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Socceroo goalkeeper Mat Ryan has been making history for quite some time. Last month the 23-year-old signed a six-year contract with Spanish club Valencia CF.
Ryan is the first Australian to play for Los Che and will be one of a rare group of Aussies, along with John Aloisi, Aurelio Vidmar and a handful of others, to have ever played in La Liga.
The shot-stopper’s move to Valencia made news around the world, particularly at home. Ryan has his chance in arguably the best league on the planet, in a technically elite competition where he can tangle weeklu with Real Madrid’s Galacticos and Barcelona’s treble winners.
But Ryan has been breaking records for a while. Back in 2010 he made his A-League debut with the Central Coast Mariners at the age of just 18 years and 142 days. He wasn’t the youngest ever keeper to debut in an Australian league, but he was the youngest to gain a regular starting spot.
In 2011 he won the Joe Marston Medal after the Mariners lost a grand-final penalty shootout with Brisbane Roar. Ryan was by far the youngest-ever Marston medal winner, according to statitican Andrew Howe, nearly four years younger than Abbas Saad was back in 1990.
At 19 he won an A-League premiership and at 20 he had won a grand final as well. Then he was off to Club Brugge in the Belgian Pro League, where he made history by winning back-to-back goalkeeper of the year awards.
At 20 he was also a Socceroo, as he continues to rack up both personal and team accolades at both club and international level.
However, this transfer to Valencia has catapulted him into the big-time. His arrival has sparked strong interest in Spain, a fair adjustment for a kid from small Plumpton in Sydney’s west.
“It’s great to be playing the sport I love in a country where the passion just goes to another level,” Ryan says.
“Being chased by photographers at the airport upon my arrival was something I never had witnessed before. But I know the most important thing is me doing my best on the pitch. So it’s easy to focus on that.”
One of the most level-headed Australian footballers, Ryan admits it felt good to join a limited group of Aussies who graced Spain’s top division.
“When I first became aware of it all it obviously brings a nice feeling,” he says.
“But I don’t want to just have been a part of the team, I want to achieve great things at the club and create some everlasting memories at the pinnacle of the game. Hopefully opens up a pathway for many more one day if I can come here.”
“I’ve been enjoying my experience there in a new part of the world. The city is very nice along with the weather and obviously the football is of the highest quality.
“There are always a number of new challengers when initially moving to a club but I’ve been happy with the way I’ve been adjusting and look forward to keep gaining the respect of the other players through performances and little things like learning the language etc.”
Ryan made his debut for Valencia against PSV Eindhoven last month and then backed it up with a clean sheet against Porto in another friendly last weekend.
“My debut was, all in all, a good learning curve by discovering how we want to play and learning about what types of players we have in the team.
“Also it being my first hit out of the season it was good to get the feeling of a match again. And statistic-wise it went well with a win and clean sheet.”
Just like at Club Brugge, Ryan has not come to Els Taronges to sit on the pine at the Mestalla. With vice-captain Diego Alves out of action with an ACL injury until January, the Sydneysider will battle it out with former Spain Under-19 international Yoel Rodríguez Oterino for the number one jersey.
Competing with a local won’t be easy but with Alves sidelined, Ryan knows a real opportunity is there to establish himself.
“I can only control how well I perform and I’ve gone there with the intention to be playing as always and I hope I can prove to the coach that I am the best man for the job,” Ryan says.
“I think the coach is looking for some stability now at the back there with a commanding goalkeeper; someone who has presence and is assured. I hope if it’s me I can deliver some nice performances for him in order to help the team win games.”
The Socceroo also has the benefit of having another English speaker, former Manchester United utility Phil Neville, on the coaching staff along with head coach Nuno Espirito Santo. The manager, who was a goalkeeper who played in both Portugal and Spain, speaks fluent English though Ryan is keep to learn Spanish.
“Yes it’s obviously always nice to have a conversation with someone like him who’s achieved it all,” he says.
“The coach speaks really good English also. But it’s good to have Phil to just relay the message and someone else’s brain I can pick.
“The translator is the coach, he speaks really well, and if he has something important to tell me he will tell me personally or in front of the team. But I’m looking forward to hopefully in a month two or three to be able to understand the lingo and speak a bit.”
Trying to stop Cristiano Ronaldo, keeping out Lionel Messi, thwarting Fernando Torres, you’d be hard not to blame Ryan for losing his focus. From Blacktown to ther Bernabeu is some journey. But that is certainly one thing you cannot accuse Ryan of, he is entirely driven and determined.
Raised by a single-mother, committed to suceed, here is a switched-on young man living his dreams.
“It’s obviously hard not to think of the stadiums teams and players you will face in a competition like this,” Ryan admits.
“But I’m just taking it one day at a time and trying to ensure it will be me out there playing first and foremost. Cross those other challenges when they come hopefully.”
The best part of this record-breaker? He has the best years of career ahead of him. Ryan has already achieved so much and he is just 23 years old.
Goalkeepers don’t reach their peak until they are much older and some thrive in their late 30s. We don’t know yet just how good Mathew David Ryan will become. But it should be a lot of fun watching to find out.
Follow John Davidson on Twitter @johnnyddavidson