How will Cork's ladies footballers cope without Eamonn Ryan? Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Despite winning 10 All-Irelands, Cork's ladies footballers now face their biggest challenge

Eamonn Ryan’s departure as Cork manager could be the biggest game changer in the history of ladies football.

THE NEWS, WHEN it was confirmed over the weekend, will have come as a hammer blow to the Cork ladies footballers.

Eamonn Ryan, the man who guided the county to ten All-Ireland senior titles in just eleven seasons, is leaving.

They feared this day might come but to one leading Cork official, this was a “bolt out of the blue.”

Following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, Manchester United’s dominance of the English Premier League has crumbled.

One wonders what might happen the Kilkenny senior hurlers if Brian Cody ever decides to walk away.

Long-lasting dynasties are created by great leaders and Ryan falls into that category.

Mary White’s brilliant book – Relentless – The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers – charts the phenomenal rise of the most dominant sports team in the country but without Ryan, can it last?

Under his stewardship, Cork lost just one game in the All-Ireland series since 2005 – an All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone back in 2010.

Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United have struggled to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

At the time, there were fears that Cork wouldn’t recover from that Banagher setback but they came back and claimed the last five All-Ireland titles.

In the last few years, Ryan had to cope with a number of retirements as leading stars like Juliet Murphy, renowned as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, goalkeeper Elaine Harte and ace forward Nollaig Cleary called time on their glittering careers.

And yet Cork just kept on going, with Ryan somehow managing to summon more glory and heroic, backs-to-the-wall performances from his group.

What other team could come from nine points down in an All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin and win? Cork in 2013. What other team could come from ten points down in the final 20 minutes of an All-Ireland final against Dublin in 2014 and win? Cork in 2014.

Juliet Murphy Juliet Murphy retired from intercounty football in 2013. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

What other team could bounce back from Munster final defeats to Kerry in 2013 and 2015 and finish both seasons as All-Ireland champions? You’ve guessed it. Cork.

I’ve witnessed many great sporting comebacks in the flesh and on TV down through the years. That All-Ireland comeback last year against the Dubs is right up there with any of them.

Cork were, quite simply, a beaten docket down the home stretch but Ryan brought on subs Eimear Scally, still a teenager, and Rhona Ní Bhuachalla with time running out. Both scored goals and perhaps fittingly, brilliant defender Geraldine O’Flynn kicked the winner.

Players like O’Flynn, Bríd Stack, Valerie Mulcahy, Deirdre O’Reilly and dual stars Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley sum up the unbreakable bond that Ryan helped to create and foster. All six have featured in each and every one of those ten All-Ireland successes and some of them may now decide, without Ryan, that enough is enough.

Eimear Scally celebrates scoring their second goal late in the game Eimear Scally celebrates scoring a goal against Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland final. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Or they might decide to stick around and help to ensure that Cork’s dominance continues with a new man at the helm. Whoever that new man is (Shane Ronayne and John Cleary are the frontrunners for the now vacant post) faces one hell of a task.

There’s always plenty of talent at Cork’s disposal but on an annual basis, Ryan had the unbelievable knack of harnessing it and finishing the year climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand to accept the Brendan Martin Cup.

How Cork cope without him, as they try to defend their League and All-Ireland titles in 2016, will make for fascinating viewing.

How on earth do you follow in the footsteps of Ryan? The obvious answer is to repeat what he’s done but that’s easier said than done.

John Cleary John Cleary has been touted as a successor to Eamonn Ryan. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

In Dublin, Kerry and Galway, they’ll have monitored recent events with interest, hopes of landing an elusive All-Ireland title increased following Ryan’s departure.

Kerry have cracked the Cork code in the Munster championship but can’t seem to get the job done when the stakes are higher in August. Dublin have lost the last two All-Ireland finals against Cork and will feel that losing Ryan deprives Cork of the fear factor.

Galway, meanwhile, have been making steady progress in recent seasons and ran Cork to a replay in this year’s League final. They, too, will feel more confident heading into 2016 without Ryan at the Cork helm.

Maybe even Monaghan can’t be discounted. In 2011 and 2013, the Farney girls ran Cork close in All-Ireland finals but Ryan and his players refused to yield. Armagh, beaten All-Ireland semi-finalists for the last two years, will have a fresh pep in their steps.

Nobody can tell for sure what’s going to happen in 2016 but one thing is certain – Cork without Eamonn Ryan is a game changer. Possibly the greatest game changer in the history of ladies football.

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

Huge blow for Cork ladies as Eamonn Ryan joins men’s management team

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