Socceroo’s wild backstory feat. Hall of Famers, Grealish & a transfer ‘written in the stars’

Ryan Strain came through Aston Villa’s youth ranks and played alongside a future Manchester City and England star Jack Grealish – that’s not to mention his strong family pedigree. As the former Adelaide United defender returns to the Socceroos fold on the back of his strong form in Scotland, Sacha Pisani charts his journey for KEEPUP.

There was an influx of Australians who made the move to the Scottish Premiership at the beginning of 2022-23, with Aaron Mooy, Kye Rowles, Keanu Baccus, Mark Birighitti, Aziz Behich and Lewis Miller among the recruits.

However, the most unheralded of the lot is arguably Ryan Strain, who has enjoyed a strong start to life at St Mirren.

The former Adelaide United full-back has barely put a foot wrong at Paisley, where the club are already trying to sign the Australian to a new contract to ward off interest from rival teams.

It has been a ground-breaking season for Strain. Before this term, the England-born 25-year-old had never scored a goal. He has three in 27 games.

That form led to an international debut with the Socceroos in September last year and after surprise at being initially overlooked for the upcoming friendlies against Ecuador in Sydney and Melbourne, Strain has been drafted in by Graham Arnold as a replacement for the inured Mooy.

With Strain comes a fascinating backstory and family history.

A talented sporting family

When it comes to the Strain family, they boast some strong genes.

Ryan’s grandfather Gerry Baker earned seven international caps for the United States. He also helped St Mirren win the 1959 Scottish Cup final. Gerry’s brother, Joe, was also a legendary figure for Hibernian, Arsenal and Nottingham Forest while amassing eight appearances for England.

Then there is Strain’s mother Lorraine Baker, who represented Great Britain at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where she finished fifth in the 800m final.

She also won a bronze medal at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Lorraine’s sister Karen and grandmother Ann were also athletes, so there was a strong push for Strain to follow that path.

“She wanted me to be a runner. I did the 800 metres a lot as a kid, and I used to win a fair bit,” Strain told Fox Sports in 2018.

“They wanted me to represent the state, but then I went back to England to play for Aston Villa.

“I think my mum was disappointed — she’s been stuck in a soccer family, so she wanted someone to stick with athletics!”

Aston Villa and playing with Jack Grealish

The pull of football was too much for Ryan Strain, and it all began at Aston Villa.

Ryan spent five years at the club, playing alongside brother Tom in Birmingham, where his older sibling was regularly among the leading goalscorers.

They came through the ranks at Villa, with a certain Jack Grealish in the team. They even lived with him.

A Villan through and through, Grealish went on to debut for the first team aged 16. He also captained the club back to the Premier League before Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City splashed out £100million to lure him to the Etihad Stadium in 2021.

He is also a star of the England national team, playing at the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup and featuring in a European Championship final.

“I was at Villa for five years. I did my scholarships there and then just before the pro-contract stage I got released,” Ryan recalled in an interview with the Daily Record last year, having also played with future Premier League winner Marc Albrighton in that 2013-14 Under-21 squad.

“My brother Tom and I were both there in the academy. He was a year above me and played as a striker, he was top scorer for a bit there but had a lot of problems with injuries.

“Now he’s playing locally in Australia, but he was probably the better player back then.

“We were both on par but he was a great goalscorer. He definitely followed my grandad in terms of goalscoring. I’m just a defender.

“It was a great experience for me overall and from there I went on to Australia. The one I played with at Villa that made it really big was Jack Grealish.

My brother Tom actually lived with him. You had to stay in digs down there, so I know Jack really well.

“I was at Villa on a two-year scholarship and Grealish was a year above me.

He was a cracking player then, I played a lot with him and I always knew that he was going to make it big. He’s done incredibly well.

“Everyone as a kid wants to make it as a professional footballer and I know not to take it for granted now.

“Tom kind of plays semi-pro now in Adelaide for a team called the MetroStars. They always watch my games, especially my dad (Ian) who stays up at all hours watching them.”

Winning the Australia Cup… twice!

Eventually, Ryan Strain and his family relocated to Australia as the defender landed at Modbury Jets in Adelaide in 2015.

After a brief stint there, he joined Adelaide United in the A-Leagues, initially signing a one-year scholarship contract in September 2017. Three months later, he penned a two-year extension as a senior player.

Then in October 2018, Ryan won the Australia Cup with the Reds.

Strain playing for Adelaide in 2021.

In a starting XI alongside Craig Goodwin, Isaias, Ben Halloran, Vince Lia and Paul Izzo, Marco Kurz’s Adelaide trumped Sydney FC 2-1 in front of more than 14,400 fans at Coopers Stadium.

For Ryan, he had followed in the footsteps of his grandfather Gerry Baker, who scored in St Mirren’s Scottish Cup final success against Aberdeen – a decider with a crowd eclipsing 108,000.

“Me and my grandad were very close — I was about 12 when he passed away. We have a football family really, my dad loved it, mum grew up watching it, and grandad came to a few of my games — he loved that we (Ryan and brother Tom) played,” Ryan told Fox Sports at the time of Adelaide’s second Australia Cup title.

“He’d be buzzing — sometimes you could only hear grandad shouting all the time from the sidelines. It was a bit embarrassing at times! But I have watched clips of him and he was good player.

“He was only small, but very quick — he scored a lot of goals in his career. We have the video of him scoring that goal in the final, and his medal is still there somewhere.”

Ryan Strain after winning the 2019 final.

The following year, Strain and Adelaide were at it again.

This time, Gertjan Verbeek’s Adelaide – again with Strain in a starting XI including Riley McGree, Louis D’Arrigo and Al Hassan Toure – crushed Melbourne City 4-0 at the same venue.

A St Mirren move ‘written in the stars’

After winning two trophies with Israeli giants Maccabi Haifa in 2021-22, Strain was lured to St Mirren at the start of the season.

It not only saw him join forces with fellow Australian Keanu Baccus, but it represented a homecoming of sorts, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who earned Hall of Fame status following his successful two-year period at St Mirren.

Gerry Baker scored on his debut in 1958 and he went on to be the club’s leading scoring in both the 1958-59 and 1959-60 season. En route to Scottish Cup glory in 1959, he scored in every round to take his tally to eight.

“Everyone says it’s written in the stars,” Strain told at the time of his signing in June 2022.

“It means the world especially to my mum and her side of the family. It probably hasn’t really sunk in yet. They couldn’t believe it and I’m just buzzing to be here.

“Growing up they were massive St Mirren fans because grandad made them. My grandad told me a lot of stories and I was very proud of him.

“I was reading a lot of stuff in the stadium and looking at the pictures and just seeing what he did at St Mirren. Seeing him on the Hall of Fame wall is amazing and hopefully I can continue that legacy for the club.

“My mum and dad will try to get here for the first game and we are still close with my grandad’s brother’s [Joe Baker] family.

“As soon as I found out St Mirren was interested I was straight on the plane. I can’t wait to put the shirt on and show the fans what I can do.”

Strain has not looked back. While he was not included in Australia’s World Cup squad, having debuted against New Zealand prior to Qatar 2022, he is one of the first names on Stephen Robinson’s team sheet.

He’ll likely compete with the likes of Nathaniel Atkinson and Thomas Deng for a spot in the Socceroos XI against Ecuador.