Gavan Bergin

Reg Ryan stayed with West Bromwich Albion for ten years. He played 272 matches, scored 31 goals, made many more goals, and won the Cup for West Brom. It was time to move on.

In July 1955, he signed for Derby County and was immediately made captain of the club. He did a great job as a leader and as a player for Derby. In 1955/56 he played 46 league games and captained Derby to the runners-up spot in the Third Division. The following season he scored 12 goals in 45 games for Derby, who won the Third Division. That was the first trophy the club had won since 1946, and it earned them promotion to the Second Division. In ‘57/’58, Reg was top scorer for Derby, with 14 goals in 41 games, and he led his players brilliantly in their successful battle against relegation.

That was his last good work for Derby. He left soon afterwards. His three great seasons became part of club folklore and in 2019, more than sixty years after he played his last match for them, the Derby Telegraph paid tribute to “Reg Ryan, County’s inspirational skipper when they’d fought their way out of the Third Division.”

In September 1958, Reg returned to his first club, Coventry City who were then in the Fourth Division. In his first season back with Coventry he played 38 league matches as captain and helped them win promotion to the Third Division for the 1959/60 season. He kept going for a couple more years, until the end of the 1960/61 season, when he retired from professional football at the age of 35. He had started his career at Coventry in 1943, and he finished it there in 1961. In the intervening years, he had played 461 matches and scored 70 goals in the Football League and the FA Cup.

As well as his long club career, Reg also played international football. He made his debut for the Republic of Ireland in their World Cup qualifier against Sweden at Dalymount Park in Dublin on November 13th 1949. If Ireland could get at least a draw from that game, they would be on their way to the 1950 World Cup finals. But Sweden’s star player, Karl-Erik Palmer, scored in the 4th minute. Ireland responded well and controlled the play from then on, but their defence struggled against the speed of Palmer, who scored again, putting Sweden 2-0 up in the 40th minute. Ireland were 2-0 down at half-time, and it could’ve been worse if not for the tireless work of Reg in midfield. Time and again, his awareness and anticipation broke up threatening moves by Swedish attackers. Because most of his time was spent screening the defence, he didn’t have much of an opportunity to show off his creative skills, and when he did get free to play his searching forward passes, no Irish attacker could get on the end of them in the first half.

He kept trying though, and when the second half began, his quick passing helped put sustained pressure on the Swedish defence for the first time in the match, and in the 60th minute Ireland won a penalty kick which Con Martin scored, making the score 2-1 with a half an hour left to play.

The 25,000 crowd at Dalymount erupted, Irish hopes were raised and the ‘comeback’ was on. It lasted for less than ten minutes. Palmer made yet another dash forward, tore through the Irish defence and scored again. His hat-trick made the score 3-1 to Sweden in the 68th minute.That looked like the end for Ireland, but they didn’t give up. Reg, for one, kept going to the 90th minute and beyond. He kept passing and moving as always, pushing to create an opening for Ireland, but there was no way through. Sweden held on to their lead till the final whistle, won the game and qualified for the World Cup in Brazil the following summer.

Although Ireland lost that game, Reg had proved that he was international class. According to the Irish Times, “the best Irish player was Reg Ryan, who, though born in Dublin, was playing his first match on Irish soil. He was a terrific tackler and a fine tactician, with an accuracy of delivery that made passing look simple, and he covered the defence in great style. He had a magnificent international debut, and he has come to stay.”

And he did stay in the Republic of Ireland team, although his next international match was not for them. On March 8th 1950, he played for Northern Ireland, helping them battle to a 0-0 draw in their World Cup qualifier away to Wales. That result ended a run of six straight defeats for Northern Ireland. They had been energised by Reg’s quick passing, hard running style of midfield play. He surely would’ve played more games for the North but the eligibility rules were changed in late 1950, meaning that players couldn’t represent both Irish teams anymore. He spent the rest of his international career with the Republic, for whom he was an extremely consistent performer.

For the Republic of Ireland he played fourteen consecutive international matches between 1949 and 1954. He excelled throughout that run, even though he was often selected in a different position to the one he played in club football. Early in his international career he played in midfield and he did a grand job there, but it was when he was picked in the forward line that he showed his best form for Ireland .

On October 17th 1951, at Dalymount Park in Dublin, Ireland took on West Germany in front of almost 30,000 spectators. That crowd saw a

thriller of a match in which Reg played at inside-left as Ireland’s ‘schemer’. That was a role he had been used to playing for his club, West Brom, and in this barnstorming performance against Germany he was in perpetual motion from the kickoff: darting around the field, harassing opponents and setting up teammates. He linked midfield and attack with relentless endeavour and tireless endurance for the whole ninety minutes, which ended with a superb 3-2 win for Ireland. The Irish Independent said: “In Ireland’s best home international since the Germans were last conquered on this ground in 1936, Reg Ryan played a defender’s game in the forward line, tackling in grand style and going on many forays through the German defence.”

Ireland lost their next three matches without scoring a single goal. And it seemed certain that they would make it four straight defeats when they played France in Dublin on November 16th 1952. But that was the day things started to improve for the Irish team. When they walked out onto the pitch at Dalymount Park, they were greeted by a deafening roar of support from the vast crowd that was packed into the ground and they responded with their best performance in ages. But France were top class and they gave Ireland a hard, hard game. From the kick-off the French attack, led by Real Madrid superstar Ray

mond Kopa, tore into the Irish defence and they would have
had a goal in the first minute were it not for a super save by goalie Jimmy O’Neill. Ireland responded right away with a magnificent run by Reg, who won the ball deep in midfield, got his head down and charged, shaking off opponents as he broke forward into space wide on the left, from where he whipped a cross into the box that the French keeper struggled to hold, but he did. Then, from his goal kick, France won the ball and played it forward smartly, and though Ireland quickly scrambled back to defend they weren’t quick enough and the ball ended up in their net. For a moment the ground was hushed, but the linesman’s flag was raised. It was offside: no goal. In the excitement of that incident the crowd erupted in joyous relief and surged forward, causing the barriers at each end of the ground to collapse under the pressure. With spectators spilling out onto the pitch, the referee stopped the game.

So what happens next? Reg Ryan – the Schemer’s thrilling story concludes in the next issue of NewsFour. Don’t miss it!