Neil Andrews explains the sharp and sudden decline of a defender who found himself more popular with supporters than managers

There are not many former Millwall players who can claim to have played their last game for the club in an FA Cup final. In fact, there are only two. Australian midfielder Tim Cahill is one. The other is an amiable young Irishman named Robbie Ryan, who was part of a young Lions side that went from near relegation to the bottom tier of English football to European football in just six years. He was also one of the most popular footballers to have played at The Den in recent memory.

However, their departures from the club and subsequent careers couldn’t have been more contrasting. While Cahill was being touted around to anyone and everyone before finally being offloaded to Everton for the vastly underpriced sum of £1.5 million, Ryan’s career took a step in the other direction after manager Dennis Wise refused to give the defender the two-year contract he was looking for. He eventually wound up at Bristol Rovers, who were plying their trade in the bottom division of the Football League, on a free transfer. The move came about after the son of Rovers’ chief scout Paul Molesworth noticed that his contract with the Lions was set to expire while playing Championship Manager.

For many at The Den, it was scant reward for someone who had only just missed out on being Player of the Year the previous season by a handful of votes. A fair few Millwall fans couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more interest in the former Under-21 international. After all, he had been pretty much been an ever-present since he joined the club. But then Ryan had seemingly divided opinion in recent seasons – the fans loved him, his last two managers less so. Former boss Mark McGhee even went so far as to publically mock supporters when he found out just how close Ryan had come to winning the aforementioned poll. And when the Scot seemingly had the audacity to place him on the transfer list the following season, one particular website editor scoffed that the player would be around a lot longer than his manager. To his and everyone’s surprise this prophecy came true the following day when McGhee was sacked.

Most thought that Ryan would more than hold his own in League Two. Although not blessed with the same abundance of skill as some of his team-mates, he was nonetheless a solid defender who was rarely beaten by his man and had an uncanny knack of recovering if he was beaten, that for some reason often involved a forward roll. He’d also been an important cog in the side that not only reached the Cup final but had also won the Second Division championship three years earlier and came within a Dion Dublin sliced kick of the play-off final for a place in the Premier League the following season.

Rumour has it that he had even been in Mick McCarthy’s thoughts at one stage, around the same time Steven Reid and Richard Sadlier were capped for the Republic of Ireland. Any international ambitions Ryan may have had went by the wayside once he fell out of favour with McGhee. However, it came as shock to those who watched him regularly just how quickly his career went downhill once he left Millwall. After enduring a disappointing debut campaign with the Pirates, a bad injury limited him to just 17 games the following season – including a return to The Den in the League Cup – and kept him on the sidelines for a year. By the time he had recovered Rovers had moved on.

Ryan was considered surplus to requirements and just three short years after marking Cristiano Ronaldo in the FA Cup – when asked how he would stop the Portuguese winger, he gleefully replied “kick him” – he found himself playing for Welling United in the Conference South. Short spells with Ashford Town and Fisher Athletic followed before he ended his playing days at Croydon Athletic at the age of 31, to concentrate on his new career as a maintenance worker on the London Underground.

He has since made a return to Millwall in a coaching capacity, albeit on a part-time basis, managing the club’s Under-12 side. But it’s a far cry from the heady days of his time on the pitch with the Lions. Many still consider the £10,000 the club spent on the defender to be one of the shrewdest pieces of business that they have ever done in the transfer market, unlike the deal Theo Paphitis struck with Everton when getting rid of Cahill. And it’s rather ironic to think that while the Aussie midfielder is displaying his talents to the world in South Africa this summer, his former team-mate will be probably be fixing a points failure on the District Line.

From WSC 281 July 2010

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