Even cancer couldn't stop inspirational coach from turning Cork into champions
It's 5.30pm on a miserable February evening in 2004 and Eamonn Ryan parks his car at the rear of Cork University Hospital. He is halfway through three months of radium treatment for prostate cancer, but not many know.
It's exactly one month since he stood on the sidelines in Donoughmore for the trial games and his first full training session with the Cork ladies footballers is later this evening in Liscarroll.
It's a 55-minute drive away but he has every intention of making it. He is tired and what spurs him on is not bravery, it's "thickness really". The fact that he'll soon be on a pitch - where he's most at home - is keeping him going.
He's motoring along in the tiniest of cars, a white 2000 Daihatsu Cuore, which navigates the potholes to north Cork surprisingly well for its modest size. He adores that Cuore, which the players have nicknamed the "Butter Box".
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For Ryan, it is his mobile office, a retreat in which he can enjoy another passion of his, music. Not learning an instrument is one of his biggest regrets, but in the Butter Box he blares anything from classical to rock. It relaxes him because tonight is important in terms of the players getting a feel for his genre of coaching. It's going to be a challenge but if he can get them to buy into how he operates, it will be more enjoyable all round.
Facilities in Liscarroll are minimal. Just one floodlight is operating in a corner of the lopsided field, shedding whatever light it can on a new era in Cork ladies football. Ryan gets on with it regardless. He has a knack for improvising and making the best of situations, and in the years to come that same resilience will rub off on his players.
The minute Ryan blows the whistle, the players are mesmerised.
"It was so enjoyable," Juliet Murphy recalls. "We'd bare light and Eamonn was saying, 'Careful now, don't bump into each other, careful now.' He was so nice and he'd say, 'We'll try that with our left leg now,' and he'd bring us in every so often and say something constructive or tweak something. He was so animated and we'd go back out and try and impress him again. We were all so enthusiastic.
"Whatever we did, he was praising us loads. We were like seven-year-olds. Praise meant so much to us, particularly the older girls. When it came to Cork we had no confidence in ourselves or in the set-up and brick by brick Eamonn built it back up. He was telling us, 'Ye're great footballers, great footballers'. He'd say that quite a lot, whether he believed it or not at the time."
For ciotóg Mary O'Connor, Ryan's arrival was like "manna from heaven".
"He'd break it down so simply for you and he was such a good communicator. You'd say to him, 'Eamonn, did you see I kicked the ball with my right leg?' and he'd throw his eyes to heaven jokingly to say, 'But yeah Mary, where did the ball go?!' You'd be predictable in your game, but he challenged you to get better."
Every drill has a purpose. Every technique is broken down, and everything is done with a ball in hand. The structure of the session is something they've never come across before. Although simple, the revelation to it all is the intensity with which Ryan wants drills done. They are short and snappy, yet quality is never to suffer.
"We always had a ball, everything was with the ball, even the warm-up," says goalkeeper Elaine Harte. "He'd say, 'What's the point in having a corner-forward bored off their head for 30 minutes playing backs and forwards and not touching the ball. You need to be touching the ball two to three hundred times in training to improve your skill, instead of just standing there waiting for a ball that might never come to you.'"
Harte first came across Ryan a year earlier, attending a coaching seminar. She thought then she had him figured out, but she wasn't even close.
"At the talk he was emphasising the importance of bringing competition into drills, no matter what age group you were working with. He gave the example of saying to kids, 'Okay, 20 points in a minute is the world record, see if ye can beat it'. Or for us he'd say, 'I'd lads last week and they got this amount of points, see if ye can beat it'. He did that in one of our first sessions and I remember thinking to myself, 'Girls, he's only trying to get into our heads, he's only trying to get the competition going!' But it worked. Straight off we were striving to be better in everything we did. We thought we were beating fellas too, or were as good as them at least!"
Gradually, Ryan asks one or two players for feedback about drills. It is his way of giving them a new sense of ownership. But even with three decades of coaching experience in the memory bank, he's still looking to improve. Subliminally, the players take note of that characteristic, and it's something they begin to do themselves over the next decade.
That eagerness to continually learn is key to the longevity of Cork's success. From Ryan's perspective, it has helped him bring a continual freshness, while the players will always find something new to work on in their individual games year in, year out. It is this approach of both player and coach, each never being satisfied, that has seen Cork raise the benchmark time and again.
Ryan wasn't fully aware of the factions that existed between the players when he first started, but he quickly became mindful of it.
"At that stage of my career I was very conscious about the importance of players getting on. While I wasn't aware of the full state of the conflict, I was aware that there wasn't a great sense of camaraderie in the first few months, but I didn't really know why.
"I didn't want to make a big deal out of fixing it. The only thing I did was make them work really hard, because now they saw that the person beside them was working as hard as they were, and gradually it hit home that they were all in this together."
For Mary O'Connor, Ryan's actions soldered a new trust among the players. A trust that had long been broken and unaddressed.
"Before, you would arrive at Cork training and sit in your car and wait until someone else got out of theirs first before you did because you didn't want to talk to each other, and we probably didn't want to get to know each other either. You have to remember we were coming from an era when you went into the dressing room, put on your gear, played a match and went home. That was it. Sure you might never see the girl next to you again.
"People were half-paranoid then because we didn't know or have faith in each other, but when Eamonn came along you knew the girl alongside you had trained really hard because you'd seen her do so.
"Once players saw that, they were committed. There was no one dodging and trust was automatically built up. If Eamonn had said, 'Jump', we'd have said, 'How high?' He created a family situation where everyone relied on everybody else, and we all knew we needed each other."
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There was a time when Ryan would have roared at players, but it was in a different era.
"It took me a long time to realise that way doesn't work. They're already under enough pressure, so your roaring is only adding to it. Of course there'll be times when you have to shout - if someone goes up the field completely and never comes back, you might have to shout then - but if you're doing it constantly it just adds to the confusion. The players have to work it out for themselves, within reason."
It would take the Cork ladies footballers months to see that they were at the centre of Ryan's methods, and gradually they became aware of the sacrifices he was making. This was their quest, yet here was a man willing to do everything to make their dreams come true.
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"He missed so much of his own life by being there for us at training and matches for over a decade," says Juliet Murphy. "At times he'd put us before his family, which can't have been easy for them, but he was infectious.
"I knew he was getting treatment when he first came on board and he was still coming to training, so he led by absolute example and through complete modesty. There was never an announcement that he wasn't feeling great, he just got on with it in his quiet, respectful way, and we responded to that. He was coming from such a genuine place and it made all the difference to us."
Extract from 'Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers' by Mary White, published by Currach Press
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