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?

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN DAVID­SON

Mat Ryan is young, tal­ented, su­per-commi‘ed, 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

THAT FO­CUSES

ON TURN­ING DE­FENCE

INTO AT­TACK.

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 ...

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