Déise veteran relishing the opportunity to come full circle in 19th consecutive season

AHEAD OF A landmark occasion, it’s always nice to look back.

Rewind the clock to the very start of the journey.

Michelle Ryan.

Still one of the stars of the Waterford show, Michelle Ryan first linked into the senior set-up in 2001. So, what would this be? Her 19th consecutive season. Consecutive? Surely there was a year out here or there? Nope. Not even one.

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“I’ve done every year,” she laughs. “Imagine… every year.”

Back to the early days so.

“I’m around a long time now,” the 33-year-old grins, settling into a couch at the Lidl Ladies Football League finals captain’s day, the hustle and bustle of the Croke Park hotel lobby not distracting her for even split second as she tells story after story from years gone by.

“I joined the panel in 2001. We won a Division 1 title in 2002. I was number 29 or 30 on the panel and probably was a bit young to take in everything that was happening and really appreciate it.

“I might have even taken it for granted in the sense of, ‘This is going to continue’. You’re very young. You’re hoping that’s what’s going to happen as your career continues but that’s just not what happens.”

Been there and done that, the bad days have probably outweighed the good. There have been highs, but there have been gut-wrenching lows too. Plenty of positives, but often more negatives. Such is life sometimes.

She’s hoping today will be a good day. Their Division 2 final meeting with Munster rivals Kerry at Parnell Park [throw-in 2pm, live on TG4].

Reeling in the years once again though.

“We went down to Division 2, down to Division 3. We were relegated from senior to intermediate in 2009 which would have been seen as a big blow at the time.

“At the end of the day, it allowed us the time to redevelop and regroup. In the last number of years we’ve gone from Division 3 to Division 2 and we’re now in a final. We’d be delighted to be playing in Division 1 but it’s a huge task on Sunday really.”

We’ll get to that shortly, but while the time machine is in full swing with more and more memories flooding back by the second, we might as well stick to that.

Michelle’s the eldest of the Ryan sisters; herself, Louise and Sinéad are synonymous with Gaelic games in Waterford along with their father, Michael, but she’s flying the Déise flag solo this year. It’s happened before, she assures.

With her sister Louise in 2016.

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“They would have taken breaks here and there,” the Ballymacarbry ace explains. “They’re not playing this year, I’m still standing! 

“Look, there were opportunities for me to do a little bit of travelling and to do different things in college too, go off for summers and that through the years.

“I remember one college year I actually was in France. I’m a French teacher so I had to spend some time in France when I was doing my degree… there used to be times I’d even fly home for matches.

“I was very young at the time. I was in France on my own so even the reason to come home was huge.

“When I look back now, some people ask me do I regret not taking those opportunities. Do you know what, if I did take them, I don’t know would I be where I am right now. It’s a hard one really. 

“Thankfully I’ve seen the changes in football and it’s on its way up in Waterford for the better so. Look, you get to this stage of your career and you hope to leave it on a bit of a high.

“So far, so good. Doing alright!”

Hailing from a club as successful as Ballymac, the football is basically a year-round job at this stage. Between club and county, it’s a serious commitment. Oh, and then there’s work, furthering her education, time with family and friends, so on, so forth.

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How does she do it year on year? How difficult is it every January to go again?

“It’s gas… it’s actually just my norm. It’s not new to me. You’re used to the scenarios where the down time is probably only November, December.  You’re used to your football being that long. You’re used to making the sacrifices when it comes to social events or weddings or whatever it is. 

“I kind of have to laugh sometimes…”

An interesting story pops into her head.

On the ball in 2010.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Just over two years ago now I went to meet the county manager to tell him I was more or less going to retire. I didn’t know whether I had the mental strength to continue on at the time.

“Thank God he gave me a few weeks to think about it and I did. I’m glad that I made the decision I did at the end of the day.

“Look yeah, it is tough in the winter when you think about all you have to go through in the first few months of the year to get to championship football. It definitely doesn’t get any easier with age.

“But thankfully when you get to this time of the year and you’re playing important matches, it’s great… you really do play for these big days.”

She’s mad to talk about Sunday, and her side’s showdown with Kerry. But one last thing. Off the field matters. She’s a busy woman.

Ryan is a secondary school teacher. French and Irish. She’s also studying a part-time Masters and one of the candidates on the PR/Media Strand of the LGFA’s recently-launched female leadership programme.

“I’m glad I’m doing it all,” she smiles. “Pretty much apart from all of those things, there’s not much time for anything else. Football, teaching, Masters, apart from that, sleeping and eating…

“The one thing that I love about the leadership programme is not only is it a personal development opportunity, but also, it’s great for me to get involved in the LGFA who have played such an important part in my life.

“Even just the opportunity to promote it that little bit more and maybe to inspire some younger girls coming through that they can achieve playing sport — whether it’s ladies football or whatever sport it is.

“It’s given a lot to me both in my playing career and my personal life. The opportunity to give back in any bit is huge.” 

At the captain’s day this week.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Sunday, finally. A few last words. It should be an interesting battle between two old foes, with promotion to the top tier up for grabs. How brilliant would it be for Ryan’s career to come full circle?

She’s well aware of gunning the Kingdom will be after the disappointment of relegation last year, and how talented their group of players is. They know each other well, after all.

When the sides met in the round-robin stage in February, the game ended a draw. But this is a completely different story. “The upperhand lies with them,” she believes.

“They’ll be favourites on the day… but who knows?”

But who knows, indeed.

“Very excited, happy to be there as well,” she concludes. “To be honest in the last number of years, we’ve been progressing nicely. Especially since 2015, when we won the intermediate All-Ireland. This is just another step on. 

“At the end of the day there’s nothing won yet, and it’s a huge challenge that’s in front of us. Hopefully it will go well. Look, we have to focus on ourselves and just control whatever we can control.”

That they do, and the rest will come.

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