Ryan family continues a Victorian footy dynasty
The Birchip district is home to many farms and many members of the influential Ryan footy family. PAUL AMY chats to brothers Trevor and Des, who are currently both coaching teams vying for premiership glory.
The Ryans are a large family in Birchip, in the Mallee region of Victoria.
They’re a football family, too.
Mick Ryan was one of 12 children and his wife, Val, was one of nine.
Their own family was more modest in number – one daughter and three sons.
In football-netball clubs many miles apart, two of their offspring are having great success and influence this year.
Trevor Ryan, 56, is coaching his home town’s team, Birchip-Watchem, in the North Central league.
Des Ryan, 54, is coaching Cheltenham in the Southern league in suburban Melbourne.
Between them, the brothers have recorded 31 wins and three losses, both earning minor premierships that they are out to convert into the major prize of the season.
Cheltenham last won a first division premiership in 1934.
Birchip-Watchem’s most recent flag was in 2001 – under the coaching of Trevor Ryan, who returned to the town and the club last year.
If the Ryans win a flag, there’s a good chance their celebrations will take in a drink at the Birchip Hotel.
It sponsors Birchip-Watchem – and it is half-owned by Des Ryan, who, although based in Melbourne, took it over more than 10 years ago, after it had been closed for four years.
“It’s a good little pub,’’ he says. “It’s a social hub of the town, really. It’s the same with the footy and netball club.
“You wouldn’t say the club’s the be-all and end-all. But from a social-fabric point of view, it’s pretty close. They would serve 300 meals there on a Thursday night.’’
There are Ryans spread throughout the Birchip district, where on farms sheep graze and wheat, barley, lentils and canola are grown.
The way Des Ryan remembers it, the name was predominant on the Birchip Primary School roll-call.
If you didn’t know a Ryan, you weren’t tryin’.
“At one stage there would have been three or four uncles with four kids each and we were all at school together,’’ he says.
“In my age group down there was 16 to 20 of us at the school.’’
Mick Ryan played football for Birchip until he smashed his arm. He was the eldest child in the large family. His father died when he was 15, and his brothers and sisters became his responsibility.
Later, he supported his own family by operating a transport business, and his three sons followed him into Birchip football teams.
Des was tall and promising, and club officials wanted to debut him in the senior team when he was 15.
They asked permission from his parents.
Val Ryan said no. Mick Ryan said yes and got his way. His son played in the ruck (at the time Birchip Swans had not amalgamated with Watchem-Corack; that came in 1997).
Birchip was in Richmond’s recruiting zone and the Tigers were keen on young Des. When he was 16 he moved to Melbourne to play in the under 19s under Doug Searle, staying with an aunt in Murrumbeena and attending Melbourne High.
“There were more kids at Melbourne High School than there were people in Birchip,’’ he says with a laugh.
Two years later the Tigers recruited Trevor and Des Ryan’s youngest brother, Stephen.
Both played league football for Richmond. Des had 56 games between 1986 and 1992. Stephen played 43 between 1990 and 1993, leading the goalkicking in his first season. He finished his career with eight appearances at Collingwood in 1994.
Trevor Ryan, without the height of his brothers, was a centreman with a snazzy sidestep.
Taking a few weeks off work as an apprentice boilermaker, he did a month of pre-season training at Richmond when Tony Jewell was in his second stint as coach.
“They still had a really strong list of premiership players,’’ Trevor Ryan says. “I couldn’t quite scrape in there.’’
Des Ryan says Trevor was a “great accumulator’’ but probably lacked the pace to play league football.
He went on to become a formidable and durable country player, five times finishing runner-up in league medals, winning a swag of club best and fairests, playing more than 400 games, and making Victorian Country representative teams.
And he was an outstanding playing coach, landing eight premierships.
He had picked up “the bug’’ while coaching a Birchip junior team when he was still a teenager.
At senior level he made his start at the age of 21 with Brim, a small town in the Wimmera region, kicking off with a flag in the old Southern Mallee league in 1987 (Brim later merged with Warracknabeal to become Warrack Eagles in the Wimmera league).
In the following years he coached premierships at Balranald (1989, 1990), Woorinen (1993), Tyntynder (1997, 1998, 1999) and Birchip-Watchem (2001), where he had also played in the 1986 success.
It’s country football folklore that his foot was broken when he ran on to the ground for the 1989 grand final, leading out a team that included former Richmond defender Jimmy Jess, ex-Geelong and St Kilda ruckman Jeff Fehring and another former Tiger, David Simpson.
During the week Ryan was welding at work when a heavy steel plate fell off the bench and onto his foot.
He went home and tried to take the swelling out of it. On the morning of the grand final he had some painkillers. By late afternoon he also had a premiership, Balranald’s first in 35 years.
Almost as legendary is Tyntynder’s phenomenal success under Trevor Ryan; it won 46 consecutive matches on the way to the three flags.
“It was a combination of things,’’ Ryan says. “A lot of the players were really close because they’d come through the junior ranks of Tyntynder footy club. They were good mates and around the same age. We had a sprinkling of experienced, A-grade players among them, and we had really good key forwards. Once we put a bit of belief into them we got on this run where we dominated most games. We were kicking 20-plus goals most weeks.’’
From Tyntynder, Ryan went to Koondrook Barham and then South Mildura, where he led in a non-playing capacity.
Ryan took a break from coaching to take up a position with AFL Victoria as a development manager for the Sunraysia region.
He was with the state body for more than a decade.
He was also on the NRL Victoria payroll for 12 months before making a popular return to Birchip-Watchem last year.
The Bulls were 9-2 and second on the ladder when Covid shut down the season.
This year they are 15-1, strengthened by the recruitment of former Fremantle Docker Clayton Hinkley, the brother of club captain Dale, and Marshall Rippon, the brother of VFL JJ Liston Trophy winner Nick.
“It’s a bit bizarre. I’m now coaching the sons of players I coached back in 2001,’’ Trevor Ryan says.
He is also coaching his son Lachlan, who had been at West Adelaide in the SANFL with his twin brother, Josh.
And he is also coaching the Birchip-Watchem women’s team – in its inaugural season it made the grand final in the Central Murray league, losing to Tyntynder by one point – and overseeing a large junior development squad.
There is plenty of football to go with his job at Dooen, an hour away from Birchip, selling agricultural products to farmers.
Ryan says his role with AFL Victoria kept him immersed in coaching.
“The game has changed a hell of a lot, but because I was in that development position at AFL Vic, I did a lot of courses and accreditations.
“I kept up with all the modern trends of training and the way teams are coached, game plans and structures and all that. It didn’t worry me getting back into it. I’d basically spent 12 or 13 years teaching other coaches how to coach.’’
Des Ryan calls his brother “a real coach; it’s something he’s good at and something he loves doing’’.
The brothers talk football often.
“We always chat about it. Always have,’’ Des says. “Football has always been there. He was pretty competitive in the backyard when we were growing up. You had to earn your kicks.’’
Des Ryan’s coaching started in 1997 with the reserves at VFL club Frankston, where he was a senior best and fairest and captain. Like Trevor, he kicked off with a premiership.
In the following 20 years he coached intermittently at a number of clubs, in junior football and as an assistant at senior level.
He took the Cheltenham position in 2016.
For quite a while the Rosellas had been a bit like a Matchbox Twenty tune – middle of the road. They were a Division 1 fixture, but neither threatened for a premiership nor faced relegation.
Young and classy, they rose to the grand final in 2019 and had a big chance to win it, only to strike wet and windy conditions that suited their opponent, the stronger and more seasoned Dingley.
Covid wiped out the following two seasons.
This year Cheltenham lost its first two matches. It has won its past 16, a mighty run that has raised hopes of a drought-breaking flag.
“We’ll give it a lash,’’ Des Ryan says.
Stephen Ryan also coached at local level, at Rye, Frankston Pines, St Bedes Mentone Tigers and Warragul Industrials.
The brothers’ sister, Julie, played a number of sports and was an excellent swimmer.
This year her youngest son, Shaun Bruce, played in the Sydney Kings’ NBL premiership. Her eldest boy, Aaron, was the NBL’s rookie of the year in 2009.
Mick and Val Ryan are both aged in their 80s and still living in Birchip.
They never miss a Bulls home game and are thrilled to see Trevor back in charge of the club and Lachlan doing well under him.
But they also keep a close eye on the results at Cheltenham, where Des also coaches his son, Finn, a promising forward who made his VFL debut for Frankston two weeks ago.
Between Birchip-Watchem and Cheltenham, there have been a lot of wins for Mick and Val Ryan to read up on this year.