EVERY THURSDAY EVENING just as the sun was disappearing behind the houses, the game of football would be momentarily halted. We could have played on, and up until a few weeks previous would have, but the milkman’s visit had taken on an entirely different context now.
Stephen Ennis used to come and collect the delivery money from around the estate but, more pertinently, he knew a footballer named Robbie Ryan. He was from just around the corner in Ballybrack.
If truth be told, we had no idea who Robbie Ryan was or what he even looked like — he wasn’t in our Premier League sticker albums — but we knew he played for Millwall and with each passing week the chances of him playing in an FA Cup final were increasing.
Dennis Wise’s side, playing in the Championship at the time, embarked on the most remarkable cup run during the 2004 season, defeating Walsall, Telford, Burnley, Tranmere and Sunderland on their way to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
The final proved a step too far as they were beaten 3-0 by Manchester United, but much to our amazement, Robbie Ryan, the footballer from around the corner and the milkman’s mate, was the man to mark Cristiano Ronaldo that afternoon.
“He’s done alright for himself since hasn’t he,” Ryan jokes.
The former defender remembers the day like it was yesterday, but how could he not? The FA Cup final in front of 71,000 in Cardiff.
“Stephen and loads of my mates and family came over for it,” he recalls. “I’m not sure the FA should know but I think I ended up getting 50 or 60 tickets, obviously I had to pay for them.
“You had to have a pass to get into the Millwall section as there was trouble so I had loads of passes as my mates would have come over once or twice a year and every pass you had you were allowed buy two FA Cup tickets. I think we were allowed 12 as a player but I ended up with 50 or 60.
“I used to get nervous before games but I remember before that game thinking, you know what I’m 27, I’m going to enjoy this. Driving through Cardiff and seeing the sea of blue and I was just trying to take it all in.
“Even out warming up and walking out, I just tried to savour it and looked to the crowd where all the gang were.”
At the time, Ronaldo was the most expensive teenager in the history of British football and had really started to flourish in a red shirt, demonstrating that prodigious talent Alex Ferguson had seen when he brought him to Old Trafford at the start of the season.
Ryan remembers watching the Portuguese winger in the weeks leading up to the final as he tormented Premier League left backs with his direct running and electric pace. He wished Arsenal had beaten United in the semi-final.
“I think I was done once by Ronaldo, he got to the byline and I had committed myself by sliding in,” he continues. “I certainly wouldn’t like to play against him now but even then you knew he was special.
“I think I watched it back once with my da but I don’t like watching myself, especially when we lost. I just think I don’t need to see that again but maybe one day I’ll get it out, haven’t seen it for years now.”
Millwall had been able to keep United at bay for a large chunk of the first half but Ronaldo found the breakthrough just before the interval, with Ruud van Nistelrooy settling the contest with a second-half brace.
“We just weren’t good enough,” Ryan admits. ”We had a couple of injuries but even then would wouldn’t have been able to touch them. I remember thinking jesus Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy but once that whistle goes you could be playing against anyone. It’s just another game.
“It was obviously hugely disappointing to lose as you never want to go that far and finish second but it was a great day. A proud day, especially to have all the lads over. People still come up to me and say I marked Ronaldo and obviously the player he has gone on to be, it’s quite a nice thing to tell my kid. Yeah I did mark Ronaldo, or at least tried to.”
It’s probably fair to say their respective careers headed on different trajectories after that day, with the FA Cup final turning out to be Ryan’s last in a Millwall shirt after six years at the Den.
Out of contract that summer, the Dubliner had hoped his consistent performances would earn him an improved deal but when the club were unwilling to enter negotiations, he had no choice but to seek opportunities elsewhere. After 226 appearances for Millwall, he was within his right to look for improved terms. They never came.
“I was brought off by the manager after an hour of the final. I wasn’t injured, he’d been doing that for a while because I hadn’t signed a new contract,” Ryan explains. “It was obviously hugely disappointed but it had been going on for three or four months.
“I wish we could have sorted something out but my principles were my principles and I stuck to them. They offered me a one-year contract with the same money I was on so on their part they weren’t offering me anything.
“It wasn’t about money so I said give me a two-year deal on the same money, they said no. I said give me a one-year deal on more money and they said no so in my eyes they’re just taking the piss a little bit.”
On the back of an FA Cup final appearance, Ryan felt he was in with a good chance of attracting the attention of a Premier League club, particularly as he was a free agent, but a move up the ladder never materialised.
Instead, he dropped down two divisions and signed a three-year deal at Bristol Rovers where he struggled to break into the manager’s plans and was released with a season left on his contract.
“Looking back I went to Bristol Rovers and that didn’t work out so maybe I should have signed a one-year deal at Millwall but I wouldn’t change anything about it, my principles were my principles and I stand by them. It didn’t work out but I believe I was right.
“If I was in that position again, I wouldn’t sign the contract again as it felt like they didn’t want me to be honest and that was the main thing. I couldn’t play in the reserves, I wasn’t one of those players. If I was in the reserves I’d get depressed and miss home and feel like shit.
“I had to play week in, week out so I thought if that’s not going to be at Millwall it’s going to have to be somewhere else. I thought I might have got a better club than Bristol Rovers but it wasn’t to be.
“Bristol Rovers is a big club to be fair and I went down there and I just didn’t get on with the gaffer. From day one I just got a bad vibe and since then it just went pear-shaped to be honest. That’s football I suppose.”
In the end, Ryan walked away from the game at the age of 31 disillusioned and fed up; just four years had passed since that day in Cardiff.
He had lost his way, lost his confidence and lost his motivation to continue on in the cut-throat industry of England’s lower leagues. Three clubs told him he wasn’t good enough and the third setback, after what he thought was an encouraging trial with Northampton Town, proved to be the final straw.
Looking back now, it’s easy to say he should have done things differently, like lowered his expectations and signed on at Millwall or not let his on field problems filter into everyday life but going from the highs of an FA Cup final to the sinking low of being unemployed was difficult to comprehend.
“I didn’t have my family around me and I used to get down,” he says of his time in Bristol.
“I’m older and wiser now and I probably should have grown up and said fuck this, if I don’t get on with the gaffer that’s him but I let it effect me and all of a sudden I’m playing shit and getting more depressed. It becomes a vicious circle to be honest.
“I’m not blaming the gaffer, it was me who played shit but I didn’t get on with him from day one and all of a sudden I lost my confidence completely. I struggled to get it back to be honest, it happened a couple of times in my career and looking back I should have been strong enough to get back but I got so depressed because I wasn’t playing or playing well.
“I wouldn’t talk for two days, I let it effect me too much. It was my life. Being depressed for two days a week and then you’re thinking do I even want to play football? That’s the way it got.”
After a difficult couple of months, Ryan thought he’d got the break he so desperately craved when Northampton came calling and offered him a trial. Living with Burnley manager Sean Dyche, who he knew from Millwall, Ryan would travel from London everyday for training and was convinced he had done enough to earn a contract.
“I was up there for maybe two weeks and I had done well, I was in training and thought I had got my confidence back and even the lads in training were asking where had I been released from. I told them Bristol Rovers and they wondered why I had been playing with them,” he explains.
“I was sitting in the changing room thinking happy days, I had my spark back. It was January and Sean was saying 100% they’ll offer you a contract until the end of the season at least and I was thinking this is sweet. Next day, gaffer rings me and tells me he doesn’t want me.
“I remember driving back from Northampton to London thinking ‘you know what, I’ve had enough. I’ve given it my all and I’m still not good enough for whatever reason.’ They didn’t want me and Sean said he couldn’t believe they didn’t sign me on a three-year deal for a couple hundred of pounds a week. I wouldn’t have taken a wage, if I played in the first team just pay me an appearance fee. That’s all I wanted. I just drove home and knew I had had enough at that point.”
The thrilling highs of promotions with Millwall and the dazzling, unforgettable heights of Cardiff were a distant memory for Ryan. Football had given him so much, but it had now chewed him up and spat him back out.
Shortly after he had been turned away by Northampton, a friend convinced him to go for an interview with the London Underground. Ryan had no intention to go but with no wage coming in through football, and a first born on the way, he had to look at different career options.
“When my mate told me about the interview, I was thinking no way I want to keep fucking going,” he continued.
“The boss used to be a footballer as well so I thought I may as well and I got it and have been there 10 years now. I was playing Conference football at the start but was going through the motions and gave up football then. I had enough of combining the two.
“I start my shift at 11pm and work until 6.30am in the morning. When the trains stop running, we got on the track and do our job [repairing the lines] and then have to be back off at around 4.30 in the morning. It’s not too bad as I have the day time to myself to pick my daughter up from school and go to the gym.
“I’ve just been promoted and touch wood it’s a job for life. It suits me as my wife works so I can pick Brook up from school but she’s getting old now, 11, and she’s getting the train or bus home so I’ll have loads of free time.
“It’s not as good as being a footballer but I enjoy it and it pays the bills. I’m not going to complain or moan about life, I’ve had a good time and I’m happy. I’ve got lovely memories from football but I’ve moved on.”
Ryan will always be remembered for that May day when he lined up opposite one of the biggest names in the game, but there were other highlights too, most notably the 1997 Fifa Youth World Championship as Brian Kerr’s young side finished third.
The 40-year-old was back in Dublin last week to meet up with his old team-mates to mark the 20th anniversary of that remarkable achievement.
“It was an amazing experience, and great to be part of,” he adds. “We weren’t the strongest team but Brian made us solid and hard to beat. It was a great brunch and we created some amazing memories out there.
“From that tournament to different promotions with Millwall and the FA Cup final, I had some great times. I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve had a great time, I loved Millwall.
“As a kid you want to play in the FA Cup as a kid which I did and the Premier League which I didn’t but when you’re a kid you don’t think you’re going to be a footballer, you want to be one but don’t think you’re going to be a footballer.
“Especially coming from Ballybrack the best you’re thinking is playing for Belvedere or something. I loved it. Great times, a great life and great memories.”
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