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Dublin: 2°C Monday 12 April 2021

'I threw a boot at the car, knocked on the window and said: 'Say it to my face now.''

Former UCD and St Patrick’s Athletic goalkeeper Barry Ryan reflects on his career in football.

Barry Ryan was frequently a standout performer in goals during a lengthy League of Ireland career.
Barry Ryan was frequently a standout performer in goals during a lengthy League of Ireland career.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

1. His father’s son

GOALKEEPERS ARE OFTEN portrayed as being a bit different from the average footballer and it is true of Barry Ryan in some regards.

For a start, he grew up in an area not renowned for producing great soccer players — Cloughleigh in Ennis, County Clare.

Yet Ryan had a love of soccer and other sports instilled in him from an early age. His late father Noel, who passed away in 2007, played hurling with Éire Óg and Gaelic football for Clare, as well as featuring for Cork Celtic in the League of Ireland.

Like his dad, Ryan was adept at a number of sports from an early age.

My earliest memories would be where I grew up in Cloughleigh, a housing estate and just being out on the road all the time, kicking balls, using light posts for goals, jumpers, electrical boxes, whatever we could find. Just out all the time, coming home all the time covered in muck. If we didn’t come in dirty, it was a problem.

“I played with the local team — Éire Óg they’re called, ‘The Townies’ is their nickname. I played with them all the way up and soccer as well.”

Ryan played learned his trade with Cloughleigh Celtic, before he was offered a soccer scholarship at University College Dublin. His local club had reached an All-Ireland final, where they were beaten by Dublin side Home Farm. But despite the disappointment of losing, the match proved to be a watershed moment in the youngster’s career, as it was the game where he was spotted by the late Dr Tony O’Neill.

2. College commitments

‘The Doc’ was a renowned sports administrator, who was Director of Sport at UCD before his untimely death in October 1999 aged 53, and identified a teenage Ryan’s considerable potential in 1996, changing his life in the process.

I just wanted to be outside,” he says. “I never grew up saying: ‘I want to be a professional soccer player.’ It was just that an opportunity came up.”

The deal was done not long before Ryan’s 18th birthday and presented a vital chance for a clear pathway during a time when his future was uncertain.

“Me and school, we didn’t really get on to be honest,” he says. “To be offered that was just a massive opportunity. I couldn’t turn it down. It was a big shock. There was no talk about it, there was no nothing. I was at a tournament in England actually with the local club. I got a phone call from home saying: ‘You’ve been offered a scholarship.’”

Dr. Tony O'Neill 1/10/1995 Dr Tony O'Neill was had a big influence on Ryan's career. Source: Lorraine O 'Sullivan/INPHO

Being based in Dublin was not always easy, as Ryan adapted to this new lifestyle. And O’Brien was one of the figures crucial in helping the youngster settle in unfamiliar surroundings.

“He was very good to me and my family when I was up there, he looked after me massively,” Ryan recalls. “I was a fella from Ennis out of Clare, just landed in Dublin on my own. It was my first time ever living out of home. It was a massive shock to me, the big bright lights of Dublin. And it all came round so fast as well. Players used to come up a lot and [Tony] put them up in the Montrose and looked after them top notch. I couldn’t have asked more of him, he was brilliant to me.

“If I was misbehaving, he’d pull me in the office and let me know. He wouldn’t let me get out of line. He just kept me in tow. You’d just know by the look of him [if he was angry]. He’d get redder and had a stern look about him — you knew when you crossed him.

“[His death] came as a big shock to everyone. He did everything for the soccer team. The soccer team to him was everything. So it was a sad day when that happened.”

3. The deep end

Not long after he was signed, Ryan was thrust into first-team action, making his debut away to Sligo in February 1997 at the age of 18.

“Back then, they had an old cage going out onto the pitch. It was scary. We had a good reserve side. A few lads came up with me through that, so that helped. We were playing good opposition every week, but the step up to the senior team was massive, a huge deal.

[UCD] was a very good environment. The campus has everything on site. The facilities were top notch. And it was laidback. We were students. We didn’t expect to win anything. We weren’t expected to win leagues. So it was just a matter of ‘go out and play football and do the best you can’. And everyone did do the best they could at the time. So we had a good run there.”

And while Ryan excelled on the pitch from the outset, the same unfortunately could not be said in relation to his studies.

“Sports management was what I was supposed to be doing. But like me and school, me going into college, it never happened. I’d go in and out every so often, but it never really happened. And looking back now, it was the biggest mistake ever — I should have stuck with it. But at least I have something behind me now. It was a massive mistake not doing that. But at the time, I had absolutely zero interest.

“[Playing for UCD] was the main thing. They kept me there, because if I wasn’t performing or I wasn’t doing well in their eyes on the soccer pitch, I’d have been back home I’d say.”

Jason Sherlock 09/1997 Ryan shared a dressing room with Dublin GAA footballer Jason Sherlock during their time together at UCD. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

Playing for the Students wasn’t always easy, however. In Ryan’s first season, they came eighth, seven points off the relegation zone. The next campaign was even more nerve-wracking in their fight for survival. A 2-0 final-day defeat to Bohs meant UCD faced First Division side Limerick in a promotion-relegation play-off. They emerged 5-2 winners on aggregate, with Dublin GAA star Jason Sherlock scoring a 31st goal for the club in the last of 110 appearances. Ciaran Kavanagh, Tony McDonnell, Terry Palmer, Robbie Griffin and Mick O’Byrne were among the other notable members of the team.

“We’d always be hovering around mid-table or down around the bottom. You’d be kept busy in games, constantly on the go, constantly making saves, which for a ‘keeper I suppose is a good thing — you stand out a bit more.”

4. A star is born

Notwithstanding the departure of Sherlock, Griffin and Palmer among others, UCD would improve considerably over the next two seasons. In the 1998-99 campaign, they finished sixth, their highest league finish since 1985, albeit only five points ahead of 10th-place Bohs, who needed to beat Cobh Ramblers in a promotion-relegation play-off to stay up. And having already seemingly punched above their weight, they hit even greater heights the next season, coming fourth and qualifying for the Uefa Intertoto Cup in the process.

Consequently, on a hot summer’s day the following June, they came up against Bulgarian outfit FC Velbazhd, drawing 3-3 in Belfield, before going out on away goals amid a scoreless draw in the return fixture. It was certainly the best phase in the club’s recent history, as they have struggled to replicate those heights since.

Players were getting used to each other and used to the Premier Division, playing with each other week in week out,” Ryan explains. “A lot of the guys who were there were there for a good few years together. So it was kind of settled.

“There were no prima donnas or superstars in the team. I think that was the foundation for it. Everyone got on with each other. We socialised together. We trained hard. We went out and did our jobs. There was no pressure. And the year we qualified for the Intertoto was unbelievable, a massive achievement.

“I still have the trophy they gave out for player of the tie [against Velbazhd]. It’s a big crystal thing. It’s gathering dust at home somewhere. It was a brilliant experience. We went to Bulgaria and were staying in hotels. You could see the doors didn’t close fully. Mafioso were down in the lobby. The food was rank. The bread was stale.

“But we went out two nights before the match. It didn’t affect us at all. There were fellas being taken home in taxis, but we were young, we were fit. You might not get away with it now, but back then, that’s what we did.”

Andy Myler and Clive Delaney DIGITAL Andy Myler of Athlone and Clive Delaney of UCD during the 2001 play-off. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Yet UCD’s impressive progress could not be maintained. In the 2000-01 campaign, they were back in relegation trouble and required another play-off to survive, overcoming Athlone on penalties in Belfield. The Students had looked in serious danger. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, Derek Swan brought them level on aggregate before Robert McAuley put them ahead, only for Greg Costello’s goal 19 minutes from time ensuring the tie went to extra-time and penalties.

After Swan missed a penalty near the end of normal time, it looked like it may not be UCD’s night, but Ryan proved the hero of the shootout, saving spot kicks from Costello and Alan McNevin to ensure his side narrowly retained their Premier Division status. The goalkeeper insists to not feeling under undue pressure during those crucial moments.

“All the way up along at schoolboy, I did quite well in shootouts. You find your own routine and rhythm in penos. If you save it, you’re a hero. If you don’t save it, no one can really say anything to you, so it’s kind of a win-win situation.”

The following season, Ryan was voted UCD Supporters’ Player of the Year, as they ended up in the relatively secure position of seventh, while he emulated this feat in the next campaign amid a sixth-place finish, in addition to being named SWAI Goalkeeper of the Year.

The Clare native’s exceptional performances were drawing attention from elsewhere, and ultimately paved the way for what proved to be an ill-fated move to Shamrock Rovers.

If I’m looking back now, I should have stayed, because of what happened,” he says. “I don’t know if I outgrew [UCD], I’m not sure. The club that came in for you, it was like: ‘Woah, I can’t really turn this down.’ Strike while the iron’s hot was my thinking.

“It was more pressure [at Rovers]. They were training in the morning. Players there at the time were around the league for years, like Marc Kenny, Derek Tracey, Tony Grant, Trevor Molloy, these were huge household names and you were coming in there as a young fella going: ‘Woah, this is massive. I just have to try to do my best and see how we go.’

“It was more professional. They were there to win trophies basically. They were under big pressure to win games from the fans, from everyone basically. So it was just a big step up.”

5. Dark days

At the time, Rovers didn’t fare too much better than UCD, finishing the 2003 campaign in seventh position. After his debut against Drogheda in April, the 24-year-old goalkeeper went on to make 28 appearances for the club, before being unceremoniously sacked, after testing positive for cocaine. He received a 15-month ban, which was subsequently reduced to nine months following an admission of guilt.

That was massively difficult for me and the family,” he recalls. “It was huge. I had reporters knocking on my front door in Ennis. When I was still in Dublin, I didn’t answer the phone to my parents for about three weeks. They were ringing and ringing, and I wouldn’t answer the phone. It was: ‘How am I going to break this to them?’ How am I going to tell them?’ It was massive, a big, big shock.”

“I was banned for everything. I couldn’t play locally, couldn’t do nothing. I was a guinea pig, to be honest. It was kind of a statement: ‘This is what happens,’ and I was the fool to get caught.

Barry Ryan Ryan pictured in 2004. Source: ©INPHO

While it remains relatively rare for players to test positive for banned substances, reports have suggested plenty of footballers still indulge in recreational drug use. A story in The Independent last January cited Professor Ivan Waddington, who believes cocaine use is “widespread” among English footballers. 

“I’m 100% convinced it’s still going on,” Ryan adds. “[Modern players are] just way cleverer about it. It’s going on in England and everywhere. I was the fool to get caught — it has to be someone.”

And Ryan warns young footballers not to make the same mistakes he did.

“If you’re at the top of your game in League of Ireland, you can go on to achieve bigger things. Work as hard as you can, stay away from that side of it. Have your night out on the Saturday, a few pints or whatever, but go home and be sensible. Don’t be like me.”

And for the embattled star, the repercussions of the drugs ban were significant. Sacked by Rovers, the 25-year-old initially feared his football career could be over.

Clubs might have been thinking: ‘This fella is trouble, stay clear of him.’ It might have been the end of it. Fortunately enough, it wasn’t. It was a mistake and thankfully, managers and clubs saw that and thought: ‘Yeah, he’s a goodie.’ And from then on, I had nothing against me. It was just one mistake. People make them every day.

“In the nine months, I had to get a job and I was back living at home, so it was a massive upturn in my life. But it happened, I dealt with it, I moved on and thankfully, I got back into the league.”

6. Starting over

Ryan returned to play for Dublin City in 2004, but uncaring opposition supporters were not especially keen to let the star forget his problematic past.

“I’m still getting it to this day. Even down here in Limerick, I’m playing for a club and I’m still getting it off players. But the fellas that are saying it to me are probably selling the stuff, which is the funny thing.

People that say stuff are apes, in my opinion. I’ve absolutely no time for them. There was some fella tweeting me only last week, but them fellas are absolute morons. I wouldn’t even pay heed to it.

“The thing about it is if you cross them in the street, they wouldn’t open their mouth to you. I had an experience outside Dalymount. A car drove past me and they were roaring out the window at me. ‘Ahhh, you junkie,’ and all this. So I dropped my gear bag and followed the car outside Dalymount after a match. I threw a boot at the car, knocked on the window and said: ‘Say it to my face now.’ The three lads in the car absolutely shit their pants, looking out at me as if they were rabbits in the headlights. They wouldn’t open their mouths to me. That’s the kind of morons you’re dealing with. They’re big and brave in the crowd, but I cornered them and they didn’t open their mouths to me.”

John McDonnell Johnny McDonnell helped Ryan resurrect his career at St Pat's. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Even four years on from the ban, Ryan was still getting abuse from supporters, prompting then-St Pat’s boss Johnny McDonnell to speak out in support of the star, after derogatory chants during a match at Turner’s Cross against Cork City.

“The fella made a mistake in his life a good few years back, but he’s probably the best goalkeeper in the league at the moment and to be treated like that [is unfair],” McDonnell told reporters.

“This is a trend that is coming into the game now and it’s not nice. You don’t mind fellas having a bit of banter — but not thuggery, cowardice or whatever you want to call it. Usually, it’s very welcoming here but [the chants of] ‘Barry Ryan is a junkie, Barry Ryan is a junkie’. ‘Junkie, junkie, junkie’ — you could hear nothing else in the second half. It’s not what you come to games for.”

And were these taunts something Ryan was able to block out during matches?

“As the years went on, yeah, but at the start, it was difficult. As I got older and more experienced, it was water off a duck’s back. It just didn’t bother me in the slightest.
You learn and you move on.”

The chanting was particularly intense during Ryan’s time at Dublin City, when it was still fresh in people’s minds. It didn’t help matters that the club itself was a mess, owing to off-field issues. The side finished bottom of the Premier Division in 2004, the goalkeeper’s sole season with the club, and they would go out of business two years later.

It was crazy, that club,” Ryan says. “Players were coming in from everywhere. All sorts of players. And there were seven of us living in a house at one stage. It was mental, absolutely nuts that club. The way they brought over Efan Ekoku, Carlton Palmer and all these lads. It was just madness, but it got me back into the league, so I was very grateful to them.

“Carlton Palmer was coming in and god only knows what he was getting, because of his flights and hotels. They couldn’t keep paying him what he wanted.

“He basically flew in, went to the hotel, togged out, went out after the match, had a few pints and went home. He didn’t really speak to us, he didn’t do anything — it was just in and out.”

7. The best of times

There are happier memories from Ryan’s time at St Pat’s, the club he joined in 2005 and a transfer he describes as “one of the best moves I ever made”.

He continues: “Johnny [McDonnell] was very good to me, very good to work with. We had our run-ins, but we always got on well [in general]. We still salute if we see each other and have a chat to this day.

“That [2008 Uefa Cup] was a phenomenal run. What an experience. Elfsborg up in Richmond was one of the best nights in my career. We beat them up there to qualify for the Hertha Berlin game. The place was rocking.”

Source: stpatsfccom/YouTube

One of the stars of that team was future Birmingham and Ireland star Keith Fahey, who Ryan also remains friends with to this day.

“We were very similar. In training, we’d clash heads a lot because of standards and stuff. But again, I still talk to him to this day, lovely fella. He did magnificently in his career. I’m absolutely delighted for him. He was absolutely gifted. The way he ran with the ball was scary. You couldn’t catch him. He floated on the ground. He was phenomenal.”

In spite of the obvious talent at their disposal, Ryan felt the Pat’s team of that era underachieved, finishing runners-up twice in the league, in 2007 and 2008, and losing a memorable 2006 FAI Cup final 4-3 after extra-time against Stephen Kenny’s Derry City.

“We should have won the league the year we were winning [in 2007],” he remembers. “We were leading up to the break in the season and we lost it then. With the squad and the team and the resources we had, we should have won that league. I still regret that second place. The FAI Cup final as well, that was just a crazy game.”

8. Homeward bound

After the 2008 season, Ryan moved on to Galway United. The decision not to renew his Pat’s contract was as much down to him as the club.

I kind of looked for it, because my time was done in Dublin. I had a  fiancée down [in Limerick], we’d just bought a house. I wanted to move closer to home after 13 years in Dublin.”

Life at Galway in Ryan’s two seasons there was akin to his stint with UCD in the sense that he was constantly required to pull off big performances to keep out the opposition. In 2009, they avoided the drop, finishing eighth, before doing likewise the next campaign, after beating Bray Wanderers 1-0 in the promotion-relegation play-off.

Nevertheless, Ryan still opted to drop down to the First Division, joining Limerick in 2011 and helping them gain promotion as champions in his second season there. Despite this laudable feat, there was a sense of anti-climax about the evening when their success was confirmed.

You’d think it would be special, but it was kind of… We won the league and that was it. [The club's owner] Pat Sullivan took over the show then. The final night we were given the trophy, he spoke for about 40 minutes on the pitch with his A4 pages. We were after winning the league and we were all just standing around listening to him talking, which was nothing new.

“So we won the league, went back to the hotel, I think there were chicken nuggets there, and we went home. We organised our own night out. We had no official do, nothing like that. We just organised our own night out the next day. I don’t think I even got a pint or a free drink out of it.

“So in that sense, it was a let down, but looking back, to win the league after 15 years, it was very good. You’d think it would have been a bigger deal, but obviously it wasn’t.”

Pat Scully Pat Scully departed as Limerick boss in 2012 despite helping the club earn promotion. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Following their promotion, the departure of former Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers player Pat Scully as manager left Ryan frustrated, and while Limerick finished seventh and sixth in their first two seasons back in the top flight, the experienced goalkeeper was ultimately shown the door by the club, prompting his retirement.

“With a mortgage and kids, I couldn’t keep going for nine months in a year and then not getting paid. I needed income all year round. I could have carried on easily. My body was still good, but it was a financial decision.

“Limerick weren’t offering me a deal and they brought in [Conor] O’Donnell, after winning the league with them. I got a phone call in the car. That was it. ‘Off you go.’ There was not even a phone call off the chairman, absolutely nothing. Martin Russell [said]: ‘We won’t be offering you a deal. Thanks. Bye.’

“It is cold. I know it’s football and it’s a business, but you expect to be treated a bit better than that after the service you’ve given to the club. I’d won Player of the Year there and everything.

They gave a signed jersey to another fella because he left the club to go to another League of Ireland club. It was absolutely ruthless [how they dealt with me].”

9. A new beginning

Adjusting back to a ‘normal’ life was another challenge. His first job post-football was in Shannon, sanding and getting planes ready for a fresh paint job.

“I had to go and get full-time work after, which was a massive shock. It had to be done to pay the bills, because if you don’t pay the bills, you won’t have a house.

“The thing in Shannon was absolute torture. I don’t know how I lasted it for four months. I had to get out of it. [It was] absolutely horrendous.

“I’m just doing factory work now. It’s grand. I’d prefer to be outside doing something that I’d love to be doing, but the bills and mortgage have to be paid and I’m busy now with kids.

“When they’re a little bit older, I’ll start looking into coaching properly. I’m still doing a lot of coaching. I’m still playing away [at amateur level] with Fairview Rangers in Limerick.

I’m 40 now and I’m still going, but this is it I reckon — this season [will be my last]. I just don’t have the time. I’ve a seven-month-old, a five-year-old and an eight-year-old. And the eight-year-old is into hurling, football and soccer, he needs to be going here, there and everywhere. So it’s just very busy and I’ve had a good run of it. It’s time now to start being a taxi for a few years.”

These days, Ryan reflects with satisfaction on his League of Ireland career. While it ended in somewhat acrimonious fashion all too familiar to so many who have given much to the game, he is grateful for the memories sport has provided.

“You wouldn’t think it back then — a fella from Clare coming to play the guts of 500 games in the League of Ireland,” he concludes. “I don’t think it will happen again for a while. There are a few lads floating around now, but I had nearly 20 years playing League of Ireland, which, I don’t mind saying, is a fair achievement.” 

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