Thursday 21 March 2019

Cork keep Ryan young on fantastic journey

Eamonn Ryan and the Rebelettes go in search of an incredible seventh All-Ireland senior football title in eight years this weekend

Eamonn Ryan celebrates with his Cork players after their victory over Monaghan in last year's All-Ireland final
Eamonn Ryan celebrates with his Cork players after their victory over Monaghan in last year's All-Ireland final

Christy O'Connor

Eamonn Ryan opens a drawer in an upstairs room in his house in Ballingeary and rummages through a catalogue of books. He digs out a blue notepad. It's his diary from the 2004 season -- the year this fantastic journey began.

Ryan flicks through the pages until he finds the entry from his first championship match as Cork ladies football manager in 2004. Cork played Kerry in Killorglin. They trailed by 14 points at half-time. They were eventually beaten by eight. Cork had never won a Munster title. The wait didn't seem like ending anytime soon. On Sunday, nine of the team which played that day are seeking their seventh All-Ireland title in eight years.

Ryan thumbs through the names of a group which have completely dominated the landscape of ladies football, having won 21 provincial and national titles in just nine seasons. Because they're women, people may not look at them as one of the greatest teams of modern Irish sports. Given where they came from, they are also one of the most unlikely sports stories. So is the beautiful relationship between Ryan and this group of players.


At 71, Ryan is something of a grandfather figure. He's 55 years older than the youngest member of the squad, Doirean O'Sullivan. His son Don, the team statistician, is almost twice the age of most of the group. In an era when the age-profile of coaches is becoming younger every season, Ryan's bond with this group continues to power forward one of the greatest teams of all time.

"These are a special bunch and they keep me young but I feel that bond with any team I've been with," says Ryan. "Since I was a small fella, I've just loved sport. I would get as much fun coaching an U-10 team as I would a senior team. When you're out with an U-10 team, you feel only 10 years old yourself."

Ryan had been training teams all his life when he "fell into" the Cork job at 63. He had finished teaching and was GAA Games Development Officer in UCC when a student asked him if he'd give "a hand". At the time, Cork were also-rans, afterthoughts, nobodies. Kerry and Waterford didn't respect them. They didn't even respect themselves.

Ryan knew little about them and they only knew a little bit more about him. He had coached Cork minors to All-Irelands in 1991 and '93. He had trained Na Piarsaigh to county hurling titles in 1990 and '95, while he had also helped out the late Paul O'Connor when Na Piarsaigh won their third title in 2004.

The closest Ryan had ever been to the real big time, though, was in 1983. He coached the Cork seniors when Tadhgie Murphy's late goal halted Kerry's bid for nine Munster titles in a row.

The Rebelettes job was his first involvement with a senior inter-county team in over two decades. At face value, it would have been easy to think Ryan was old school. There was a time when he was. Then he started to educate himself and open his mind.

Ryan was in his late 50s when he discovered that coaches with the growth mindset -- the willingness to make and learn from mistakes -- are the ones who achieve most. That attitude has driven him and his players to another level.

"Fifteen years ago, coaching was all about me, what I said, what I thought," says Ryan. "But then I started going down to Limerick and the NCTC (National Coaching Training Centre) and reading material by (GAA games development manager) Pat Daly and I began to reflect on how to go about the job. I now view my role as to create a positive environment where the player can flourish, physically and mentally, and become the best player they can be.

"I'm there to serve them, not for them to serve me. Once they realise that, discipline becomes very easy to manage. If both groups don't trust each other, the coach shouldn't be there. I am doing drills now that I did in my first year. Yet these players would never, ever, ever -- not even by an arched eyebrow -- indicate that this is boring. They just go away and do it. They never blame anybody else. They are not just good footballers; they are special people."

In his heart, hurling is still his game. Between ages six and eight, Ryan lived in Thurles at a time when the deeds of Thurles Sarsfields and Tipp hurlers were deposited like minerals in the soil. That passion burned and was inflamed further growing up in Watergrasshill in the hurling heartland of east Cork.


Ryan didn't start playing football until he went to secondary school in Colaiste Iosagain in Ballyvourney. He played with Glenville, a football team on the other side of his home parish, but never featured at underage for Cork. He preferred hurling but was just better at football. Playing in the football championship with the divisional side Imokilly also paved a more accessible path to the Cork seniors. He made the senior team in 1962. Five years later, he was the first player from that part of east Cork to play in an All-Ireland senior football final, which Cork lost to Meath.

Being a primary school teacher naturally marked the beginning of Ryan's coaching journey but he always carried the aesthetic and natural beauty of coaching at that level with him. Ryan still regards the Sciath na Scoil county titles he won with Watergrasshill decades ago as some of his greatest and fondest coaching achievements.

He played in Munster and All-Ireland finals but Ryan always derived the greatest satisfaction from the most basic elements. To him, that was the purest form. Winning a junior county hurling title with Watergrasshill in 1974 remains the biggest thrill of his sporting life.

At 71, life remains full. He has been on the road with the Cork ladies for eight years and there is no end in sight.

"It's like being a player -- you might find your time is up," says Ryan. "You might want to stay on but I'd be bright enough to realise the players could get fed up with you too. I'd like to keep going. I feel I can keep going for as long as I have my health. I'd like to think I could have another 10 years in me. If I stopped with the ladies, I'd go on to some other side."

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