'Tradition in our area,' a family affair and starring in 20 of 38 in-a-row county title wins

Michelle Ryan continues to lead the line for Waterford’s ever-dominant Ballymacarbry.

THE DAY AFTER a county final victory, players could be forgiven for ignoring a text about a ‘quick chat to reflect on the win.’

ryans Michelle (14) and the Ryan family after Ballymac went 38 in-a-row on Sunday. Source: Michelle Ryan Twitter.

After helping her Ballymacarbry side to an astonishing 38th consecutive Waterford senior title on Sunday, Michelle Ryan could have easily let the message slide. 

But no, Ryan was straight back with a few time slots in between classes — she’s a French and Irish teacher — that suited for a catch-up with The42. Fresh after a few quiet celebrations the night before, it was business as usual for the Déise veteran on the Monday, who was understandably in upbeat form on the phone.

The game itself was discussed at length; how it was a “serious battle” against Comeragh Rangers, how Ballymac found it hard to settle, but how they had the belief, experience and composure that once they got up and running, they’d get the job done. 

But as we all know, sport is about so much more than sport itself. It’s about much more than what happens between the four white lines, about more than winning and losing, the scores, the tackles, the tactics and the near misses. 

And that’s, perhaps, best seen when the final whistle sounds, and when all is said and done on the field of play. The true meaning of sport is witnessed there and then.

Ryan’s tweet that evening, and the pictures that accompanied it said it all. “Numbers don’t matter, it still means just as much,” it read. The hashtags ‘Pure joy,’ ‘Ballymac abú’ and ‘Club is family’ followed, along with jubilant pictures of the team, herself and her sisters, Sinéad and Louise, and a brilliant family snap.

“When you get to share that with your sisters, some of your best friends and girls you’ve been playing football with since you could walk, it just makes it even better,” the 34-year-old smiles. 

“There is nothing like club at the end of the day.”

It’s where you start out, where you finish up, and where you follow in the footsteps of so many who go before you. Of the sisters, cousins and good friends on the panel, there’s mothers, aunties and even grandmothers who went before. 

And that’s definitely the case in Ballymac, and the 37 wins that came before Sunday’s. For Ryan, the connections are potent: her mother, Catherine, her aunt, Bernie, and of course, her father, Michael. 

They’re still there, every step of the way.

“There was an incredible atmosphere at the game,” she smiles. “We’re very lucky that we have such supportive family members, all of us. They’re great to go to underage games, they’re great to go to our adult games.

“Even the joy that they shared with us on the pitch afterwards was incredible. A lot of them would have actually been past players. There’s a lot of current players who would have had aunts or mothers playing in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

“It’s just a tradition in our area and it really is as simple as that. At the same time, we have the new crop of girls coming in who haven’t had that tradition. We’re very lucky in a way that we don’t have a huge amount of other sports in our small village drawing girls away. Ladies football probably is the biggest thing for girls in our local area.

“The support that was there yesterday just showed the work that’s gone in and the love of the game in the area. It really was fantastic for everybody.”

michelle Ryan with her father, Michael, after Waterford's Division 2 league win earlier this year. Source: Sportsfile.

While her mother, Catherine, and aunt, Bernie [Michael's sister] played in the 70s and 80s, it was they who actually got her father involved in the first place. 

Perhaps best known for his roles as the Waterford and Westmeath hurling boss, it all started as manager of his local ladies football club in 1982.

“They were looking for a manager and he was a player with the local men’s club,” his daughter laughs now with her father still involved as a coach under manager Michael O’Sullivan.

“I think they were knocked out so they asked him would he come along and train the team. He wasn’t particularly eager to be honest, he’d admit it himself! He took a session or two, put them through their paces in the hope that he was so harsh on them that he wouldn’t be asked back. But they did, so…

“Yeah, it was actually my Mam and my aunt, Bernie, who got him involved in the first place. He’s been stuck there since, to be honest. He’s definitely put in the shift over the last however many years at this stage. He has my Mam to thank for that!”

With O’Sullivan in the top job, former Ballymac and Waterford star Catriona Casey as selector and PJ Prenderville as another coach alongside Ryan, Michelle is delighted to work under the watchful eye of her father. 

“Dad, he kind of came back in helping us out there in the last two or three years which wasn’t easy for him either because obviously he had commitments made to Westmeath,” she explains. 

“But he had a bit more free time this year. He’s kind of involved with a few men’s teams. To be honest, he has a huge love for Ballymac obviously.”

Like them all.

eimear-fennell-and-michelle-ryan-celebrate-after-the-game Celebrating that league final win with Eimear Fennell. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Numbers don’t matter, but sure what’s this for Ryan, who this year completed a 19th consecutive season in the white and blue of Waterford? County title number 18 or 19, surely?

She laughs, a little apprehensive to give the number. 

“A few of us were working this out last night,” Ryan grins. “Yesterday was my 20th.

“There’s a crop of us that would have joined the senior panel at our final year of U14. Linda Wall, who finished up last year, she had 20 I think. She was always a year ahead of me. We were joking last night that I caught up with her!

“Look, it’s just what was done. It was the norm that you were drafted onto it. That’s the difference between ladies GAA in a away to men’s GAA. You start that little bit earlier, you peak that little bit younger and that just tends to be the way.

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“It was the way back then and I suppose it followed through. Since then obviously rules have come in that you can’t be involved in senior teams as young as that but back then it was fine, it was grand and it was the norm. At the time it did none of us any harm but we maybe weren’t competing at the level that girls are competing at today.

“That’s just the way it was. So yeah, 20, to answer your question.”

Passion, fire, commitment; that’s what it’s all about. 

And Ballymac won’t rest on their laurels now. It’s onwards and upwards to bigger and better, in an attempt to add to their and 14 Munster crowns, and in time, their 10 All-Ireland titles,

“Its’ been a big goal of ours, once we get over the county final, to get back to [winning] Munster club titles,” Ryan notes. “We’ve come agonisingly close over the last number of years.

ryans 2 With her sisters Louise and Sinéad. Source: Michelle Ryan Twitter.

“It’s still a huge goal for us but there’s a few steps to overcome each year before you get to that. Step one was yesterday, so we’re on the right track now.”

Their provincial opener is pencilled in for 12 October against the winners in Kerry; so that’s Southern Gaels after their victory on Sunday.

“We’re playing the Kerry champions and then the Clare and Tipperary champions will play each other,” Ryan concludes.

“The disadvantage there now is the Cork county champions get straight into the Munster A final whereas everyone else plays off. We might have played three games to get there.

“It’s a little bit frustrating, I’m not going to lie now. You could be seen as at a slight disadvantage.

“But at the end of the day, they’re the steps you have to overcome to get there. Step one was yesterday and it was a tough one to take, but we’re just glad that we managed to overcome it in the end.”

Glad, they are. And on, they go.

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Emma Duffy

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