NOW his club’s established no 1 and likely headed to the Brazil World Cup next year, Club Brugge’s Socceroo goalkeeper Mathew Ryan is finding life sweet in Belgium.
The 21-year old, who moved to Europe from the Central Coast Mariners in May, is enjoying a fantastic first season with the Belgian Pro League giants.
A regular in Club Brugge’s line-up, Ryan’s team is just four points off league leaders Standard Liege and are unbeaten in their past five matches.
“It’s been great to me so far,” Ryan said. “I probably couldn’t have wished for a better start to be honest.
"In the beginning, fortunately for myself the other keeper got injured and just allowed me to play some continuous games there in the pre-season and the coach stuck by me in the early stages of the season.
"Just each week I look forward to backing up my performances from the week before and I’ve been pretty content with my form.”
Ryan has recorded a number of clean sheets and has kept his spot in the starting XI following a mid-season coaching change with Juan Carlos Garrido sacked in September to make way for Michel Preud’homme.
“It’s a different style compared to what I was used to under Arnie,” Ryan said. “Arnie’s teams were always defensively very strong with the structure that he created.
"Coming here to Brugge we had a Spanish coach in the beginning and he was more of a free-flowing sort of football coach.
"Typical Spanish-style, close combination play, and very offensively-minded so at the back I was always feeling a little bit vulnerable compared to what I’d been used to.
"Being a goalkeeper obviously your job’s to make saves, along with other aspects, but that’s mainly what we’re judged on so I found myself being pretty busy in the shot-stopping department.
"Fortunately I was in the right place at the right time for the majority of the occasions this season. I’m really enjoying being able to make important saves for the team at the moment.”
Preud’homme is one of the best goalkeeper’s in Belgian football history and won the award for the best goalkeeper at the FIFA World Cup.
“I quickly learnt that he was a legend here,” Ryan said. “In terms of having much to do with me personally, he came in midway throughout the season so it’s been pretty difficult for him.
"He’s just been focusing on the team as his main focus, in terms of getting the style across. He mentions a couple of little things to me on how he wants me to play.
"But with every week we’re getting to know each other a little bit more. Hopefully he can have a positive influence on my career also.”
Ryan is at a Belgian club familiar with Australian players after the successful past stints of Frank Farina and Paul Okon.
Farina spent three years at Club Brugge helping the club to a Belgian title, a Cup and two Supercups, as well as winning several individual awards, while Okon had five years at there and also won a title, two Cups and the Golden Shoe award.
Over the years the likes of Socceroos Aurelio Vidmar, Archie Thompson, Josip Skoko and Eddie Krncevic have all played in the Pro League.
“I think every Australian has come to Belgian has done really well so they’ve created a great reputation for Australians here,” Ryan said.
“As soon as I came here there were murmurs about me hopefully doing very well for the club and the more chances the fans had to see me in game situations, I was happy enough to play well.
"They’ve really come to like me well and obviously I appreciate it. They’re a massive part of the football club here. They have access to training. We do a lot of stuff for the fans.
"We had a little bit of a bad run and lost three in a row and they came and bombarded the training pitch before our game, put forward their opinions on how we’d been playing and let us know that it wasn’t acceptable that we weren’t winning.
"Thankfully for me they weren’t too angry with me that day. On game day we normally have a full stadium around 25,000 to 27,000 people there and they’re a massive part.
"It’s just crazy over here the passion they have for football. They live and breathe it here. They expect a lot for us and it’s good when we get a victory to repay them.”
Ryan admits he knew little about the club or the city of Bruges itself before his move there.
“It’s a beautiful little city,” he said, mentioning the canals and medieval architecture. “People have always told me I’m not in a bad spot here. It’s good. I enjoy being here.”
With 11 matches left in the season, Ryan knows expectations are high at Jan Breydel Stadium and the keeper is confident of continuing his impressive and adding more silverware after his A-League grand final last season.
“Anything but being champions here is sort of considered a failure,” he said. “I understand it’s been six or seven years since they’ve been champions.
"Every year’s the same; they’re really pushing for it again. In the beginning we had a few injuries and a few new faces in the team and we weren’t playing our best football but we were picking up results.
"That’s the most important thing. I think we’re in a good position at the moment.
"I don’t see with the squad we have at the moment any reason why, and from the opposition I’ve seen, why we can’t go all the way this season.”