Greener Pastures: Nolan cutting his defensive teeth in the tough world of Serie C

Having moved to Spain at the age of eight, it was Inter Milan that nurtured his talent

Ryan Nolan in action for Inter Milan under-19s during a  Serie A Primavera match against US Citta di Palermo at Stadio Breda on May 25th, 2019. Photograph: Claudio Villa – Inter/FC Internazionale via Getty Images

Ryan Nolan in action for Inter Milan under-19s during a Serie A Primavera match against US Citta di Palermo at Stadio Breda on May 25th, 2019. Photograph: Claudio Villa – Inter/FC Internazionale via Getty Images

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Name: Ryan Nolan

DOB: February 17th, 1999

Club: AS Giana Erminio

Country: Italy

Hometown: Shannon, Clare

Position: Defender

“I still have that Irish side in me,” proclaims Ryan Nolan, considering the merits of both Spanish and Italian football philosophies. The 21-year-old may have been brought up in Spanish ways having moved to Murcia with his parents as an eight-year-old, but it’s clear he sees himself as the archetypal Italian centre half, a practitioner of Catenaccio, though more than capable with the ball at his feet.

“I have that fire – that heart,” he says. “I love to tackle and winning balls in the air. That feeling is . . . there’s something in it. Obviously I’ve learned to play with the ball as well because teams like Inter want their academy teams to play good football.

“But I like to defend well and defend hard – so I think the Italian style does suit me.”

Plying his trade with AS Giano Erminio at present, having moved on during the recent transfer window from SS Arezzo, it was Inter Milan that provided the setting for much of his footballing education.

Growing up in Spain he was exposed to one of the world’s richest football climates, with Spain winning the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships either side of it, but with trials at Villarreal, Real Madrid and Valencia being unsuccessful for the young centre half, it took an Italian to spot the hidden potential.

After excelling at a local tournament, Nolan was quickly whisked off to northern Italy to learn from the best defenders in the world.

“At the end of the day I was playing for a small team in Spain and I was going on trials,” he explains.

“They always said: ‘You’re good. We’ll keep an eye’. But they never believed in me and gave me that chance.”

Nolan’s journey, if nothing else, is a lesson in perseverance, and even though he honed his skills as a stubborn centre half in Milan, he insists his skills as a natural footballer are also a prerequisite to success in Italy.

“The big teams at Inter and Juventus, they want their youngsters to play very good football anyway. Obviously Italians are known to have the best defenders in the world so about three times a week the back four will go away with a defensive coach, plus the midfield, and work a bit on our positioning, our reading of the game, our structure. Tactically, you learn a load here in Italy, especially as a centre half.

“In Spain they look for players that can come out with the ball, like Sergio Ramos, and look good with it. In Italy, they want that as well. But first and foremost, it’s about not conceding a goal.”

After an education in Serie A surroundings, the biggest challenge in Nolan’s young career has come over the last few months, when leaving the San Siro youth set-up to pursue first-team football in Serie C, a place that can be a hellish pit of no return for those allergic to the hustle and bustle of the trenches.

Being a captain in the Inter Milan underage system garners little respect in Serie C, where the Clare native’s opponents have gone from nimble and fleet-footed strikers to the elbows of grizzled veterans. It’s a reality Nolan has come to cherish.

“It’s a big difference. Even the little things – you’re in a changing room with men. You’re competing with 33- and 34-year-olds for a position and you’re playing against men.

“From the Primavera, the youth league I played last year, about 80 per cent go to Serie C for one, two or three years. Maybe five per cent, not even, might stay in the first team, in teams that might keep an odd youngster in the squad.”

Moreover, the Italian penchant for favouring experienced centre halves meant Nolan was always going to have to drop down a couple of divisions to earn his stripes. Some young players may never return, the harsh realities of Serie B and Serie C simply quenching the desire within. For Nolan, it seems, the exposure has had the opposite effect.

“It’s the way to improve, to get better, to get experience. And hopefully, in a year or two, you go on to bigger things in Serie B and hopefully in Serie A.”

It’s a slow journey. But the Irishman has the luxury of time on his side en route.

“The Serie B teams come to Serie C matches looking for youngsters that can get into Serie C teams. If they see a youngster that is playing week-in, week-out for a Seric C team, they’ll know he’s going to be good enough in a year or two to play in a Serie B team. So, they buy him.

“This is my first year out of academy football playing for a first-team so I’m happy at the moment. I’m enjoying it. All my options are open and we’ll see what happens.”

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