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Flogging players at the first session, a ladies final in a 'farmer's field' and winning 10 All-Ireland club titles

Michael Ryan recalls managing the Ballymacarbry Ladies, who are taking on Mourneabbey in the Munster final.

FORMER WATERFORD HURLING boss Michael Ryan has been involved with inter-county teams every year except one since 1982.

Michael Ryan Michael Ryan during his time in charge of the Waterford hurlers. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There’s always been a steady stream of requests for his assistance and input across all the codes down through the years, and he’s always been grateful of the opportunity to help out wherever he can.

He’s done everything from taking training sessions as a guest-coach, to managing teams to All-Ireland titles.

Hurling greats such as Eoin Kelly and John Mullane have worked with him at club level while the Dublin and Laois ladies football teams had Ryan in their backroom teams during All-Ireland winning seasons.

In addition to taking charge of The Déise hurlers for a time, he was at the helm of the Westmeath hurlers up until earlier this year when he stepped down at the end of a four-year stint.

“There was always people asking if I wanted to give a hand and I was probably a poor man to say no,” Ryan tells The42.

Thanks be to God, I’ve always been busy and I’ve always had someone wanting me to do something.”

Ryan is undoubtedly a respected coaching figure in GAA circles, a legacy which he has been building since 1982 when he became the manager of his local ladies football club Ballymacarbry.

That appointment proved to be a fruitful one for Ryan, yielding 10 All-Ireland titles and 14 Munster crowns in 16 years before going on to achieve All-Ireland success as manager of the Waterford ladies footballers.

Waterford Ladies football training 24/9/1998 Ryan overlooking a Waterford Ladies training session in 1998. Source: Keith Heneghan/INPHO

But it almost never happened. Or at least, he tried to avoid it.

Ryan’s wife Catherine and his sister Bernie were both players on the team at the time, and they were the ones who approached him about the idea of coming on board.

He agreed to take the team for a training session but he had no prior knowledge of ladies football, and he wasn’t interested in managing them on a long-term basis. The plan was to put them through a punishing set of runs that would discourage them from ever asking him back again.

Fortunately for Ryan, the plan backfired.

I remember we threw away the footballs and started running and running,” he recalls

“It was fairly intense and obviously they weren’t used to that kind of training. I literally thought they’d forget about it and almost give it up.

“But they were an excellent group of girls who were very committed and determined to do well. I said we’d train the next night and thought there’d be no-one there but there was two extra there.

“I realised there was something here and said we’d go as far as we can. We eventually won the county title and they were a talented group of young players.”

He continues:

Michael Ryan celebrates after the final whistle Michael Ryan is wearing the selector bib now with Ballymacarbry. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I thought they didn’t need me anymore and didn’t realise there was a Munster championship. We were down in the clubhouse in Stradbally. I remember one of the players bought me a drink and she asked me when it was starting and I nearly died.

“It carried on an on. I was really fortunate to have been involved with a really talented group of players who wanted to succeed and worked really hard. They had great pride in their club jersey.

I’ve met some really good talented players but as a group, they were the most committed players I’d ever seen.”

The fact that Ryan wasn’t aware of a Munster club championship for ladies football at the time illustrates just how much he had to learn about the sport, but he adapted quickly and formed a strong relationship with his players.

As a group, they agreed to give an honest effort from the start and it was approach that brought them to a Munster final later that year.

However, ladies football was very much in its infancy during the early 80′s, and it was far from a glamorous fixture.

I remember distinctly the pitch was a farmer’s field,” Ryan recalls.

“There was half an upright [post] and a broken crossbar. In those days that’s how bad things were. It’s a great tribute to everybody that the games are being played in top pitches around the country [now].

I suppose we all became part of the battle to improve the game and to improve conditions. To see 50,000 people at the All-Ireland final… when the first final was played in Croke Park, there was 3,000 at it and Waterford were playing that day. I think we’re all proud of how far it’s come.”

Ballymacarbry were comprehensively defeated in that Munster decider. In fact, they only managed to score one point and as Ryan puts, ‘there was a lot of soul-searching’ after that.

Marie Corbett with Doireann O’Sullivan Mourneabbey's Doireann O'Sullivan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

They lost three Munster finals before finally making the breakthrough but they enjoyed many years of success throughout the 80′s and 90′s.

But the good times couldn’t last forever for Ballymacabry. Their last senior All-Ireland title dates back to 1998 and 2000 was the last year they collected a Munster crown.

Ryan decided to step down in 2006 when his three daughters were on the team, and he didn’t like the idea of patrolling the sidelines while some of his own family were out on the pitch.

“It’s like anything else, in a country area you get a crop of players and it works for a while,” says Ryan.

“We couldn’t keep it up. We went off doing different things and it all dropped. We were the most successful ladies club in the history of the game and we were also the oldest club in the country, we were founded in 1970. Everything comes to an end and we had some great times.”

It was an incredible journey for both Ryan and his charges, and despite the many teams and players he has worked with in the interim, that experience he had with Ballymacarbry continues to have a lasting effect on him.

I think women are mentally tougher than men anyway. When is the last time a guy won an argument with a woman? I think to a certain extent, they’re possibly more dedicated as well, or certainly the ones that I’ve come across.”

There’s a revival happening in the Ballymacarbry club now and Ryan is playing his part in it after coming on board as a selector for manager Michael O’Sullivan.

For the second successive year, they are contesting a senior Munster final this Saturday, and once again, they are up against Cork champions Mourneabbey who are seeking a fifth provincial crown in-a-row.

Mourneabbey are a formidable side with intentions of winning an All-Ireland, having featured in three of the last four All-Ireland finals.

The Waterford side defeated Clare champions the Banner in the Munster B final to get another crack at Mourneabbey, but Ryan knows that a sizeable challenge awaits them later today [throw-in 4pm, Cahir].

Not being their manager anymore doesn’t bother him as he prepares to pick up the selector bib. He’s happy to be busy and to be involved with a team that has a role for him.

“I thought Mourneabbey were comfortable winners last year and won the game well. Like any team trying to make the breakthrough, we won’t know until Sunday.

“We played well against the Banner [in the Munster semi-final] but I think Mourneabbey is a step up from that. They’re a team with All-Ireland ambitions laced with Cork senior players, they’re a formidable side and to have a chance against them you have to play really well.

“I’d like to think we’re capable of playing really well but we’ll look forward to the challenge.”

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