Fr Ryan

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Cornelius Ryan: A football Father beyond the robe

What you need to know:

Indelible mark. On December 29, Fr Cornelius Ryan, a former teacher and school administrator, passed on, leaving behind fond memories for his sports legacy at St Leo’s Kyegobe in Fort Portal and St Henry’s College Kitovu where he revolutionised school football.

The national post-primary schools’ football championship has always been dominated by Kampala schools since its inception in 1986.
During the first 11 years of the competition, only Kololo, Lubiri and Kibuli won it. Kibuli SSS accounted for six of those titles.
A gravitational force struck the annual contest in 1997. A then-little-known St Leo’s College Kyegobe, located in Fort Portal, Kabarole District, won it, beating Kibuli 4-0 in the final.

Those tremors were engineered by Fr Cornelius Ryan. He died on December 29, 2021, in the US aged 84.
A Holy Cross priest of the Indiana Province ordained in 1966, Ryan lived and worked in Uganda as a teacher from 1967 to 1999, when he returned to Indiana.
For close to 30 years, Fr Ryan worked at St Henry’s College Kitovu where he came to be known by nicknames such as Kirevu, Omuzungu or Liyaani.

In that time ‘coach’ Ryan transformed Kitovu, a Catholic-founded school, into a football powerhouse. First, his team never lacked equipment.
Kitovu was always among the smartest teams in terms of jerseys and boots. In a school that has so many football pitches, evenings saw all classes play football, casually.
However, such was the infectious nature of Fr Ryan that some students were always conflicted between playing and watching the school team train. It was that engrossing.  

Schools sports icon. Fr Ryan helped end the dominance and stronghold of Kampala schools on national post-primacy football championship by winning the Holy Grail with St Leo’s Kyegobe


Those teams churned many footballers among whom include legendary Uganda Cranes striker Polly Ouma, part of the team that reached the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations final.
“Muzungu was a special person. His players were his sons. The special treatment he had for footballers would sometimes cause conflict with the school administration,” Ouma recalls.

One famous conflict came in 1995 when Brother Joseph Kawuki became headmaster at Kitovu. The disciplinarian suspended some Fr Ryan’s star players.
Reason? They had arrived five minutes late for morning preps. Now, these stars slept at Fr Ryan’s and it is most likely prior to Brother Kawuki’s coming that they wouldn’t even have to have attended the dawn classes.
Fr Ryan complained at the school assembly that it was being heavy-handed to suspend students for arriving five minutes late.

In response, Brother Kawuki argued that Fr Ryan needed to calculate what arriving late five minutes every day translates into for a whole term.
That Kitovu conveyor belt also produced Derrick Muyanja, Sula Kato and Sam Mukasa, among others.
Muyanja would go on to win a league title with KCCA and play for Uganda while Kato is widely regarded among the greatest left-sided wingers SC Villa has ever had.
Moving to Kitovu
For some reason, Fr Ryan did not win the national post-primary schools’ championship, now the Copa Coca Cola Schools’ Championship, while at Kitovu where his hand was more ingrained in football.

They had to settle for multiple Le Mennais titles – a tournament restricted to Catholic-founded schools.
Fr Ryan left Kitovu for Kyegobe in 1995, crying openly at an assembly as he bid farewell. His greatest joy on the pitch was to come in Mbarara as Kyegobe won the schools’ trophy for the first time.
That triumph broke frontiers that also saw schools from Wakiso start to win it regularly.
Mbarara’s Ngabo Academy (2001), Nagalama Islamic Institute (2002) of Mukono, Bishop Nankyama (2010) from Luweero and Jinja SSS (2017) are the only others outside of Kampala and Wakiso to win it.
Fr. Ryan made everyone believe that you could beat Kololo, Lubiri and Kibuli. That Kyegobe was as smart as Kitovu had been with him.

Muyanja (Right), one of the products of Fr Ryan’s enterprise, marks Andrew Mukasa in a league game. Photos/Courtesy

Kyegobe was a pioneer in walking into grounds dressed in tracksuits and sneakers as the opposition always came to games in their match kit.
His team would later switch to jerseys for the match kicked off.
At Kyegobe, he kick-started the football careers of goalkeepers Posnet Omony and Wilborn Obwot.
These were largely no names when they beat star-studded Kibuli that also had future Cranes star David Obua. The latter had also played under Fr. Ryan at Kitovu.

Beyond football, he also encouraged students to explore their talents besides academics and was at the forefront of securing scholarships in the US for some of the students.
Fr Ryan would be recalled by his parish in Indiana in 1999 having left an inedible mark on the game here.
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