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Herculean effort secures promotion and kicks Nolan’s footballing career back into top gear

HAVING put severe injury setbacks behind him, Ryan Nolan is now an important player for Hercules CF, the Alicante club that has just won promotion to Spain’s third tier.
Hercules are a big club in Spain, with a stadium that holds 30,000 while they were in La Liga as recently as 2011.
They have huge support in Alicante and there were incredible scenes of jubilation and a huge pitch invasion when they beat Lleida Esportiu on May 5, which meant they won the division and took the only automatic promotion place.
Nolan, who spent the first eight years of his life in Shannon before his family moved to Spain, was famously signed by Inter Milan as a teenager. In 2020 he signed for Getafe and was on the brink of playing in La Liga, having been named on the bench.
However disaster struck with a cruciate injury before he made his first team debut, and he left the club. Spells with Northampton Town and Raith Rovers followed, before the move to Hercules, which brought him back close to where his family lived.
Achieving promotion with Hercules was a fantastic moment in his career. “It was massive, a club like Hercules was in the first division for a long, long time, really big players played for this club. Obviously it had a few bad years and dropped down the leagues. My aim was to come to Spain where my family lives and get promotion,” he said.
“We had to win the last match to go up and it was a brilliant feeling. There were 30,000 people at the stadium, a great, great day.”
Some of his relations travelled over to see promotion up close. “My uncle and my two cousins came over from Shannon and it was brilliant. We were playing at 12 o’clock and at 10 or 10.15 we arrived in the bus and there must have been eight or nine thousand waiting, they were singing, fireworks and all that kind of stuff. That was a great start. When we came out the stadium was full, 30,000 people, which is crazy in the league we were in. When we won everyone came onto the pitch, it was madness, but a great, great day.”
Had they not won they would have been in the play-offs, with the teams who finished between second and fifth, with no guarantees.
They are the best supported side in Alicante, a city with a population of over 330,000 and Nolan loved his first season there.
“Alicante is a great city to live in and you could feel the energy and feel the excitement here over the last few weeks. Hercules is the biggest team in Alicante and basically everyone from Alicante supports Hercules. When you went for a coffee you’d see people with the t-shirts on or people would stop you and say ‘come on, we need to win this weekend, we have to go up, ‘ things like that.
“A lot of apartments would have flags out on the balconies. It was great for us and for the city as well. They haven’t had it easy for a few years, but after 14 years they finally have a promotion.”
His own family are in Murcia, just up the road, and the fact he could see them regularly was a big selling point for him before signing.
“I had two or three offers from the league above, but one Hercules was closer to home and second it’s a massive, massive club, if you’ve seen the videos, the fan base and the stadium, it’s like the first or second division. For me it was a good project, I could come closer to home where I’d be happier, I’d play for a massive club and we knew that getting promotion would be massive for everyone’s career as well. Hercules is very well thought of and looked at in Spain.”
Hercules were on top by Christmas but there were a string of underwhelming results early in 2024, before a vital goal from their Irish centre half saw them get their momentum back. “We played against Alzira away I scored in the 94th minute, the last kick of the game, we won 1-0, the leaders lost that round, and then we went on a run, won six games in a row to win the league.
“At the time the owner and the President said that’s going to be the goal that’s going to win us the league. It was a mental thing, there were four or five games that we drew 0-0 or 1-1, we couldn’t get a win from anywhere, so to score that in the last minute was extra special for me and the team.
“It gave us a massive boost, and it probably put a lot of doubts in the mind of the team that were top at the time, they went on a bad run and we started beating teams easily enough in the last few games.”
He feels that the squad were the best in the division, even though they weren’t certain of the title until the last day. “On paper we were the best team individually. At home we have a massive stadium and the pitch is really good, but in this league a lot of the time when you go away from home the pitches are very tight and small, the grass isn’t great. We are a team that plays a lot of football so sometimes it’s not easy to go to those places and get good results, but we’ve done it anyway.”
He was also happy with his own form, particularly down the stretch. “I had a small injury at the start of pre-season so I didn’t play the first four or five games. After that I got in and played nearly every game. In the last couple of months I played very well, I’ve been in really good form and the Hercules fans have taken to me too.”
In a parallel universe, where the cruciate injury never happened, he could be an established player in La Liga.
However injuries are a reality of professional football and Nolan is pleased with how he has rebounded. “Obviously when you have a bad injury like that and you spend a year out it’s tough physically with your knee, but it’s tough mentally as well to get back to the level that you know you can reach. Last year helped me, getting the games in Scotland, getting the rust out of my game, playing against good teams there. This year I think I’ve grown a lot as a footballer and a person again, I think my level is getting back to where it was before the injury. I’m happy with where I am at the moment, in a good place mentally and physically and hopefully it can continue.”
2024/25 excites him, and he is hopeful for another promotion push. “I have another year of contract and I’m very happy here. We’re in a very good league next year with teams like Malaga, Madrid B, Barca B. Big clubs, big stadiums to go to.
“From what people are saying we’re definitely going to make some signings, the club wants to go up again next year, or at least get to the play offs. A club like Hercules should be in the first or at least the second, with the stadium and fan base they have.”
At the moment he is relaxing after the mental and physical strains of a season spent chasing promotion. “ Obviously I need to rest the legs and that, but I like to go to the gym, do a little bit and keep fit, an odd run here and there. It was a tough year, mentally and physically it was demanding and you have to keep a balance.
“Sometimes I struggle with rest, I’m always trying to get better, but it’s important at this time of year to rest as much as you can.”
He came almost as close as one can to playing in La Liga without actually doing so, but he still wants to play in one of the world’s top leagues and feels he can do so.
“I was on the bench twice at Getafe and then obviously the injury happened when I was on the verge of making my breakthrough. For me ever since that injury happened the goal has been to get back to where I was. It’s a dream to make your debut in the first division of wherever you’ve grown up watching football, whether it’s the Premier League or La Liga or whatever.
“My goal since the injury and operations has been to play in La Liga, I feel like it’s unfinished business and my aim is to get back there.”

Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.

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