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Memories and photos: Waterford star Michelle Ryan back in 2002.
Memories and photos: Waterford star Michelle Ryan back in 2002.

'My heart will always want to play and that's the problem' - Reflecting on a rollercoaster 19-season career

Waterford great Michelle Ryan called time on her Déise duty this week – but would love nothing more than to be starting out again.
Jan 11th 2020, 7:16 AM 10,198 0

REGRETS, THERE WERE few as Michelle Ryan pulled the curtain down on her remarkable 19-season inter-county football career in the white and blue of Waterford.

“I would love to be starting out again,” she concedes towards the end of our conversation. But she knows this is it. Her time is now.

The standout — but small — regret she has is she doesn’t remember day one.

Or much of year one in the senior set-up, for that matter.

She can recall earlier memories of Waterford ladies football. She can tell you about going to U14 county trials in 1998 as an enthusiastic youngster getting her first chance to put on that beloved jersey.

She can tell you about the packed car from Ballymacarbry, herself and her clubmates bundled in, unsure exactly of what was to come. The excitement, the nerves, the hope. Ryan laughs as the memories come flooding back.

She can tell you about the numbers there that day, and how she ended up making the sizeable panel. There, she met teammates she would soldier with for the next 15 or 16 years, right through the underage ranks to the senior team.

Irish rugby international Niamh Briggs was one of many who started out there, and Ryan can’t help but smile when she thinks of those early days. 

“We won the very first U14 All-Ireland that Waterford won,” the 34-year-old tells The42. “I think in the All-Ireland final I didn’t even get a jersey because there were that many of us on it, but I was just so happy to be part of it.

When I talk to clubs or schools about taking part in ladies football, I always tell them that. If I had given up back at U14 because I wasn’t making the team or the panel, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now.

Her love for the game shines through with every word.

It was a natural progression as Ryan climbed the ranks, part of a group that were drafted from U14 to U16, U16 to minor, and minor to senior. The transition to the latter was made easier as the minors and seniors trained together.

“Dad was the manager, and that was his big thing,” she notes of her father, Michael. “If you’re training with the best when you’re minor, it hopefully brings you on as a player.

Michelle Ryan 4 Michelle Ryan (right) with her sister, Louise, after winning the 2015 All-Ireland intermediate title. Source: Sportsfile.

“In 2001, a lot of us were drafted onto the senior panel. We would have been way down the subs’ list.

One of the small regrets I would have is that I don’t remember the first training session or the first game in 2001. I didn’t take it in. That’s something I always tell players when they come into our dressing room: remember this, take it in, remember your first day you played and the first title you won. 

“I can remember an awful lot and most other things, but just that 2001 year is a bit of a haze. That’s maybe a small regret I have.”

She can tell you much more about 2002; the Division 1 crown they lifted — “the first massive title I won” — and the bizarre story that followed at Ennis’ Cusack Park. The highs and lows, and ups and downs. 

But first, to recent days and weeks, and the decision to call it quits.

***

Being honest, inter-county retirement had crossed Michelle Ryan’s mind on several occasions during the 2019 season. 

There were times when she had a quiet thought to herself. 

“Maybe times where it was a little bit tough or I was finding things a bit physically or mentally tough, I would have said to myself, ‘God, I don’t know can I do this again next year,’” she explains. “I’d put it to the back of my mind but it did creep in a little bit in my thoughts in the 2019 season.”

Never one to make a decision immediately at the end of a season, Ryan took some reflection time and distanced herself from everything — but not until her club duties with 38-in-a-row Déise champions Ballymac came to a close in late October.

Michelle Ryan 5 (2) Ryan celebrates with her father, Michael, after last year's Division 2 league final. Source: Sportsfile.

“Between the end of October up until Christmas, that was really the time that I thought about it deeply and weighed it all up,” she continues, adding that her brother, Shane, a dual player himself, was her main confidant.

I think I knew as November and December was progressing that it probably was going to be it. I just didn’t want to cut the tie, I was afraid to make the call.

The star forward spent an enjoyable day at the inter-provincial championships in late November, excelling before the posts and steering Munster to the crown. That only upped the ante on questions about her future.

“I met some of the county girls there and they were asking me, ‘Are you coming back?’ A lot of people had been, and I just kept saying to them, ‘Look, sure we’ll see how it goes.’ I foolishly said to one of the girls, ‘Sure, we’ll see how these inter-pros go,’” she laughs now.

“Afterwards, she text me: ‘So, I take it you’re back then?’”

Then, a week before Christmas, Ryan rang Waterford manager Ciaran Curran to break the news: “I just said, ‘I think I’m calling it… as hard as it is, and it’s a very emotional and tough decision…’

“He could sense by me how emotional it was for me, and how tough it was. He said, ‘Look, take another two weeks over Christmas and just see are you sure about it.’”

Of course, the second thoughts followed.

“My head knew it was the right decision,” the secondary school teacher assures, “but every now and again you’d be thinking, ‘Oh God, do you think you could go another year?’

A lot of people would have said, ‘Go for the 20, round it off to 20 years.’ It’s gas because I never thought of it like that before. The 20 didn’t matter to me. A year is a long time when it comes to a county set-up and that kind of commitment.

“It can be easy sometimes to say, ‘Go for the 20,’ but there’s an awful lot involved in that. Having said that, there were times when I was thinking, ‘Maybe it would be nice.’”

The prospect of playing Division 1 football again did tickle her fancy, along with the challenge of returning to the Munster senior final.

grainne-houston-and-michelle-ryan Facing Donegal in the 2010 All-Ireland intermediate final defeat. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“There are realistic targets there to achieve that little bit more,” she nods. “And to be honest, the girls.

“Missing the girls is a massive thing. Not being part of that anymore, not being part of the craic and the banter. That unity and that bond that you develop over the years, those things were probably making me go, ‘Maybe, just maybe I could…’

“But to be honest, I knew in my head that more than likely, it is the right time.”

With the league just around the corner and Waterford ramping up their preparations with a challenge match on Sunday, Ryan rang Curran with her definitive answer on Saturday.

No second thoughts. That was that.

It has been a very emotional decision,” she stresses. “It was tough to finally say it, to verbalise it in the beginning. My heart will always want to play and that’s the problem.

“I have such a grá for playing football in general, but football in Waterford has meant so much to me. Physically and mentally, it was time to make that call. I’m very lucky that I’ve gotten to play for as long as I have, and I’m very conscious of that.

“While it has been tough, over the last few days I’m getting more and more at peace with it.”

The reaction was above and beyond any expectations she had.

Shortly after 6pm on Sunday, Waterford LGFA announced the news on their social media accounts, accompanied by a roll of honour and list of personal highlights that reflected Ryan’s storied stint.

Shared far and wide, the messages, calls and well wishes came rolling in straight away. And they haven’t stopped since.

Overwhelmed is the one word that springs to mind.

“Incredibly,” she beams. “I can’t emphasise that enough. When you’re playing, you’re in this kind of bubble of the process and the system that you’re in. While you know people are taking notice, you probably don’t realise to what degree they are.

“Sometimes you might get lucky every now and again and someone will say, ‘Well done’ or ‘Watching you play had an impact,’ or ‘There’s girls playing because of you.’ You get that every now and again and it’s fantastic, but I just was so overwhelmed from Sunday night on.

The GAA, the ladies football and the camogie, it’s such a strong community. No matter whether it’s people up in Donegal, whether it’s down here in Waterford or Killarney or whatever it is, there’s just that bond and that link. People understand what it takes and what you’ve given.

“I did not expect so many messages, calls, good wishes. It really did blow me away. Like I said, it was an emotional decision anyway. I wouldn’t be an incredibly emotional person but being able to see that and be told that, it really did blow my mind.

I’ve been so grateful to football anyway for what its given me, but I’m so grateful that people have been so generous and so kind over the last few days. It is incredible really.

That links us back nicely to the good old days.

Ryan was talking about the beginnings of her senior services when it popped into her head; the picture she tweeted on Monday was captured in the wake of a standout memory from the 2002 season. The story behind it is quite unexpected.

After their Division 1 league final win over Mayo in Ennis, she — 17 at the time — and another player were selected for drug testing, just as it started in ladies football.

“One was the midfielder, Deirdre Breathnach, and I was the other one! Number 27 or 29, hadn’t set foot on the pitch and I couldn’t believe this,” she laughs.

“The team went off to a hotel, had the meal and celebrations and everything, and we went off to a room to be drug tested. I couldn’t get over this, I didn’t know what was going on.

“My mother waited for me for about two hours I’d say. As I was coming out of the room which is at the back of the stand in Cusack Park, she took a photo of me. Me going, ‘What?! What are you looking at?’

“That’s the photo, me after being drug tested in 2002. That’s actually a really strong memory I have.” 

When Ryan came onto the scene, Waterford ladies football was on a high. The Déise had contested the previous four All-Ireland finals, albeit winning just one in 1998, and were a constant fixture at Division 1 among the country’s top sides.

But despite what she anticipated at the time, those top-tier times didn’t last throughout.

She agrees that maybe she didn’t appreciate the good times as much as she should have as a budding teenager. She probably took it for granted, in the sense that she thought that’s that way it was, and that’s how it would continue.

“I grew up watching them play and being so successful,” she offers, referring to the five Brendan Martin Cups Waterford lifted in the nineties. “I was so eager to replicate that.

“In 2001, Waterford didn’t win any titles but in 2002, we won a Division 1 league title against Mayo and we ended up winning a Munster title that year as well. It just felt like, ‘Okay, this is it now. It will kick off again.’ Talk about naivety.

“The likes of Cork and that had other ideas and came to the fore then. But it makes the achievements that have come about in the last four or five years all the sweeter for us.”

The All-Ireland intermediate title win in Croke Park in 2015 –undoubtedly Ryan’s overall highlight — sealed their return to the senior ranks after relegation in 2009, while last season’s Division 2 success sent them back up to the top table of the league.

That came after their Division 3 triumph in 2016, and subsequent promotion.

michelle-ryan-is-comforted-by-teammates-after-defeat-to-armagh Devastation after the 2012 All-Ireland intermediate final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But there were many, many lows and dark days through the years spent in the lower tiers, fighting for their lives and shipping some heavy defeats along the way.

“There’s times maybe it might have been easier to give up because mentally it was tough to take defeat after defeat, feeling, ‘Are we progressing at all, or is it ever going to happen?’

“But definitely, I’m glad I stuck with it for as long as I did, to be able to say that we came around again to tasting some bit of success.

When you say there were dark days, God, there really, really were. A lot of people in Waterford who were used to Waterford belong successful thought us being relegated to intermediate in 2008 was the worst thing in the world. They really did, and you nearly felt bad about it. You felt like it was your fault or something.

“We lost two All-Ireland finals then in intermediate so it wasn’t an easy task to come back up out of there. It took an awful lot of work and there were some tough days.”

She remembers the bad just as clear as she remembers the good. But that’s sport, and life; you have to take the highs with the lows. Deal with the latter, and come back stronger. Everyone has their own ways of doing so.

“Every year, if we got knocked out of championship, very rarely would I have reacted emotionally at the time,” Ryan — who battled alongside her two sisters, Sinéad and Louise, at inter-county level — recollects.

I would always take a few hours and go home to process it. But the minute I landed outside the door at home, I’d just be devastated. I may not necessarily have shown it on the bus, I wouldn’t show it on the pitch, but I would just be absolutely devastated.

If the team were going for a few drinks to drown their sorrows, she would always slip away quietly and head home instead. She knew she needed to deal with her emotions alone and process it for a day or two before shaking the mood and getting back on the horse.

“There were a lot of tough days, so when you come around then to actually achieving that goal in 2015 — an intermediate All-Ireland — beating Armagh in the senior championship in 2016, being so competitive in 2017 with regards to beating Cork and Kerry in the Munster championship and getting to a Munster final…

All of those things meant so much and were so emotional because of all the years that had gone before that. Getting straight back up to Division 1 after last year, you could see the joy on all of our faces. Even for the performance alone, it was incredible.

Speaking of joy on faces, that was captured perfectly by the photographers at Parnell Park last May as she and her father celebrated the win — and the fact that she had almost come full circle in her 19th consecutive season.

michelle Michelle and Michael. Source: Sportsfile.

Family is hugely important. Football and family.

“They’ve been amazing all the way throughout,” she smiles. “Obviously Dad has been a huge influence in all of our lives with regards our sporting careers, but Mam has too.

“She played club football, my aunt played club football, county football. It’s always been there in our family. We’re the type of family that if you’re not playing a match yourself at the weekend, you’re probably gone to a match to watch and support someone else.

That’s just the way we have always lived our lives. But you couldn’t be an inter-county player if it wasn’t for that support, understanding and system that you have at home or wherever it is.

“Like everyone knows, the sacrifices that you make are incredible and you do miss out on certain things and certain occasions. But if you do have an understanding family and support system around you, it makes it that little bit easier.”

A few examples of such.

I’m no different to any other player in that I would have had to leave a wedding to go to physio and get needling done to come back to the afters, or be a bridesmaid for a best friend and have a Munster final the following day. We all do these things.

“We do these things and we’re able to do them. People understand the commitment that it takes and the passion that it is in your life.

“I’m very lucky with the family that I have because it’s not just me who does that, my sisters and dad do the very same thing, my brother has been involved with the Waterford footballers and is currently training with the hurlers. We all do it and we all understand it.”

Another brilliant story comes to mind as she counts her lucky stars that her extended family are so understanding and respectful of their sporting commitments.

“One of the toughest things that I had to do,” she frowns. “I did actually miss one championship game there in the last three years.”

Not just Michelle, but her two sisters too.

It was in 2016, Waterford’s first year back in senior championship. They produced a surprise win over Armagh in the preliminary round of All-Ireland qualifiers, paving the way for an unexpected date with Kerry.

And a clash with a special family occasion.

“The game was on the very same day as our first cousin’s wedding,” she laughs. “The three of us were her bridesmaids. It was the only time that we ended up sacrificing the match for a family event.

“You don’t leave a bride without her bridesmaids on her wedding day! It was all or nothing, you couldn’t have two of us there and one of us arriving in late, throwing on the dress. That was the only time, I think, that we ended up choosing a family event [over football]. 

louise-ryan-and-michelle-ryan-celebrate-winning With sister, Louise, after the 2016 Division 3 final win over Tipperary. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“It was a tough one. You obviously want to be there for your cousin, but it was so heartbreaking to miss the match as well. Actually devastating. I just remember that whole day, it was eating me up that we weren’t at the match.

We did enjoy the wedding but in fairness, that was the only time I remember choosing a family occasion over a football occasion.

With her Waterford commitments in the past now, Ryan should have more time to make up for missed family occasions, though she’ll continue to line out with her beloved Ballymac.

But she’s an extremely busy woman off the field. A French and Irish teacher, she’s spent time furthering her education of late. Between the final stages of a part-time Masters degree and the PR/Media Strand of the LGFA’s female leadership programme, she has a hectic period ahead.

Ryan has plenty to fill the pre-season void with anyway, and no time to miss her former teammates, though she feels it will be a little later in the year that her retirement will hit home.

But she’ll never be too far away from it all, after recently establishing herself on the national media landscape as a pundit and analyst on TG4.

“I started doing a little bit of media work and getting into that area last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it,” she explains. “It’s an area I didn’t anticipate myself getting into if I’m brutally honest, but at the end of 2018, I was looking for a little bit of a challenge for myself and the opportunity arose so I took it.

I have described it to people as walking that line of exciting and terrifying all at the same time. It’s a whole other side to things, but I just love being involved in sport. I have such a huge interest in sport be it ladies football or GAA or whatever it is, that being able to do it and look at it from another angle has been so enjoyable.

“I’ve learned so much from some fantastic people, it’s great. Look, it’s been an incredible opportunity, an incredible learning experience and been thoroughly enjoyable.

“If opportunities were to present themselves again that I could avail of, then I’d love that. It’s a whole new area of sport while still staying involved in sport. Sport has been my huge passion since I was very, very small – and it will continue to be.”

It certainly will, that’s for sure.

Lastly, though. The progression of ladies football from those hazy memories in 2001 to now. Just how much have things come on? The difference is astronomical, surely?

leah-caffrey-with-michelle-ryan Facing Dublin in 2017. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Short answer, yes; but true to Ryan’s nature, she gives a detailed and insightful response as the lengthy conversation winds down.

“It’s now, when you get to reflect on things a bit more and what has happened over the last 19 years, you realise. Just even with regards to the appreciation of the sport, the coverage of the sport, people’s awareness of it, but also just the player and the changes that have been made with management, preparation and all the elements that go into it.

“That’s now the norm, which is fantastic; The incredible strength and conditioning, the video analysis, nutrition, sports psychology.

If you were to ask me about regrets, I would love to be starting out again. If you’re starting out your career with all of those things, you’re in the best possible place and at the best possible level with the best possible preparation. That’s an exciting prospect.

“When those things came into ladies football in our preparations, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I loved what they brought to us and to the team in general; the edge it gave you, and just that feeling that when you have all those things covered and all those boxes ticked… really that feeling, ‘I am as prepared as I can be here.’

“So that mentally going into a match or whatever, I felt like I had done all I could do and it was over to the football side of things.”

Her final words say it all.

“The level of preparation, the standard of training and all of that has drastically changed over 19 years, but gratefully for the better.

“And long may that continue.”

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