Martin Ryman determined not to head Southwards with his side

Wed 13th December 2023 | South Liverpool
By Jay Cooper

So many unbelievable things have happened in the world since the beginning of the 2000/01 football season. A black man became the President of the United States; the UK as a country left the European Union; there’s been a global pandemic that continues to leave such an incredible impact on the world to this day; Queen Elizabeth II has passed away and there is a (relatively) new monarch on the throne; and England even made a major international football tournament final! We didn’t win, but still!

Yet, despite all this change around the world, there is a footballing corner of Merseyside where one constant has outstayed the rest. Martin Ryman, the manager of NWCFL First Division North side South Liverpool, has been the gaffer at the club for almost 24 years running – the longest managerial stint in the club’s history. I wasn’t actually aware of this fact until I began researching for questions to ask the man himself whilst preparing to write this feature. It’s a mightily impressive feat, bettered only by Bacup Borough’s Brent Peters’ tenure as manager of his team, which stretches back over 25 years. I spoke to Brent last season about his milestones with Bacup, which you can read about here, but, this season, it’s Martin’s turn.

When you sign up for a management role, you never know quite how long you’re going to be there. Football is a fickle mistress, form can dip, owners who you disagree with can come and go. When Martin first took the reins at South Liverpool, he was acutely aware of this fact. “It certainly wasn't the plan to stay for so long, you know - you can't plan to do something like that, can you really? But it doesn't feel weird. It's actually over a thousand games if you include the number of games that I played for the club, and add them to the amount of games that I’ve managed at the club - that's over a thousand. So, I wouldn't say it feels weird, but it's certainly something that I'm very proud of, to have been associated with the one club for such a long time.”

“I certainly didn't think I'd reach such a milestone when I first took over. When I first took over, I was only 30 years of age. I wasn’t sure it would last 21 games, never mind 21 seasons. But here I am, still doing it. And, whilst you're still enjoying it, and while the defeats still hurt and while you still celebrate those wins - when all that stops then maybe it's time to pack in, but at the moment defeats still really hurt me, and wins are what we're in the business for - to win games of football, and until all that stops I’ll carry on doing it.

And that pride and passion that Martin highlighted when I spoke to him seems to have had the desired effect. When I quizzed him on his most memorable moment as manager of South Liverpool, he was torn between several highs, but also one or two lows that also stuck with him.

“I think the most difficult moment as manager was in one of my earlier years, when we were in the Liverpool County Combination League and we got relegated to the second division. That was a difficult period. The most memorable happy one – there’s been so many of them, there really have been so many of them. I've been a very lucky manager. In my first year as manager, we won a trophy. We won the cup, which was fantastic to do in my first year. Some managers go years and years and years before they win their first one, and I was a lucky man to get it out of the way in the first year, so that was very, very memorable.

“In 2009 we also got to the George Byron Cup Final and that was at Goodison Park. Being a massive blue, it was fantastic for me, and luckily, again, we won. That was fantastic. Then we moved across to the West Cheshire League and we won a heck of a lot of trophies, but I suppose the one that sticks out is the 2016 season where we won the treble - the West Cheshire League, the Pike Cup and the Challenge Cup all in the same year, which was fantastic. Then, of course, a couple of years back, when we got ourselves back into the non-league pyramid, back into semi-pro football. So, they're the most memorable off the top of my head.”

On-field victories, defeats, trophies and heartbreak are not the only thing that Martin Ryman has overseen as an integral member of the setup at South Liverpool. It’s well-documented how prone to change football can be – look to the elite of the game, where Chelsea have brought 29 new players to the club since Todd Boehly became owner in May 2022; or perhaps the rollercoaster decade that Leicester City have had – winning the Championship, the Premier League, the FA Cup and being relegated back to the Championship all within the space of a 10 year period. All this is to say that, over such a long stint at one club, there will have been so much that has changed in front of Martin’s very eyes.

“There's been massive changes at the club since I first took over. The first thing is when I took over, we weren't a club; we were just a team. We just had a first team and that was it. We never had a second team, a third team or a youth set-up, and that's what we have now. And that's been built up over the years, not just by myself, but by the senior committee members as well. We've built up from just a team to a full club, to where it is now, since I first took over. As I said, as well, we used to be in the Liverpool County Combination League. Then we moved across to the West Cheshire League and we were successful in winning quite a lot of games and cups in both of those divisions. And now, the major change is that we’re in the North West Counties League, which is back in the non-league pyramid. So, there's been vast amounts of changes over the years.”

The most recent, and most crucial to the existence of this feature article, is that promotion to the NWCFL that South Liverpool, under Martin’s leadership, earned ahead of the 2021/22 season. After a 30-year hiatus from semi-professional football, the club were back where they ought to be. And, in their two full seasons of First Division North football, they’ve done quite well, notching a 13th and 10th placed finish. Good and comfortable placements, but perhaps not all that eye-catching. No wild near misses on promotion, or relegation dog fights. This seemed to be a bar for Martin that was met by his team, but perhaps not totally cleared. “When we first came into the North West Counties League, the end goal was not to get relegated. It was just trying to be as competitive as we could be, to find our feet, and not get relegated. Last season, we wanted to progress on that a little bit, and I don't feel as if we progressed enough. This season, with the group of players that we've got, I really feel as if we could push for those play-offs.”

So, how to reach that goal, then? Well, one thing that will certainly push those hopes forwards is the fact that, on a few occasions this season, South have managed to string together impressive winning runs. Between August 1st and August 16th, they managed 5 in a row in the league; and between October 21st and November 25th, South managed 6 on the bounce in all competitions, including cup victories against NWCFL Prem sides like Squires Gate and AFC Liverpool.

“I'm not sure that we totally thrive on momentum but wins and playing well certainly give you some momentum. They give you the base to build off, they give you the platform to go and play well the next week, because you've then set that standard - go and set it again for me. We've done OK, as of late. I'd like to have had some of the wins that we've had that have been in the Cup, I wish some of them were in the League, but there you go, you can’t always have that. I think it's something that every manager wants, a bit of momentum, a standard set, a yardstick set. It helps you go and win games of football.

“Our last league defeat was to Ilkley, in September, which makes it sound like we've won a heck of a lot of league games since, but we haven't really. There's been a load of cup games that we’ve been involved in, we’ve had a good run in the Vase, etc. So, as I said before I'd have liked a lot of these games that we've been winning that are in the Cup to have been in the League, and to be a little bit further up the table. But we're in the mix, and it's such a tight division, and there's probably eight, nine, ten teams who all think they've got a chance of playoffs/winning it, you know. And we're in that mix at the moment. We've just got to carry on the good form and see where it takes us.”

It’s a good point that Martin made about the gaps between league games that South Liverpool keep having to endure. Since the start of that latest winning run, in late October, South Liverpool have only been able to play in 3 league matches, due to cup fixtures taking priority, or due to Mother Nature’s frosty or watery wrath. They won all of those games, mind, but that amounts to 1 league game every 12 days or so on average – almost 2 weeks between each league match. Before the weekends Isuzu FA Vase fixture with Ashville was postponed for the second time, there was estimated to be a 2-week break between matches for South Liverpool. That won’t happen now, due to the Ashville game now being pegged for the coming weekend, but with regards to how Martin keeps his players motivated during these lulls, he had this to say.

“Well, we have just had a two-week break, technically, because we've had those games called off, and it’s been a bit of a blow for us really. These games will eventually come thick and fast, as they always do at this level, so there’ll be no hiding places. We've had a little bit of a blip in the last couple of weeks where we haven't played, but we've still been training. We had a good Christmas night out on Saturday, which was a good bonding session, so everyone's still motivated at the club. We're all still wanting to go and do what we've got to do in games, which is win, and we're looking forward to Saturday.”

There’s more than just the coming weekend for the players at South Liverpool to look forward to. When playing in such a competitive league, there needs to be aims between games and overarching ambitions, and Martin seems to be on top of that too. “Our end goal this season was to try our best to stay in contention for the play-off spots. The players have got little target points every few games that I give them. At the minute, we're doing OK, we're there or thereabouts with those. The end goal was always to try to, with four or five games to go, just to have a chance of making the play-offs. It might be a good chance, it might be an outside chance, it might be a slim chance, but that's all we wanted. At the minute, we're hanging on in there and we're doing OK.”

Hanging in there might be an understatement, to be honest. At the time of writing, South Liverpool are 7th in the table, level on points with 5th placed Ashton Town, 3 points behind 2nd placed Route One Rovers, and with 1 or 2 games in hand on 4 of the 5 nearest teams who are currently ahead of them on points. It’s a desirable spot to be in, and one that they still have 15 games ahead of them in the league this season to build on. With further postponements seemingly inevitable as we slide further into winter, and with South still being a fixture in both the Vase and the Edward Case Cup, it will be a test for the players, but they have an experienced manager at the helm who knows how to get the best out of this club more than anyone.

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