PEOPLE kept telling Mat Ryan that you had to be big to be a goalkeeper - they still do. So in the end, the only way to prove them wrong was by a season full of proving them wrong.

At 184cm, Ryan is hardly diminutive, but the Socceroos goalkeeper has got used to questions about his height. They were loudest of all 11 months ago when he was first linked with a move to Brighton in the English Premier League, a league where goalkeepers tend towards the steepling, like Mark Schwarzer.

Mat Ryan has put all the doubts behind him. (Toby Zerna)
Mat Ryan has put all the doubts behind him. (Toby Zerna)

Helped by a coach at Brighton in Chris Hughton who believed in his ability, Ryan responded as he always has since he first took up goalkeeping at the ripe age of 12.

"You hear all the murmurs, the perceptions people have of you," Ryan said as he prepares now for his second World Cup.

"Even early on, when I was thinking about a possible move (to England), all the doubts about not being tall enough come out.

"It all comes back at the end of the day to my experience as a goalkeeper - feeling confident that I could go there and still do well.

"I felt like I needed someone (like Hughton) who believed in me as much as I believed in myself. I went there and straight away was trying to get up to speed, and deal with the particular challenges of the EPL."

 

Fabien Barthez was a World Cup winner in 1998. (AFP Photo)
Fabien Barthez was a World Cup winner in 1998. (AFP Photo)

 

What really gave him the belief that stature is immaterial was the trail blazed in European football by two goalkeepers who were exemplars to Ryan in his teenage years.

Iker Casillas (just a cm taller) was already established at Real Madrid by the time Ryan took up goalkeeping, and Fabien Barthez (four cm shorter than the Socceroo) had won the Premier League with Manchester United and the World Cup with France.

"Casillas is a great goalkeeper anyway and what he's done in his career speaks louder than anything I can say," Ryan said. "But not being tall enough was a common theme for me growing up, I missed out on some state teams when I was younger.

"At that age, being young and naive, it was something that was in my mind. To see someone like him being so successful, I guess I felt a little connection.

"In Spain, it's not seen as a country where goalkeepers need to be so tall. For Barthez, who I think is even shorter than Casillas, to have done that in England, makes it even more special."

The fact that both men won the World Cup is further inspiration - as is Ryan's determination to excel in Russia, after a devastating error against Holland in Brazil four years ago.

He is well set, as his excellent form for Brighton was a big part of them avoiding relegation, in the teeth of most expectations - and a big part of that form was his ability to avoid being swamped by the mental demands of the EPL.

Working with Sydney FC's emotion coach, Mike Conway, Ryan has developed strategies to calm himself in games, and hence see a bigger picture than most.

 

The keeper is now among the most experienced Socceroos. (AAP Image)
The keeper is now among the most experienced Socceroos. (AAP Image)

 

"I try not to get to caught up in the good moments at the time because there's always a game around the corner - it can quickly change," he said.

"The same with a mistake, you want the next game to prove again that you're good enough to play at this level.

"Now that the season has finished, after the pressure at the end, I can look back and reflect a bit. I'm pretty proud of myself and the level which I held throughout the season.

"There were plenty of moments I learned from, but also plenty that gave me the confidence that I can play at the highest level.

"It's the old cliche that you have to learn from every mistake, move on and do everything you can to prevent it happening again.

"The nature of our position, a mistake is highlighted more than any other on the pitch. I love the challenge of the position, that to have a good game you pretty much have to have the perfect game.

"You can't make a mistake - walking onto the pitch every day knowing that is something I thrive upon. Coming off afterwards, knowing you've done that, there is no more enjoyable moment in this industry.

"Everything from the past has lessons to offer you. Those I've had til now and helped me become this goalkeeper. My memories from the previous World Cup are that it's the absolute pinnacle of the game. Everything is amplified way above all other games and it gives you the biggest thrill."



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