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11 seasons. 10 All-Ireland titles. One story - Inside GAA's most dominant team ever

Mary White’s book Relentless lifts the lid on the winning-machine that is Cork ladies football.

The Cork ladies football team sing the national anthem before winning their second five in-a-row in ten years.
The Cork ladies football team sing the national anthem before winning their second five in-a-row in ten years.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

IT MIGHT BE a little unfair to begin a story about the Cork ladies football team by focusing on a loss, but what makes their 2010 blitzing at the hands of Tyrone so intriguing is precisely because it’s almost the sole blip in the Rebel County’s reign at the top.

Their 3-11 to 0-13 defeat at the 2010 quarter-final stage is the filling in a five in-a-row sandwich. Between 2005 to 2009 and 2011 to this very day, Eamonn Ryan’s side haven’t lost a single one of their ladies football championship fixtures in the All-Ireland series but as journalist Mary White writes in her book, Relentless, the heavy loss to Tyrone spurred the team on to achieve their own La Decima.

I think after winning the first five in-a-row a bit of complacency had set in,” White tells The42. “It was only marginal with each player but because people were slightly off, when the shit hit the fan it was the first time they weren’t able to pull things back. They knew they were responsible – they didn’t think there had been a drop in Eamonn’s training sessions. They couldn’t speak to each other about the defeat for weeks because they were so disgusted. It was a massive turning point for them – they wouldn’t have won the second five in-a-row if they hadn’t experienced that loss.”

If ever you would forgive a team for allowing a tiny bit of complacency to seep into their DNA, it would be after a sensational five in-a-row run but rather than signal the end of the Cork team, the Tyrone defeat merely represented the halfway point of a staggering 10 All-Ireland wins in 11 seasons.

White’s book takes a unique look at the Cork team. Plenty of behind the scenes books have been written about men’s squads but White’s is one of the few, maybe even the only, to give an in depth study of a top-class women’s side.

The journey to greatness began when former Cork footballer and manager Eamonn Ryan came on board back in 2004. The then 62-year-old didn’t come into the job in ideal circumstances – he was being treated for prostate cancer at the time and thought getting involved with a GAA team temporarily would be a good way of getting back on his feet.

Eamonn Ryan Ryan prepares his Cork team. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Ryan had unfortunate timing during his previous stint as a Cork manager, marshaling the men’s senior team between 1980 and 1984 when Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry were at their swaggering best. However, Ryan’s men did deny the Kingdom their ninth Munster title in-a-row in 1982, so before he built a dynasty he knew a bit about tearing one down.

White says that despite his pedigree, many players didn’t know much about Ryan but his insistence on work ethic and ball skills soon paid dividend.

Nobody knew who Eamonn Ryan was even though he had great credentials,” White says. “He was getting treatment when he was approached and as he would say himself, he was at a bit of a loose end. He thought he would only be helping out with the team for a little bit. He was the ultimate architect for the team and he came in with an attitude of hard work.”

White writes from a unique perspective, having been a member of the team just before Ryan’s arrival – and unfortunately for her, leaving just before their ascent into the history books.

“Basically when Eamon Ryan came in Cork decided to start winning All-Irelands and I decided to become the PRO at the age of 22,” she jokes.

In White’s role as the PRO, she has seen the team develop from the beginning and she paints a somewhat dysfunctional picture of the squad that Ryan inherited.

“There was definitely a lot of club rivalry at the time, especially between Donoughmore and Rockchapel who were the two biggest teams then,” she says.

“Players would turn up for some training sessions or for some matches but the team was in a bit of disarray. The players were crying out for a change.”

White makes sure to mention the contribution of the other members of the backroom staff too – chiefly team manager Mary Collins and selector Frankie Honohan, who has been involved with the team even longer than Ryan.

But besides the management, there are are many, many legendary figures who have helped fire the Rebelettes to greatness: Angela Walsh, Rena Buckley, Briege Corkery, and Valerie Mulcahy to name a few.

Nollaig Cleary, Briege Corkery, manager Eamonn Ryan, Geraldine OÕFlynn and Angela Walsh The Cork ladies football team won the RTÉ Sport Team of the Year award in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Oftentimes successful women’s sportspeople and teams don’t get the coverage they deserve but it appears all it takes in this country is to win an almost unprecedented amount of All-Ireland medals to finally get some plaudits, as the Cork team took home the RTÉ Sport Team of the Year award in 2014.

That was some nice national recognition but White thinks that the team have always gotten great support from the media and fans in Cork.

“They are [properly regarded] in their own county,” White says.

“They get fantastic coverage in Cork and a lot of another camogie and ladies football teams would be envious of them. Winning the RTÉ Sports Team of the Year award was huge for them because it showed just how lauded they are.”

Of the most interesting sub-plots to the story of the Cork ladies football team is the dual ambitions of Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley. Both have been present for all ten of the football wins and have also managed to add six camogie titles apiece for a total haul of 16 All-Ireland medals each (Brian Cody has 14 for comparison).

Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup Corkery and Buckley celebrating their 32nd combined All-Ireland medal after winning their tenth football title. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Unfortunately, there have been regular fixture clashes between the sports requiring the duo, and many other dual players, to compete twice on the same weekend and occasionally, on the same day.

White calls the fixtures clashes disappointing’ but reserves high praise for Cork’s dual stars.

“Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley are the two greatest GAA players in the history of the game with the 32 All-Ireland medals between them,” White says.

“The amount of young girls they have inspired is phenomenal.”

Relentless is available in all good bookshops and can be purchased here.

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About the author:

Will Slattery

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