‘That’s the motivation’: How not playing brought out the best in Mat Ryan

Mat Ryan is living a weird paradox. On one hand, every time Real Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil reveals his starting line-up and he’s not in it, it feels like a punch to the gut.

But the Socceroos goalkeeper has learned the hard way how to appropriately deal with the internal rage that every player experiences when they’re benched. And that is why, despite a paucity of on-field minutes, he feels he’s been able to hit career-best form.

Mathew Ryan has played just twice for Real Sociedad since signing for them in July.Credit:Getty

“Every footballer wants to be playing. But the reality is you don’t always get what you want,” Ryan told the Herald and The Age.

“You’ve got to work hard and earn it. I’m trying to stay resilient, keep pushing on. That’s my motto for life: whatever life throws your way, you’ve just got to keep rolling up your sleeves. Waving the white flag and giving up isn’t an option.”

Opportunities have been hard to come by for Ryan at club level in 2021, but he can’t be accused of wasting any them. He’s played just five games this calendar year since leaving Brighton and Hove Albion, where he was an English Premier League regular for three consecutive seasons, to move on loan to Arsenal.

Only two of those five matches have been for Real Sociedad, who he joined on a permanent deal in July – a lean spell that can be partly attributed to a knee injury he suffered shortly after signing on, which gave incumbent Álex Remiro a head start in their ongoing battle for the goalkeeping spot.

Ryan earned rave reviews for his most recent performance, a man-of-the-match display in a 2-0 win over Celta Vigo last month which briefly lifted them to the top of La Liga. But then he was dropped to the bench again for their next clash, the Basque derby against Athletic Bilbao.

A mistake by Remiro allowed Bilbao to snatch a dramatic late equaliser and a 1-1 draw – an error that may yet open the door for Ryan to play again on Monday morning, when Sociedad were due to face Osasuna away in their last fixture before the international break, and before he links up with his Socceroos teammates in Sydney this week.

If he continues to find himself frozen out of La Real’s starting XI for no good reason, Ryan admits he may have to look elsewhere for regular football. But the 29-year-old has no real desire to move away from a team that has emerged as surprise La Liga title contenders a third of the way through the season, and is confident the wheel will turn for him if he keeps putting in the hard yards at training.

“It hurts not seeing my name [on the teamsheet]. That’s the motivation to get out there and keep working,” Ryan said.

“In the past, when I was younger and more immature at Valencia, I used to spit the dummy a lot more and give up, thinking ‘what’s the point of training?’ Looking back, I don’t think it was the right approach.

“I look at all the games that I’ve played since I made the move to Arsenal and it hasn’t been regular football, but I think I’ve been in career-best form, to be honest. I put it all down to my approach and commitment to training, and that’s allowed me, come match day, to feel sharp and make the most of my opportunities when they do come around. It’s proven to myself, I don’t need to be playing week-in, week-out in order to sustain a high level of play.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means content playing one game a month. But what can I do, other than go out on the training pitch and try and influence [the manager] to change his mind? Obviously if that pattern continues from here on out, I guess you’ve got to look at your options at a certain point. But there’s still a lot of football to be played.”

His salubrious surrounds are, perhaps, another reason why he’s happy to stay put for now – Real Sociedad is based in San Sebastian, one of Spain’s top tourist cities, which he likens a little to Byron Bay with the ubiquity of lattes, surfboards and açai bowls.

“I’ve actually had quite a few visitors come and take advantage. I don’t know whether it’s my friendship they like or just where I’m living, that they’re starting to come more frequently,” Ryan laughed. “It’s a mini-paradise.”

More than anything, though, Ryan is looking forward to coming home this week. He hasn’t visited Sydney since the pandemic first stopped world football a year and a half ago, and the Socceroos are counting on a capacity crowd at CommBank Stadium to will them home against Saudi Arabia in Thursday night’s must-win World Cup qualifier.

“It’s nice to get back and play in front of our supporters,” he said. “The fact it’s been so long since we were able to do that, we’re never going to take that for granted again anytime soon. I’m excited. It’s going to be the most important game of our lives so far, in terms of qualification. That’s how we’ve got to go there and treat it.”

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