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Saturday 10 December 2016

Paul Ryan air of belief is key to Sky Blue journey

Dublin ace has lived with inconsistency label ... but as Limerick can testify, when in the zone he will 'take you to the cleaners'

Dublin’s Paul Ryan in action against Limerick during their recent SHC qualifier victory
Dublin’s Paul Ryan in action against Limerick during their recent SHC qualifier victory
Paul celebrates with his Ballyboden St Enda’s club-mates after they had beaten Cuala in the 2002 Dublin U15 Division 1 League
Paul with the Cup after winning the Dublin Poc Fada in 2000

Back in May, on the cusp of a championship campaign that has proven his very point, Paul Ryan reflected on the mercurial tendencies of this Dublin hurling team.

"It's nearly like a speed bump," he mused. "You're up one minute, you're down the next, and that's the way our years have carried on.

"We're just looking to be more consistent over a period of time, rather than having a good year and then the year after falling down."

Rejects

Critics of the Ballyboden St Enda's clubman might argue that Ryan's own career has been more roller-coaster than speed bump, oscillating up and down from game-to-game, not just year to year. Hence the suspicion that you're never quite sure what's coming next.

And yet ... if it wasn't for Paul Ryan, Dublin would be gone from the race for Liam MacCarthy instead of contemplating an All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford in Semple Stadium this Sunday.

There are several reasons why Ger Cunningham's embattled team flirted with adversity and came out on the right side against Limerick 12 days ago, but any explanation must start and end with their 26-year-old corner-forward.

Dublin won by just a point and Ryan scored 12 of them - six from play. It wasn't just the quality of his execution, many of his arrows fired from either touchline in Thurles; it was the timing.

After 27 minutes the Blues were on the brink, trailing 1-8 to 0-3. They were revived by a necklace of nine unanswered points either side of the break; Ryan delivered eight of them.

"Ryanner has that, both left and right side," says his teammate and former captain, Johnny McCaffrey.

"He has a shot of 60-70 yards that he'll drill over the bar if he has any bit of space. And when he's on that form he's unmarkable - he's up there with the top hurlers in the country when he's like that. So we're hoping he'll produce that again for us on Sunday."

But that's the crux: will he, especially against a Déise defensive blanket unlikely to offer anything like the same space or opportunity?

Yet McCaffrey rejects the charge of inconsistency levelled at Ryan's door. "He's worked extremely hard on his game," the Dublin midfielder maintains. "He's improved no end, the last two or three years, on his game.

"He's an all-round better hurler now than what he was back then. He might have been just there for his frees; now he's producing from play, which we knew he could always do.

"But it's up to the 14 other lads on the pitch as well to be producing, and I think the last day Ryanner got in good positions because of lads finding him in good positions, and he knows that himself as well. But he's a key forward for us."

This is reflected in the stats: after four outings he is easily their top scorer in this year's championship, his tally of 0-24 (13 frees, three '65s' and eight from play) leaving him 11 points clear of David Treacy.

And yet Ryan has only started two of those four games: the last two qualifiers against Laois and Limerick. He was confined to a scoreless late cameo in the drawn match with Galway, while his first act of the replay was to be summoned off the bench, deep in first half stoppage time, to take a penalty.

The player has never lacked for confidence when seeking the jugular from the 20m line, but this time his low effort was brilliantly tipped around the post by Galway 'keeper Colm Callanan. Ryan duly pointed the '65' but, in truth, he had entered a long-lost cause, Galway already out of sight.

That crushing defeat prompted a profound tactical reappraisal from Cunningham & Co. Liam Rushe's relocation to centre-back has garnered most attention but there were numerous personnel switches too and, against Limerick the last day, Ryan reminded management just why they had belatedly shown trust in his penchant for the prolific.

Nipper

According to Éamonn Treacy, his manager coming up through the 'Boden juvenile ranks, the talent has never been in doubt. Treacy is a Tipp man and so, too, is Ryan's father Joe (from Holycross). "Coming from a traditional hurling household, a hurley was in his hand from when he was a nipper," recalls his former mentor.

"Paul was always our freetaker and always our marquee forward but, having said that, he became part of a really phenomenal minor team. We beat everyone in front of us - up and down the country."

Even before that, he had helped the 'Boden U14s to an All-Ireland Féile na nGael Division Two title in 2000. And, in 2006, he top-scored with 0-6 as the combined Dublin Colleges team created All-Ireland Colleges SHC history by beating St Flannan's of Ennis to lift the Croke Cup.

Curiously, his teammates that day included Diarmuid Connolly and Jonny Cooper, who have subsequently achieved the ultimate All-Ireland glory in a different code.

That is the elusive benchmark that Ryan and his small ball comrades still crave.

He has enjoyed some standout memories in Sky Blue, and tended to deliver on the biggest days during the Anthony Daly era.

When Dublin created Allianz League history by crushing Kilkenny in the 2011 spring decider, Ryan tallied nine points, four from play. When they ended the county's 52-year wait for a Leinster title in 2013, Ryan was destroyer-in-chief of a beleaguered Galway, amassing 2-7 (2-3 from play).

And yet, at other times, he has struggled for his place.

Éamonn Treacy believes his former protégé is like many elite finishers - a "confidence player" who needs to feel wanted.

"We need to see the potential that Paul has. He is a player who should always start, in my opinion," he ventures.

Cleaners

And when he starts, often you'll know within minutes if Ryan is "in the zone". In that scenario, if his eye is in and he senses vulnerability in his marker, "he will absolutely take you to the cleaners".

But surely Waterford, with their suffocating game-plan, have been forewarned by his Limerick demolition job?

Treacy echoes McCaffrey's point about playing to his strengths, locating him in the scoring zone, and then concludes: "He will love playing in Thurles ... maybe it's the Tipperary blood!"

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