In part two of his John Ryan trilogy, Ed discusses John’s time at Luton and how a certain John Bond spotted more in him than just a steady Eddie full-back…
John’s arrival at his new club (Luton) neatly coincided with the end of another journey, albeit one that was a little more challenging than driving from Maidstone to Bedfordshire.
“I started pre-season training and a couple of days into it was sat in a hotel off the M1 with Alan Guild, another new signing and an American family who were on holiday watching the US astronauts in Apollo 11 land on the Moon. It was July 20, 1969, which also just happened to be my 22nd birthday.”
Luton Town and John Ryan ended up working as well together as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“I ended up playing 276 games for Luton and, in that time, grew from being that shy young boy into a man both on and off the pitch. As far as my development was concerned, I worked on a coaching programme with Jimmy Andrews, so I wasn’t just running and getting fit, I was learning about the game. I also grew a bit, up to just under six feet which meant I was quite compact and strong as I weighed around 12-stone at the time – and it was all muscle.
“We had some very good players at Luton during my time at the club and I enjoyed my time there. It was when I was at Luton that I met Kay, who is now my wife. We also had Daniel, our first child while I was there. So lots of good memories of my time as a Hatter”.
John soon had to get used to playing under yet another new manager though.
“Alec Stock and Jimmy Andrews left the club (Stock left for Fulham, John’s former club whilst Andrews succeeded Frank O’Farrell as manager of Cardiff City) which led to Harry Haslam taking over. That was quite an eventful time as we not only got promoted the First Division under him but then went straight back down again.
“Both Alec and Harry were good managers, they had their own way of doing things of course but both were very kind to me and helped me a great deal during my career and I was delighted that I became firm friends with them both as time and my career moved on.”
Luton Town, unfortunately, hadn’t been moving on in quite the way the club or its fans had expected. The joy of promotion to the First Division in 1974 had been quickly tempered by an immediate return to the second tier of English football, a campaign that had been, in truth, a genuine baptism of fire for the Hatters.
They didn’t secure their first league win until their tenth game of the season, a 3-1 canter over fellow new boys Carlisle United. The Cumbrians could, at least, say they’d had their moment in the sun after topping the table following their three successive wins from the start of that campaign before rapidly falling away afterwards.
Luton, to their credit, won three successive games on three different occasions with some impressive performances accompanying them, such as a 2-1 win over Leeds United on March 22, which was followed, three days later by a 2-0 success against Arsenal. The damage, however, had already been done with just one win in 21 games from the season opener doing much to seal their eventual fate.
Three wins and a draw from their last four league games gave at least some hope that Luton would have a good chance of being promoted again at the end of the following season. Manchester United and Norwich had, after all, done exactly that and would be back in the top flight for the 1975/76 season. Luton, however, never really got going and ended that campaign in seventh place at a time, well adrift of Sunderland, Bristol City and West Brom who were promoted.
John was more than ready and willing to give it another go the following (1976/77) season but, unbeknown to him and his teammates, the Hatters were now having to deal with the price of ambition.
“Luton were in big trouble financially and had to raise some cash, and quickly, else there was a very real danger that the club could be wound up. I didn’t know this at the time, nor was I aware that John Bond had been along to watch me in a few midweek games towards the end of the previous season and had liked what he saw.
“Ken Brown, then his assistant, wasn’t, as I now understand it, quite so keen on me!
“John told me that the two of them had sat there having an argument after I’d hit a 40-yard cross field ball to John Aston with my right foot before making a 35-yard pass into the channel with my left, leaving John to say, ‘He’ll do for me’ – and maybe against Ken’s own judgement! But John’s decision was final and he knew he wanted me as soon as he saw I could hit a long, accurate pass with both of my feet.
“Norwich opened negotiations with Luton, but, as John said, they knew they had them over the proverbial barrel, due to their financial troubles, so they basically nicked me from there for £50,000. I’d been pre-season training with Luton on the south coast at Hastings – no Bangkok or LA for the Hatters – and, as soon as the deal was agreed, I headed off to Norfolk.
“It was a good move for me. I was leaving a struggling and financially troubled side in Division Two to an up and coming Division One side who were renowned for playing good football and had, in John Bond, one of the most progressive and highly-rated young managers in the game.
“My wages went up considerably, in fact, I think they nearly trebled. I got a signing on fee as well this time, although I now realise I didn’t ask for enough. But it was all sorted out very quickly in the end and I made my debut, playing as a right back, in Norwich’s opening game of the season against Liverpool at Anfield where I’d be marking Steve Heighway.
“A nice easy debut then.”
John was, in reality, delighted to have been given the opportunity to play First Division football again. And, despite the fact that the Canaries lost that game 1-0, courtesy of a goal from the man he was responsible for marking on the day, City acquitted themselves at Anfield well. Their overall start to that 1976/77 campaign was disappointing however, with a poor run of results seeing them drop to bottom place after a 2-0 defeat at Coventry City on September 11th.
Despite that, John was playing well and enjoying himself, the resolve to do well for his new club heightened by the huge respect he had for the man who had signed him.
“My biggest regret in a 21-year playing career is not meeting John Bond earlier. When I joined Norwich, I was 29-years-old and, in my opinion, a solid, if not remarkable right full back whose major strengths were blistering pace allied to good stamina. I also worked my socks off, in every single game I played and right through a season. My work rate was something that both John Faulkner and Kevin Reeves commented upon.
“I remember playing alongside John, or ‘Maxie’, as we called him at Luton. In one particular game at Kenilworth Road, I had a really good day. We were on top and I’d made almost non-stop overlapping runs from right-back throughout most of the first half in this match.”
“Maxie called me over and said, ‘John, will you give it a rest mate, you are making me feel knackered just watching you’. Reevesy, on the other hand, was injured for one game, it was against Ipswich Town at Carrow Road I think, so Kevin was watching from the back of the stand.
“After the game, he came down into the dressing room and came straight over to where I was sat and said, ‘Ryno, I never knew how hard you worked mate, but sitting up there looking down on the game, it was easy to see, it really was”.
“He then shook me by the hand. Unbelievable.
“So yes, I had some assets to my game. Pace and power as well as two good feet. I was naturally right-footed and had played much of my time in youth football on the left wing, cutting in and smashing shots into the back of the net was my favourite ploy but I had no problem going down the line and crossing balls to the far post either.”
John was also aware and is brutally honest of his limitations as a player.
“I was an absolutely hopeless header of the ball which, for someone who is nearly six feet tall is pitiful! My first touch was average as well, something which didn’t exactly help with the ongoing terror I used to have in matches of losing the ball. But at least I used to do everything I could to win it back if I did lose possession. I watch the game today and so many players now seem to give the ball away and seem to accept it and do nothing.
“It was much easier for me on the wide open spaces of the wing where you had a little bit more time on the ball and it wasn’t quite so crowded!”
John Bond was as aware of John’s playing strengths as he was the weaknesses. And he set to work upon his new signing almost straight away. John may have seen himself as a ‘solid if unremarkable right full back’-but Bond both saw and wanted more from him.
“When I arrived at Norwich I realised just how little I knew about actually playing the game. Bondy sorted me out. He made me much more of a player who, at whatever level you want to say, finally knew HOW to play the game.
“The best way to describe it is that I came to realise that, prior to working with John and his team of coaches, I’d been playing with a blindfold on. Which he took off. Playing now seemed so much easier to me. Now don’t get me wrong, I could still have stinker but at least I now knew why I was having one.
“Playing the game in a simple way and knowing how the team was set up and where all my teammates would be at any given time helped to lessen my biggest fault. Now, if I was in a tight situation I knew where everyone else would be and became so much more relaxed in possession, which meant I didn’t find myself in such tight situations.
“One benefit of all this was that I was able to add another asset to my game, that of third man running. I had the pace and was now, for the main part, learning about off the ball running from Martin Peters who was as good at that part of the game as anyone. So I ended up being difficult to mark.
“It was knowledge that served me well in the latter years of my career as I was able to play (for Cambridge United) until I was 38-years-old. There was also a knock on effect in that when I started coaching youngsters, several of them became excellent players as I had kept it simple and coached the footballing gospel according to St John Bond.
“I’m very happy to be able to say that the Bonds remain my closest friends and that I was privileged, although very sad at the time, to be asked to give one of the eulogies and to say a few words of my own at John’s funeral”.
John remains close to Kevin Bond to this day and is looking forward to a big get together this summer when he attends the wedding of Kevin’s daughter. His early memories of the man who has recently taken up the managerial reins at Southend United are not entirely favourable but, for all that, he knew that, in Kevin, there was a fine footballer in the making.
“Kevin had a hard start to his career and I was involved in it at Norwich after John decided to drop me after I’d had a run of poor games. Kevin came in for his full debut in a game at Aston Villa towards the end of the 1976/77 season. I was still playing in the right-back position for Norwich at the time and, despite the fact I hadn’t been playing that well, I think Kevin would, at the time and after that match, have been the first to admit he was, at that time, not quite good enough to play regularly in the First Division.
“He was only 19 at the time and, although he was 6’ 2”, he was leggy and slow on the turn. Mind you, there was nothing wrong with his footballing knowledge as he’d had years of teaching from his dad! This led, of course, to very wrong and hurtful mutterings amongst some people that he was only playing because he was ‘Daddy’s boy’ but nothing could be further from the truth because Kevin had to cope with double rollockings, one, alongside the rest of us at the ground, plus another when he got home.
“This led to him sometimes turning up on the doorstep of our home in Dereham and asking, ‘Ryno, can I stay for a couple of days?”
Tomorrow’s final part sees John’s time at Carrow Road draw to a close but then, after a few moves, a well deserved big finale to his playing career.