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"Hoops"

Ryan Houlihan


Career : 2000 - 2011
Debut : Round 11, 2000 vs North Melbourne, aged 18 years, 119 days
Carlton Player No. 1040
Games : 201
Goals : 127
Last Game: Round 20, 2011 vs Melbourne, aged 29 years, 197 days
Guernsey No. 33
Height : 183 cm (6 ft. 0 in.)
Weight : 84 kg (13 stone, 3 lbs.)
DOB : 21 January, 1982
AFL Rising Star Nominee: Round 20, 2000


The third in a family of four brothers who were all drafted by AFL clubs, Ryan Houlihan was selected by Carlton at pick 73 in the 1999 National Draft from Murray Bushrangers Under 18s. Ryan’s eldest brother Damien had played 11 games for Collingwood in 1994, and next in line Adam appeared 94 times for Geelong and Richmond from 1997 to 2004. Two years after Ryan joined Carlton, his youngest brother Josh was drafted by St Kilda. Josh wasn’t able to make it through to senior level with the Saints, but did turn out later with Carlton's VFL affiliate, the Northern Bullants. An uncle, Paul O'Donoghue, also played for North Melbourne in 1976.

At Carlton, Ryan was allocated the number 33 guernsey previously worn with distinction by 1995 Premiership player Matthew Hogg. Inevitably called ‘Houla’ by his team-mates, he quickly picked up the nickname ‘Hoops’ and had a notable start to his AFL career by playing in a Preliminary Final in his debut season. Although quite slimly-built, he was a mercurial type with excellent foot skills, vision and judgement. He was a late inclusion for his first game in round 11, 2000, and played every one of his 13 matches for the year off the interchange bench.

In round 20, before a sell-out crowd of 91,000 at the MCG, Houla won a Rising Star nomination for his impressive 20-possession game in Carlton’s blockbuster clash against fierce Premiership rivals Essendon. Called into the match early by injuries to stars Anthony Koutoufides and Craig Bradley, the youngster was thrust into the midfield, where he showed poise and a cool head under pressure in a 26-point loss.

The same two teams met in the Preliminary Final later that year, and a seriously-depleted Carlton was no match for a Bomber combination on the way to a Premiership. Although the Blues had done well to get as far as they did, many of the team’s stars were at the twilight of their careers, and the darkest days of the Carlton Football Club were looming in the not too distant future.

In round 1, 2001, against the Fremantle Dockers at Subiaco, Ryan’s first game in the starting line-up finished in a desperate 1-point win by the Blues. From then on he was a regular at half-forward – where his elusiveness and neat passing skills off either foot made him an asset. In 23 games for the year, Hoops kicked 28 goals, and set up as many more. Finishing fifth, Carlton was knocked out of flag contention by Richmond in a slogging Semi Final at the MCG. That was champion full-back Stephen Silvagni’s last game for the Blues – and Carlton’s last finals appearance for eight long years.

How and why the Old Dark Navy Blues slid into the abyss between 2002 and 2007 has been the subject of debate ever since. During those bleak times, while the team collected three wooden spoons and teetered on the edge of insolvency, there were very few positives – apart from the loyalty of many players, and the steely resolve among the administration and supporters to see the club survive. Throughout those often-depressing six seasons, Hoops was a reliable, sometimes inspirational contributor – regularly called on to fill a need at both ends of the ground. In round 21, 2002 against the Bulldogs, he was shifted into defence for the first time in his career – promptly gathering 23 possessions and setting up the winning goal.

In 2003 an uninterrupted pre-season saw him start the year bigger and stronger than before, and he spoke of feeling more confident under Carlton’s new coach Denis Pagan. He played all 22 matches that year, highlighted by the round 3 victory over Essendon, in which he gathered a then career-best 28 possessions and kicked two goals to collect three Brownlow Medal votes. His goal in the last quarter - in driving rain, and from a tight angle in the forward pocket, sealed the win and triggered a memorable 'chainsaw' celebration that was a season highlight.

Later in the year Houla was played as a running half back, asked to set up forward thrusts with precise kicking, and was such a revelation that he spent the next three seasons in the role. He finished off 2003 with a gutsy 31-possession effort as one of the few Blues to stand up in Carlton’s round 22 thrashing by the Kangaroos. His consistency saw him finish top 10 in the Best and Fairest, and that achievement brought a lucrative offer to join Melbourne – an offer he thankfully refused.

When a batch of experienced ‘retreads’ and a smattering of youngsters helped to temporarily lift Carlton from the lower rungs of the ladder in 2004, Hoops assumed more of a leadership role and enjoyed another consistent year, bringing him a well-deserved fourth place in the voting for the Blues’ Best and Fairest. He brought up his 100th game in round 3, 2005 against Collingwood, becoming the third-youngest Blue ever to achieve this mark, after Robert Walls and Lance Whitnall.

In 2006 he put in another honest pre-season to reach new personal-best levels of strength and endurance, which allowed him to play regularly in the midfield throughout his 22 games. Late in the year, he was given run-with roles on some of the opposition's best players and performed well, showing an ability to not only run hard all game, but also to restrict a specific opponent. Among the scalps he collected in this role were Brownlow Medallist Jason Akermanis – whom he kept to 9 possessions, Darren Milburn (2 kicks) and Nathan Eagleton (11 possessions). Furthermore, Houla raised his own average possession rate to 21 per game, highlighting a newly-found ability to win the ball as an inside or outside player.

Maintaining remarkable consistency, Hoops notched up another 21 games in 2007. When he emerged from the tunnel at Docklands Stadium on a Saturday night in late April to play Brisbane, he became Carlton’s games record holder for guernsey 33, surpassing Peter McConville's previous record of 140 matches. A few weeks later, he celebrated his 150th game in style at the MCG in round 14 at just 25 years of age. Although Melbourne won the match by 23 points, Houlihan kept the Demons’ dangerous goal-sneak Aaron Davey to a season-low four disposals in a near-faultless defensive display. Later in the season, he won more plaudits for subduing among others, Geelong’s Gary Ablett Jnr, and James Hird of Essendon.

While kicking goals had become somewhat of a rarity since his move out of the forward line in 2003, Hoops showed he still knew where the big sticks were when he posted three classy snap goals in Carlton’s round 11 victory over Port Adelaide. In other games, racked up a season-high 33 possessions in the round 20 clash against Essendon, and another 29 in the high-scoring clash against Brisbane in round 5. And to cap off a season of real value to his team, Houla was awarded Life Membership of the Carlton Football Club in recognition of his eight years of senior service.

For most of his career, Ryan had had a charmed run with injury and rarely missed a game. But after playing the first three matches of 2008, he aggravated a painful hip problem that he later admitted to struggling with for years. He underwent surgery on both hip joints, then had to endure a lengthy period of rehabilitation. Remarkably, he did make it back onto the paddock that season – for the Round 21 match at the Gabba against Brisbane - and immediately made an impact by kicking three goals in a game remembered for Carlton's greatest ever come-from-behind win from behind at three-quarter time.

In the words of then assistant coach Matthew Lappin, Houlihan had “a really solid year offensively and defensively” in 2009. He proved he was well and truly over his injury problems in Carlton’s big win over Richmond in the opening round, when he collected 29 disposals at 90% efficiency and laid 6 tackles. In the Round 2 victory over Brisbane, Hoops brought up his 100th career goal, as well as picking up 25 disposals at 88% efficiency. But surely his best game of the year was the Elimination Final against Brisbane at the Gabba. As one of only two Blues with finals experience, Hoops led by example to gather 25 possessions (10 contested) and 5 clearances, as his team faltered badly in the last quarter and Brisbane charged home to win by 5 points.

By then, Ryan was regarded as an elder statesman of the club and a role model for younger players. Which explains why the Blues’ administration was embarrassed by the adverse publicity that occurred after a series of alcohol-fuelled incidents during and after Carlton’s Christmas party aboard a chartered boat on the Yarra River. The affair was splashed across Melbourne’s newspapers and infuriated the club. It was soon revealed that the three main culprits were Houlihan, Eddie Betts and Andrew Walker, and all three were immediately fined and suspended from 2010 pre-season training for a month. As well, they were packed off to a boxing gym, where they underwent a punishing, intensive fitness program. To their credit, the trio realised the gravity of what they had done and knuckled down to complete their penalties - which in the end, had a positive effect. All three achieved best-ever levels of fitness, and their collective attitude convinced the club that a harsh lesson had been well learnt.

In 2010 Ryan became Carlton’s most experienced and longest serving current player, having been at the club more than 10 years. Unfortunately, hamstring and knee injuries restricted him to just 13 games for the year and left him still five games short of 200. Even so, the shortened season was not without its highlights. He completely blanketed St Kilda’s Sam Fisher, restricting him to just 6 possessions in Carlton’s round 7 victory over the Saints, and kicked a career-high four goals to be judged Best on Ground in the Blues’ Round 11 victory over Melbourne. At 28 years of age by year’s end, he still had plenty to offer, and despite successive early exits from the finals in 2009-10, the Navy Blues were a team on the rise.

By early 2011, the Blues were training hard and Houlihan was poised for another big year – only to be struck down by a calf muscle injury that derailed his program for the best part of six months. He eventually returned to play VFL football with the Northern Bullants in late May, and earned a recall to Carlton’s senior squad for the match against Sydney at Docklands in round 13. His long-awaited and well-deserved 200th game came in the Blues’ round 19 victory over North Melbourne on a Friday night at Docklands, but he was destined to play only one more game after that, before injury again interfered to end his season - and his career.

After playing the last quarter as Carlton’s substitute in a huge win over Melbourne in round 21, Hoops was diagnosed with a bruised heel that kept him off the field for another month. Therefore, with little or no prospects of fighting his way back into the team, Ryan bowed to the inevitable and announced his retirement as a Carlton player on the eve of the finals.

Prior to reaching the 200-game milestone, he had summed up his career this way; “It’s been an absolute rollercoaster, the first 12 years,” he said. “When I first got here as an 18 year-old, we absolutely dominated and we were smashing teams, but by the time my second year rolled around I was playing every game. Football seemed so easy and I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

“By the time I got to my third year we went from just missing out on a Grand Final to wooden spoons and these were really tough times. There were moments driving to games when I was thinking ‘How much are we going to get smashed by this week?’ It makes you enjoy these times even more, because you’ve been through the tough times, and now it’s a real pleasure to drive in.”

Then, on announcing his retirement, he explained; “In the end, football’s been good to me, but with form and injury I thought my time had come to step away. I would have loved to achieve ultimate success in winning a Premiership, but you can’t always get the fairytale ending. I’m not really sure when it’s going to hit me, but I’m sure that it will, because football’s been a big part of my life, I loved football and I still love football.” He also said that he planned to take a holiday, and think seriously about a future in coaching somewhere, “but I don’t really know yet.”

Those words rang true when Hoops signed with the Sydney Hills Eagles for 2012. In his role as a playing assistant coach, Ryan will provide on-field leadership, and a potent presence in the Eagles’ attack.

Milestones

50 Games: Round 17, 2002 vs Sydney Swans
100 Games: Round 3, 2005 vs Collingwood
150 Games: Round 14, 2007 vs Melbourne
100 Goals: Round 2, 2009 vs Brisbane Lions
200 Games: Round 19, 2011 vs North Melbourne

100 Goals: Round 2, 2009 vs Brisbane Lions

Career Highlights

2000 - AFL Rising Star Nominee
2000 - Past Players Encouragement Award
2003 - 8th in Best and Fairest
2004 - 7th in Best and Fairest
2005 - Pre-Season Premiership Player
2007 - Pre-Season Premiership Player
2007 - 4th in Best and Fairest
2007 - Life Membership
2007 - Record holder for Guernsey 33

Articles: The Longest Roads to Glory | The Houliclan

Blueseum: Summary of playing statistics for Ryan Houlihan | Career Breakdown | Houlihan's Blueseum Image Gallery

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