Regarded as one of Sligo's best ever players, midfielder Richie Ryan tell his story through football and how he learned that criticism, hard truths and confidence in yourself as a player are vitals lessons any footballer should be quick to learn:
I’m from a really, really rural part of Ireland. A small village in Tipperary called Templetuohy with a population of around 500 people. Sports was always integral in the community and I played football with all the kids in my town and it usually meant playing with kids about 5-6 years older than me. So, from an incredibly young age in football I was always in an environment where I had to mature quicker because of the physicality around me, and football in Ireland is a physical game.
At the time I was playing for my local village and the town over, Templemore. We had a game against Belvedere FC who were from Dublin schoolboys and I played really well and caught the eye of their managers and after the game they spoke to my parents and offered me a place on their team. My parents told me in the car and being a young kid just in love with football I said yes straight away, and really it was a huge commitment from my parents to make the 2-hour drive to games and trainings. Growing up most kids knew that to get bigger opportunities in football you had to be playing in Dublin or nearby to expose yourself as a player to get those trials and opportunities in the UK. At that age it was great for me to be playing week in week out with young players of a high level from all over the country and increased my development as a player. Although being from Templetuohy and playing in Dublin I got all kinds of stick being from the countryside, and I certainly heard it on the pitch.
Being at Belvedere the trials in England started to come regularly, and the first time I went to England was when I was 12. Blackburn, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Celtic, Sunderland and Everton. It was quite common for kids to go across during breaks in school and get trials at these clubs. There was a real pipeline of Irish talent from Dublin across to the UK. Around this time I was 16 on the Ireland team and most of my teammates had decided on clubs they were signing for and for some reason I was the last to decide. It was just a longer decision for me and my Dad, and part time agent, helped me a lot throughout the process but eventually I chose Sunderland just because at how comfortable I was when I went to the club and the huge Irish presence at the club.
Nevertheless, signing a deal at 17 at Sunderland was a massive achievement for me and I left school and didn’t look back because of my eagerness to get started. My first couple months I struggled outside of the pitch. Mentally I wasn’t dealing well being away from home, missing my family and my friends and was constantly second guessing myself and asking why I left home. Once I found a rhythm on the pitch and got to focusing on the football all that passed, because I realized the opportunity I had.
Sunderland was a good learning ground for me. I was given the chance to play for the u-19’s at 17 and I was doing well enough that by the end of the first season I was playing with the reserves. I felt I was growing up quick because you had to, if you didn’t perform you were right back down with the 17’s.
I’ll never forget my break into the first team because we had a reserve team game against Liverpool and I played well, and I was scheduled to attend some awards back in Ireland the weekend but I was stopped by the reserve team manager.
“Cancel your plans, Gaffer wants you in the squad tomorrow” he said. “For the Derby against Newcastle”.
I thought to myself this is a joke and cannot be real, but at the same time my heart started racing. I got walked down to the first team side of the training ground to speak to Mick McCarthy and see the squad list and on the way the club captain Michael Gray stopped me and said “Congratulations and see you tomorrow.” It had really sunk in now and my heart was beating out of my chest. In Mick McCarthy’s office he joked about ruining my plans for the weekend and sent me into town to get a suit for the game.
I never expected to get minutes in one of the biggest matches in English football, I ended up playing 45 minutes and it was an unbelievable experience for me. The first pass I received in the middle of the pitch was fired into me like a shot and I remember thinking “welcome to big boys football Richie.” Being so young and getting that chance is something that always sticks with me and I Mick after the game told me I’d be with the first team from that point going forward, it was a surreal moment and something I was eagerly looking forward to. I played a few games between then and the end of season but it was more a learning thing for me because although I played well in the derby and had broken into the first team I still had a lot to learn. I was expected to start against villa the next week and I had what can only be described as a mental breakdown. Giving 10-yard passes away, not checking my shoulder and just completely not performing like I should. So, I had to go through some serious learning experience but just to be able to get chances to play against premier league teams and teams like arsenal, against players like Viera, Overmars, Henry and so on.
From there I was held back a lot from injuries and surgeries, stuff that sometimes in football you can’t seem to get rid of and there was no real support system at the time in terms of education about taking care of yourself and doing the right things to make sure you get back to 100%. It was a environment where you really were on your own and you were left to your own devices and you sank or swam. I think I just didn’t learn quick enough about being a professional was not just on the field. I went out too much and didn’t look after myself and to this day is the biggest lesson I learned as a footballer. Unfortunately, Sunderland got this impression of me as a player and a person from my bad habits at the time. In fairness the following season I came back to preseason like a man possessed and in the shape of my life and I don’t think the club was expecting it but it wasn’t meant to be that following season and my time at Sunderland came to an end.
I bounced around some teams in the UK and in Belgium and I found my way back to Ireland, at Sligo Rovers through friends and contacts who told me the move was an option. The first year and a half at Sligo I was bang-average. I was falling back into my habits when I was at Sunderland and was getting to know the town of Sligo too well and not dedicating myself as a footballer. A big slap in the face was losing the cup final to a first division side at the end of that season. A bigger slap in the face was a week after having the end of season meetings and the club offering me a next to nothing contract and telling me to live at home with my family.
It was the biggest wake up call I’ve ever had in my career. At first, I was angry, furious and insulted. But when I stepped back and really looked at myself. I realized I wasn’t good enough the past year and in addition to that I wanted to prove so badly how wrong they were. It was the best thing to happen to me as a player because I decided to stay at Sligo, and I came back the next season like a different player. It was some of the best football I’ve played in my career and definitely one of the high points because I/we played some great football and we won multiple trophies and I put it down to having a great team around me and that meeting I had which lit a fire in me and spurred me on. Having guys like Joseph N’Do and Paul Cook as leaders in the team, it changed the outlook of professionalism for me and the team chemistry created in that team was the best I’ve seen.
I had a spell in Scotland at Dundee but football is a funny game sometimes. I think every player has been through a tough point in their career, in terms of doing everything right and it just not working out. I played a good amount of games and started out well being a regular starter. I was a great professional but sometimes managers and staff just don’t like you for what ever reason. I was never a bad egg like you read in the media about players but it wasn’t meant to be and by the end of my time their I had fallen so far out of favor I was being forced to play with the u-19’s against non-league sides, had my locker taken out from the dressing room and was left out of team trips.
At this point I was looking for something new, and I had been in contact about coming to North America to play through Marc Dos Santos and I spent 6 months at Shamrock Rovers and mutually agreed when the time came that I could leave and pursue the rest of my career in the states.
Coming to North America I had no clue about life here and really about the football leagues and level. I knew about how football was a rapidly growing sport and the MLS was attracting top footballers from around the world so that was a goal of mine coming over, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen. It was more about me finding out about what they valued in footballers in America as opposed to the rest of the world. I can say I’m not what the America system was looking for, not athletic enough for the rapid back and forth pace of the MLS. It never hurt me to know I wouldn’t reach the MLS but it’s about knowing your worth as a player. I have a reputation as someone who loves the have the ball, possession, short passes and slow the game down and control the tempo.
I would say the American game hasn’t concentrated enough on that and developing “footballers”, but that’s how football is sometimes. It’s important to not take criticism as criticism. Take it as a tip to help, sometimes you must boil down the message to the important points that will help you as a player. Too many players hear what they want to hear, but when you hear the truth it can be a wake-up call or a slap in the face to make you change your attitude.
The truth hurt me at Sunderland being a young player because I didn’t want to hear it and I wish I would’ve got this message at that age. But when I faced the music and had a wake-up call at the end of my first season at Sligo, it completely changed my whole mentality and allowed me to be successful and continue playing the game I love until this present day.