The 4,848-mile distance between El Paso, Texas and Tipperary, Ireland feels further than ever in these times for Richie Ryan and family amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
“We always try to get back. I left home 20 years ago and we always tried to get back whenever an off-season comes around. Since we came out here seven years ago every off-season we’ve got back to Scotland and Ireland so this one was obviously a little bit different and you’d miss not getting back to see the family and see the lads and have a good catch up.”
Thanks to modern technology there’s always ways to keep up with the goings-on at home, something Ryan has gotten used to since departing his home village of Templetuohy for Sunderland in the north east of England back in the early noughties.
Although a successful time at Sligo Rovers and a brief spell at Shamrock Rovers brought him closer to home for a period, he has spent much of his globetrotting career on the move. Be it in Dundee, Antwerp, Ottawa or Miami, he’s gotten used to keeping up with the latest scores and stories from home through his phone.
“With technology now you have a WhatsApp group for everything, we’ve plenty of groups with the lads back home and they’d be keeping you informed on the hurling and football and a bit of craic about the Premier League and things like Liverpool struggling this year, so it’s a good bit of craic.”
But with COVID-19 striking early last year, and Richie playing his football further from home than ever before with USL club El Paso Locomotive, right on the border between Mexico and the United States, the back roads of North Tipperary couldn’t have felt further away.
“We were back in Scotland after the season which is in full lockdown and you can’t even go for a coffee. It’s taken its toll on people mentally more than anything. It’s not normal for people so it’s really hard to deal with. The restrictions here in El Paso aren’t as heavy, you can go out and have lunch but things are at 50% capacity and you need your mask, but at least there’s a small bit of normality which was nice to come back to,”
“We can take the kids to the park and sit down and it’s been nice to do stuff like that. It’s quite sad to go through Twitter and see how bad things are at home and I think everyone is at the stage now where they’d like things to be back to normal.”
Ryan met his wife during his year in the Scottish Premier League with Dundee United so he divides his time back home between Tipperary and Scotland. They have two young children, both born across the Atlantic, which has made dealing with the distance and travelling home to visit family and friends all the more difficult during the pandemic.
We’re looking forward to coming home, hopefully at the end of the year when travel will be back to normal. If I don’t get home it’ll be three years since I’ve seen anyone. I’ll still look the same but it’s different for the kids not getting them home to see their grandparents and cousins. I suppose we’re lucky with Facetime and technology nowadays in that way.
Richie owes his career entirely to his family back home. Having been scouted by Belvedere at the age of 12, he was given the opportunity to play underage football for the Dublin-based club – however that required the guts of a four-hour round trip from Tipperary on a weekly basis.
“I owe everything to my mam and dad. I was only 12 when I got that opportunity and my dad had to give up a lot of time with work and make sure he was available every Saturday or Sunday morning when the games were on. He was a lorry driver and he was doing a lot of hours on the road anyway, to give up that for me every weekend or something when games were rearranged for a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, he always made sure he was available to get me there,”
“The support from them and their commitment to give up their time to make sure I was able to get to games was brilliant and I owe everything to them, they did that for four years.”
Richie’s parents are still at home in Templetuohy with his brother and sister. His early days at Belvedere were good enough to catch the eye of Sunderland and he made his first trip abroad to the Stadium of Light, joining a large contingent of Irish players at the club including Jason McAteer, Niall Quinn, Phil Babb and Kevin Kilbane.
When I got to the club there were some big characters. Niall Quinn was there, Kevin Phillips, Phil Babb, Michael Gray, Julio Arca, Claudio Reyna. I used to clean Claudio Reyna’s boots! To watch players like that on a daily basis was brilliant for any young player to learn from. It was a brilliant learning curve and environment to be in.
“The Irish lads was probably one of the main reasons why I chose Sunderland. When I got over to visit there must have been at least 12 lads from the under 17s and 19s and into the reverses who were Irish. So, it was like a home away from home sort of thing and you knew you were going to be looked after. You knew you were always going to have people there to help you through it.”
Ryan made his senior debut under another Irishman Mick McCarthy in 2003 in a Tyne-Wear derby against Newcastle, but struggled to advance from there and suffered a series of injuries that eventually saw him move down the English pyramid to Scunthorpe United and Boston United, before a spell in Belgium with Royal Antwerp helped rekindle his love for football.
“If I could change a lot of things I would. I put it down to growing up, really, and realising how I needed to be a professional and how I needed to look after myself. I had gone through a couple of injuries in my third year in Sunderland and during that period of time I had nobody around me, I didn’t have the support network and gone down the wrong road.”
“I knew I wasn’t going to be training or be involved much and I didn’t dedicate myself to my rehabilitation, doing the wrong things off the field. I look back on it now and see it was an education for me. I went down the lower leagues and it didn’t suit my game and I realised I needed to get my act together.”
I had the chance to go to Belgium and that made me fall in love with the game again, and see it in a different way and then when I got the chance to go back to Sligo, it was probably the best move of my career.
As one of many players who has made the trip from Irish football to the English leagues over the years, Ryan speaks from experience on the difficulties players face adjusting to life across the Irish Sea where you’re away from your comfort zone at such a young age.
“It’s definitely an adjustment because you’re away from home. When you’re in the League of Ireland you still have your home comforts. Even when I was in Sligo, I was only a three hour drive away from seeing my family and friends and my mam and dad could come to the games in Sligo or Dublin. It becomes a lot more difficult when you move away and it takes time to adjust and blend in in England or Scotland,”
“I see a lot of people in Ireland putting players down when they go to a League One or League Two club – it’s very easy to do that but you’re not really educated on the level these players are going to.”
We get talking about another Irish player who started abroad but returned home to the League of Ireland to kickstart his career, Richie Towell.
“To play in the lower leagues of England is tough. There’s a lot of different styles of play and it can be really physical. Richie has done really well after a tough time at Celtic and Hibernian on loan and come back to Dundalk to use that as a stepping stone and relaunch himself and he’s done really well,”
“People don’t realise how hard it can be. Playing for a club like Salford where you can see the money pumped in and the ambitions, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that, even though you’re in League Two. I don’t think people look into that side of it.”
Like Towell, it wasn’t until Ryan returned to the League of Ireland with Sligo Rovers that he finally began to find himself as a player.
“At that stage, it was just nice for me to be in an environment where we had a great group of players and we played for a great manager. The manager made everybody feel appreciated and for any player they want to feel valued and everyone at Sligo felt that under Cooky [Paul Cook]. He put together a great squad of player that loved training together and playing at the weekend and that’s one of the reasons why we had the success we had. It was nice to be able to bring a trophy back to Sligo after so long.”
In 2010 Ryan was rewarded for his hard work and was acknowledged by his peers with the PFAI Player’s Player of the Year award.
That was brilliant and something I didn’t expect. Usually, the players that win those awards are the attacking ones who score all the goals. I worked hard that season to make sure I was in the best shape I could be in and make sure I could help the team as best I could that season. It was nice because I knew how hard I worked and it showed if you want to have success you have to work for it.
After three years and three trophies in Sligo, Dundee United offered Ryan another crack at football in the UK.
I remember after the FAI Cup win in 2011 I was in a bar beside Cooky and he looked at me and he said “you’re gone, aren’t you? Go on, you deserve it after being at home the last few years”.
Dundee offered me security at 26 on a two-and-a-half-year deal. But probably the best thing to come out of Dundee was meeting my wife!
Ryan spent just a single year in Scotland. Despite making his full debut against Celtic and having a strong spell in the starting eleven, the manager had different ideas over what Ryan brought to the table with his playing style and in the summer of 2013 they agreed to part ways. He spent the next six months at Shamrock Rovers, winning the League of Ireland Cup, before giving football in North America a go.
“I wanted to see a little bit of the world and go and challenge myself in a different part of the game. I had options to go back to Ireland but I had an opportunity with an agency to join Ottawa,”
“It was a new club so we knew everyone was in the same boat, so it sort of galvanised everyone into the same position. So, we had that network made for you straight away. The city was brilliant, the club was brilliant, anything that could have been done to help was done, it was easy to adapt and I was fortunate that my wife was up for it to go and explore.”
After a year with Ottawa Fury in Canada, Ryan was on the move again, this time to warmer climates in Jacksonville. He spent a short time there before Miami FC and Alessandro Nesta came knocking, offering what was then a league-record transfer for him to join.
“Once you know somebody like that is going to be your manager you want to listen and observe and take every bit of information. I remember when I got into the training session that first day and you’ve the nerves of facing someone like that who’s done everything in the game, growing up watching them in that Italian team and Milan side that won everything, but then I got into the training ground and he’s outside smoking a cigarette!”
“He’s just another fella, it was brilliant how humble and down to earth he was. He won everything in the game but you’d never know it. He’d never speak about it. His tactical mind on the game was brilliant, I can definitely say for anyone who played under him you became a player.”
Ryan enjoyed some success in Miami, but the convoluted NASL system denied him a championship title.
The overall season is split into two, the spring and the fall. We won the spring league and got a trophy, and won the fall league and got a trophy. We were 18 points ahead of second place but got beaten on penalties in the playoffs and then the team that finished 18 points behind us won the playoff final.
I ask Richie about football in Ireland compared to America – where the league structures are getting bigger and the quality of team and player is improving all the time. In the relegation/promotion system that we are used to on this side of the pond, accountability may be lost on players when it comes to winning.
“My mentality is to win. I want to win at all costs, coming from back home from Ireland, where football is all about winning when you get to the professional level. There’s consequences for being poor in the League of Ireland, you get relegated and there’s consequences that affects people’s livelihoods.”
“Over here there’s none of that. If you’re poor or really good, neither will give you any trouble. If you finish bottom, you’re still in the same league next year. If you finish top there’s no step forward for the top teams in the second division. Down the years I’ve found it doesn’t really effect players whether you win lose or draw. The best feeling in the world is winning games for me,”
“The manager here [in El Paso] is trying to build that type of culture that yeah we’re a possession-based football and we love having the ball, but ultimately you want to win games. There’s no point playing nice football if you don’t win.”
I don’t think it’s drilled in to kids playing the game over here that it’s important to win if you’re at a professional level. That’s a problem for me, you can just down tools and start setting up for next season. There has to be consequences for being bad.
After FC Miami, Ryan moved onto FC Cincinnati in 2018, who at the time were the biggest club in the second division attracting crowds of over 20,000 people. With the huge fanbase, the club were on the brink of joining the top tier in Major League Soccer and Ryan had an agreement in place to join them there, however once again injuries played their toll and the step into MLS didn’t materialise.
“I went there, had a good start and cracked my fibula in June which put me out for 12 weeks which wasn’t the best of timing. I had a contract but when it got to the end of the season I wasn’t fitting into the plans. It wasn’t ideal as we had only moved there nine months before, but I sort of seen it coming and I was prepared for what they were going to say because we had had a couple of issues along the way. With my personality and what I’m like on a daily basis on the training ground, I don’t think he really wanted that around for the following season.”
The led to his next jaunt across America, this time to another newly-formed club – El Paso Locomotive where Ryan hopes to finish out his playing career.
“I was fortunate we have a manager in Mark Lowry who I had built a relationship with when I was In Jacksonville. When he got the job and knew of my situation, he called me and said he wanted me to come down here. I’m not the most athletic, I tend to play with my mind and my feet rather than covering the miles so I’m glad to be playing for a manager now who really suits my skills,”
“I’m going to end up my playing career here so it’s nice playing the style I like to play.”
Ryan reached the playoffs with El Paso last season, but lost to Phoenix Rising on penalties – the club part-owned by Didier Drogba.
“They’re a great club with really good facilities and a really good team and big players from all over. The growth I’ve seen in the game since coming over seven years ago is outrageous. Having people like Drogba coming in and being part of ownerships shows which way the game is going. For players and coaches there’s so many opportunities out here. Its only going to go from strength to strength.”
So, what’s next for the globetrotting Tippman who has just starting into pre-season training for his third season in El Paso? With coaching on his mind on either side of the Atlantic, he doesn’t want to stray too far away from the game.
I love being in this environment every day. When I retire, I want to move into the coaching side of things. If I don’t, I’ll miss the environment and being around the lads.
We’d like to stay out here long term as there’s so many opportunities but it just depends what comes our way.