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AUSSIE FOCUS: Can Valencia goalkeeper Mat Ryan become Australia’s greatest ever?

In retrospect, the accolades and achievements that have been garnered by Socceroos goalkeeper Mat Ryan would resemble a player who has worn gloves at a professional level for at least a decade.

The maxim that goalkeepers don't peak until later in their careers is currently being put alongside other football relics such as the 4-4-2 formation and tight-fitting shorts.

Football folklore has suggested that goalkeepers age like a fine wine. These gallant old warhorses have spent years honing their skills, they have gone through the trials and tribulations, the howlers, the heavy losses, and their experience has enabled them to face any situation with strength and poise.

For Valencia number one Ryan, this process began at the tender age of 18.

The Western Sydney born shot-stopper began his senior career with local club, Blacktown City, under the guidance of John Crawley. It wasn't long before he found himself picked up by the Gosford-based Central Coast Mariners.

Injuries within the goalkeeping ranks at the Mariners led coach Graham Arnold into making a decision that would change Ryan's life forever.

That may sound exaggerated but it is true.

You don't learn how to swim by dipping your toe inside the pool; you get thrown into the deep end and when Ryan made his debut for the Mariners in 2010, that's exactly what happened.

Despite early struggles, Arnold kept his faith and Ryan went on to record 12 clean sheets, claiming the A-League's Young Footballer of the Year award and the Joe Marston medal in a losing grand final.

After capturing the 2012-13 A-League title with the Mariners, Ryan's services were secured by Belgian outfit Club Brugge. Much like his experience with the Mariners, Ryan wasn't given much time to adjust to his new surroundings.

The 23-year-old found himself in a new country, with a foreign language and culture but showed dedication to his craft by focusing on developing on the field. Injuries saw him prematurely elevated to a starting spot and he didn't relinquish his position, remaining number one for the rest of the season.

Ryan was rewarded for his efforts by being crowned the Belgian Pro League Goalkeeper of the year at the end of the season, with Club Brugge finishing in third position.

The New South Welshman went from strength to strength in his second season in Belgium. He won the Best goalkeeper award for the second year in a row and also secured his first piece of club silverware, winning the Belgian Cup.

With 37 clean sheets in 102 appearances for Club Brugge, Spanish giants Valencia CF came calling and secured a transfer for Ryan in the summer of 2015, with the Socceroo signing a lengthy six-year deal.

Valencia are Spanish football royalty and most recently won the league in the 2003-04. They have helped launch the careers of David Villa, David Silva and Isco to name just a few.

Their stadium, The Mestalla, is world-renowned and its capacity of 55,000 encourages an intense and passionate atmosphere. 20,000 people are on the waiting list for season tickets so there is no doubt that Ryan's new home is one of an enormous stature.

Ryan's early Valencia career was derailed by a meniscus injury in the second game of the season. More recently, the strong performances of Jaume Domenech have seen Ryan warming the bench for Los Che since his return from injury in November.

With the club languishing in the bottom half of La Liga, recently appointed manager Gary Neville handed Ryan a start last weekend against Rayo Vallecano. The 21-time Australia international had an exceptional match. His incredible triple save, which led to his side scoring down the other end, showcased his athleticism and shot stopping abilities that will have no doubt impressed Neville and his coaching staff.

The key for Ryan is to continue to amass minutes, and right now, he has the opportunity to do just that. With number one Diego Alves out for the rest of the season, Ryan must cement his place in the side and make it impossible for Neville to replace him when the time comes around for Alves to return.

It is true that Ryan may benefit from being under the tutelage of an experienced stalwart. However, he mustn't allow himself to become an accessory in the squad, simply to be called up for cup ties in Mallorca and a safe option if Alves again goes down with injury.

The most integral part of fulfilling Ryan's potential is the same thing that has helped him move from Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford, eastern Australia to the Mestalla in Valencia, eastern Spain. Simply playing football.

His maturation at such a young age (in goalkeeping terms) is attributed to the continuity that has been provided to him throughout his short career. He has consistently found himself between the posts, in high-pressure situations, where he has had to learn on the spot and he must keep doing this if he wants to elevate himself into the upper echelon of goalkeepers.

Much fanfare was made over the battle for Australia's number one goalkeeping spot when the immortal Mark Schwarzer retired. Mitch Langerak and Ryan were both young prospects, both made their mark in the A-League and were plying their trade in Europe, but so far the career trajectory of the two has gone in different directions.

Ryan has since asserted himself as Australia's number one goalkeeper for the present and the future. After collecting his first cap for the national side in 2012, Ryan has made 21 appearances, including a dominant performance in the Socceroos maiden Asian Cup victory in 2015 where he claimed the Golden Glove award for best keeper at the tournament.

At the end of last year, Ryan made history by becoming the first player under 23 to claim the Professional Footballers Association award for Australian player of the year.

Langerak was transferred to Borussia Dortmund from Melbourne Victory in 2010. The move was heralded due to the magnitude of Dortmund as a club, but what was overlooked was Langerak's purchase as a number two behind Roman Weidenfeller. Over five seasons he appeared a mere 35 times for Dortmund and now finds himself in a similar situation at VfB Stuttgart. Moving to a big club may grant Ryan a platform for growth and success or it may stifle his development like it did to Langerak.

Schwarzer appeared 600 times over 16 years in the Premier League. He didn't waste his time surveying the skills of a keeper playing above him; he became the keeper he was through competing against the best players in the world, week in week out.

Mat Ryan has the potential to be better than Schwarzer. At 23, he finds himself in a situation where he can assert himself at one of the bigger clubs in Europe. His ascension from the A-League to La Liga in the space of five years is a testament to his attitude and talent.

If Ryan's talent is properly nurtured and challenged then he can certainly become a world-class goalkeeper. Potential is a feeble thing and although he has come a long way already in his short career, he must not stall. Ryan must continue to strive to be on the park rather than let his unique talent wither away on the benches of the Mestalla.

By Andrew Maclean

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