Queen’s GAA Vice President Dessie Ryan was the feature of a lengthy Irish News article this week, documenting the Tyrone man’s life, career & coaching. Friends and former players contributed to a fleeting insight into Dessie the leader, coach and friend of Gaelic Football at Queen’s University. For those who missed it, below is the text of the article by Brendan Crossan…
“I played under Dessie for about five months and I learned more about the game in those five months than I did for the rest of my career. Without Dessie I would never have played county football. He was the man who taught me everything.” – Philip Jordan
It was one of umpteen yarns lost somewhere in the early 1990s. Dessie Ryan had brought his Queen’s players to Barnett’s Park for a pre-season training session. It was the dead of winter. The ground was covered in frost. The players were well wrapped up for the session.
An exceptionally fit man, Ryan would have been in his early 50s at the time. He emerged for the session in white vest, shorts and trainers.
‘Listen lads,’ he said. ‘We’ll go for a run tonight. So just keep up with me.’
Ryan set off into the night and the players followed.
Roughly an hour and 10 minutes later Ryan returned to the starting point easing up.
Behind him was carnage. Players were on their knees, others on the ground, struggling to breathe.
Colm Hanratty was one of Ryan’s trusted foot soldiers in the early 90s.
He played centre half-back for Queen’s.
He remarked to Ryan afterwards: ‘Dessie, you’ll catch your death wearing shorts and a wee vest on a night like that…”
Ryan took Hanratty’s advice.
The following Saturday Ryan turned up in a fancy windcheater. The following week Ryan was laid low with flu. He never wore a windcheater again…
Enda McNulty was another Ryan disciple. He spent four years under his tutelage at Queen’s between 1996 and 2000.
It was in McNulty’s last year the Belfast-based students clinched Sigerson.
Armagh’s All-Ireland winning defender worshipped the ground Ryan walked.
He’d heard a lot about Ryan the sprinter and the various national titles he’d won over the years.
So last year McNulty went along to Tullamore to watch the-then 73-year-old compete in the Irish Masters.
“I used to always be impressed by what Dessie was saying,” says McNulty, “but I almost took his fitness [claims] with a little pinch of salt.
“I thought he couldn’t really be that fast or that fit at his age… I was literally gobsmacked watching Dessie and his good friend Patsy Forbes running that day, so much so that I went out the next night with my brother to run the same times over 200m and 400m, and I was in bed with the flu for a week afterwards. I couldn’t get near his times…”
In 1957, Ryan was an up and coming corner-forward in Tyrone.
“You talk about luck,” Ryan recalls.
“Sometimes luck plays a bigger role than talent because there were people that played for Tyrone for years, legends, and I was there for one year and won a McKenna Cup, a Lagan Cup and a Gaelic Weekly Cup medal.”
The following year Ryan left for New York.
“I don’t really know why I went to New York,” he says now. “I had a cousin removed out there, thought I’d come home again, and then I ran into Tyrone people out there.
“The northern fellas really stick together out there.”
Ryan lived in the Bronx for 20 years.
He was soon cutting a dash for New York’s Gaelic Football team and is still the highest scorer to this day. He remembers marking Kerry’s Mick O’Dwyer in a Championship match in 1959 in Gaelic Park before helping the Exiles win National League titles in ’64 and ’67.
“I ended up coaching them and had to beg to get off the team when I was 34 or 35!”
What probably defined his time out in New York more than his football skills was his distinguished career in the New York Fire Department. The 16th Battalion, fifth division. Harlem was their beat.
“John Finn, who was a captain in the Fire Department, used to torture me to study to become a captain.
“I would say he was a bit biased towards the Irish because he was Irish himself. I started studying on my own. I lived in 231st on Broadway. There was a library down below me and I used to go down there at 10 o’clock in the morning.
“Mary, my wife, would have wheeled Celine, my eldest daughter, down and bring me lunch. And I studied there all day.”
One evening Ryan’s crew were called out to an incident. During the rescue he injured his knee and had to be pulled of the fire.
The unfortunate injury cut short his career in the fire service. In 1978, Ryan decided to come home.
He would return to New York for a further three years before eventually settling in Ballyronan in 1985, where he opened a pub, called Ryan’s Bar.
It wasn’t long before local clubs became aware of Ryan’s deep reservoir of football knowledge.
Adrian McGuckin persuaded him to help out at Ballinderry Shamrocks.
To this day, Ryan assists in Ballinderry’s Championship preparations, but remains a comfortable distance away from the spotlight.
He’d established a great friendship with Sean O’Neill during Down’s various tours of New York in the Sixties. O’Neill, who had guided Queen’s to a Sigerson title in 1982, persuaded Ryan to take the managerial reins in 1990 where he stayed for three seasons.
In his first season Ryan won Sigerson.
He returned to coach Queen’s again in 1996. Although Aidan O’Rourke had departed Queen’s by the time Ryan guided them to another Sigerson success in 2000, he had left an indelible impression on the Dromintee man.
“Dessie is great at moulding a team with all the constituent parts he has,” O’Rourke explains. “He had a great focus on your individual game. I might have been playing wing half-back for him and he’d be constantly talking. He’d always find time to talk to you, pull you aside for two or three minutes and walk you through things.
“Every time he speaks there’s a pearl of wisdom. He would talk about your positioning and where you tackle from, just tiny little things that he obviously sits down for hours and thinks about. “He was just so good at tying all that into a gameplan. You were getting all this individual tuition about your role in the team. He was like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid.
“All of a sudden, when he was putting gameplans together, you understood all the little things and why he was coaching you those little things. It fitted the whole plan. It was almost as if you didn’t realize until the end.”
Ryan proved one of the best exponents at coaching the tackle. His aptitude was such that Kieran McGeeney used to attend his Monday training sessions even though he’d long since left Queen’s. “Dessie’s training sessions were notoriously long,” remembers O’Rourke. “They would last three or four hours. The thing was people wanted to be there because they wanted to learn. “The quality of his sessions was so good. If you weren’t there you thought you were missing something.
“You’d train hard for an hour and the rest would be on set-plays and movement. You walked through it, you jogged through it, and then he’d introduce the ball. “He’d just forget about time: ‘Just a couple or three more balls there lads,’ he’d say.
“You’d start at two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon and suddenly it’s 5.30pm. You never noticed the time. Everything that came out of his mouth was a gem, just little bits of advice.”
“You thought you were never going to get off the pitch,” Philip Jordan smiles. “You were standing kicking sideline balls into a big full-forward for half an hour freezing your b***s off! “His attention to detail was great. You could sense what it meant to him. He was 24/7 thinking how he could better the team.”
Not only did Ryan mould and polish the collective to A-plus standards, he improved the individual beyond recognition. Philip Jordan was a shy lad from the Moy who was on the outer fringes of Tyrone’s all-conquering ’98 minor team and was never considered a regular at U21 level.
But a five-month tutorial under Ryan changed everything.
Queen’s were scheduled to play Ulster in a challenge game in Dungannon. Like his career up to that point, Jordan was also on the fringes of the Queen’s panel. “Brian McEniff was over the Ulster team and was looking us to play them in a challenge match,” Ryan says.
“We had two or three injuries and I was a wee bit wary because I didn’t want us to get hammered before Sigerson. “I rang Brian and said that I’d rather not play it but he said he’d only play the second string. Then I thought: ‘Sure them boys will be going like hell [to impress]’.
“So I started Philip that day…”
Jordan absorbed every little detail of Ryan’s meticulous training sessions. He excelled against Ulster and from that moment he was Ryan’s immovable number seven.
“At that time I wasn’t playing county football and I was marking county forwards all the time at Queen’s,” Jordan says. “Dessie gave me a chance when nobody else would. I wasn’t close to getting on the Sigerson team and then I happened to play in that match [against Ulster]. “I didn’t really kick a ball for the Tyrone minors and in the U21s I wouldn’t have been considered a starter, but Dessie gave me the confidence to push on.
“Dessie would tell me what I was doing right and wrong. There was no hiding place. I would have been marking the likes of Paddy McKeever or Diarmaid Marsden who were stars for Armagh at the time. And you were left one-on-one the whole time. “Reputations didn’t matter to Dessie. He just picked players for what they did in training.”
Paddy Campbell, who went on to have a distinguished career with Donegal, was in the same bracket as Jordan. During Ryan’s tenure, Paddy Campbell owned the number two jersey.
“Philip and Paddy were really quiet fellas. I couldn’t get them to talk, not to each other but to anybody,” Ryan recalls. “I used to pick Paddy up on Monday nights in Toome and take him to training. He was doing a Masters at Queen’s. He told me this and I couldn’t believe it. He said: ‘I knew we were going to win the Sigerson in 2000. I just wanted to be part of that team.’
One of Dessie Ryan’s greatest masterstrokes was based on a lie.
Played in treacherous conditions in Moycullen, Co Galway, Queen’s and UCD could not be separated after full-time in the Sigerson decider in 2000. Not even Tom Brewster’s last-gasp equalizing free could lift the team’s spirits as they contemplated extra-time on an unplayable pitch.
“We were completely drained,” Ryan remembers. “The pitch was a quagmire. Only for the TV cameras being there it would not have been played. So it went into extra-time. I was flat in the dressing room. I had nothing. I went out of the dressing room completely distraught thinking: ‘What am I going to do?’”
“I remember everything about that day,” says McNulty. “We were playing on a pitch that you wouldn’t put cattle on. It was our third game in a row, all played in bad conditions. We got to the Sigerson final with a very tight, cohesive unit after four years of coaching by Dessie.
“UCD, our opponents in the final, probably had more “stars”. Now, we didn’t know at that stage the likes of Philly Jordan would go on and win Allstars, obviously. “We gave all we could give in normal time. We went into the changing room as there was talk of extra-time. “The ground was getting wetter by the minute. I was look around the changing room and we were a beaten docket. Physically and mentally, the guys looked beaten.
“The steam was rising off the guys’ jerseys, there was so much muck you couldn’t see the whites of the guys’ shorts. “Some of the guys were ranting and raving but there was no clarity in what they were saying.
“The next thing the door burst open and Dessie came in with huge energy and said: ‘These f*****s don’t want to play it. They don’t want to play it. We’ll play it. We’ll play it right now!’
McNulty adds: “I am not exaggerating: every one of the players sat up and we all said: ‘We’ll play it now!’ He completely shifted the mental and physical state of the team in one statement. What Dessie did that day was a master-class in psychology…
“It is easy to make up an inspirational three or four sentences to talk to a team at the start or the end of a season because you’ve had a week to think about it. But Dessie was a master at coming up with the big-play statement at the big moment.”
Asked to describe his mentor in three words, Aidan O’Rourke replied: “Thoughtful. Pastoral. Ruthless.”
Dessie Ryan will be 75 on his next birthday. He’s still sharing his time around different clubs, doing favours and fine-tuning as he goes.
He is the reluctant legend of Ulster football. He’s still running with his friend Patsy Forbes, and still laughing at Father Time.
“Outside of my mum and dad, Dessie Ryan had the biggest influence on my life than anybody else, not just in my football career. Some of the conversations would have been four hours on the phone, from a phone-box in the students union to his house in Derry. Or standing in the freezing cold in Stranmillis, or in a student flat talking to him for hours.” – Enda McNulty
“Armagh probably would have been known for kicking those long, diagonal balls. But we were delivering those 100 a week for Dessie on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’ve stolen almost everything from him. That’s being honest.” – Aidan O’Rourke
“Our club had a surprise party for Ryan Mellon and me in January time and they asked Dessie to come along because they knew how much I thought of Dessie. People round the Moy were probably thinking who is this fella, because I talked about him so much.” – Philip Jordan