situation is very good now. We found the right medication. I’m grand. My numbers are very good. I’m in kind of what you’d call remission. It’s a very mild form [of the disease]. It doesn’t affect my life in any way now.”

When things settled down, he came round to Cork again. Kingston returned to the Cork job for the 2020 season and he approached Ryan. His health, though, wasn’t as good then as it is now, and he knew the U-20s job would be a slower drain on his energy. Cork hadn’t won an All-Ireland in that grade for more than 20 years; under Ryan’s guidance, they won back-to-back All-Irelands.

After the Cork seniors lost to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final last summer Kingston briefly considered staying for one more year. In that event, Ryan had agreed to rejoin him. When Kingston concluded that it was time for change, the Cork County Board spared themselves a tortured recruitment process. The consensus candidate had indicated his willingness to step up.



Around this time 20 years ago Ryan was dropped from the Cork panel by Donal O’Grady. He was only 27, and such a beautiful striker that the ball never got bored in his hand: one touch, fast look: sent. But the game that Cork were fashioning leaned more on athleticism and that wasn’t his strong suit. Half a dozen players were culled at the same time, but they were invited to continue training with Cork as an appendix to the panel.

“I’d say that was a test, looking back on it. I’d say it was. I just said to Donal, ‘I can’t go training if I’m not on the panel. Sars are training.’ You look back on it and say, ‘Was I doing enough myself? I wasn’t. I look at the players now, and they’re way more dedicated than I’d say I was myself.”

Ryan hurled for the Sarsfields senior team until he was 36, during the most bountiful period in their history, and when he finished he still had half a mind to carry on. But Sars were looking for a manager too and he wondered about that. His brother Ray was the centre back on the team and Ryan asked his opinion. Ray didn’t put a tooth in it: he was more use to them on the sideline.

“I would have been very vocal when I played. Boisterous. Maybe sometimes over the top with some of my team-mates. I kind of realised when I was managing I had to dial that back because there’s a different relationship when you’re playing with lads and you’re trying to drive it when you’re in the group.

“At intercounty level it goes up a notch. You probably have to fight your corner a bit more, I think. You can’t play the game from the line, but you still have to show passion – that the players on the field know that you’re passionate about what’s going on.”

Walking into the Cork job, he was under no illusions. Ryan was part of the Cork panel that won the 1999 All-Ireland, snapping a nine-year losing run that had exasperated the natives. Now it is 18 years since Cork’s last title and the torment is swelling, year-on-year, with the power of compound interest. Locally, there is no shortage of proposed solutions. In Cork, opinions grow and spread like moss.

“It’s very obvious we need to get more physical in what we’re doing, but we can’t go away from what we’re good at too. We have a load of advantages that other counties don’t have. We need to make sure that we’re playing to that. But we need to get more physical. It’s easy to say that you know what you want to do. In fairness to the lads that were there before me, they knew exactly what needed to be done as well, but you’ve just got to keep going and going.

“In our psyche we value skill and speed and nice hurlers and all that kind of craic, but we just need to bring a mix to that, and we’re looking at those fellas. The fella that might give you that bit more physicality, that bit more aggression, but who might leave the ball through his legs a bit. Can you get more out of him?

“You’d have fellas saying, ‘Ah, his hurling will never be fast enough for intercounty’. But there’s load of those kind of fellas playing intercounty at the moment who are doing a great job for their team.”

The way the game has gone, it is harder to be different and prosper. In terms of basic strategy, there are no more battles between the old testament and the new. Cork were one of the last counties to submit to the modern doctrines. But what happens then? Are you trying to win at somebody else’s game?

“You have to learn from the trends in the game. I think everybody learns from the trends. But if you’re not going to set your own trends, and work to your own team, you’re fecked. Take a soccer analogy. If you’re Liverpool or Man United, trying to copy Man City, you’re not going to beat Man City by being Man City. So, you have to have your own unique thing.

“That’s the same with us. We have the players we have in Cork, we have our own identity, we have our own type of player, to a degree. But there’s other aspects to it. We’d like to bring more hardness into it. We have plenty of those fellas as well.”

Before he took over the Sars senior team 11 years ago Ryan had already started with Cork development squads. A 14-year-old Shane Kingston was part of his first crew. Since then, he has been immersed in coaching and watching and scouting. When he named a training panel of about 40 players before Christmas, only three of them had not passed through his hands before, somewhere.

With a new management team everybody expects speculative picks and bolters, and Cork’s training panel is sprinkled with players like that. In the off-season, though, the biggest talking point in Cork was whether Patrick Horgan would come back or not.

Dropped for Cork’s final two championship games last season, he delivered his most productive spell of the summer as a second-half sub in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Was that a fist-waving full stop or a pregnant comma?

Horgan’s barbed reflections on last season emerged after we met, but whatever Horgan said was immaterial to the understanding he had reached with this year’s management. All parties are clear about where they stand.

“I was delighted Patrick came back. He’s been brilliant since we came in. Training very hard – training lights out. He’s in super shape. I think the way we want to play will suit him more. We want to get more direct and move it faster as opposed to taking three or four hand-passes around the middle. I think that’s the way the lads would have wanted to play last year too, but it’s just about players taking more responsibility.

“I think it’s very disrespectful when you get to a certain age and fellas keep saying, ‘Are you going? Is Hoggie gone?’ Why are we chasing him out? I think he’s one of the best hurlers we have in Cork still. We’ve spoken to him and he’s the same as everybody else on the panel as regards starting. If he’s going well enough, if he can do a job for us, he’ll be starting on our team. I’m not looking at his age [35 in May]. If he’s a sub, he’s a sub. If he’s starting, he’s starting. He’s cool with that.”

In Cork, Ryan’s appointment was greeted with enormous goodwill. He wonders in passing how that feeling will hold up if results turn sour in the coming weeks, but there’s no accounting for that. For any team-building exercise the patience of the public should have no role in time-keeping.

“I wouldn’t say pressure ever bothered me before. It never bothered me before. But this is obviously a different job because you become front and centre of any bit of failings that you have. Would being successful bother me? No. That would just wash over me.

“Is not winning the All-Ireland a failure in Cork? It is, like, yeah. That’s not being cocky, that’s just the way it is. Would I look on it as a failure myself? I probably wouldn’t because you’d know that you’d given it everything. But look, in the grand scheme of things, if you don’t win the All-Ireland, it’s a failure.”

Not everybody has the wherewithal to carry that.

Right man.