“When I played it was like, right that’s it, you’re out of the door get on with it – now it’s so good, even our nutritionist took the lads and they had a cook off and learned to cook!”
Very few players in football make it to the top or even anywhere near the top. The same applies to coaches, a relentless amount of hours go in to completing badges but in a competitive industry they may never get that far.
Those that do get the upper reaches of the game see first hand how it works and how cut throat professional football can really be.
Darren Ryan, Wolves’ elite player development coach, who hails from Oswestry, enjoyed a career in the Football League and the old League of Wales, before finding his second calling in coaching.
Ryan, now 48, is seeing the talent on show at top level Premier League acadamies, but also the heartbreak for the players who don’t quite make the grade.
A study in 2017 laid bare the startling numbers of youngsters who completely drop out of the game every year after being released by elite clubs. It’s in the thousands.
A lot of clubs have come under scrutiny for what is offered to players who miss out on a professional contract, but as Ryan explains, the support network in place is better than ever and Wolves’ philosophy is to not just make these youngsters better players, but better people.
“It has got miles better now. We have a player care manager and a workshop every week for life out of football, it has evolved so much,” explained Ryan.
“When I played it was like, right that’s it, you’re out of the door get on with it.
“It is the hardest thing to tell these lads they won’t get a pro contract but the support from the clubs, Premier League and EFL is fantastic.
“American academies come over to present, lads get help with CVs that go to clubs, there are exit trials, they have great support.
“Our nutritionist took the lads to the university she works at and they had a cook off! It’s about learning life skills.
“Lads who have done well in their GCSEs can do their A Levels here, a couple are doing that next year.
“When they start we show the parents the statistics on how many will make it, but for us we want to make them better footballers yes, but in the long run we want to make them better people.”
Ryan has given a peak behind the curtain of what goes on at a top level club, which, in Wolves’ case, is a club challenging for a Champions League place, a stark contrast from the club’s demise to League One less than ten years ago.
But the former midfielder’s football journey began years before he had the chance to coach the country’s best youngsters.
He signed forms with Shrewsbury Town in the late 80s and early 90s when the club dropped out of the old Division One, where he played alongside none other than current West Ham boss David Moyes.
“You could always tell where he was going to go. I was an apprentice at the time and he was doing warm ups and always wanted to get involved.
“We had some great characters during that time.”
Spells with Stockport, Rochdale and Chester followed before Ryan moved into Wales, signing a two year contract with Barry Town, then establishing themselves as a full time force in the League of Wales.
“We got into the UEFA Cup, beat the Latvians and then a Hungarian side on penalties, and we faced Aberdeen who had the likes of Dean Windass and Billy Dodds.
“We lost 3-0 at Pittodrie but drew 3-3 at home and they were great experiences.
“We got in the Champions League and played Dynamo Kiev. We lost 2-0 out there but they had Sergi Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko.
“I remember the home tie well because it was a game to forget. I got sent off after 25 minutes and it came back to haunt me because when we got into Europe with Haverfordwest, I was suspended because of it.”
Ryan had a spell at The New Saints, then Total Network Solutions in his home town, before going back down south and playing for Merthyr and Haverfordwest, where a successful side qualified for Europe.
A stint at Cardiff Grange Quinns followed, before Ryan, who had ambitions of a coaching career, was thrust into first team management at Newtown AFC.
“It was frustrating to begin with because I played at a good level, and others say the same, you’re trying to get lads to do things you could do and you don’t realise that, not in a nasty way, these lads are at this level for a reason.
“I was there four and a half years and I loved it, but it got to a point where I thought and I don’t want to do management anymore, I felt more comfortable coaching.
“I had that spell where I went back for 30 days. I had a coaching opportunity at Northwich, and I’d accepted the job at Newtown but it was a day before the lads went back, and I told them I don’t want the job. I don’t think they were too pleased.”
By this time Ryan was making a name for himself at Wolves, and before long he was seeing the early development of the likes of Morgan Gibbs-White, who has gone on to play for the England youth set up and the Wolves first team.
It was a far cry from Carmarthen Town away on a cold Tuesday night, but his Newtown days helped him develop according to Ryan.
“I loved my time there, I met some fantastic people who I am still in touch with.
“We signed some great lads and we had things like fancy dress on away games. I respected the lads, they played Saturday and trained Tuesday and Thursday, and I said win, lose or draw, I’ll have my rant and rave, but we always have a drink home or away.”
Within months Ryan was progressing up the Wolves ranks, and in the following years he would become the head of youth phase, assistant under 23s manager and then the under 18s manager.
Now head of elite player development, the former manager is making key decisions, identifying who has the most potential and who could become the next Wolves superstar.
Giving an insight into the working’s of the Wanderers’ top brass, Ryan revealed how the manager and even the owners of the club, Fosun, invest in what they’re doing.
“Nuno has a small squad, so a lot of lads train with them and it is fantastic for them.
“He took a few away to the Asia Cup last year, we had young sides in the Carabao Cup, he gave 16 year olds debuts and he will do that.
“Lads going to train with Joao Moutinho, TRuben Neves, Raul Jimenez it’s just fantastic for their development.”
There is no denying that players obviously have to have the technical ability to make it at that top level, but there is one asset above all that is required, as Ryan reveals.
“We do four corner plans, and one corner is pyscology. One example, from an early age, Morgan Gibbs-White was driven and he had the desire, and he loved the game.
“We talk about loving the game. It’s different now, when I was a kid you were out on the street, playing, doing kick ups.
“With Morgan he hated losing, hated coming off. I always tell a story he was playing for the under 18s and they had a man sent off.
“Morgan was then taken off and I was managing the under 16s on another pitch. He ran straight over to me and said ‘Daz, I want to come on, put me on’.
“It was roll on roll off in my age so you could, but it shows his drive. He didn’t sulk, he wanted to keep playing.
“If you get the desire right with these lads, the other things take care of themselves.”
One criticism of professional football in the modern era is the apparent gap between under 23s football and the first team, which appeared when reserve teams were scrapped many years ago.
Some say it makes the gulf even bigger, but Ryan disagrees and says the mechinaisms in place to find the correct loan move for players is a better assistance.
“I think it works well. We have to decide if lads will suit a loan move to non-league to get experience and clubs have to use the loan system to their advantage.
“Last year Ryan Giles went to Shrewsbury and got 20 appearances. At Wolves we have Seyi Olofinjana who is the loans manager and he looks to see if a move abroad is better, or say a move to non-league may be better to toughen a player up, or maybe a move to League One or Two.
“These are good moves, because they’re playing with lads who are playing for their livelihods, who are fighting for their next contract in an environment where results matter.
“If they go up they get an increase, but if they go down their money could be cut so going there is a good thing.”
In the coming months football clubs at many levels are going to feel the pinch and the financial implications of the Covid-19 crisis that has hampered the footballing world for many months.
Many pundits have said it may have a positive influence, and force sides to look to promote from within to bloster their first team ranks, rather than go out into the transfer market.
Ryan admits this is something that is already going on at Wolves, but he believes the current crisis will only add to the blooding of youngsters across top level football.
“We are privileged because we already do that. I know Liverpool have just won the league but they are the same with the likes of Neco Williams and Curtis Jones.
“Chelsea are another example. There has been a massive shift but I think it will happen more because clubs will take a hit from Coronarivus.
“And it’ll be great to see. There is no better feeling than seeing someone like Morgan Gibbs-White playing at Molineux, or Dion Sanderson who is on loan at Cardiff in the Championship.”
It’ll mean that for the likes of Ryan and other academy stuff at clubs up and down the country, even more emphasis could be put on finding that next gem in their systems.
That’s a challenge that excites the Oswestry native, who has all but ruled out a future back in the dugout as a manager somewhere down the line.
“Management was a great experience but it takes its toll. It makes or breaks your weekend and you take it home.
“I still watch the Welsh Premier and see Jock (Andy Morrison) on the sidelines, and I take my hat off to managers.
“But I would say no, management isn’t for me. I’m enjoying what I do and scouting players and taking things forward for next season.”