Coaches will often tell you that you learn the most about a footballer when he’s enduring adversity.
When the chips are down, some players find that something extra to fight through and come out the other side even stronger, while others fall can apart.
Caltex Socceroos goalkeeper Mat Ryan is one that certainly fits into that first category, something the man who helped lay the platform to his career knows only too well.
John Crawley started working with Ryan when he was only 12 at Blacktown City, taking the young gloveman on to Westfield Sports High School and then Central Coast Mariners NYL team.
Crawley could see this “scrawny” kid had the potential to be very good, but you just don’t know until they face that hardship or tough challenge.
“He was always a good kid, always a great athlete. He wasn’t very tall but he didn’t really struggle with that,” Crawley recalled to www.socceroos.com.au.
“You know that he’s good and he potentially has something but until you throw him in there and he does it, you don’t know. And that’s exactly the opportunity he got at the Mariners.”
An injury to the Mariners no.1 Jess Vanstrattan early in the 2010/11 Hyundai A-League season saw the then 18-year-old thrust into the first team, making his debut in the round four clash against Sydney FC.
Unfortunately for the youngster, as Crawley recalls, he dropped a “routine scoop-up save” allowing Rhyan Grant to score to put the Sky Blues in front.
For a kid so young it could have been a crushing blow to his confidence.
“There were a few moments there where we thought maybe the kid’s not ready but he quickly, through his actions, told us he was,” Crawley said.
“He just grew from that experience. The performance levels and the rise of those performance levels from that moment on has just been incredible.
“He won a Joe Marston medal that season too.
"And his form around those three years at the Mariners, he was the no.1 keeper in the A-League and for a boy who’s 18, 19 at the time, those sorts of boys don’t come around very often, especially for a goalkeeper.
“He’s a determined bugger and he’s very persistent. He wanted to make it so he made every post a winner.
“He really had a strong mental side to him as a young kid. He didn’t shirk any task, the football field was where he was going to train and develop and he was just really dogged.
“He knew if he was going to succeed he had to keep his head down, work hard and focus on his football and nothing else.”
And that’ exactly what the kid from Plumpton in Sydney’s west did.
It’s why Crawley isn’t surprised to see Ryan make the progression from the Mariners onto Europe, where he was twice voted Belgian goalkeeper of the year for his exploits with Club Brugge.
Ryan then signed an incredible six year deal with Spanish giants Valencia, just completing his first season against the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga making 21 appearances despite the club being blessed with three top keepers.
“The most impressive thing is he goes up a level and he ticks the box,” Crawley says.
“As a young boy who played in the state league, he came to the A-League and ticked the box, he showed he could do it.
"He’s gone to Europe, his football was appreciated in Brugge and in a big club over there he ticked the box as well.
“All of a sudden it’s rushed him onto the next level and he just keeps going. It’s almost like there’s no limit to what’s he’s doing at the moment. There’s no ceiling on his level.
"That’s been the most impressive thing. He just keeps producing whatever level he’s playing.”
Ryan is the latest in a string of fine goalkeepers Australia has produced over the years.
The likes of Mark Bosnich, Mark Schwarzer and Zeljko Kalac had long careers and won numerous titles in in Europe as well as starring in the Green and Gold.
While still early in his career, Ryan looks on the right path to be up there with those big names, with 21 international caps to his name already as well as winning the AFC Asian Cup last year where he starred.
“He [Ryan] is young and if he holds his form and stays fit he could [in the national team] for a long time,” Crawley says of Ryan.
“He’s a different breed to what we’ve had in the past, guys that have grown up in my vintage. No disrespect to them, the Bozzas the Schwarzers and Kalacs of the world, the game has changed since they have played.
“Mat is not quite as big or tall as those guys were, he’s a different sort of athlete, he’s very mobile.
“I think his attitude when he’s playing is he’s very much an offensive type goalkeeper. Where as in yesteryear - and I have no drama in saying this - it was a bit more defensive-minded when we were growing up, we were shot-stoppers.
“But Mat certainly has that element of the offensive game he brings. You can see that when players use him at the back with his feet, he can switch the play, he can set up goals by claiming a high ball and whipping a side-volley 60 yards onto someone’s chest.
“He does the things that you need as a modern-day goalkeeper.”
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