Robbie Ryan: The man who marked Cristiano Ronaldo in an FA Cup final
Ryan was at Millwall when he tracked the then United winger in the 2004 FA Cup final, now he is happy helping repair the Tube
Around the time on Wednesday night that Cristiano Ronaldo settles into his seat for the Real Madrid team flight from Manchester airport back to Spain, so an old opponent of his will be arriving at Transport for London's Acton depot to clock on for the night shift.
At 11pm every week night, Robbie Ryan gets to work in west London to be told which part of the Tube network he will be working on before setting off in his van through the city's empty streets. He is a cable linesman, responsible for shutting down the electricity on the parts of the line that need to be worked on in the wee small hours when the Underground is not running.
He is also the man who marked Ronaldo in the 2004 FA Cup final, when the player now regarded as one of the two best footballers in the world won his first-ever trophy in the game. Ronaldo is back in England next week to face Manchester City in the Champions League and to say that the pair's paths have diverged since that final at the Millennium Stadium between Manchester United and Millwall would be, to put it mildly, an understatement.
The first thing to say about Ryan is that his is not a sad story. He enjoys working for TfL. It might not be Real Madrid wages but it is a good job and in his five years there he has been promoted once already. He is a proud family man with a partner and seven-year-old daughter and there are still plenty of Millwall fans who like to remind him of his days as a tough-tackling left-back in Dennis Wise's Championship side.
Yet his story is a reminder that not every professional footballer can live off his earnings in the game for the rest of his life. Less than three years after the FA Cup final he was out the professional game at the age of 29, and looking for work.
Of course, Ronaldo was always destined for stardom. In 2004, the then United winger was already the most expensive teenager in the history of British football and showing signs that he would go on to be a great player. Ryan was 27, and had started his career at Huddersfield Town before going on to be part of a Millwall team that reached the 2004 final without playing a Premier League side in any of the five rounds.
At his home in Kent this month, Ryan recalled the weeks leading up to the game when it gradually dawned on him he would be facing United's latest prodigy. "I remember watching him when he first came on the scene and he obviously looked good. But all of a sudden a couple of months, February, March, he started really beating players and scoring. He was tall, I didn't realise how tall, and I wouldn't say he was skinny. He wasn't built like he is now but he was big.
"Against Aston Villa, soon before the final, he tore the left-back apart and I thought, 'Oh, great. I think I might prefer to play Arsenal' [who United beat in the semi-final]. Because Arsenal pass, pass, pass. United had Ryan Giggs and Ronaldo who run at you."
It would be fair to say that Ronaldo made it a tough afternoon in Cardiff for Ryan, who lasted until the 74th minute when he was substituted. Underdogs by some distance, Millwall were also missing key players that day, and Wise, their then 37-year-old player-manager, was only half-fit. Ronaldo scored in the 44th minute although the final scoreline of 3-0 was not an embarrassment considering what might have been.
"Ronaldo did me once, when he got to the byline, I slid in and he dragged it back. He crossed with his right foot behind his left to chip it back into the area," Ryan said. "I was coaching the Millwall kids and one of them said 'I've seen you on YouTube, being done by Ronaldo!' He got better every year. I wouldn't like to play him now. He could go inside, outside, very strong. I wish he had played on the other wing.
"The lads at work say 'Oh look, Ronaldo has scored a hat-trick again but he only scored one against you ...' It was a header and I was on the post. I didn't think anyone would remember but here you are, eight years later asking me about it. It is something I will be able to tell my kids. Even at parents' night the teacher said: 'You're a footballer aren't you?' I said: 'Do I look like one? I used to be'. They always ask about the FA Cup final."
Out of contract that summer, the final was the last game Ryan played for Millwall. He had hoped for a three-year deal on better terms. When that was turned down, he asked for the same deal with appearance money. When that was rejected he just asked for a two-year deal on the same money. In the end all that was on the table was a one-year deal on the same money. He felt he had to reject it out of principle.
When Millwall beat Telford United in the fourth round of their Cup run, Ryan discovered that some of those Conference players were earning more than him, so low were his wages. Money was not Ryan's priority but he felt the club wanted him out. He moved to Bristol Rovers where he was never really happy and was released in February 2007.
There were trials at Brentford, Northampton Town and Dagenham and Redbridge but no contract offers and he had an ankle that kept playing up. He got his job on the Underground and continued playing non-league but feared that an injury might affect his livelihood.
"I was playing for Welling, in the Conference South, and asked to take less money. I said I wouldn't. Then I went to Ashford, Fisher Athletic, Croydon. I thought: 'Sod this, I'm working until 6.30 in the morning and I'm up at 9.30am.' The lads would say: 'You all right?' I'd say 'I'm knackered.' I was going through the motions. People were saying, 'How the hell did he ever play in the FA Cup final?'
But he did and he has the shirt to prove it, although unfortunately not the one with Ronaldo's name on the back. "People say 'Why didn't you ask him for his shirt before the game? I didn't think about it. In the Championship no one gives their shirt away.
"After the game some of the subs were in the tunnel getting jerseys while we were having a team meeting. Mark McCammon came in with Ronaldo's jersey and one of the lads said: 'Robbie played against him, he should have his jersey'. I said: 'Come on give us the jersey'. Mark said: 'It's mine'. He's such a big fella, I let him keep it."
Later, his team-mate Danny Dichio bumped into Phil Neville who kindly handed his shirt over to Ryan. It is that one which is at his mother's home in Dublin. Ryan himself is far too modest to hang the mementos of his football career in his own house. People still ask him "What was it like to mark Ronaldo?" He tells them that it was a great day but that he treats his new job every bit as seriously.
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