After a standout career in red, which delivered 11 All-Ireland victories, Brid Stack has decided to call time on her inter-county football career. She spoke yesterday about the big moments and the little details.
No-one’s got around to properly explaining to these Cork legends why the Broadway moments in Croke Park don’t always fill conversations and stir laughter quite like the small stuff. The seemingly incidental details.
Last Saturday night in Larry Tompkins pub, they gathered for their now annual catch-up. The reunion of, as Bríd Stack calls them, The Over-30s Who Still Think They’re Under 30 club’. The Cork crew who rewrote the book on Ladies Football. The old yarns spilled out after 3.30am yesterday, beers empty, tongues tired. The little vignettes cropping up time and again.
Like the All-Ireland morning walk.
“That was the emotional thing,” says Stack, who has announced her retirement from inter-county football, bringing an end to an unfathomable 11-All-Ireland, seven All-Star career in red. In doing so, the 2016 player of the year breaks the link to Cork’s first title in 2005, the last to retire from that group of pioneers. She is one of only four Cork girls with 11 All-Ireland medals — Deirdre O’Reilly, Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley the others — and the native of Rockchapel played every minute in each of those Croke Park victories.
“I am talking fierce emotional,” she says of that matchday stroll. “We’d walk down the road from the Red Cow Hotel, and on the way back we’d stop at the same spot. It was nothing, a small patch in front of a mechanic’s yard. A random place. We’d gather in, shoulder to shoulder, and each of the management would say their piece. That was their moment.
Then there was Frankie’s soup for Sunday morning training at The Farm. A process that began on Wednesday night with boiled chicken carcasses to make the stock.
“Wholesome stuff,” Stack smiles.
The unyielding courtesy and consistency of bus driver Cormac O’Connor, there for every journey — literal and metaphorical Ì1 since 2004. And one of the first onto the pitch after the epoch-defining comeback final against Dublin four campaigns ago.
But at the heart of so many of Saturday night’s Tompkins tales was the legendary coach Eamonn Ryan. The veteran who spent a lifetime under-playing over-achievement. The man who said nothing but said so much.
“When we came on the scene in 2004-05, you had a group of girls of a similar mindset. We were all of the same rearing, country girls, intrinsically motivated with honesty at the core of a lot of our upbringings. And guiding us was Eamonn Ryan, who believes only in honesty,” Stack said yesterday.
“If you weren’t honest in your efforts he would spot in straight away. He has a lovely way about him, but he would just be quieter with you and you just knew. You sensed it.
“He wasn’t one to pull you aside often, so when he did, you remembered it. The morning of All-Ireland finals was the only time he would bring the backs and forwards together. After breakfast, he’d call the backs to the room. Even that would have your heart beating. You’d be fit to be tied inside in that room. The forwards came in after, and we’d meet them going in with our eyes reddened.”
Stack says even if Ryan might be wrong, he was sort of right too. Two years after the momentous 2007 final, her lifetime Rockchapel friend (and Cork selector) Mary Collins told her what really happened in the selectors’ meeting the night before the final against Cora Staunton’s Mayo.
“Everything revolved around Cora, we all knew that. ‘Who picks up Cora’, someone asked? Mary goes ‘Bríd is at 6, leave her at it’. But Eamonn reckoned Rena Buckley is the man-marker, let’s move her out. It came to a vote and Eamonn got out-voted by one. He didn’t want me to mark Cora. Just as well I only heard it two years later! But even though he didn’t vote for it, he walked straight down the hotel corridor to my room, knocked on the door and was like ‘You are picking up Cora tomorrow and you are going to do a great job. Goodnight, go to sleep’.
The next day Bríd Stack was named player of the match.
Stack recalls that Ryan had been stunned at how poor their level of technical skills was when he came on board. The ability was there, but the Cork girls were failing to execute when speed or intensity was added to the mix. And so started the basic, rudimentary skills work that would become the staple, and famed, diet of Ryan sessions for years.
“We did this ball-handling drill. And it was part of our warm-up for a good six years. All the different ways a ball can come to you. So, the first one, you leathered it to their bellybutton, next was a hopping ball, then a skidding one, then pick and drop in the middle with someone coming to challenge you — all related to match situations. Every drill was well thought out. When you met those situations in games, you thought ‘right, I’ve got this’.
Cork didn’t only become the most successful team in the game’s history — they became the most technically proficient side in the country in terms of their kicking, handling, blocking. Like Frankie Honohan’s soup, good, wholesome stuff.
“One year, Eamonn came up to me mid-Championship, and said ‘You know Bríd, next time you are driving up the pitch, just keep going and handpass it over the bar’. That was his way of saying my kicking was gone to absolute crap and sort it out. He knew that would have me bulling so I went kicking, kicking, kicking. Eamonn said it in the nicest way, but he was putting the ownership back on me.”
It was Eamonn Ryan’s mantra from the get-go. He handed over responsibility to the players and expected them to tease out solutions. In tight spots, it served Stack and her colleagues time and again.
The Rockchapel girl – who’s now taken a career break from teaching in Carrigaline to kickstart a health supplements business with her husband and his brothers — believes that for all the hard-won respect and kudos for their achievements, it wasn’t until the ‘Comeback Year’ of 2014 that Ladies Football properly turned the corner from minority to mainstream.
“To have played poorly for so long that day,” Stack says, shaking her head. “My first All-Ireland was in 2005, and that is something I will forever remember. I was 18, everything was so new. By 2014, we were battle-hardened but everything that could have gone wrong that day against Dublin went wrong. Right back to the Garda escort not showing up for us, to getting blocked into the hotel forecourt. We were dropping ball after ball in the warm-up. And then that first half…”
With fifteen minutes left, Cork trailed 2-10 to 0-6. “Every other manager would have come in at half-time and probably struggled to strike the right note. How could they? Eamonn never tried. He came in and said I am just going to let ye chat amongst yourselves there for ten minutes, and I will come in after that. He closed the door and left. Back to 2004, he gave us ownership from the second he walked in the door. Ten years later, it was simply an extension of that. Giving us a chance to prove themselves over and over again. We had plenty of leaders on that team.
She’s still only 32 and will continue to play club football with St Val’s. But she made her Cork debut at 16 (in 2003, the year before Eamonn came on board) and was in with the senior set-up the year before. Bríd Stack’s basically been playing for the county half her life.
“I went on the All-Star trip last March and found the match extremely competitive. Also tough in the sense that it was without a few familiar faces. The ones I turned to, laughed with, spent nearly 16 years with. I love football, but we had just established the business (mycoresupplements.ie) in the six months before, I was still teaching up to last June, and had also started a Skin Aesthetics course in Dublin. I was finding more and more reasons to give less time to inter-county football.”
The change of management from Eamonn Ryan to Ephie Fitzgerald was a natural handover but it didn’t make the change and the change of faces any less disorientating.
“There was a big changeover of players, which is what you’d expect. I was the very last one from the 2005 team. (Neighbour) Deirdre O’Reilly was a big one. We’d have soldiered together
since the year dot. Geraldine O’Flynn and Norita Kelly too. Your priorities change. I found I wasn’t hopping out the door to training as much anymore. For the last 11 years, we’d maybe two months off any year, and every winter you were back earlier to keep up. You wouldn’t change it for anything. Unreal stuff. But there comes that time. Priorities change.
“I often think of that Galway team we beat in the first final. I’d be fierce friends with some of them, and they’re still waiting for that All-Ireland. They’re still trying to get to the last Sunday of the season. In fact, 2005 was their last final. I have huge regard for them. How do you keep going year in year out if you’re not knocking at the door every season?”
Staying in the game for as long as she has opened Stack’s eyes too to the significance or pre and re-fuelling. Between her career and those of her Newcestown in-laws, Carthach and Brid began spending a hefty wedge on vitamins, protein and supplements.
“Our parents would be very health conscious. We were nearly keeping Holland and Barrett going. So Carthach looked into it and saw it was something viable, that we could set up our own business, a limited company which will all rowed in behind. Carthach, (his brothers) Fionn, Fiachra and myself all put money in and have gone from 20 products to over 500. We started off with mainly health supplements, but we now look after gyms, personal trainers, clubs, inter-county teams who are looking for pre and post workout options. We’ve had a great response.
“It’s grown and grown.”
The scope for growth was evident last November when they turned their warehouse near the Bandon roundabout on Cork’s South Link into a retail unit for ‘Black Friday’. It was a massive success and they’ve opened the unit every Saturday since. So, what’s the advice du jour?
On Saturday night in Larry Tompkins’ pub, they recounted the eve of the 2013 All-Ireland when they ran into traffic heading to the hurling final replay between Cork and Clare. They ended up diverting from traffic to the Curragh and togging on the side of the road for their traditional eve of game kickaround.
“Not one eyebrow raised,” Stack recounts. “We all knew how Eamonn was so meticulous, if this happened it was completely out of his control. When things haven’t gone well on the pitch and we might have played absolutely shocking, he was always ‘I fecked this up’. If you know your manager backs you no matter what, you will back him.
“He told us all, if you train hard and are honest, you had a chance. Without those, he wouldn’t even consider you. He just made everyone worked so hard. We didn’t really know what to make of him because he was so quiet and reserved. You wouldn’t know what he was thinking but his behaviour was the exact same whether it was a Juliette Murphy or No 30 on the squad.”
They’ll keep this Oldies club going, on WhatApp and in Larry’s once a year. Remembering the pre-match walks, like the one in Leopardstown, where they ran out of footpath and ended up on the hard shoulder of the motorway. Someone said, “there’s going to be a death before we get to Croke Park’, but we found our compass - an emotional one. We knew the location was irrelevant. “That was where we started the countdown. Side of the road.
“You’d love to do it all over again. It went by in a fecking flash. There is still a great team and they’re well capable of recapturing an All-Ireland. Ladies football is a great spectacle now. To see the likes of Geraldine (O’Flynn) go into coaching now, leading Glanmire to an All-Ireland Junior club title, that’s it going full circle. There’s a ladies team in nearly every GAA club, whereas we were all fired in with the boys in Rockchapel when I was 12.
“Looking back, that’s what stood to us. It softens your cough. Dad gave me my start in football. He was the local principal and when numbers were short on the boys’ school team, I was thrown in. Much like (future team-mates) Norita Kelly, Briege and Rena. I’m moving on with memories, stories and friendships that will last a lifetime.
“What’s better than that?”