GERRY RYAN was one of the most likeable Albion players for a huge number of fans, and I was one of them.
A versatile trier who was good enough to represent the Republic of Ireland on 18 occasions, the wholehearted Ryan might not make it into the all-time best Brighton XI but, if it was judged on affability, his name would be first on the team sheet.
A cruel twist of fate saw his career ended in a tackle made by his Irish teammate (and current Albion boss) Chris Hughton’s brother, Henry. Typically, Ryan bore no grudges, as stressed by former Argus Albion reporter John Vinicombe in an article published in May 1986 when the genial Irishman finally accepted that his career was over.
Describing “the immense dignity and true manliness that Ryan displayed in refusing to condemn or indeed utter any harsh word against the player responsible” he added: “Where others have sued and raged, slandered, cursed and threatened, Ryan said nothing.”
It was 2 April 1985 when his career was ended by that Hughton tackle in a 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
“Never in his life has he shirked a tackle and the one that ended his career so unfortunately at Crystal Palace was typical of many he faced in his career,” said Alan Mullery, the manager who signed him for the Seagulls.
“As a person, he is a lovely and typical Irish personality,” Mullery said in the programme for the player’s testimonial game against Spurs at the Goldstone on 8 August 1986. “I can honestly say that I have never met a player who dislikes him or has a bad word to say about him. I will remember Gerry Ryan as being a special player and one of football’s nice people.”
Mullery also referred to a Sunday lunch he and his family had with Ryan and his wife at the time he signed. “When Gerry ordered roast beef and chips I must have known then that I had a very special sort of player. At the time, I was a little dubious but afterwards I had no regrets.”
Mullery had been over in Dublin watching Albion’s Mark Lawrenson playing for the Republic of Ireland and Derby’s Ryan was playing in the same side. He had been having talks about moving to Stoke City but Mullers persuaded him to join Brighton instead, and, in a strange quirk of fate, he made his debut in a 2-2 draw away to Stoke.
A week later, he became an instant hit with Albion fans when he scored on his home debut in a 5-1 win over Preston. He notched a total of nine goals in 34 appearances in that first season and went on to score 39 in a total of 199 games.
Born in Dublin on 4 October 1955, Ryan didn’t play competitive football until he was 16, with Gaelic football and hurling the preference up to then. But his school classmate, Kevin Moran, who later played for Manchester United, introduced him to a Dublin football club called Rangers AFC, and while playing for them he was spotted by Bohemians, the oldest football club in Dublin.
By 18, Ryan was a first-team regular and, after collecting a League of Ireland Championship medal, was watched by Manchester United boss Tommy Docherty.
Docherty didn’t pounce them but, after Ryan had stayed four years with Bohemians, the ebullient Scot eventually returned to take him to England as his first signing for Derby County for a fee of £40,000.
The newly-appointed Docherty was determined to shake-up the club and while long-serving goalkeeper Colin Boulton was discarded along with striker Kevin Hector, Ryan, Scottish internationals Bruce Rioch and Don Masson, and Terry Curran and Steve Buckley were all introduced.
Ryan spoke about the way Docherty’s attitude towards him changed in an interview with Brian Owen of The Argus in 2016.
“One minute you were the blue-eyed boy, the next he wouldn’t even talk to you,” he said. Ryan made a hamstring injury worse by playing when Docherty insisted he was fit enough, and ended up sidelined for three months. “He didn’t like me then! That’s the way he was, he would turn on you, and he turned on me.”
Within a year, Docherty accepted Brighton’s £80,000 offer for Ryan after the popular Irishman had also considered an offer to join Stoke City.
As he was weighing up which club to join, Ryan consulted the legendary Republic of Ireland and ex-Leeds midfielder Johnny Giles to ask his opinion. “Gilesy said ‘Stoke have been in and out of the First Division forever but there is something going on down at Brighton. They get great crowds and it’s a beautiful place.’ I went to Brighton that weekend and absolutely loved it,” Ryan told Owen.
It was on 25 September 1978 winger Ryan arrived, prompting the departure of popular local lad Tony Towner after eight years at the Albion.
Five months before Ryan arrived at the Goldstone, he made his international debut, featuring for the first time in April 1978 in a 4-2 win over Turkey at Lansdowne Road. He only scored once for the Republic, a consolation in a 3-1 defeat against West Germany, but he was one of four regular Eire internationals playing for Albion at the time: Lawrenson, Tony Grealish and Michael Robinson the others. His final appearance for his country came in a 0-0 draw against Mexico at Dalymount Park in 1984.
Ryan was part of some all-time history-making moments during his time with the Albion – scoring at St James’s Park in the 3-1 win over Newcastle on 5 May 1979 to clinch promotion to the top division for the first time, and burying the only goal of the game as unfancied Albion beat Brian Clough’s European champions Nottingham Forest, who’d previously not lost at home for two and a half years.
My personal favourite came on 29 December 1979 at the Goldstone when he ran virtually the entire length of a boggy, bobbly pitch to score past Joe Corrigan in the goal at the South Stand end to top off a 4-1 win over Manchester City.
It was one of the most superb individual goals I saw scored and, when he was trying to recuperate from the horrific leg break which ultimately ended his career, I wrote to him in hospital to say what a special memory it held for me.
I was delighted to receive a grateful reply from him, and he has held a special place in my Albion memory bank ever since.
There were other stand-out occasions, two of which came against Liverpool:
in February 1983 at Anfield when he opened the scoring in Albion’s memorable 2-1 FA Cup triumph en route to the final, and, in the following season, at the Goldstone when he and Terry Connor were on target in Second Division Albion’s 2-0 win over the Reds in the same competition, the first-ever live FA Cup match (other than finals) to be shown (previously any television coverage of FA Cup ties was only ever recorded highlights).
If the modern-day reader can’t quite put the feat in perspective, it is worth pointing out that Liverpool, managed by Joe Fagan, went on to win the League Cup, the League title and the European Cup that season.
Danny Wilson hadn’t long since joined the Albion and, in an interview with the Seagull matchday programme in 2003, he recalled: “That has to be my favourite memory from all my time at the Goldstone. Back then, Liverpool were just awesome, and to beat them like we did was virtually unheard of.”
Ryan’s involvement in the 1983 Cup run was hampered by a hamstring injury which meant he missed out on the semi-final. But, in the days of only one substitute, he was on the bench for the final and, when the injured Chris Ramsey couldn’t continue, Ryan went on at Wembley and did a typically thorough job at right-back.
Following Albion’s relegation, as the big-name players departed the Goldstone, Ryan’s versatility and play-anywhere attitude came to the fore and, in his last two seasons with the club he was often selected as a centre-forward, although he was not a prolific goalscorer from that position.
After he was forced to quit playing, Ryan took what was then quite a familiar route for ex-players and became a pub licensee, running the Witch Inn at Lindfield, near Haywards Heath.
However, when another of his former Republic of Ireland teammates, Liam Brady, was appointed Albion manager in 1994, it was an inspired choice for him to appoint Ryan as his assistant.
When that all-too-brief managerial spell came to a messy close, Ryan returned to his pub.
When in August 2007 Ryan suffered a stroke, it was testimony to his popularity amongst Albion fans that he was still making the news such a long time after his association with the club had ended.
Three years later, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer but he made a full recovery and when Albion met Derby for a Championship clash in April 2016, he returned to Brighton from the home he shares with his mother in Walkinstown, a suburb to the south of Dublin close to the mountains where he grew up.
Pictures from a variety of sources but mainly from my scrapbook, the matchday programme and The Argus.