TWO team pictures hang on the wall of Jason Ryan’s office. He has enlarged and framed both.
In quiet moments, Ryan leans back, looks up and thinks about the London Senior Championships he won with the footballers of Tara and the hurlers of St Gabriels in 2003.
It’s 13-years since he stood on the winning balcony in Ruislip, but his affection for that time and GAA connections Thames-side remain.
The Waterford man left London and surprised everyone by engineering a magical All-Ireland run with Wexford in 2008. Later, he went to Kildare as Kieran McGeeney’s number two before landing the top job after the Armagh man departed.
Following last season’s crushing 7-16 to 0-10 defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, many wondered what next for the former London player?
Now he’s taken up a coaching contract with League of Ireland side Wexford Youths.
At both Wexford GAA and Kildare, Ryan was celebrated as a coaching innovator, one of a new breed of young, pioneering managers with their hand on the tiller of the game’s accelerating change.
That billing was tempered by successive relegations with the Lilywhites, but Ryan’s skills, temperament and knowledge brought an offer from the world of soccer.
When Shane Keegan was appointed manager of Wexford Youths he approached the Waterford man and asked him to get involved.
Ryan was interested, but reluctant to jump back into a full-time role, so he agreed a coaching contract for pre-season only. He says he’s relishing the role and has been hugely impressed by the science of training.
“What hit me was the love players have for doing activity with a football,” he said. “Whether it’s conditioning work of speed training, it’s about how we can do it with a football.”
In addition to this contract, Ryan is involved with a handful of club GAA teams both underage and adult.
“But still I’d be nowhere near as busy as I was when I was managing Kildare,” he said. “Nowhere near. Maybe that was a fault of mine but where does the manager’s job stop and end? It’s just ongoing.”
The ongoing investment in inter-county success is driving the workload of management teams across the country. Ryan has listened with interest to the arguments against the culture of better preparation at the expense of fun.
“No matter how primitive the team there is science involved,” he said. “If players run laps it’s to improve endurance or aerobic capacity. If you are watching opponents and doing a Jack Charlton on it, writing notes on the side of a cigarette pack, you are still taking notes on the opposition. Some people are blessed in seeing patterns of play and more people like myself need to review it time and again to pick them out. I believe it’s going to be pointed out more and more by sports science that in our games, technical ability is key and spending more time on the technicals of kicking a ball, of catching a ball, of tackling, of striking a sliotar close to body without being hooked is going to become more important.”
But he agrees there are other elements capable of driving success and no better example than Leicester City’s improbable Premier League challenge.
“In sport on any given day any result can happen. But what Leicester have done is maintained performance over a period and developed momentum,” he said. “That gives belief. I’ve seen it in GAA teams before – players who are not the standard bearers get confidence because they have experienced victories and in those victories they have more belief. The Leicester City players will believe in everything Claudio Ranieri will say and do. If he changes tactics or picks a different team the players will absolutely believe in his rational without him having to explain why.”
A student of sport in St Mary’s University in Twickenham in the ‘90s, Ryan was occasionally called upon to run training sessions for the London footballers when playing with the Exiles.
It was a different time. He used to soldier in London green beside players like Paul Coggins and the Roscommon man has remained a close confident through their respective coaching careers.
There are other overlaps. The Wexford team he inherited from Paul Bealin in 2007 featured Ciaran Deely, who now manages London, and Ryan remembers a passionate player, similar in style to Coggins, with an infectious love of the game and an insightful outlook. He says Deely’s attributes can only improve London.
“He was an incredibly energetic and dynamic player, would cover every blade of grass and made very intelligent use of ball,” he said. “I’d like to think with his program of sports science, the types of injuries lads suffered from in London in the past may not happen as much now.”
Significantly, he’s been impressed by Deely’s work with an academy of London-born players now working closely with the senior side.
Ryan believes this work is crucial to the future of the Exiles and refers to the 2003 London SFC he won with a Tara team stacked heavy with English-born players.
“It’s really, really important to have these guys,” he said. “In 2003, nearly half the Tara squad were English-born and they were fine footballers. David Feely was the goalkeeper, O’Grady at full-back. Mick Liston at corner back. Senan Hehir was midfield and Paul Hehir was full forward. Paul Kerrigan and Andrais Redican were part of the team also. I came up through minor and U21 with these guys for Tara and we beat Kingdom Kerry Gaels in the final in 2003 – a man who deserves massive credit for that is Prionnsias Redican from Tara. When I arrived first he’d a minibus and he’d go around picking up the English-born boys.”
So too has Ryan been following the debate on whether Division 4 teams like London should be entered into a B championship.
“I think both ideas have merit,” he said. “But when I look back on my time with London, I didn’t start against Galway in 1999. I was an unused sub and I remember thinking: ‘Oh my God that’s Padraig Joyce’ or ‘that’s John Divilly.’ I was close enough that I could touch them. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t be looking up to these guys being demigods but all of a sudden I had the chance to rub shoulders with them and that was huge. It was the same winning the British championship and playing in the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland. Days with Tara when we played against An Gaeltacht with Darragh Ó Sé, Tomás Ó Sé and Dara Ó Cinnéide. It was just a fantastic experience. If I’d an option to play against Galway as a London player or as a Waterford player against Kerry… well, they are highlights for me and days I will never forget.”