Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

2019 Asian Cup: Mat Ryan may be small in stature, but his importance to Australia is immeasurable

Goalkeeper is only 1.84m tall, but his agility and spring are his compensations as Socceroos begin title defence against Jordan on Sunday

Australia's goalkeeper Mathew Ryan is looking to lead the Socceroos to back-to-back Asian Cup titles. AFP
Australia's goalkeeper Mathew Ryan is looking to lead the Socceroos to back-to-back Asian Cup titles. AFP

Last summer, Maty Ryan led more than a full squad of loyalists to the World Cup in Russia. There were 27 in his team, ranging from aged three to over 70 years old. They were all relatives, from cousins to grandparents to in-laws, and Australia’s goalkeeper had paid the tickets and hotel bills for each of them to be there.

“I asked them all, and only half said ‘Yes’,” smiled Ryan of his large extended family, “so that was good news for the bank account, I suppose. But I saw it as a chance to share something, a World Cup, something for them to remember for the rest of their lives.” It was a big-hearted gesture from a man who remains immensely grateful for the support of his family, particularly of mother Carol, in building the foundations of a successful career.

There will not be quite so many of the Ryan clan among the fans of the Socceroos in the UAE for the defence of the Asian Cup, which begins against Jordan on Sunday, but this adventure, Ryan hopes, will last longer than the Russia trip did. Australia’s World Cup was over at the end of the group phase after one draw and two defeats. And with that disappointment came a passing of batons in the national team, with senior statesmen, notably the former captains Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak retiring, and the leadership roles taken on by, among others, Ryan.

The goalkeeper, who won his 50th cap on the eve of the Asian Cup, comes into the tournament regarded as probably the champions’ best asset, a last line of defence who is at the top of his game in a squad that has suffered several injury setbacks to players in its more creative, attacking positions. Australia’s doubts are to do with their potency up front, their main forte the form and authority of Ryan.

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It was not always that way for a keeper who belongs firmly in a strong tradition of Aussie glovemen whose talents have been exported to the strongest leagues in the world. The difference between Ryan and say, Mark Schwarzer, who made over 500 appearances in the English Premier League, or Zeljko Kalac, who won the Uefa Champions League with AC Milan, is that the latter two were skyscraper-sized, at 1.94m and 2,02m respectively. Ryan, at 1.84m, is no giant, and early in his career, entering a sport where judgements are increasingly made according to templates and statistics, he found that was unfashionably compact for a would-be elite goalkeeper.

Ryan’s agility and his spring are his compensations, and to see him, mobile and light-footed, in command of his penalty area is to be reminded he was a fine tennis player in his youth, good enough to nurture thoughts of a career in that sport. His handling skills also made him a decent schoolboy rugby player.

He also made practice at distributing the ball precisely with his feet a priority through his teens, a focus noted by Graham Arnold, the manager who gave Ryan his senior debut at the A-League club Central Coast Mariners. Ryan was 18 at the time; Arnold is now in charge of the Socceroos.

Brighton's Mathew Ryan has played at two World Cups and was a key part of Australia's winning team at the 2015 Asian Cup. Reuters
Brighton's Mathew Ryan has played at two World Cups and was a key part of Australia's winning team at the 2015 Asian Cup. Reuters

At 21, he moved to Europe, Club Brugge of Belgium seeing the potential that Tottenham Hotspur, where Ryan had had a trial, missed, and the following summer he was Australia’s first-choice at the Brazil World Cup, an expedition that lasted no longer than the group phase. Six months later, at the Asian Cup, hosted and won by Australia, he was chosen as the tournament’s best goalkeeper. A transfer to Valencia followed, a move Ryan would later think back on with mixed feelings: he had six different managers through 18 months of turmoil at a notoriously volatile Spanish club.

After a loan spell back in Belgium, he was recommended so strongly to Brighton, then freshly promoted to the top-flight of English football that their manager Chris Hughton approved the signature without going to see Ryan play live. The relationship has worked out very well. Ryan had not missed a single minute of Brighton’s first 18 months in the Premier League until he joined the Socceroos last month; Hughton would be the first to credit his goalkeeper - the keeper who faced more shots than any other in the 2017/18 Premier League - for his large contribution to Brighton’s against-the-odds preservation of their top-division status.

“He’s different,” said Hughton, “he’s not as big as some other keepers, but he’s very athletic and hungry to do well.” That hunger is now centred on first Asian Cup triumph on foreign soil for Australia. “It feels like a new chapter is opening here,” Ryan said.

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Updated: January 6, 2019 08:21 AM

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