Ryan Price had never played for Cork before this year but now has possession of the number one jersey. KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with the Skibb man to find out a bit more
HIS ball-juggling skills once won him a date on the Irish version of hit date show Take Me Out but these days, Ryan Price prefers to let his ball-stopping skills do the talking.
‘He did a few keepie uppies, won a date and he lived off it for a good while!’ quipped a former teammate of Price on his previous claim to fame.
But times have changed.
Back in 2011 that fresh-faced spikey-haired Skibbereen 20-year-old was on the books of Cork City FC and he dreamed of a life as a professional goalkeeper.
He was close-ish to making a breakthrough with Cork City, managed by Tommy Dunne in the First Division at the time. He was with the U20s, trained with the first team alongside George O’Callaghan and Mark McNulty, was brought along on a couple of away trips and he felt was edging closer to where he wanted to be.
Then he dropped the ball.
‘I had a brutal game in a friendly against UCC on a horrible Monday evening in October. We played the younger fellas, I was horrendous, I think we lost 4-1, and I got a phone call the next day saying that I wasn’t needed anymore! That was that,’ Price recalled.
‘There was no wallowing, it was straight into football after that.’
But these days, five years on, he is Cork football’s number one. And determined to stay between the posts.
We’re sitting in Star Sports HQ in Ilen Street, Skibbereen – in other words, the Sports Ed’s office – and Price’s eagle eyes zone in on a national newspaper’s sports section sitting on a shelf.
Plastered across the front page was Robbie Hennelly, the Mayo goalkeeper who endured a horror show in October’s All-Ireland final replay defeat to the Dubs.
‘It’s a tough gig, being in goal,’ I suggest, ‘there’s very little middle ground, you’re either a hero or a villain.’
I’m talking to the converted.
This year was the O’Donovan Rossa goalkeeper’s first proper season of inter-county football where his stats show that he has played more championship matches (four) than league games (three) – but it was also a very public learning curve.
He had absolutely zero inter-county experience before 2016. He was never an inter-county minor or U21.
‘You have to keep up and learn fast because it doesn’t wait for you. I can’t say, “Give me time”,’ the 26-year-old explained.
Hennelly’s collapse in Croke Park was on the biggest stage of all, but Price is his own worst critic and he, without being nudged in that direction, rewinds back to his own performance in Cork’s shock Munster SFC semi-final defeat to Tipperary in Thurles in June.
‘That was a dose of reality,’ he said.
‘The kick-outs didn’t go where they planned, I made some bad decisions that realistically had a big impact on the result of the game.
‘There’s that confidence-booster when people show that they think you are good enough to do it but then you have the disappointment where you feel you have left everyone down.
‘You have to go back again and improve your performance, trying to find that consistent level when you’re a seven or eight out of ten every time, rather than going from a nine to a five, an eight to a six. That’s where I am at, trying to get that consistency, that eight out of ten.’
Peadar Healy, who knew Price well from his stint as O’Donovan Rossa manager in 2014, stood by his goalkeeper. It was the vote of confidence he needed instead of being cast back out to the wilderness, and Price started in goal against Limerick, Longford and Donegal, conceding just one goal in those three games.
He started to acclimatise to the heady heights of the inter-county game.
‘That stood to me, that the management backed me, and I wanted to back up their trust and prove that they were right,’ he said.
‘I certainly felt that my performances improved throughout the championship, my kick-outs were 31 out of 34 against Donegal and we were happy with that side of things.’
This time last year Price was down the pecking order in the battle for the number one spot, with Ken O’Halloran the man in possession, but 12 months on roles are reversed. O’Halloran’s back in the winter training panel now, but this time it’s Price who is at the top of the queue.
If he achieves that consistency he craves, those eight out of tens, he’ll be hard to dislodge.
Goalkeepers are expected to be slightly mad, if not fully mad. It’s expected with the territory. There’s a certain caricature to live up to, and Price does, to an extent.
‘They say goalkeepers need a bit of daftness and he has it in spades,’ former O’Donovan Rossa manager Shane Crowley laughed.
“‘Pricey’ is very outgoing, he’s not short on confidence and he’s a great man to lighten the mood in a dressing room.”
His influence was all over Skibb’s 2011 U21 A county football championship triumph.
If the backs were under pressure, he’d tell them at half time, ‘Don’t worry lads, Pricey’s behind ye, we’re fine!’
It lightens the mood, lifts the tension, and those personalities gel a group.
He’s well able to talk, and with the gift of the gab it’s no surprise to see him currently work as a Sales and Marketing Administrator at Bandon Motors.
But don’t be fooled either, he’s a seriously driven operator.
After O’Donovan Rossa were dumped out of the Cork SFC by Avondhu in June earlier this year, it was ‘Pricey’ who rounded up his teammates for league games, according to Crowley.
‘It was him who told the lads to cop on and get back training. He knows when to be serious and to have fun,’ Crowley said of Price, a 6’ 4” tank who fills the goal.
‘When it comes to training, he hates being beaten, especially in one-on-one drills, he’s always egging fellas on to try and beat him.
‘I don’t know if there is a better shot-stopper or penalty-stopper than Ryan in the county at the moment. I don’t know what the stats are with his penalties but he definitely has saved more than he has left in.
‘There were a few times when he got caught under the high ball when he was younger – but he certainly clears the danger now. He needed to address it. He might punch a ball now a big distance instead of catching it when he knows a catch isn’t on. He listens, learns and improves.’
He’s also not backwards in coming forwards, as Price admits: ‘I never shy away from my opinion’.
December is a hard month for Ryan, his older sister Stephanie and his mother Anne.
Next Monday, December 5th, marks the third anniversary since his dad, Declan, passed away after illness.
Like any son, Ryan looked up to his dad, and he’d have loved for Declan to see him line out between the posts for Cork’s footballers in the championship. That’s the stuff dreams are packed with.
‘He would have enjoyed this,’ Ryan said.
‘After games, you have mom and Steph there but with sport, it’s very much a father and son thing, isn’t it?
‘We’re doing it for him as much as anyone else.’
Declan, a Moate man from Westmeath, worked as a bank manager with the Bank of Ireland and his work took him all over the country. Ryan lived in Bishosptown until he was four, then in Dunmanway until he was 12 – and that’s where he started off playing football, with Sam Maguires, moving in goal at U12 – before the Price family made the move to Skibb where Ann (nee O’Donovan) is from.
Market Street in downtown Skibb used to be associated with the O’Donovan and McCarthy clans, and Ryan’s grandfather Eugene O’Donovan was an undertaker based there, while Declan and Anne ran The Blue Shop, Number 5 Market Street.
That went from a sweet shop way back then to a gift shop in the early noughties with bits of everything – mirrors, paintings, furniture, you name it – before it was closed up a few years back. It’s rented out now to a hairdressers.
Home for Ryan is in Ardagh, Baltimore.
Kick-outs are king for a modern goalkeeper – and this is where Price has an advantage over the other pretenders to the Cork number one jersey.
Ken O’Halloran, the resident keeper for several seasons, never convinced with his kick-outs but in Price, Cork have a shot-stopper who has dictated the kick-out strategy with his club for several seasons.
‘He drives a lot of the kick-outs himself. He would come to training with a new kick-out strategy and that’s a great thing to have in a guy,’ Shane Crowley said.
‘In the last few years we left him at the kick-outs. We’d give Pricey the tee for quarter of an hour and he’d go through the kick-outs with the players. For a 24, 25-year-old guy to take that on is a good sign of what he’s made of.
‘He backs himself too, which is important.’
He’s constantly researching kick-out strategies, working on what would suit best, and knowing what works one day will be targeted by the next opposition. Evolve or die. You have to stay ahead of the game.
‘I know people lambast the short kick-outs and all that, but it’s like a chess match now. It’s all about strategy. I love that side of the game,’ he said, the brow furrowed, deep in thought.
‘Whatever about the ability to strike the ball, and your distance, as a goalkeeper nowadays you need to be able to read the game. Fellas out the field are trying to second guess you, you’re trying to second guess them.
‘It’s certainly challenging at inter-county level – but I like that.
‘There is certainly more pressure going short. Personally, I prefer the long kick-out, not the 50-yard punt down the middle but if you catch one in the sweet spot and it travels 65 yards into the breadbasket, that’s when you get the buzz out of it.
‘A short kick-out is like standing on the tight rope.
‘You have to be good off the left, off the right, to be able to hit whatever blade of grass you need to.’
Interestingly, Price also feels that the number of goal chances in a game is lessening. Players are afraid of turnovers and afraid of giving away the ball when you’re not set-up at the back that, in general, the amount of chances on goal have gone down.’
First reaction, he was convinced it was a prank.
On the other end of the phone one evening was then Cork football manager Brian Cuthbert asking Price to join the winter training panel for the 2014 season.
He wasn’t convinced it was the Bishopstown man.
‘I thought it was a prank phone call. I sent a message out to the lads asking, “Do you have this number?” and it was Donal Óg (Hodnett) who said that it was Brian Cuthbert’s number,’ he recalled.
‘I was thinking back on the conversation then to remember if I was a bit abrupt with him.
‘That was the first time I really thought seriously about Cork.’
Price’s minor and U21 inter-county dealings amount to two trials, one in each grade, and he didn’t even get a trial in his last year as an U21, even though he feels he should have been given a chance, at least.
‘I felt that I was good enough to make the panel, I wasn’t upset about it but it gave me a drive to show a few fellas that they might have made a mistake,’ he said.
When Cork came knocking in late 2013, he answered, but it took until 2016 to make an impression.
Price trained with Cork in 2014 but was third choice behind Ken O’Halloran and David Hanrahan, and he didn’t get a look-in for match-day squads. He had no complaints.
The following year (2015), Cuthbert’s second and last, Price wasn’t involved apart from a few A v B games, but the winds of change pushed Peadar Healy to the hot-seat for 2016. Price’s phone rang again. He didn’t have the number but knew the low voice well from his Healy’s stint in charge of Skibb. There was no confusion this time.
‘Peadar was straight out, it was a clean slate for everyone and we all had a chance to prove ourselves. I didn’t go in with misconceptions, it was go in, fight hard and see where you end up,’ he said.
At this stage, Price felt he was ready. He had served his apprenticeship.
But he had to bide his time as various goalkeepers – Ken O’Halloran, Micheál Martin and Brendan O’Connell – were trialled before Price was given his chance in the Allianz FL Division 1 game against Monaghan. He kept his place for the league matches against Down and Kerry, and held the jersey all through the championship.
This was a breakthrough season for Price – but it was another year to forget for the team, relegated from Division 1 of the league, losing to Tipp in Munster and bowing out to Donegal, as expected, in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
‘There is no beating around the bush, it’s incredibly disappointing. Two wins and two losses, you can’t consider that a successful championship, especially the manner we lost to Tipp,’ Price admitted.
‘It’s not for the lack of effort. Maybe we try too hard and think about it too much at times. The intentions are right but we end up doing the wrong thing, maybe that’s a lack of experience, I don’t know.
‘The ability is there and we need to transfer the good ten minutes we have in a game to a more consistent performance.’
Price makes no secrets of his ambitions, he wants to win the big prizes with Cork and O’Donovan Rossa – but it’s a process, given where both teams currently stand, down the pecking order on two fronts.
‘The ambition is certainly to get promotion and win Division 2 with Cork next year but there are some tough games in there. There is no gimme in there, all teams have a solid standing, but we need to win as many games as we can and at least get promoted and have a day out in Croke Park. That would be a good start for the team going forward,’ he said.
‘People talk about gaps opening up between top teams but on any given day – and Mayo have proved this – anyone can give anyone a game. Mayo didn’t set the world on fire at the start of their campaign last year but look where they ended up and gave Dublin two almighty matches.
‘You can build up this gap to be bigger than it is, when it comes down to 70 minutes, man versus man, and players have two arms and two legs like the other fella.’
Price turned 26 on November 9th, he’s had to wait his time to make his mark with Cork football and he’s keen to hold on to the number one jersey for 2017, without feeling he has any right to think it’s his.
He’s come a long way from those keepie uppies.