IF the Wexford backs happen to concede a free anywhere within 25 metres of goal this Saturday evening, they will know what to expect and will doubtless fear the consequences of their own indiscipline. Paul Ryan standing over the placed ball … will he or won’t he?
The Dublin freetaker has never been shy about going for the jugular in such scenarios, be it early or late in the contest. Then again, sometimes he’ll just tap it over the bar.
No point in being too predictable: the art of the freetaker isn’t all about flawless technique or pinpoint accuracy, sometimes it’s poker on grass. A case of bluff – or double-bluff.
In the Allianz League Division 1B final back in April, Limerick discovered to their cost that fouling in ‘Ryan country’ can be a dangerous thing. Even more so if the resultant free is brought forward for dissent.
From 20 metres and a slight angle, Ryan pulled the trigger and the sliotar was crashing against the back stanchion before startled Limerick defenders on the line had time to see it, let alone react. Maybe that explains their desperate protests, to no avail, that it had fizzed through a hole in the side netting.
The score correctly stood and, having survived an early Shannonside blitzkrieg, Dublin found themselves a goal to the good. By the final whistle they were one point ahead and heading back to Division 1A … all of which underlines the importance of having a freetaker who doesn’t lack for confidence, or ambition.
“The one against Limerick this year, I don’t think they were expecting it,” he recalls. “And I suppose the sun was in their eyes as well. So you weigh up different options and that’s how you make a decision.”
You wonder if he operates on the maxim that, sometimes, depending on the flow of a game, a goal’s psychological value far exceeds three points? “They were on a bit of a run,” he answers. “Ah look, if I missed it would have been terrible – they’re always like that. I just took the chance and thank God it came off.”
The net result is that Dublin are back in the league’s top-flight next season. The negative byproduct is that it set them up for a 15-point fall against Tipperary in the subsequent Division One semi-final, begging the question whether the 2011 league champions and All-Ireland semi-finalists have been cast adrift of the big boys in the space of two seasons.
Saturday’s Leinster quarter-final in Wexford Park is a must-win encounter and yet unlikely to answer the above conundrum. A potential semi-final date with Kilkenny (who play Offaly on Sunday), two weeks later, most assuredly would.
Reflecting on where they stand on the cusp of Anthony Daly’s fifth championship with his adopted Dubs, Ryan admits: “To be honest, we didn’t go too well against Limerick and even though we got promoted, I don’t think we have been going as well as we can. And Wexford in Wexford Park in championship – a different team altogether (to the one that shipped a 13-point league defeat against Dublin). So we know they’ll be up for it.”
Question: did that 4-20 to 0-17 setback against Tipperary inflict more damage on morale than any positives gained through promotion?
“You can look on it as a negative and a positive,” the 24-year-old demurs. “You can look on it as a negative that we got absolutely hammered and you’re saying ‘Jesus, they’re nowhere near it.’ But then you can look on it as a positive and say ‘Look, we know where we stand now and we know what level we have to get up to.’ That would be my view on it.”
He goes on: “I don’t think we’re that bad and I don’t think Tipp are that good either. Like, Tipp are an absolutely fantastic team but I don’t think we’re that bad a team, to lose by that much. Take the goals out of it, we mightn’t be too far away. But we just have to stop those goals going in against the big teams.”
A few Ryan howitzers at the far end would help too. Here is a player who started the 2011 season on the Sky Blue fringes (“I was actually a sub and, Jesus, I nearly got dropped at the start of the year”) and finished the year as the championship’s top scorer with 2-47, having burst his way back onto the starting team at the business end of a history-making league campaign.
His free-taking style would never qualify as orthodox – ‘lefties’ are a relatively rare breed to begin, but that’s not all. “I turn the toe of the hurley into the left as well, which I shouldn’t really … they tried to but I just couldn’t change,” he laughs. “I think I was about 14 or 15 before Vinny Teehan – he was one of my Dublin mentors – picked up on it and tried to change it, but I reverted back straightaway!”
Nor, you suspect, will they ever ‘coach’ him to always take the safety-first deadball option. “You get a bit excited if you’re 20 yards out!” admits the Ballyboden St Enda’s man. “You have to try and contain it a small bit. You have to look at the scoreboard and see how the game is going; if you’re up, if you’re down. I suppose I’d look over at Dalo the odd time, but he always kind of trusts me to make my own decision.”