“If I could have a career like Liam Brady or Robbie Keane I’d definitely take that,” quips Ryan Nolan.
He’s certainly in elite company.
In 2015, Ryan Nolan moved to Italian giants Inter Milan becoming only the third Irishman to ever play for the club behind Brady and Keane. During his four years in Italy, the Clare native has captained the U19s, made his first-team debut and signed his first professional contract. All before the age of 20.
“I think for myself, the season has gone really well, especially the pre-season with the first team,” began Nolan speaking to Pundit Arena.
“I’ve learned a lot and it’s been a very good experience to train and play with them for about a month. In the league we’re about 4th or 5th, we’re not doing great at the moment, but with the Youth League we’ve played well every match but we’ve been unlucky.”
Born in Clare, Nolan grew up with a ball at his feet. At the age of eight, he and his family moved to Spain where the 19-year-old’s love for football continued to blossom, before impressive displays for Murcia in an underage tournament afforded him a unique opportunity at one of European football’s biggest clubs.
“When I was about eight I moved to Spain with my family, my Mam, my Dad and my brother and I was just playing football there,” began Nolan.
“I started playing football when I was about three or four, even back in Ireland just playing in my garden, I always had a ball and I’d put my little brother in goals all the time and try to score on him! I just love football really.
“When I got to Spain I started playing straight away, I met new friends and I kept playing and playing. Then I was in this tournament between provinces in Spain, like the equivalent of Munster vs Leinster and we played this team in Barcelona and I played very well in the two games and that’s where the Inter scout saw me.
“Then we played another two games with the Murcia province and I played well and (Inter) decided to sign me.”
The 19-year old was spotted and signed by legendary scout Pierluigi Casiraghi, a close friend of Liam Brady, and accepted the offer to play at the San Siro before even consulting his parents.
Nolan’s journey to Italy was unique, but life at Inter Milan has become the norm.
The iconic black and blue stripes weigh heavy on some. There is an implicit pressure involved in donning the Nerazzurri kit. Only two other Irish men have ever worn it, but after four years Nolan feels as though he has become accustomed to the everyday challenges that come with representing a club of the stature of Inter Milan.
“Yeah, the first year at the club was hard,” admitted Nolan.
“To get used to the language and the teammates and all that kind of stuff, but now I’ve been here four years and everybody knows me and I know everybody, even the kitmen, everybody! It feels like home, I know everybody and the training centre is like my second home. I feel really good here and I’m enjoying it.
“I think I’ve gotten used to playing with this jersey. At the start, it was a big leap playing for Inter Milan. When I put that jersey on I put pressure on myself more than anything.
“Now you play week-in and week-out in that jersey and you get used to it and it becomes normal almost.”
The Clare native has become an integral part of Inter’s underage side. Nolan primarily plays as a central defender and is the current captain of the Nerazzurri’s U19s.
Nolan, who is represented by Lee Mudd and New Era Global Sports, describes himself as a defender who loves a tackle and credits his dad for helping him develop the leadership skills he displays in abundance on the field.
But does the old adage about Italian football ring true for Nolan? Has plying his trade in Italy improved the 19-year old’s defensive instincts?
“Oh yeah, I think I’ve improved massively as a defender being in Italy,” admitted Nolan, an experience that he feels will stand to him regardless of where his career in the future takes him.
“Tactically and with defensive positions, the way to defend in general, the line and everything I don’t think in any other country you learn what you learn here in Italy.
“In Spain they like centre-halves to come out with the ball but they don’t look at the way you defend much. When you’re in Italy the first thing is ‘how good are you at defending?’ and I think I’ve learned loads defensive wise definitely.
“A lot of people used to say that if you want to become a good defender you have to move to Italy because of the way they defend and the way they think defensively, so anywhere I go now I have that in my pocket, I have that defensive nature now in me so that will definitely help me wherever I go.”
Nolan’s improvement has been clearly catching the eye of the right people. In August he made his first-team debut during a pre-season friendly against Swiss side Lugano and signed his first professional contract at the club.
Despite his talents and the first team opportunities he has been given, Nolan is realistic about his chances at a club of the size and stature of Inter Milan and explained that he, like many other young players at top sides in Italy, may have to go out on loan to gain vital playing time at senior level.
“In Italy it’s very hard to get into first teams, there’s not that much of a chance unless you’re exceptional so I think especially at a big club like Inter you have to be top class.
“A lot of the lads decide go on loan to Serie B and Serie C which is the equivalent to the Championship or League One, for a year or two or whatever and they learn the trade down there with tough lads and hopefully do well, play well and come back to original team then in the future. It’s very hard to break straight into the first team directly.”
Born in Ireland, raised in Spain (whom he is eligible to represent) and playing in Italy, Nolan could be forgiven for having his international eggs in more than one basket.
But having played for the Boys in Green at U17s and U18s level, the young defender is in no doubt as to which country he would like to represent going forward.
“Ireland is the focus for me right now. I’m 100% Irish. Even my accent is more Irish than most!
“I 100% want to play for Ireland. I want to put on the green jersey definitely.”
19 years of age and currently at one of the biggest clubs in Europe it’s unusual to many that Nolan has yet to receive a call-up to the Irish U21s setup.
Under previous boss Noel King, Nolan felt he was close to the squad, but with the era of Stephen Kenny on the horizon, the Clare native outlined that he is optimistic of his chances of inclusion going forward.
“Yeah definitely. Even under Noel King, there was talk that he could call me up but he obviously already had his squad and the qualifiers had already been going on for about a year or two but I think now that there’s a different regime it’s a bit of a new start and a new set of qualifiers.
“I’ve heard that Stephen Kenny likes to play football, I haven’t really seen too many Dundalk matches but there’s talk that he likes to play modern football and that makes me happy so hopefully, I can get a call up soon.”
Talent aside, Nolan is in the unique, but in some ways awkward, position of plying his trade in Europe and away from the usual English and Irish clubs that so many of the underage players are affiliated with.
Only one player from outside of Britain and Ireland was included in the most recent Irish U19s squad (Tom Gaston) and none in the most recent U21s squad.
Nolan feels that may represent a reason why he has yet to force his way into the Irish underage setup.
“It could be a bit of an issue I suppose because 80 or 90% of the players that are in the U19s or U21 squads are playing in England except for a few maybe playing in League of Ireland so it’s normal that the coaches are going to go to England to watch all the lads because there are loads of them.
“I’m the only guy in Italy playing so it would be harder for them to get over. I’m not 100% sure but I don’t think they did come over. It’s probably a bit of an issue in that sense. I know this season with the Youth League we played in England and we played internationally so hopefully, they got to see me a bit more.”
For now, the 19-year old’s goal remains to continue to edge his way towards the Inter Milan first team.
His feet, however, remain firmly on the ground. Even the mention of Ryan Nolan alongside Robbie Keane and Liam Brady still makes him chuckle.