Pat Ryan soared as Cork U20 hurling coach getting everything from the players

Christy O'Connor profiles the outgoing Rebel manager who landed two All-Irelands this summer and has the potential to be the senior hurling boss down the road
Pat Ryan soared as Cork U20 hurling coach getting everything from the players

Cork manager Pat Ryan and players stand for Amhrán na bhFiann prior to the 2020 Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling All-Ireland U20 hurling final. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

IN so many ways, Pat Ryan’s departure as Cork U20 manager this week was in harmony with his managerial style – no fuss, zero fanfare, a brilliant job done on his watch, but, job done, move on.

Ryan is a much-admired figure within Cork hurling circles, but he has still always operated with a low profile, which is completely in sync with his personality. Outside of Cork, his name would be well recognised and acknowledged but the majority of people within the hurling community would still struggle to put a face to the name.

When TG4 covered Cork’s games en route to the 2020 All-Ireland U20 title, Wayne Sherlock did the pre and post-game interviews. When the 2021 U20 campaign begun just a couple of weeks later and Cork embarked on another All-Ireland winning odyssey, Donal O’Mahoney was the man in front of the TV cameras.

Ryan is a capable guy who would be comfortable when faced with a microphone, but his policy of getting others to do those interviews reflected his philosophy on inclusivity, and how Ryan always tries to make everyone else around him feel absolutely valued. No matter what their status is in the group, as a player or backroom member, Ryan makes everyone in the set-up feel as valuable as he is.

That is a unique skill, but Ryan has always had that ideal amalgam of talents as a manager; a brilliant coach, very sharp on the line, an encyclopedic knowledge of the game and the opposition, an excellent man-manager with great people skills. 

He’s also brilliant company, fun, engaging, good craic, witty. When you fuse all of those qualities together, that’s an impressive cocktail for any manager to possess.

Players want to play for Ryan. Coaches and backroom team members will do absolutely anything for him. Because nobody wants to let Pat Ryan down.

The way in which Ryan quietly walked away provided another huge endorsement of his selflessness, especially in the context of what he has created, and what he now leaves behind.

With half of this year’s starting U20 team underage next year, combined with the infusion of some brilliant young talent from the 2021 All-Ireland minor winning team, Cork are already favourites to secure a third All-Ireland U20 title in succession next year.

Cork manager Pat Ryan celebrates with Eoin Downey after their side's victory over Limerick at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cork manager Pat Ryan celebrates with Eoin Downey after their side's victory over Limerick at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Most managers would give anything to have that level of talent at their disposal. It’s highly unlikely that any other manager would walk away from a position of such potential to secure more provincial and All-Ireland titles.

Ryan has helped build a platform where Cork have gone from serial underachievers at underage to becoming one of the strongest counties in the country at U20. He created the culture and standard that every other county is now chasing at that level. Yet the fact that Ryan was willing to turn his back on more potential glory further underlined his lack of ego, as well as highlighting how it has always been about the bigger picture for Ryan.

HUMILITY

It has never been about him. Ryan has always been reluctant to accept the praise, even though he was fully deserving of every word of it. In his post-match press interview after Cork defeated Dublin in the 2020 All-Ireland final in July, Ryan said that “a lot of this work goes down to Denis Ring and his group because they did a lot of fantastic work in the last couple of years”.

Ring was often harshly criticised for losing three successive All-Ireland finals at minor, U21 and U20 but Ryan could only see the good in what Ring and his management had done, and the benefit it had been to him and the whole group. And - even in his moment of glory - Ryan still had the class and grace to acknowledge as much.

That humility and goodness, and the low-key manner in how he goes about his business, has added to the mystique around Ryan. Those that don’t know him, or know little about him, still accept that Ryan has something unique, that he carries an X-factor.

Ryan certainly wouldn’t admit that he has because he has never overcomplicated his approach. He is a deep thinker, but he gives the impression of never overthinking matters too much.

Obstacles appear like opportunities. Winning a second All-Ireland so soon after the first, and doing so without two senior players (three if you include Daire O’Leary, who missed the All-Ireland final with a hamstring injury) offered further proof of just how great a job Ryan did.

The performances of the players throughout 2020-21 were a mirror image of their manager because the strength of Ryan’s character has always defined him as a person. In his post-match interview after the 2021 Munster final against Limerick, O’Mahony said that Cork were picking players on character ahead of hurling ability. Sherlock said something similar after the 2020 All-Ireland final. 

Character, and the hardworking culture Ryan had cultivated, was consistently smeared all over Cork’s performances.

Ryan certainly has the potential to be a Cork senior manager down the line but it’s unknown if he will ever choose to take that step. If the job is right for him in the future, he will embrace it and give it everything he has. If it isn’t, Ryan will say it’s not for him and it won’t cost him a second’s thought of regret.

Ryan departs as Cork U20 manager with an incredible legacy, but he has always been an ordinary guy with the ability to do extraordinary things. His exit this week was without the sound of blasting trumpets and the sight of flying confetti.

Yet that’s just how Ryan would have wanted it. Job done. Move on.

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