1: Australia's No.1 Mat Ryan

If you didn’t know this one was coming, where have you been living? Voted No. 1 before his stunning La Liga move, Mat Ryan’s career trajectory was always impressive. Following his six-year deal with Valencia it looks absolutely extraordinary. When Socceroo legend Mark Schwarzer exited the international stage some years back few would have imagined how quickly the boy from Bankstown would step up. At just 23 there is still improvement to come from this precocious talent, and that’s what makes his footballing story so enthralling. Australia’s No.1 comes in at No.1 in FourFourTwo’s Top 50 Aussies in the World…

Australia's No.1 Mat Ryan

Caps: 21

Position Goalkeeper Club Club Brugge (now Valencia)

International Debut: vs North Korea, 2012

Australia has a long tradition of developing world-class shotstoppers. Whether it’s the popularity of other sports, the fact that most kids grow up playing cricket as well as football so their handling skills are solid, or simply some disposition to the position, the exact reason remains unclear. But Australian goalkeepers have managed to develop an impressive reputation in world football. From Mark Bosnich, John Filan, Adam Federici and Mark Schwarzer (who was number one in 2009’s Top 50 Aussies) with their time in the English Premier League, to Zeljko Kalac with his stints in Holland and Italy. Throw in Ante Covic, Michael Petkovic to Mitch Langerak now at Borussia Dortmund, we have long been blessed with quality keepers.

Mathew David Ryan is continuing this trend.

The boy wonder from Blacktown, who made his A-League debut at the tender age of just 18, is on his way to being one of the best goalkeepers on the planet. Ryan finished another outstanding season in the Jupiler Pro League. Again he was named as the best keeper in Belgium, the second time he has won the award in his two years at Club Brugge, which is voted on by the players. Last season he added winning Belgian Cup to his growing list of honours and he helped spearhead his club side all the way to the Europa League quarter-finals.

In the 2014/15 campaign Ryan made a mammoth 58 appearances in league, European and cup competitions, recording 21 cleansheets. It was a fantastic return for a player that has gone to a new level at the Jan Breydel Stadium since arriving from Central Coast Mariners. Ryan became a much-loved figure in the Belgian city, nicknamed The Australian Wall for his feats in protecting the Blue-Black’s goal in every match. He has come to the fore in the unrelenting environment of European football, and agrees that the past 12 months have probably been the best of his fledgling career.

“It’s been a good year, there’s been plenty of football this year and it’s good to wind down a little bit now,” Ryan says.

“My first season in Bruges we got knocked out of the Europa League really early and in the Cup also, so we only had one game every week with the league. But since the World Cup, having 10 days off and this year being a successful season with Club Brugge, the Europa League campaign and the Cup, it’s sort of a sour feeling at the end that we failed to win the championship.

“If you look back on the club’s season, we could have done the double with the Cup and then the Europa League, it would have been phenomenal season. It still has been, but it’s just hard not to let the disappointment of not winning the title overshadow it a little bit. Winning two trophies with the Asian Cup and the Belgian Cup, I’ll probably look back and see it was a great season.”

Club Brugge finished the regular season on top of the table but the Jupiler Pro League uses a playoff system at the end of that. Gent prevailed in the playoffs, just edging past the Blue-Blacks who finished in second, meaning heartbreak for Ryan and his teammates. The 23-year old drives himself hard to achieve success and not winning the league after dominating the competition for so long was a bitter blow.

“I’ve got mixed views on the Belgian competition and the way it’s run,” he says. “It’s the only league in Europe where it’s a disadvantage to be in a European competition, in the Champions League or the Europa League, because the points are halved at the end and it just brings the competition closer. I think we ended up playing 18 or 20 more games this season. You do the hard work a year to build yourself a lead, and then to get halved at the end and it gets that much closer. You could argue the fact the team that has played more games is more gelled together, or you could say we’re more tired or more fatigued because of the more games.

“Gent had an advantage in focusing only on the league and they were a lot fresher than we were. But they’re little excuses, we’re playing for a trophy. They were the better team in the playoffs and they won. “It’s a bit of question mark on how the Belgian system works and it’s a bit of a disadvantage with the playoffs but that’s football. That’s the way it is there and we have to do our best to adjust.”

Club Brugge’s European journey also ended at the quarter-final stage. After a fantastic run, which saw them go unbeaten past Torino, Besiktas, FC Copenhagen and Grasshoppers, they were knocked out by a single goal to Dnipro. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg, a deflected goal from the Ukrainian side was enough to knock out the Belgian outfit.

“It’s bitterly disappointing,” Ryan admits. “The only thing that separated us going through was that deflection of the goal. We had a free kick just prior to that down field and we decided to play it short. I don’t think our players were all on the same page, I think it took us by surprise and he lost the ball and then they went on the counter attack and scored a deflected goal. That was the difference over the two legs why we didn’t go to the semi-final and why we got knocked out. That’s football at the end of the day. We can still be pretty proud of the season we had, especially in Europe going all the way to the quarter-finals.”

I’m still learning with every game. I’m just loving my football. This year’s been full on!

However, individually, the Marconi Stallions junior had a lot to be pleased about. He kept seven cleansheets, conceding just seven goals from 14 matches. He earned rave reviews across the continent and confirmed his status as a star on the rise.

"I was pretty happy with my form overall in the Europa League,” Ryan reflects. “The number of clean sheets and the majority of the time the defence did a great job in front of me to limit the chances that they had. “It’s a big competition the Europa League and we were very eager to show what Club Brugge and a Belgian side could offer in a big competition like that.

“The statistics speak for themselves. We were up there with the most amount of goals scored and I think that’s recognition of just how good our campaign was in Europe.”

Ryan’s performances in the Europa League, as well as his dominant displays in the Asian Cup, have piqued the interest of several of Europe’s biggest clubs and the Socceroo was linked to Liverpool and Roma (before making his move to Valenica). He is level-headed and honest and knows he still has work to do, that he is not yet the finished article.

“I’m still learning with every game I’m playing and I’ll continue on learning with every game I play in the future,” he says. “I’m just loving my football. This year has been really full on, plenty of games and experiencing another big competition. The Socceroos games, experiencing matches against big opposition and even the small opposition they’re all learning curves. I’m not trying to think too far ahead. I’m just trying to work hard on the present and take it one it day at the time and see where it takes me.”

Taking over from Schwarzer in the national team was never going to be easy, especially from such an iconic figure as the former Middlesbrough, Fulham and Chelsea man. But Ryan has made it look fairly easy for someone so young. While the World Cup in Brazil was difficult, Ryan has grown from the experience and was outstanding in the Asian Cup. Not blessed with Schwarzer’s height or reach, Ryan makes up for it with athleticism, speed and anticipation. The 2011 Joe Marston Medal winner is the archetype of the modern goalkeeper –comfortable with the ball at his feet, able to play as another defender or to start attacks with his passing.

In Ange Postecoglou’s reborn Socceroos, he has quickly become an integral member. Ryan’s career may be going into overdrive but he is keeping his feet on the ground. Raised by a single mother and from humble origins, his head is switched on right. Hard work and dedication is his motto, and Ryan has big ambitions to realise. Only a brave man would bet against him reaching those lofty goals.

“We always want to get the best for ourselves and in my life I want to get to the highest level in football. I feel like I’m progressing well but there’s always room for improvement. There’s always going to be goals scored against you so there’s always an opportunity for you to make a save where you’re not expected to make it. “I’ll just keep working hard to strive for perfection. I know it’s not achievable but there’s no harm in trying.”

HE SAID: “Sometimes before I go to bed, I sit and gather my thoughts and think of what I’m doing. I’m actually playing for the Socceroos, the national team I grew up idolising as a little kid and all you wanted to do and dream about. You hear a lot of cliches but for it to be the reality and to do what I do for a living, for everything I’ve achieved along the way, it’s hard to gather your thoughts and take it all in.”

THEY SAID: “Faced with a great performance against a very strong team and a goalkeeper who performed at least three or four truly extraordinary saves. I have to compliment him (Ryan), some of those saves were completely incredible.” Torino coach Giampiero Ventura

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