Great footballers, great people

Was Cork’s dramatic fightback to snatch a ninth All-Ireland senior title in ten years the moment Ladies Football moved in from the margins? Coach Eamonn Ryan debates the past, the present and the future.

SUNDAY mornings, Wednesday evenings, no difference. Training for the Cork Ladies footballers. The All-Ireland champions nine out of the last ten years. There are no supporters, before or after, and no-one’s giving out free gear or kit bags. The only bags for free are teabags, for those who’ve travelled a distance. Like Mairead Kelly from Ballydesmond.

“She was a sub for five years — she played rugby too with Munster — but she eventually made the team. When she was in college she’d come down from Limerick at her own expense,” manager, or trainer as he prefers, Eamonn Ryan explains.

“Then she was working in financial services in Dublin. So to get to training, she would leave her office at 3pm, drive to the (UCC) Farm (in Bishopstown), get a cup of hot water, make some tea, then train and back into the car for Dublin. Work started at 7am the next day. We only discovered this three or four years into the whole thing.”

There are many others too. Elaine Harte is married in Moyne-Templetouhy, north of Thurles. Geraldine O’Flynn was teaching in Portlaoise. “I’m the only one who’s mentioning this,” Ryan says, “I’ve never heard one of them even referring to it. We’ve talked about it but it never became an issue or an embarrassment, because we don’t see it as a sacrifice. Nor do the girls. More a choice they make. The gate is always open. They know that. They aren’t looking for sympathy. Just support. Now it would be nice if they were compensated but the game of ladies football is, relatively speaking, in its infancy.”

So the small comforts become fusion food, in the literal sense. Like soup and scones on a Sunday morning. One of Ryan’s Cork selectors, Frankie Honohan, took it upon himself to do some unsung cooking for unsung heroes. Gathering chickens and vegetables and conjuring up a massive pot of nourishment to go with his wives’ scones for the girls after training.

“The bond that creates between the whole group wouldn’t be surpassed if they were taken to the Waldorf in New York. The magic Frankie wove with that gesture. Sitting around the stove. The girls often refer to that.”

Forty years ago Watergrasshill won their first county junior title with Eamonn Ryan as coach. He’d long forgotten, til lately, that every night after training, the 30 players would be welcomed into his kitchen by his wife Pat for soup and sandwiches. The field was only across the road but it was a massive leap for Ryan. “I think it had a huge bonding effect on the team,” he recalls.

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There Wasn’t Always Ladies Football. There Wasn’t Even Ladies Going to Football.

He’s 73. Last night he was in Kealkil, training Under 10 hurlers. The best way to show the drills was to do them himself. Slaloming through the cones.

This is Eamonn Ryan’s life, the same now as it was growing up in Watergrasshill: Mass. Work. Hurling.

Football came later.

“I grew up in a small village, and when Suttons closed their store in the village, we took it over and spent our time delivering coal around the place in a hand truck, mixing grass seeds, loading feedstuffs onto horse and butts.

“When work was done, we were down at the field watching the local junior hurling team, who were stars to us. I was already hooked. A few years earlier, when I was six or seven, my father worked for Suttons in Thurles. I’d watch the local Sarsfields training and fall in as the ball-boy for Jimmy Doyle’s father, Jerry, who was the goalie. There wouldn’t be a net so I’d be behind the goals hoping he’d leave the ball in, so I could run after and throw it back to him. Tipperary would soon win three-in-a-row, they were on top of the hurling world. I assimilated all this stuff, it became part of the fibre of my being.

“My father was also mad on rugby, we’d cycle from Watergrasshill to Musgrave Park and I remember cycling to the Mardkye to see Raich Carter. It might have been a hurling village but my father had Catholic tastes in sport.”

Training in Kealkil last night, Ryan felt ten. “I don’t see anything wrong with that. Others might see it as self-indulgent, I don’t know, but I feel younger doing it. Other people play golf or a musical instrument. I regret that, that I never learned to play an instrument. Music and swimming are the two best pastimes in the world. Hurling and football come next.”

In the 1950’s there were no women going to matches of any code. But a local guard, Grda Brown, started arranging drives to the big clashes and Ryan’s mother would travel with her man.

“And she only went because she loved him. And he was a fanatic. Culturally, it wasn’t the thing to do. There’s a historical impediment here, and in the context of ladies football today, it’s very relevant. From 1880 to 1950, there would hardly ever have been a woman at a GAA match. Ladies Football is only 40 years old, and during that time, women have begun attending big sporting occasions. It will get better.

“One of the problems with women’s sport is that it needs more support from other women. I feel strongly about that. Women are more likely to got to a Munster rugby match than a ladies football match.

“Take September’s Camogie final. There must have been only 5,000 ladies at that game. That was a very good game of hurling, irrespective of gender, with some superb scores and skill. It deserved a bigger audience.

“But this isn’t an Irish problem. If you look at the FA Women’s Cup final in England, they get a small crowd. That’s a country with maybe 30 million women. There was more at the Ladies Football All-Ireland, so when I’m taking ladies to task for not going to games, I’m not castigating Irish ladies.

I understand that disposable income has to be spread over a broad spectrum of sporting choice and the likes of the All Ireland men’s finals are iconic events. But if more women supported women’s sport, it would boost the image of the game and act as an incentive for the players. The only day they play in front of a crowd is the All-Ireland final. The other days there would be no-one there. It’s very sad.”

They Weren’t Always Great Footballers, But They Were Always Great People

THE way Eamonn Ryan tells it, he’s no soothsayer on the sideline. He’s made, what he likes to call “his fair share of dopey decisions”. Over ten years, you might make a few, anyone would. But the ability to move on, the ability not to be consumed with the importance of yourself is one of his most admirable and important traits. It’s easy to see how players would rise up and follow him.

“Have I changed much in the last decade? I don’t think so. Now there’s a difference obviously in me from (a coach in) 1974 to 2014 in that all coaches would have been authoritarian figures back then, believing they had all the knowledge and control. Nowadays, you put the player at the centre of the process, subjugating your own ego. The consequence of that is you get a lot more satisfaction, even though it’s not about you at all.”

Because there are no logistics technicians in ladies football, issues get sorted as they arise. There isn’t the time or the hands to see around corners. When Cork are finished for a while winning All-Irelands, the wonder of their achievements will be viewed through the prism of what wasn’t readily available to them. Nothing came in through the doors to them. Nothing. Not until now anyway. A recent golf classic in Castlemartyr sold out. The All-Ireland win against Dublin — particularly the manner of it — has done plenty for the rising stock of Ladies Football.

“They would always have been very understanding and charitable towards my shortcomings and when I messed up,” Ryan muses. “They would never come up with obstacles. I will always remember them for that. They weren’t always great footballers, but they were always great people.”

The last 15 minutes of last September’s final has changed the perception of the women’s game. After a decade of trying, one swing of Geraldine O’Flynn’s boot. Strangers are happy to come up to Eamonn Ryan and chat about it still.

But it was 15 minutes at the start of that Sunday that underlined the attitude that underpins Cork’s success.

“Normally we would have stayed elsewhere and we’d have a tradition on All-Ireland morning of going for a walk down towards the Ballymount Industrial estate off the Red Cow roundabout. There’d be a little mini-meeting in front of a disused factory where three or four of the selectors would say a few words. A sort of ritual it turned into,” Ryan explains.

“This year in new surroundings, I couldn’t find a place where we could walk. Everywhere seemed to be a thoroughfare except one road that led out the country, I gave it a cursory check, but not a proper one. Thirty-eight players and four selectors headed out in their shiny tracksuits and runners and after 500 yards we had run out of footpath. It was too dangerous to walk along a narrow country road.”

Ryan put his hands up. And improvised. “Across the road, there was a field with a gap, a ploughed field. These were modern young ladies, dressed to kill, but we walked through that field and into a second ploughed field. And then we stopped there and had our meeting. When we walked back out, there wasn’t one raised eyebrow or comment about walking into a ploughed field. There hasn’t been since. I wonder did it even happen. That’s what I mean about these girls. When they follow you, they follow you.”

A decade before, they were two groups with a modicum of talent. Half a team that had been successful under age and a core of established players who’d never won a thing.

“There’s a perception that under age success translates to senior success. It doesn’t. Mayo have won six All-Irelands since 1951 at minor. Westmeath have won under age but bought since. Kerry have won seven minors since the 1950’s and 21 seniors. There isn’t a correlation.

“Our groups just gelled. Everything after that we could work on. We lost three of our four first League games but there were no recriminations from the players. If they had suggested change back then, it would have undermined me. However thick-skinned we might appear, we are all basically full of insecurities.

“You would be doubting the path you had embarked upon and whether you were right to get involved at all. We got to the league final against Mayo, lost a fairly substantial lead, but again no recriminations, even though I made two dopey mistakes that day on the sideline.”

By his own reckoning Ryan would make another dopey mistake in the All-Ireland quarter final but by then there was a sense of trust building between management and players. “We both knew the other was doing their best,” he says.

Ryan is a man for detail. When he went on scholarship as a school teen to Colaiste Iosagain in Ballyvourney, he got his early football lessons from a Kerryman from Lyrecrompane, Colm Rohan. Lessons that have stood him in good stead. His coaching stock in trade is the elemental skills of the game. “I’ve enjoyed coaching men and women, the only difference is in the strength, men are genetically stronger and bigger and that confers its own benefits. With the Cork Ladies team, we put a huge premium on skill, almost to the detriment of other necessities. This particular group are amazing in their capacity to continue working on their perceived weaknesses. Take Nollaig Cleary as an example. She never used her right leg — we only knew she had one because she stood on it. By the 2006 final against Armagh, she kicked the first point of her life with her right foot. And we won that final by a point. Small increments of growth add up to big gains.

“Take blocking. It’s a ‘negative’ skill and it’s not easy to coach. The player is thinking three things: this is boring, I might get hurt and I might look foolish. The same three things are happening to the coach, by the way.

“The player doesn’t want to do it, the coach picks up on this and will not bother doing it on the regular basis that’s required. These Cork girls must be sick of blocking, but they will do it religiously. I know that if we are training on the seventeenth of January, and I say we’re going blocking for five minutes, then they’ll do it as if it was their first time ever. They’ve heard the technique — heads, hands, feet — hundreds of times but it won’t make a difference.”

They’re Not Just Great People, They’re Great Footballers

Preparations for travelling to Dublin the day before the 2013 All-Ireland final were spot on. “We were brilliantly organised,” Ryan beams in a self-deprecating way.

The plan was to have their kick around in Kilmacud Crokes before continuing onto the hotel in Leopardstown. Sunday morning’s ritual would be on the local racecourse. Permission had been sought and granted.

“It was the day Clare and Cork met in the replay of the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final. We met huge traffic jams in Portlaoise. The kick around was scheduled for four o’clock, but the bus driver estimated we’d fail to make Dublin by six.

“The players were tuned into having a kickaround, and when the routine’s upset, so are players. So now I am frantic. I rang a man who directed me through the Curragh, and up a back road to a GAA pitch. ‘It belongs to the Army and you’ve no permission, but I’ll work on that.’ I had to turn around on the bus and tell the players I’d made a bags of the arrangements. There wasn’t one word, one shake of the head.”

The field in the Curragh was encircled by wire fencing. Management grappled with that issue while the players jumped out of the coach and changed on the side of the road. The military police arrived for a chat and left satisfied there wasn’t some class of espionage afoot.

“No way would I scrap the kick around. We’d have invaded a farmer’s field if necessary, routine is that important. As players they’ve become very skilful through sheer hard work, they could be a role model for any young player, male or female. Their attitude, their humility, they take great pride in how they play but they recognise that that last performance mightn’t win you the next match. It’s one of the reasons for their longevity.”

They’re Great Players. They’re great Champions.

The winning point in the All Ireland final, the one that completed a remarkable transformation from ten points down to a 2-13 to 2-12 victory over Dublin, said lots about the diligence of the group.

“Geraldine O’Flynn had kicked three bad wides before that last chance. But then from the sheer dent of practice, from sticking to her technique — and it was a harder shot option than some of the ones she’d missed — she nailed it. She had set herself up properly.”

With 17 minutes to go, Ryan was fretting. “I had three bad minutes, we were very worried.”

At half time, Cork were down six, and by the 54th minute the gap was a yawning ten. “We were puzzled. Kicking wide after wide. My son does the stats, he came into the dressing room and said ’ye are all over them, but ye’re not converting chances’. Some of them found solace in that.

“We knew we had predatory forwards to come on like Rona Buckley and Eimear Scally. The minute Rona goaled I was no longer panicking. You could nearly feel the surge.”

They’’d done this before. Against Kerry in Beaufort eight years ago. Down eight and still won by five. Did it twice against Dublin. “I knew the rally was on and that we would go very close and I remember thinking if we can get out of here with a draw, we’ll take them in the replay.”

Ryan again looks at himself: “I might have been some of the cause of the less than impressive first 40 minutes.

“There was a huge mix-up about the Garda escort to Croke Park — not of my doing this time — we get there alright, but I was on edge. When we got onto the field, our warm-up time was cut in half, we were given a schedule that wasn’t adhered to and our preparation suffered.

“I think the body language transmitted my annoyance to the players. They were now more focused on my bad humour than the game. I can’t prove that but there was no good reason for their first half. Everything else was right.”

Once more though a remarkable team didn’t reach for excuses. They made a choice. Get busy living or get busy dying. “It had a huge impact, anyone you meet on the street still talks about that rally. It almost felt like the happy ending to a story.”

And is it? “We are not sure who’s coming back, they’re on the road a long time. But it’s a choice remember. Not a sacrifice.”

They’ll fund-raise and holiday in Miami in the spring and by that stage Ryan will have a hold on what he’s got to defend that memorable All-Ireland crown.

The coach’s wife, Pat, won’t stop him doing another season, she never has. Besides Ryan gets to see their legend while still in the moment. He can enjoy their past while still working on their future. Their legacy is secure.

“I can see their influence now on a lot of young girls and boys. I would know a six-year-old boy and his favourite sports star is one of the girls. Imagine that.”

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