Michael Ryan: Multitasking manager keeps the ball rolling in Ballymacarbry

Managing three senior teams is a labour of love for the former Waterford hurling coach

Michael Ryan: ‘I get bored at home very easily. The more I watch soccer and those games on television, the more I want to get out and be doing something. I’m pitch-driven, if you know what I mean.’ Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Michael Ryan: ‘I get bored at home very easily. The more I watch soccer and those games on television, the more I want to get out and be doing something. I’m pitch-driven, if you know what I mean.’ Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Michael Ryan reckons there probably aren’t 600 people altogether living in and around Ballymacarbry. The village on the Waterford/Tipperary border nonetheless manages to put out three senior teams each year: Ballymacarbry in women’s football, Fourmilewater in hurling and The Nire in men’s football. In 2021, for the first time in a 46-year coaching career, Ryan has been managing all three. Madness is its own medicine.

Fourmilewater gave the Waterford championship a reasonable rattle before running into Ballygunner in the quarter-final back in mid-September. They were ahead at half-time, level at the second water break, but still lost by eight in the end. Ryan told the gathered Ballygunner players afterwards that they had everything they needed to go on now and become the first Waterford team ever to win a club All-Ireland. Only someone of Ryan’s standing could say that after a county quarter-final and be listened to.

The other two teams in the parish are still going strong. Never stronger, in fact, than this weekend when both of them are involved in Munster competition. The Nire go to Newcastle West in Limerick on Saturday, Ballymacarbry head to Mourneabbey in Cork on Sunday. The townlands around the Nire valley will empty out both days. Ryan at the heart of it – as if he’d be anywhere else.

“Practically every player was born or reared within five miles of the pitch,” he says. “Both teams have a good following. A lot of the Nire players were at the women’s county final and vice-versa. It’s a close-knit community.

“What else would you be doing on a winter’s Saturday or Sunday afternoon? Over the years, going away on adventures through Munster have been great occasions. We’ve gone down to west Cork and up to Clare and Limerick and Kerry. It’s a great day out for families and supporters. There’s not a million things you can do at the moment because of Covid, but we can all go and stand outside and watch a match. It’s a great time.”

Ryan managed his first-ever team in 1975, still in his teens when he agreed to take over the Ballymac women for a season. The following year, the Nire team he was playing on lost an under-21 championship match against Tallow and Ryan came off afterwards in a rage. He left three teeth on the pitch that day but he was far more exercised by the championship he felt they had left there alongside them.

Michael Ryan managing Waterford in the Munster GAA Senior Hurling Championship semi-final in 2012. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Michael Ryan managing Waterford in the Munster GAA Senior Hurling Championship semi-final in 2012. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

The Nire had a good crop at the time but there was very little training and next to no talk about the game itself beforehand. So he put himself forward at the next agm to take the under-21 footballers in ’77. He was managing lads he had been playing with the previous year but he never gave it a second thought. He drilled them, prepped them and sent them out to win the 1977 county title. It was Ryan’s first trophy in a coaching career that would gather them up by the ferryload.

Oddly enough, though, he somehow never managed the Nire senior team until this year. Mostly, it was because he was always managing someone else. The Ballymac women, the Waterford women, the Waterford hurlers, the Westmeath hurlers – more clubs in more counties than you could reasonably be expected to count. And yet never, for whatever reason, never the club he grew up with, played for and supported all his life. Not until now.

“Ah, they didn’t need me,” he chuckles. “They were doing well enough without me. They won plenty. They had great managers and they were flying. This was the first time I was asked. There was a players’ meeting last December and my name came up.

‘Nothing magical’

“I had a meeting with the two club chairmen, Tom Reynolds and Ronan Ryan. We were down at the club but with Covid we couldn’t go inside. So we were standing out in the cold talking about whether I would take over or not. There was nothing magical about it, I can tell you that.

“I enjoyed being a supporter throughout all the years. When you’re a supporter, there’s a million things you don’t have to do. It’s enjoyable sitting above in the stand, you’re able to arrive 10 minutes before throw-in. But once the players ask you to manage them, that’s the big thing. I have a son on the team so that was a small part of it too – I managed all three of my daughters down the years. But that’s only a small thing. The big thing was that the players wanted it.”

The Ballymac women are a phenomenon, of course. Their win over Comeragh Rangers in the Waterford final last month sealed their 40th county title in a row. They had to dig deep to get it too, trailing at half-time and needing a deluge of goals after the break to see them into the clear. Ryan’s daughter Michelle scored 2-2 in the second half and picked up her 23rd county medal in the process.

Ryan was there at the beginning, managing them to their first one away back in 1982. He has managed his wife, his daughters, his sister. And, as he wrote last year in his terrific memoir The Road from Ballymac, he has dropped every one of them at one stage or another. “I dropped my wife one time in the 1980s and there was no word spoken in the house for a week. I thought she had played very poorly on the day and that was it.”

I love working with people who are interested. We’re lucky around Ballymac that we’re surrounded by super people who work hard and train hard and always want to improve

Ryan has overseen or been involved with 32 All-Ireland winning teams in his long career. That’s Ballymac, that’s the Waterford women at various age groups, that’s Laois one year when he was sort of an undercover backroom staff member after Waterford were knocked out early. He wouldn’t be able to count the trophies won in men’s football and hurling, club and county. For close to half a century, he has always been somewhere doing something with some crowd or other. Wouldn’t know how not to be.

“I get bored at home very easily,” he says. “The more I watch soccer and those games on television, the more I want to get out and be doing something. I’m pitch-driven, if you know what I mean. Every now and then over the years, I’d go down to watch training. It’s better than sitting at home.

“I love going to games. I love the thought of during the day thinking about training and getting ready for a session. I get a real buzz from it, coming up with plans, thinking about how players can improve. I love working with people who are interested. We’re lucky around Ballymac that we’re surrounded by super people who work hard and train hard and always want to improve. They don’t look for excuses.”

Template

For years now they’ve used Loughmore-Castleiney in Tipperary as their template, installing the same management to take The Nire as well as Fourmilewater. The crossover between the two teams is so vast, Ryan reckons it’s the only way it can work.

“You’re talking about 14 fellas who are starting on both teams,” he says. “The good thing about having the same manager for both teams is that there are no rows and everybody is pulling in the one direction. No matter how well two managers co-operate, it’s still very hard to find the right balance. So we’ve been doing it this way since 2014 and it seems to work well enough.

“And when you throw the Ballymac ladies into it, there’s advantages there too. Training isn’t an issue because you have the one manager setting the training times. There’s no rows over who gets to use the pitch and when and all that. We train three times a week with each team –the men train Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday and the women train Wednesday, Friday and Sunday as well. It all works out well enough.”

The Ballymacarbry women’s team celebrate their 40th consecutive Waterford title
The Ballymacarbry women’s team celebrate their 40th consecutive Waterford title

And how. In 2021, it has earned them the men and women’s double in Waterford, their ninth in the past 20 years. They head off to do battle on two fronts in Munster now, hopeful of a long winter. Up to Limerick on Saturday, down to Cork on Sunday. Into the lion’s den for away matches both times, Ryan notes with some bemusement.

But then he’s long since given up trying to work out how these things are decided. Best to truck along, doing what they do. Another weekend. Another match. And another. And the chance of more.

“It’s tradition,” he says. “It’s what we do around here. Sometimes adversity drives you on and all these players have been around and lost matches and won matches. There’s a great bunch of players. They are motivated. Amazingly, the ladies are more driven now than they ever were. They lost four first-choice forwards from last year’s team and they still drove on and won it again.

“And the men, they are a brilliant bunch. They’re very easy to handle. Nobody is ever late to training or anything like that. Some of them have cousins on the women’s team, some of them are brilliant hurlers. They love it. That’s why they keep doing it. They just love it.”

Him too. Unconditionally.

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