I can vividly remember standing against a fence waiting for a training session to finish on what is now the site of the Central Coast Mariners Centre of Excellence some four years ago. I had not long started working with the Mariners, and while I had met most of the playing squad one player I hadn’t at that time met was goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
Ryan had burst onto the Hyundai A-League scene the season prior, coming into the Central Coast starting eleven early in the campaign for the unfortunately injured Jess Vanstrattan, and subsequently wowing fans, rivals and media alike with his impressive performances – performances that would see him claim a series of personal honours, including the Joe Marston Medal, in his rookie year.
Ryan wasn’t training that day – in fact, he was a way off training again. Had everything gone smoothly, Ryan would have been readying himself to venture to the 2011 FIFA U20 World Cup in Colombia with an Australian squad that included then club teammates and close friends Bernie Ibini (now Sydney FC), Mustafa Amini (now Borussia Dortmund), Trent Sainsbury (now PEC Zwolle), and Sam Gallagher (now Newcastle Jets). But a knee injury had struck to put a dampener on what was an otherwise remarkable 2010-11 for the kid born and raised in Sydney’s west.
Ryan arrived mid-way through the session and, like me, came to the fence to watch the remainder of training then check in with the coaching staff. While we waited for ‘Arnie’ [Graham Arnold] to call time on training we got to chatting and, humbly, Ryan played down his debut season in Australia’s top flight. He showed some natural and understandable disappointment when asked about missing the forthcoming youth World Cup in South America, but added words to the effect of “more opportunities will come”.
How right the Hyundai A-League Premier & Champion, AFC Asian Cup Winner, two-time Belgian Pro League Goalkeeper of the Year, would be.
From mid-2011 to mid-2013 I was fortunate to be close enough to the Central Coast camp to watch Ryan develop his game under the tutelage of John Crawley – a coach and man (in my opinion) of under-appreciated quality. In this period we ventured around Australia and Asia, Ryan getting lasers pointed in his eyes from fans in freezing Tianjin, China, making his full Socceroos debut in Hong Kong, and earning an increasing amount of individual honours. The Twitter hashtag #ThingsMatRyanCanStop sparked from his insane personal performance against Melbourne Heart at AAMI Park was another highlight, but nothing would top the magic 48 hours experienced in April 2013 when the team won the Hyundai A-League Championship over Western Sydney Wanderers, flew to Korea Republic the very next morning, then defeated Suwon Bluewings in the AFC Champions League. Mat Ryan central to it all, of course, and improving with every challenge.
On a trip to Europe in August last year, I decided it would be a great time to venture to Belgium to see Ryan – who by that time had gone to another level again – play for Club Brugge. I contacted Mat in the weeks before to let him know I was coming, hoping only that he may be able to spare some time for a coffee in amongst his busy schedule. Instead, Mat offered that I not only stay a couple of nights in his apartment in beautiful Brugge, but picked me up at the Station when I arrived. Then, on the day of Club’s away match at the interesting Regenboogstadion against Zulte Waragem, Ryan threw me the keys to his (rather slick European) auto and told me not to waste time in catching the train, but drive his car to the fixture instead.
“Just pick me up at the Jan Breydel [Club Brugge’s home ground and base] when the bus gets back tonight,” Ryan said as the keys flew in my direction.
That’s the type of person Mat Ryan is, and I believe will remain, no matter how much more he achieves in his already decorated career. And, if legendary Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer’s career can be used as any example, Ryan could well play on into his late 30s or early 40s. Certainly he has every opportunity to do so. Those who know him understand not only how hard he trains, but how focussed he is in looking after himself and how discerning he is in his lifestyle choices.
Eat, sleep, train repeat. Eat, sleep, play, repeat. Eat, sleep, travel, train, repeat.
Tonight Ryan could earn his first piece of significant team silverware in Europe when he steps out for Club Brugge against Anderlecht in the Belgian Cup Final in Brussels. Just days ago he was in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, playing a key role in his side’s round of 16 victory over Besiktas at the raucous Atatürk Olympic Stadium. By virtue of that success, a trip to Ukraine to face to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in April awaits. Before that, Ryan is set to play in friendlies for the Socceroos against Germany in Kaiserslautern, and FYR Macedonia in Skopje. And let’s not forget domestic duties, where Club Brugge currently leads the competition with 61 points from 30 matches.
Mat Ryan, the boy from Plumpton, has come a long way since his days playing for Central Coast Mariners Youth at Pluim Park in little Lisarow. But at just 22, his story is only beginning to be written.