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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 27 February 2021

‘There were possibilities to go to England when I was younger, but my parents were never going to let me move’

Ryan Manning chats to The42 about his breakthrough season at QPR.

Manning has appeared 18 times for QPR this season.
Manning has appeared 18 times for QPR this season.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

BEING A FOOTBALLER is not easy, regardless of what sceptics may suggest.

Anyone who decides they want to seriously devote their life to becoming a star in the sport is taking a big risk. Of that group of people, the percentage who actually make it is minuscule. A combination of talent, mental fortitude and luck is essential to succeed at the top level of the game.

And even those few who do succeed can never really relax. Every game, you are just one career-ending injury away from obscurity. Or if the player in question manages to enjoy good fortune and avoids serious injuries, they are still relying on a series of coaches at various levels all believing that they are good enough to regularly fill one of the 11 spaces available on the team.

Provided all this happens, the footballer will certainly still have to withstand regular abuse, either from their fans or rival supporters, and sometimes both. Harsh criticisms on social media, eminent and not-so-eminent websites or even national newspapers can be an almost daily occurrence, while the individual in question is supposed to simply grin and bear it all.

The rare highs that these athletes enjoy undoubtedly make the experience worthwhile, but the lows are as crushing as the peaks are dizzying.

But despite this immense pressure, millions of children grow up dreaming of emulating their idols and playing the game they love for a living.

Ryan Manning Manning scored the winning goal of the promotion-relegation first-leg playoff between Galway and UCD. He also scored in the second game between the two sides. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Ryan Manning was one of the millions who always dreamed of becoming a footballer, having immersed himself in the sport since childhood. Consequently, the Galway native’s talent did not go unnoticed.

He joined Mervue United as a youngster. By 16, he had made his senior debut with the team, representing them in the First Division. A remarkable start to life at this level saw him score nine goals in 26 appearances during the 2013 campaign.

Manning consequently moved to another then-First Division side, Galway United, the following season.

Again, the youngster caught the eye, scoring six times in 26 appearances. The icing on the cake was the promotion-relegation playoff. He was on target in both legs of the tie, as his side comprehensively beat UCD 5-1 on aggregate, securing their spot in the Premier Division in the process.

Source: SSE Airtricity League/YouTube

Manning was fulfilling his early promise and had now shown he was capable of performing when the pressure was on.

Then 18, he didn’t stick around for the Tribesmen’s top-flight venture. Instead, QPR came calling, and he joined the then-Premier League side for a fee of £60,000 in January 2015 on a two-and-a-half-year contract.

Ryan is a young lad who has been chased by a number of top clubs in the Premier League,” Harry Redknapp, who was QPR’s manager, said at the time. “We have managed to secure him and bring him here, so we’re delighted with that.

“He is a busy player who can play off the left or in behind the striker. He is still young and has a lot to learn but it’s a good gamble for us to take.

I think he feels he has got a real chance of playing for us here, and hopefully he will progress with us. We’re certainly pleased to have him.”

It was a dream come true for Manning, though he was joining a club that were set to go through a period of turmoil. Less than a month after the Irish starlet had signed, Redknapp announced his departure as manager, citing a dodgy knee as the reason for leaving.

The outlook did not look good for the club, who were second from bottom in the Premier League at the time. Academy coach Chris Ramsey took charge, but he could not reverse their fortunes, and the club finished bottom of the league on 30 points at the end of the 2014-15 campaign.

Costs needed to be cut as a result of this setback. High earners such as Rio Ferdinand, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton and Adel Taarabt all left. Manning would be forgiven for thinking that QPR’s woe could be his opportunity, as with the established players departing, there was suddenly scope for youngsters like him to stake a claim for a place in the first team.

Nevertheless, initially the Ireland underage international remained on the fringes of the team. Despite signing a three-year contract the previous May, Ramsey was sacked as head coach midway through the 2015-16 season with the club 13th in the Championship.

Fulham v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Craven Cottage Manning was left frustrated by a lack of first-team opportunities during Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's tenure as manager. Source: Steve Paston

Former Netherlands international Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink took charge following Neil Warnock’s brief stint as caretaker boss, but as with the previous boss, Manning did not figure in the Dutchman’s plans.

Going into the 2016-17 season, the Irish youngster’s future was mired in uncertainty. Having spent well over a year at the club, he appeared to be no closer to the first team, despite all the experience accrued playing senior football in Ireland.

There were even rumours that Manning would be released at the end of the season, and while he wasn’t told as much in stark terms, the club did advise him to start “exploring other options”.

The 20-year-old was about to enjoy better fortune, however. Last November, with the team just six points above the Championship relegation zone in 17th, Hasselbaink was dismissed from his position. A few days later, Ian Holloway was appointed as the club’s new manager.

Early in his tenure, Holloway decided to take in one of the club’s U23 games. While watching, he noticed a bright, lively young midfielder who was not afraid of a tackle. He liked what he saw.

Having looked on the brink of exiting the club a few weeks previously, Manning was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. He made his first-team debut on New Year’s Eve, playing the full 90 minutes in QPR’s 2-1 win away to Wolves. Three days later, he played the first 69 minutes of their 2-1 home victory over Ipswich.

In his third appearance — a 1-0 win over Reading — Manning provided a sublime assist for the game’s only goal. The following week, he scored his first goal for the club in their 1-1 draw with Fulham. A day earlier, he had signed a new two-and-a-half-year contract.

Source: Queens Park Rangers FC/YouTube

(Skip to 0.28 to see Manning’s first Championship goal)

Those couple of weeks could scarcely have gone any better. Having been effectively deemed surplus to requirements and left feeling distinctly unloved, Manning had suddenly become one of the club’s most prized assets and a fan favourite to boot. The Galwegian was quickly learning what a strange game football can be.

There was obviously a difference of opinion between the two managers, and the manager that’s in charge now thankfully took a shine to me and decided to throw me in,” Manning tells The42.

“I think I’ve done alright in the few months I’ve been up there. For every young player, it’s about getting a manager that believes in you and thinks you can help his team — and once you get the opportunity, it’s up to you to take it.

Thankfully, I took the opportunity with two hands and now I’m just trying to produce every week so I can stay there.”

And while Manning was previously frustrated with the lack of first-team opportunities at QPR, he did not suffer the kind of crippling anxiety that afflicts some young aspiring footballers. Whereas so many players who don’t make it are left without any real career prospects elsewhere, he had an alternative path at his disposal.

Ryan Manning Manning has represented Ireland at underage level and hopes to be part of the senior set-up some day. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Before moving to QPR, Manning had picked up an impressive 555 points in his Leaving Cert, meaning he always had the option of studying physiotherapy in UCD should professional football not work out. Therefore, there was a safety net, which not too many aspiring footballers have the chance to avail of if their careers in the game go awry.

I’d done a few trials when I was younger, there were possibilities to go to England, but my parents were never going to let me move,” he recalls.

“They had always said to me that they wanted me to get my Leaving Cert and then I did have that back-up plan. It wasn’t that football was the be all and end all. I just had a two-and-a-half year contract with QPR.

I was going to put everything into it for those two-and-a-half years. If I made it, I made it. If I didn’t, I was just going to come home, play football in Ireland, go back to uni and do what I had planned to do before I went to England.

“Having that back-up plan meant there was less pressure on football. Especially when I was getting to the end — there were less nerves and I wasn’t as worried… So definitely, the Leaving Cert did stand to me in terms of taking a little bit of the pressure off professionally.”

Queens Park Rangers v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship - Loftus Road Ryan Manning (right) scores his first goal for QPR against Fulham. Source: EMPICS Sport

While Manning points out that everyone is different and the issue is not necessarily black and white for every aspiring footballer, he clearly reaped the benefits of staying in Ireland and getting a good education, whereas too often, Irish kids’ parents tend to jump at the first chance of a move abroad, without thinking of how the long-term consequences might affect their child.

I’ve lived a bit of a normal lifestyle in the sense of not being a professional footballer (when I was playing in Ireland), so I kind of got a little bit of a taster for it,” Manning adds.

“But when I went to England, once you’re playing football every day, I enjoy playing it, so I don’t mind having to stay in, look after myself and do all this worrying about fitness and stuff like that. That part of it wasn’t really an issue for me.

Being away from friends and family, there are some nights that you’d love to come home, but I get to come home every (so often), so you get used to it.”

In addition, playing in the League of Ireland prepared Manning for life in the Championship in some respects more so than others.

Stepping up to the Championship is a big leap,” he says. “The foundation is there to learn playing football in Ireland, especially men’s football.

“When I moved up to the Championship and made my debut, the physicality wasn’t really an issue for me because I played men’s football when I was 16. I’d done a few seasons of getting used to that side of the game. So adapting to the Championship was more about getting used to the tempo of the game, the pace, how technical it was, whereas I didn’t really have to worry about the other side of the game.

So playing football in Ireland definitely did stand to me when I made the transition into the Championship.”

Moreover, Manning has already experienced a number of special moments during his young career.

Back in February, he lined up against Preston’s Irish full-back Greg Cunningham, who was his next-door neighbour when the pair were growing up in Galway.

We spent so many days playing football in the garden until night-time. Greg left when he was 16, so I think it was about 10 years since we’d played together and then obviously, we ended up playing in the Championship against each other.

“So that was a good day for ourselves and our families. It was a bit surreal at the time, standing and looking over in the tunnel and seeing Greg, and I’m sure it was the same for him looking at me.

It was a nice moment for us both.”

While Manning continues to impress, featuring 18 times in total this season, QPR’s form has not improved drastically under Holloway. The club finished their disappointing season last Sunday in appropriately underwhelming fashion, losing 4-0 at Norwich. Manning played the full 90 minutes, however it was another much more experienced Irish attacking midfielder who grabbed the headlines, as Wes Hoolahan claimed a superb brace to inspire the Canaries to an emphatic victory.

Derby County v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Pride Park Manning has thrived since Ian Holloway took over as QPR boss. Source: Mike Egerton

While there have been some encouraging signs, the club finished the season in 18th place. Manning argues that the side are better than this lowly position suggests.

We had two six-game losing streaks, which obviously killed us in terms of the league position.

“In those games, we weren’t being beaten comfortably by other sides. We were a tough team to beat. We were just unlucky with a couple of decisions, and were losing games by one goal.”

Now back in Galway, Manning — who turns 21 next month — has the freedom to enjoy occasional nights out with his family and friends, as well as “a few five-a-side games with my mates”.

However, with pre-season only around five weeks away, the Ireland U21 international is well aware that he cannot afford to rest on his laurels.

You have to be a bit cautious,” he explains. “You can’t go too mad. I’m still a footballer and I’ll still do a lot of training over the summer.

“Once you’re used to the lifestyle of training every day, it’s hard to stop. It’s not really going to be that much of a change now, it’s just that I’ll be able to (train) in Ireland with my family and friends around.”

Reading v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium QPR will be hoping to improve on their 18th-place finish in the Championship next season. Source: Adam Davy

And while he was recently linked with a move to Premier League clubs Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, Manning’s main focus at the moment is ensuring his standards don’t drop and “to try to establish myself as a good Championship midfielder”.

Obviously now, (the challenge is to) come back in pre-season and try to get a full season under my belt playing with the first team,” he adds.

“When you’re coming in halfway through the campaign, it’s not the same feeling as starting from the beginning.

So I’m looking forward next year to being there right from the start and hopefully we can do something (in terms of challenging for promotion).

“I played a lot of games since Christmas time, so I’ll take the break. It’ll give me a chance to get my energy levels back up and recover for a big season next year.

(The most recent campaign) sets me up to be ready and know what it’s going to take to do a full season.”

Given what he’s been through in the two and a half years since moving to England, if he wasn’t before, it’s obvious from Manning’s words and tone that he’s now acutely aware of how tenuous life as a footballer can be. Had it not been for a simple twist of fate, the youngster would probably be searching for a new club right now. Had QPR persisted with Hasselbaink, it seems unlikely the Irish starlet would be in his present favourable position.

But now that Manning finds himself in an enviable situation in which he is widely regarded as one of English football’s most promising young talents, the midfielder is determined to make the most of this opportunity of a lifetime.

As long as I keep producing in England, I can keep playing football there,” he says. “I’m not going to be saying ‘I’ve made it,’ I just have to keep going back and impressing every week, that’s the way to stay in England.”

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Paul Fennessy

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