KEEPER OF THE FLAME
NOW MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF IN THE WORLD’S BEST LEAGUE, IT HAS BEEN A S TUNNING RIDE UP THE FOOTBALL FOOD CHAIN FOR SOCCEROO SHOT-STOPPER MAT RYAN. COULD HE BECOME THE GREATEST GOALKEEPER AUSTRALIA HAS EVER PRODUCED?
Mat Ryan is young, talented, super-commied, playing in the toughest football league in the world, and well on his way to Socceroo greatness. But he did it all the hard way.
IARRIVED in Spain early December, a day before Valencia took on Olympique Lyon in the Champions League.The timing was fortuitous – less than two weeks earlier manager Nuno Espirito Santo had resigned after a run of poor results. Valencia then surprised all of La Liga, and indeed the world, by making Gary Neville Nuno’s replacement.The former Manchester United and England defender, and now television pundit, had never coached a professional club before and his first job would be in charge of one of the biggest in Europe. Talk about pressure. The media went into overdrive as European journalists flocked to the city en masse to see how Neville, with his brother Phil as his assistant, would do in his first game.
I arrived for a different reason, to meet one of the rising stars of Australian football.With Tim Cahill chasing coin in China, Mile Jedinak rarely playing for Crystal Palace and Massimo
Luongo riding the Queens Park Rangers rollercoaster, Mathew David Ryan has now become our most high-profile Socceroo abroad. His move from Belgium’s Club Brugge to Spanish giant Valencia in July last year, a deal worth nearly $12 million, has seen his profile sky-rocket. Ryan – unassuming, friendly, the quintessential Aussie “boy next door” – has hit the big-time.The goalie from western Sydney – who made his first-team debut at 18, won an A-League premiership at 20 and a grand final at 21 – is now part of football’s elite.
When you talk of Spanish football, two clubs – Real Madrid and Barcelona – stand out from the rest.They are home to the two best players on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and they continually dominate European football. Only one club has competed with them regularly in the past 15 years domestically, apart from Real’s local rivals, Atletico Madrid, and that is Valencia Club de Futbol, the 96-year-old outfit from the third biggest city in Spain. Known as Los
Che, they are regulars in European competition and boast seven Spanish titles, six Copa Del Rey trophies, a UEFA Cup and two UEFA Super Cups to their name.
It is into this environment that Mat Ryan landed nine months ago. From the Mariners to the Mestalla in just two years, it has been a quick ascension for the Plumpton (west Sydney) product. Ryan’s off-season move to Valencia was met with heavy media interest. Australian media wanted a piece of him. Spanish tabloid TV crews even hit Valencia’s beaches showing local women glamorous pictures of the new Australian signing without his shirt on. Paparazzi shadowed his arrival at the airport. It has all been a big wake-up call for the 23-year-old.“When I arrived and they sneaked me out the back door, and then I see cameraman sprinting down the airport ... ” he tells Inside Sport. “I’m thinking,‘What the hell? What have I got into here?’”
AS FAR as European cities go, Valencia has the right mix of old and new, historic architecture, sandy beaches, a friendly climate and a lively combination of cultural attractions. It is one of Spain’s most popular destinations, home to 1.5 million people and the birthplace of paella. But Ryan is here for business, not pleasure, and that business has not completely gone to plan since he headed south. At first things ran smoothly, with a first-team position opening up as number-one goalkeeper Diego Alves recovered from a long-term injury.
Ryan made his league debut in the first game of the season, a 0-0 draw with Rayo Vallecano, and followed it up with a solid 1-1 draw against Deportivo La Coruna. So far so good. But then disaster struck, a meniscus injury putting him on the sidelines for the next two and half months. For a player who hardly missed a game in five seasons, it was a blow.“It’s disappointing to miss any football at all, but it’s part of the game,” Ryan admits.“It’s just something that I’m not used to. It’s the first injury in my career where I’ve missed games. It’s something new.” His hold on a starting position was gone, taken by local Jaume Domenech; Ryan would have to bide his time. But while the Socceroo watched from the bench,Valencia’s form crumbled. Los
Che would win just five of its first 12 league games and, with internal club politics at breaking point, Nuno finally fell on his sword.
In came Neville in December as the great white hope. But there would be no quick fix as the club continued to struggle. Under Neville Valencia would fail to win a match in La Liga in 12 attempts.The club’s Champions League challenge fell apart and the fans turned against the manager and the players.The lowest point came in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals in February, when Luis Suarez, Messi and co pumped seven goals past Ryan and his Valencia team-mates.The embarrassing 7-0 result was one that made headlines across the world.
“It probably has been the toughest part of my career to date, to be honest, with the unfortunate bad luck,” Ryan says.“I’ve just been trying to do what I’ve learnt and heard from what other players are doing, when they have been in similar situations, and use a bit of common sense to just continue to push through the tough times, continue to work and do everything I can to get me back out doing what I love.”
HARD WORK, dedication. It might be the mantra of boxing icon Floyd Mayweather, but it just as easily could be applied to Mat Ryan. Growing up in a less-affluent part of western Sydney, the Blacktown suburb of Plumpton, and raised by a single mother, Ryan is your typical battler. “I grew up there not living a luxurious life, just pretty much having what we needed to get by. My mum and dad divorced when I was ten and she raised us on her own. Looking back now, her driving me
FROMTHE MARINERSTO THEMESTALLA INJUSTTWO YEARS, IT’S BEENAQUICK ASCENSION FORRYAN.
around everywhere, and doing the same for my sister ... paying school fees off in instalments, having to ask if it’s okay to pay my soccer fees off in instalments ... ”
Ryan’s bond with his mother Carol is a strong one, one that is much closer than most mother-son relationships. His admiration and respect for the sacrifices she made for him and his sister Megan, and for the support of his grandparents and extended maternal family, endures.“Going to the supermarket, I joke about this now with her, she used to only let us choose a chocolate that was on special for one dollar. I’m so lucky to have such a closeknit family. I wouldn’t change anything about the way I’ve grown up.They teach us what’s important in life. It’s cliched stuff what I’m saying, but it’s still special.”
Ryan was a normal kid, a sports lover who played everything. Cricket, tennis, football, golf, touch football, rugby league – you name it, he gave it a try. A promising tennis junior, his ultra-competitive drive led him to smash countless racquets in his younger days.This expensive habit, combined with the clashing timeslots of tennis and football, led him to focus fully on football as a teenager. It was somewhat of a risk considering his physique – at 13 he was overlooked for a representative football team because he was too small.
Goalkeepers are traditionally known for their height and size, tall and agile monsters who dominate the goal to block shots. Mark Schwarzer and Zeljko Kalac, two standouts for the Socceroos, are 1.95m and 2.02m tall. Belgian international and Chelsea shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois, one of the top keepers in the Premier League, stands at 1.99m. In comparison, Ryan is just 1.84m and was not big as a teenager. It has been his drive and his work ethic and not genetic gifts that have helped him reach the top.
John Crawley remembers a 14-year-old Ryan as being far from exceptional at that age.“We thought he was good enough to be in the program, we thought he could play at that level. But he wasn’t absolute top-shelf Mark Bosnich at the age of 13. He was only small but he was just ... he didn’t excel at a lot of things. He didn’t show signs that he was wow, he’s going really, really
well until he was 16 or 17.” If anyone can call themselves Ryan’s mentor in football it’s Crawley. Now Sydney FC’s goalkeeping coach, it was Crawley who found Ryan at Blacktown City and nurtured him, eventually bringing him to the Central Coast Mariners where he would first make his name. Crawley himself played overseas, in the NSL and A-League, but is best regarded as the coach who has developed top Australian keepers such as Adam Federici and Danny Vukovic.The 43-year-old’s influence on Ryan has been vital.
The 23-year-old’s style as a goalkeeper is one that is favoured in the Iberian
Peninsula and South America, where Crawley spent five years playing in Chile in the 1990s. It’s a type of keeping that focuses on turning defence into attack, where the goalkeeper is especially comfortable with the ball at his feet and operates as a pseudo sweeper.The ’keeper can start attacks with his passing and snuff out opposition moves by reading the play and racing off his line. Perhaps the best modern exponent of this style is Bayern Munich and German international Manuel Neuer.
Ryan is effusive in his praise for Crawley’s guidance. “I’m a product of him,” he says. “I’m the kind of goalkeeper I am because of him. Having faith in me, giving me confidence, he’ll be a friend for life. He’s like family. He did play a bit of a father figure role for me from the football side. ”The two, though now on opposite sides of the globe, remain in touch. “We’re always in contact. Whenever I’m back I try to catch up with him.”
It was through the support of Crawley, and then-Mariners coach Graham Arnold, that saw a 17-year-old Ryan land at the Central Coast. A hothouse for developing talent, from Jedinak to Trent Sainsbury, Tom Rogic and Mustafa Amini, it was the perfect place for the ’keeper to learn. His chance in the top flight came early and unexpected. Signed as the reserve goalkeeper, a serious injury to numberone Jess Vanstrattan meant Ryan made his A-League debut in round four of the 2010-2011 season. He was just 18, a baby in terms of ’keepers, who usually hit their peak in their early 30s.
Ryan’s first A-League appearance was far from perfect. A mistake gifted Sydney FC’s Ryan Grant a goal and the match finished 1-1. But the kid was a fast learner and continued to improve as the season progressed. “I just remember the game and the occasion,” Ryan reflects. “I had a little error, it was 1-1, and I was a bit raw and naive. Arnie stuck by me and the next game I had a nice, confidencebuilding match.The next few games I made a few more saves. There was a lot of learning along the way. I made a few more mistakes, and then fast-forward a couple of years ... ”
He never looked back. By the end of that season he had 13 clean sheets from 31 matches and helped Central Coast into the grand final.The Mariners lost in a penalty shootout to Brisbane Roar, but Ryan was given the Joe Marston Medal for best player of the game. He was also named the Young Footballer of the Year that year, won the same award the following season and received the Goalkeeper of the Year prize. Over the next few seasons more personal accolades went his way – PFA awards, club trophies, competition honours – but the most elusive one came in 2013 when the Mariners finally won their first grand final.
For Ryan, the team’s goal always
outweighs the individual one.“That’s why we play the game – to be successful.To finally give the Mariners and the public up there what they deserve. In football there’s no better feeling. All the successes I’ve had with the team, by far they trump any personal honours that you win. It’s the satisfaction of setting out a plan to win something, whether it be winning a tournament or a season. And that final minute of the grand final or the Asian Cup, and it’s gone and you’ve done it, there’s no better feeling.That’s why you play the game.”
Ryan has had a charmed existence since those early no-frills A-League days at Bluetongue Stadium, where he used to live in a caravan shared with teammate Bernie Ibini. In 2012 he was given his first full cap as a Socceroo under Holger Osieck and in May 2013 secured an overseas move to Club Brugge. Ryan continued to excel in the Belgian Pro League and was named the competition’s goalkeeper of the year in both 2014 and 2015.To Crawley, Ryan’s dynamic rise fills him with pride. “Absolutely. To see the growth and development of a kid that you’ve had something to do with ... it makes you feel immensely proud.”
Another big turning point in the ’keeper’s career came in October 2013 when Osieck was axed and Ange Postecoglou was appointed. Mark Schwarzer, a member of Australia’s Golden Generation and the hero of that historic night in 2005 against Uruguay, wanted to play on for the Socceroos at the 2014 World Cup. Then with Chelsea, the veteran was determined to reach his third World Cup tournament. But Postecoglou, set on rejuvenating an ageing national side and bringing in fresh blood, was keeping his options open. Schwarzer, who would be 41 when Brazil rolled around, saw the writing on the wall and soon announced his retirement from international football.
Australia’s number one jersey was up for grabs. Taking over from a legend of the local game, someone with 109 caps in the green and gold, wouldn’t be easy. But Ryan took to the task at hand calmly, maintaining a stable presence at the back for the Socceroos. Postecoglou’s hightempo, high-press brand of attacking football suited the young sweeper-keeper down to the ground and Ryan quickly became a cornerstone of the new-look Australian team. He played all three games at the World Cup in Brazil, and while at times at the tournament the rookie Aussie defence struggled, Ryan learnt from the experience and has since gone to a new level on the international stage.
A case in point was the 2015 Asian Cup. Held on home soil, the Socceroos memorably took out the tournament with a dramatic extra-time winner in the final against South Korea. Ryan, named the goalkeeper of the tournament, was in the midst of everything. He conceded just three goals in six games in the Asian Cup and his heroics helped get Australia over the line. Shrugging off competition from Federici and Mitch Langerak, Ryan’s hold on the Socceroos’ goalkeeping position is now assured.
With Postecoglou in charge, the Blacktown City and Marconi junior is thriving. With the next World Cup hosted by Russia in 2018, the Socceroos are already talking about properly challenging football’s elite in that tournament, not just merely participating. Postecoglou has infused his players with confidence and belief .“Credit to Ange, he came in and had his goals from the beginning; how he thought it was going to pan out. It’s panned out so far how he said. If the next few years pan out like he’s saying they will, then there’ll be much better memories coming up than the Asian Cup final. It’s exciting times.”
At the Mestalla in December, the match against Lyon is somewhat of a bust. Valencia starts promisingly, but soon drops a goal behind. Eventually losing 2-0, they’re knocked out of the Champions League. Heavy boos from the Los
Che fans, notorious for their vocal support, ring out around the stadium. Ryan watches from the pine as his rival Domenech patrols Los Che’s box. It appears grim for both Valencia and their Socceroo. But in football things can change quickly.
Ryan continues to fight in training to win his spot back, battling to turn the tide against the media spotlight and pressure from supporters. And, little by little, progress is made.The 23-year-old gets another opportunity in the first team and impresses in the Cup. In January he strings four league appearances together in a row.The fortunes for the team also start to turn. In mid-February Valencia records its first league victory under Neville – a vital 2-1 win against Sevilla. They follow that up with a bold 6-0 smashing of Rapid Vienna in the Europa League.The Neville resurrection of Los
Che, starring Mat Ryan, is underway. The past nine months have been a rollercoaster for Ryan, something he freely admits. Dealing with serious
RYAN’S IS ATYPEOF KEEPING
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injury, the pressure of being at a massive club and fighting for his position, he’s been on a steep learning curve. “It’s probably one of the biggest things you notice, any tiny bit of news is big news in a league like this. And competition for every spot is fierce because they have the funds to build good squads across the whole team.”
But if you think he isn’t up to the challenge, then you don’t know Ryan.The attention in Valencia, the invasion of privacy and the expectations don’t faze the mild-mannered Aussie. “Everything I do in my life is for my football. I’m not going out all night smoking or whatever. I know that I can just comfortably live my life how I am.The worst someone can snap me doing is, I don’t know, pulling over to the side of the road after a long drive and peeing. That’s as bad as it gets. I’m pretty content.”
What does the future hold for Ryan? That is difficult to answer.The goalkeeper has been courted by Liverpool and other clubs before.The next World Cup is two years away and his stock may rise further with more games under his belt in Spain. Crawley can see his former charge starring for club and country for some time. “I can see Mat playing where he is for many years,” he says. “I can see him playing for the Socceroos for many, many years providing he stays fit and healthy. If he wanted to play in the English Premier League, I wouldn’t doubt that he could.”
Just how good Ryan can become is also open to debate.The stable Schwarzer and eccentric Bosnich are widely regarded as the two best goalkeepers to have played for Australia, but with at the very least a decade of football ahead of him the 23-year-old could conceivably surpass both one day.The custodian already has an Asian Cup, a pair of A-League titles and a swag of personal gongs to his name, not to mention 21 Socceroo caps, four more than Bosnich earned. He is blazing a trail for Australians in La Liga, a competition only a handful of Aussies have ever played in.The future is bright. Regardless, Ryan’s focus remains unperturbed. “It’s a public perception; I just go on doing what I do each day. See where that takes me. I don’t like to think too far ahead. At the end of the day, time will tell.”
The Socceroos needed Ryan's level head at the Asian Cup. left His career with Valencia is rolling along nicely.
Leaping high for the Central Coast Mariners in 2012.
Mat Ryan sends it deep for Valencia in the 2015 Champions League. right Body on the line against PSV Eindhoven. below left Calling the shots from the back. below right Using that body again ... vs Kuwait at the Asian Cup.
Ryan couldn't stop Spain's Fernando Torres at the 2014 World Cup ... not many keepers can. belowFrom one Aussie overseas star to another ...