Monday 11 December 2017

Wounded Cork turning hurt to their advantage

Last summer's premature end to their six-in-a-row ambitions is driving Cork's lady footballers to new heights, writes Marie Crowe

Eamon Ryan has been involved in training teams from schools to colleges to the Cork minor and senior footballers and even various hurling and camogie teams for over 40 years.

Ryan, a retired teacher and former GAA development officer, was asked eight years ago to help out with the Cork ladies football team and he hasn't looked back since. Neither have Cork. Five All-Ireland titles later and Ryan is ranked among the best managers in the country.

"I just love being involved with teams and coaching," says Ryan. "When I first went into the set-up, Cork had never won anything so there was a hunger there. But it was hard initially, the girls were playing other sports too so getting them all together wasn't easy, but when we got them they were great, so dedicated and willing to work hard."

At that time there was an influx of younger players who came on board with a record of underage success. They combined with the older players who were willing to buy into the energy of the younger ones and within two years they had their first All-Ireland in the bag.

From there they won five successive titles and last year were strongly fancied for their sixth until coming undone against Tyrone in the quarter-final. They were seven points up in the early stages of the second half but ended up suffering a seven-point defeat. Dublin went on to win their first ever title and Cork went back to the drawing board, determined to come back stronger.

"It was very hard to lose that game (against Tyrone) because we were in control going into the second half. But we were worried going into the game, the selectors were worried that we weren't maybe as prepared as previous years."

After the shock defeat there was speculation that the management and some of the older players would call it a day. But management and players returned for another year as hungry and determined as ever.

In fact, the team has been relatively unchanged since they won their first All-Ireland -- 12 of that first team started the semi-final against Laois last month. Players like Rena Buckley, Juliet Murphy, Valerie Mulcahy and Angela Walsh are household names within the sport and don't look like slowing down any time soon.

"Last year there was a dip when we lost and now the girls are working away like mad again," says Ryan. "After being beaten by Tyrone they had five months off and they came back with a stronger appetite. It was understandable that after six or seven years on the road they would lose it a bit but they seem to have it back again."

Ryan believes the standard of ladies football is rising every year, and the ladies are fitter than ever. However, he feels the tackle rule is an area that needs to be examined, just as it is in the men's game.

He also finds that the level of appreciation for the ladies game is also on the up. Ryan is regularly surprised by the number of phone calls he gets from men, young and old, former county players and people he has trained, who tell him how much they enjoy watching ladies football.

Although interest in the game seems to be increasing, money is in short supply for ladies football and neither players nor managers get any expenses. Yet despite the lack of funds, Ryan has no complaints.

"We get a field from UCC, we have a physiotherapist, a masseur, we have everything we need and both players and management all seem happy to be involved. There just isn't much money for ancillary services because the crowds attending the games are small but we still have enough."

Although Ryan is disappointed by the lack of crowds attending his side's games, he understands why it is so. Cork is a big sporting county, they have a number of hurling and football teams and they have Munster rugby there too.

"Money is scarce everywhere. People are trying to attend as many games as they can but they can't commit to every team in the county. Hurling and football are over 125 years old so it is understandable that people's allegiance would be stronger to them than it would be to a relatively new sport. I know people have a high regard for the game but I understand why they can't all come up to the games."

During his time with UCC as a development officer, Ryan worked with many of the current big names in GAA from Paul Galvin to Eoin Brosnan, Fintan Goold and many other members of the current Cork squad.

When he looks back at how coaching and football has evolved over the years, he can't help but be amazed by the modern players, the time and effort they put in, not only on the field but off the field too, meeting kids, presenting medals and helping out with underage teams.

Ryan doesn't buy into the train of thought that the future of Gaelic football is looking gloomy. However, he feels there is too much emphasis on yellow cards and thinks referees seem to be operating under pressure.

Cork play in their sixth All-Ireland final in seven years and although Ryan is apprehensive because of the quality of Monaghan's forwards, he believes in his team and is hoping for the best. They have yet to lose a final and with the experience they have in their squad, they don't look like doing that any time soon.

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