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Ex-Ireland U21 international returns to Old Trafford for the first time since FA Youth Cup triumph

Jimmy Ryan was a member of the Liverpool sides that won the competition in both 2006 and ’07.

THE TRAINING HEADQUARTERS of an English third-tier club is an unlikely place to find three Irish journalists on a Thursday afternoon, but the influence being exerted at Rochdale AFC by Brian Barry-Murphy has piqued a measure of curiosity back in his homeland.

While the manager has his brain picked by Paul Rowan, David Sneyd performs a three-pronged grilling of Stephen Dooley, Jimmy Keohane and Eoghan O’Connell. The presence of Jimmy Ryan in the room then catches O’Connell’s attention.

“Is he Irish?” he asks with a nod in Ryan’s direction.

Jimmy Ryan Rochdale midfielder Jimmy Ryan. Source: Rochdale AFC

It’s a justifiable query from the Corkonian defender. Ryan and O’Connell, both recent arrivals at the club, have shared a dressing room for little more than six weeks. The surname might hint that the family foundations were laid elsewhere, yet Ryan’s accent leaves little doubt about the place in which he was born and raised. 

“When I got to represent Ireland, it was a very big thing for the family,” Ryan explains to The42 with an unmistakably Scouse inflection.

“I know it’s easy to say, but I’ve never really been a follower of England. When I was a kid, I always had Ireland kits, never had an England kit. With my dad, it was just all about Ireland, especially with the football team.”

A proud Liverpudlian born to English parents, Ryan speaks passionately about his sense of Irishness, which grew from the Waterford roots on his father’s side of the family.

Having been at Liverpool FC since the age of seven, a couple of avenues opened up for him when international football became a consideration. 

“When I was at Liverpool, I was encouraged to go away with England. I spent a week in the England set-up when I was 15, and a week with Ireland,” he says. “In all fairness, I just didn’t like being away with England compared to Ireland. The team spirit with Ireland was head and shoulders above what it was with England.

“Playing for Ireland just felt right to me, so I chose to stay with Ireland. I don’t think any of my uncles would have spoken to me again if I hadn’t!

“Don’t get me wrong: I can’t sit here and say I’m an Irishman through and through. But I’m not English either. In my situation, I wanted to represent my family in the best way possible. I thought the best way to do that was by playing for Ireland. It was an easy decision.

james-ryan Ryan on Ireland duty. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I understand that it’s not the same for everybody in that situation. Everyone has different reasons. All I know is that I enjoyed every minute that I played for Ireland and I was extremely proud of that. I only wish I could have gone on to do it for a bit longer.” 

Alongside future senior internationals like Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Alan Judge, Ryan represented the Republic of Ireland at various grades up to U21 level. 

By the time he made his last appearance in a green shirt, he had already reached the conclusion that his career prospects would be aided by a move away from Liverpool. Although a year remained on his contract, the midfielder wasn’t willing to stick around in the vain hope of being summoned for involvement in a first-team fixture by Rafael Benitez.

“There was no other team I wanted to play for,” says Ryan, whose devotion to the Premier League club is evidenced by the fact that he remains a season ticket holder at Anfield.

“Sadly it didn’t work out, although it’s very rare that it does for young players. I was glad to get out when I did because I just would have been delaying the inevitable. Realistically I wouldn’t have broken into the first-team.”

He adds: “Looking back, I was probably a bit overawed at times. I don’t think I played as well as I could have, for whatever reason. I wasn’t really up at Melwood (Liverpool’s first-team training base) long enough to prove that I was better than what I was showing. But that’s football.”

Ryan, who turned 31 earlier this month, now has nearly 450 professional appearances to his credit, the majority of which have been made in League One for the likes of Scunthorpe United, Chesterfield, Fleetwood Town and Blackpool.

On the face of it, a career in the third tier might seem underwhelming for someone who was once on the books of the current champions of Europe. However, that Ryan is one of the most successful graduates of the only Liverpool squad to win back-to-back FA Youth Cups serves as a reminder of the difficulty in transitioning from underage football to the Premier League.

blackburn-rovers-v-blackpool-sky-bet-league-one-ewood-park Ryan, at Blackpool, tangling with Bradley Dack of Blackburn Rovers. Source: Dave Howarth

He was a substitute in the 2006 final victory over Manchester City, before playing a pivotal role for the team that overcame Manchester United the following year. No member of either side is currently playing at a higher level in England than Ryan. Jay Spearing, the captain of the 2007 crop, also now plies his trade in League One for Blackpool.

“I don’t think there are many players from our youth team who are still even in the game,” Ryan says. “This is a tough industry and it gets tougher as you get older. I’m happy to still be where I am at this stage.

“Making it at a club like Liverpool is a very difficult thing to do. I’m happy that I’ve stayed in the game at the level that I have done. I’ve had some ups and downs but I’ve enjoyed my career.” 

After two seasons at Blackpool, where he was club captain, Ryan signed for Rochdale during the summer. Last month, he started in a 2-1 win over Carlisle United in the Carabao Cup. The reward for Brian Barry-Murphy’s side is a short trip down the M60 this Wednesday evening to face Manchester United in the third round.

The game will represent Ryan’s first visit to Old Trafford since 26 April, 2007, when Liverpool defied a 2-1 first-leg deficit to win the FA Youth Cup via a penalty shootout.

“Not many people can say they’ve won a trophy at Old Trafford, I suppose!” he laughs. “Even though I’m a Liverpool fan, Old Trafford is one of the best grounds in the world. It’s something I’m really looking forward to. Hopefully I’ll be involved on the night.”

Ryan can appreciate the value of occasions such as next Wednesday’s even more so after losing a year of his career to injury. A complicated knee problem — which was supposed to keep him out for only two months — ultimately restricted him to a spectator’s role for the duration of last season until he was introduced in the second half of Blackpool’s final game of the campaign. 

“I’m just happy to have put it behind me,” he says. “Now it’s just about proving to everyone else that it’s behind me. I know it’s something that people will keep mentioning for the next few months, so I kind of just want to forget it now and enjoy my football. 

soccer-fa-youth-cup-final-second-leg-manchester-united-v-liverpool-old-trafford Playing at Old Trafford during the 2007 FA Youth Cup final. Source: EMPICS Sport

“People probably think I’m injury prone now, but I haven’t had anything serious before in my career. Other than breaking my foot in a tackle, I haven’t really been out injured.

“I’m not going to say it was an emotional rollercoaster, but it was definitely a hard year. My girlfriend did well to put up with me because my moods weren’t great at times. But at the end of the day, it’s only a football injury. It’s nothing compared to what some people are going through.”

The plight of a former school friend and team-mate prevented Ryan from over-indulging on self-pity. Twelve months ago, ex-Liverpool defender Stephen Darby was forced to retire from football at the age of 29 while playing for Bolton Wanderers.

Darby had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, the degenerative condition which claimed the life of ex-Rangers captain Fernando Ricksen, 43, earlier this week.

Ryan says: “I found out I’d need an operation on my knee at around the same time Steve’s news broke. I can still remember being at the house, feeling miserable, and Steve — whose family only lived about 10 doors away from me at the time — was going through that. It really put things into perspective.

“I can’t even imagine what it’s been like for him. It’s awful. When you’re moaning about not being able to play football because of a sore knee, you have to brush that aside and remember that there’s so much more to life than that.

“I still can’t believe it now. I just wish him all the luck in the world with what he’s going through.”

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Paul Dollery

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