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Facing The Master: The brilliance of Eamonn Ryan - by those who tried to beat him

An insight into coming up against the legendary Cork coach on the one-month anniversary of his death.

Ryan (1) The late, great Eamonn Ryan. Source: INPHO/Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh.

ONE OF EAMONN Ryan’s great on-field rivals takes a look back through the years.

A sunny Saturday in Birr in 2012 comes to mind for Gregory McGonigle. His Monaghan team had just been knocked out of the All-Ireland senior ladies football championship, Ryan’s all-conquering Cork side coming out nine points the better in their semi-final showdown.

All involved were having a bite to eat afterwards in a hotel near St Brendan’s Park; the Rebels looking forward to yet another All-Ireland final, Monaghan left licking their wounds.

But life goes on.

“We’ll have a beer,” said Ryan, chatting away to McGonigle and his management team. The then-Farney boss was driving so he politely declined, but Ryan returned with a drink for his selector, unaware he was a pioneer.

“He says, ‘No, I don’t drink Eamonn,’” McGonigle recalls.

“Eamonn just says, ‘You may drink it!’ Next thing, he was drinking a bottle of Corona.

“We were just laughing, saying, ‘Only Eamonn Ryan.’ Only Eamonn Ryan would get away with it. He was just that sort of character.”

He’s laughing down the phone himself, but then, the Derryman, who suffered so many gut-wrenching defeats to Ryan as manager of Monaghan and Dublin, pauses for a few seconds.

“Obviously you’d prefer not to be to be speaking about him in the past tense but unfortunately, as the boy says, that’s life.”

***************

The late, great Eamonn Ryan meant so much to so many. He touched countless lives through his 79 years on this earth, and his legacy as a true Gaelic games legend will endure forevermore.

A proven top-level coach in all four codes, though most renowned for his unprecedented success at the helm of the Cork ladies footballers, Ryan was known as ‘The Master’ with good reason.

That is exactly what he was. Many touching tributes have been paid, and while his double-figure-hitting All-Ireland champions have understandably led the chorus, heartfelt eulogies have poured in from all four corners of the country, and further afield.

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“I was so mesmerised by his team talk I nearly forgot we had to play a game,” former Kerry star Sarah Houlihan wrote at the time, referring to the 2014 All-Star Tour which Ryan led to Hong Kong. It’s a trip she’ll never forget, one on which she really forged a bond with Ryan and got an insight into his inner workings.

“I remember coming home, my family were like, ‘Oh, how was it?’ I think I talked more about Eamonn Ryan than anything else,” Houlihan tells The42. “I just think he’s an absolute legend.

“When he’d speak, you’d be like, ‘Oh my God.’ You’d literally take every word in that he said. I was just in awe of the team talk he had given us, so I can’t imagine what he brought to that Cork team. 

“He didn’t have to say much, but what he said, he covered it all. He wouldn’t have had to stay there for 10 or 15 minutes giving you a pep talk, it was about three or four minutes. What he’d say was just so to the point. He knew what he was talking about, and what he said, he meant. Just little words of encouragement.”

Her sentiments echo Cora Staunton’s words in Mary White’s book, Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers.

“You could listen to him all day,” the Mayo great said of the teacher. “His mindset on sport is amazing. You could ask him anything about the game and he’d be very open about everything. He’s like Mick O’Dwyer in that he’s won so much.”

“It’s the way he explains things,” she added, having first spoken to him on an All-Star Tour herself, at a bar in San Francisco in 2010, before gaining a deeper understanding at a training session.

“He’s a real thinker. An out-and-out coach. It’s what he does, and how he does it. He’s demonstrating things the whole time, explaining why things are done. Skills are huge and everything is done with a ball in hand. Just even watching the Cork girls respond to him, you’d learn a lot. He’s not managing, he’s coaching.”

Houlihan agrees, although sadly in the past tense now. “I would have loved to play under him. Just to experience him in full because I can’t imagine what it was like.”

Playing against Ryan and his teams was, unfortunately, the norm for Staunton and Houilhan.

The three-time Kingdom All-Star remembers her first game against Cork. She can’t recall exactly if it was in 2006 or 2007, but what she does know is Cork were The Team. While Kerry stuck with them for a while, the Rebels, as expected, pulled away.

“At the end of the game, you’d be walking off deflated, but Eamonn would even just glance down the line. He always had a nice word to say to you. It spoke volumes of the man, even though his team had just gone and won another Munster title, he still had time to give a word of encouragement to players on the opposite team.”

Another clash in Mallow springs to mind, one in which Houlihan came off injured just before half time. “After the game, I was walking down from the dugout. I passed and Eamonn just put his hand out, tapped me on the shoulder, and gave a little nod.

“He was a great character of a man, you’d admire him. When you’d be playing against them you’d be like, ‘What is he thinking?’ But even the little nod or the little word he’d say…

“Even Eamonn saying your name, you’d be like, ‘Ah, he knows who I am!’ Everyone thought so highly of him, and it just showed the character of the man he was.”

**************

eamonn-ryan-and-valerie-mulcahy-celebrate Ryan with Valerie Mulcahy after the 2015 All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McGonigle shared that same admiration, both for Eamonn Ryan the coach and Eamonn Ryan the person.

Not even five All-Ireland final defeats to Cork in six years — four of those with Ryan at the helm — could change that: two with Monaghan in 2011 and 2013, the rest with Dublin in ’14, ’15 and ’16 (Ephie Fitzgerald was in charge for the last after Ryan stepped away) with two points the biggest losing margin.

The Watergrasshill man’s longevity and glittering success was something that McGonigle couldn’t but be in awe of.

Through Ryan’s Cork ladies tenure, he oversaw 29 title wins out of a possible 36: 10 senior All-Irelands, nine Division 1 titles and 10 Munster crowns in 12 years. Before he took charge, Cork hadn’t won as much as a single provincial honour; under Ryan, they won 138 games from 165 competitive outings.

“You’d have seen Eamonn as an Alex Ferguson of ladies football, or even the likes of Brian Cody or that. He was somebody that you admired, as much as it was never easy coming up against him, losing so many times.

“But in fairness to Eamonn, he was one of them managers that no matter how many times he beat you, you always had a great amount of respect for him.

“And he would have shown the Monaghan and Dublin teams a lot of respect as well. How he celebrated, he was never sort of in your face, as much as he enjoyed winning as we all do. He was a gentleman at the end of the day.”

Sharing a sideline with him was not only an honour and privilege, but a massive learning experience.

“As much as Eamonn was a gentleman, he was fierce,” McGonigle adds, noting that his great team was “almost a representation of him”.

“The girls would cut you in two but they would say hello to you after the game. I nearly found that was the hardest bit of coming up against Cork; they were so likeable, but by God, they would kill you on the field.

“I remember saying this to the Dublin teams over the years: ‘Guys, you have to find some reason not to like them, they’re the competitor.’”

The only real victory of note that McGonigle had over Ryan was in the 2012 National League final while in charge of Monaghan.

gregory-mcgonigle-reacts-near-the-end-of-the-game McGonigle in the closing stages of the 2015 final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

That was just one of three national finals Cork lost under his watchful eye, along with the league finals in ’04 and ’07. They never lost an All-Ireland decider under Ryan, their only championship blips coming at the quarter-final stages in ’04 and ’10.

McGonigle laughs remembering that 2012 league triumph. “We were celebrating and Eamonn was congratulating,” but it was a victory that came back to bite them on that sunny Saturday in Birr a few months later.

“They didn’t take it too well. They beat us in the All-Ireland semi-final by nine points. They took that hurt as well.

“Eamonn was that sort of person; as much as he didn’t display the anger on the day, and he was very congratulatory, Cork done a job on us in the All-Ireland semi-final. I would say that was more or less a ‘Get back in your box’ sort of job.”

He did the same with his players, “not afraid to clip their wings,” as Staunton noted in Relentless.

“Not that their heads were getting big, but he wasn’t afraid to rein players in if they needed a kick up the arse,” she said. “10 minutes to go he could whip off a top player and it would make you think. It’s the subtle psychology of it.

“There’s no one ever allowed get above themselves because of that. That’s the mark of a good coach. There’s no one indispensable, no matter who they are.”

************** 

Just how likeable Eamonn Ryan and Cork were stood out to everyone.

Staunton described it brilliantly.

Game recognises game, and mutual respect is so important in rivalries. While the friendships between both teams took some time to build, they were very special in the end.

“It’s the way they conduct themselves. That’s a huge thing. There’s no arrogance or cockiness about Cork. They’ve won so many medals, they’ve a right to be cocky, but it’s another All-Ireland, they’ve won it and that’s it. They’ll go celebrate for the week and that’s the end of it. They were never in your face about it and were always so respectful of others.”

Houlihan can vouch for that too, the grounded nature of the players always sticking out to her. And that filtered down from the top.

“When they’d win, I suppose they were so used to winning, at the end of the game the likes of Geraldine O’Flynn, Briege Corkery, Angela Walsh, Bríd Stack, they’d come up to you and always say, ‘Well done.’ That just stood to them.

the-cork-team-and-eamonn-ryan-with-the-cup-after-the-game Celebrating the 2015 All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“That doesn’t just doesn’t just come to you, I think that’s filtered through. Eamonn gave that to them. He trained them and coached them, but he also taught them how to be gracious in winning as well.

“They had a job to do, they did it, and they’d still be a nice team and a nice management. They’d always have encouraging words to say to you afterwards that would help you going forward as a player and as a team. It definitely came from the top, you could see that, and the respect they had for him. I think when they went out to the field, they definitely took to the field for Eamonn Ryan.”

But as McGonigle noted, they took to it with a vengeance.

They did their talking on the pitch, and week on week, they taught other teams lessons.

McGonigle certainly learned many as a manager from the man himself.

In the 2015 All-Ireland final, a half-time tactical substitution went against Dublin because they didn’t consider what Ryan still had up his sleeve. Torn between two substitutes, McGonigle opted for a more effective kick passer to suit the game and get more ball into their full-forward. Ryan deployed two sweepers, completely countering the kick-pass game, so the other substitute would have been a better choice.

A harsh lesson learned, but one he took with him. 

“You’re thinking one thing at half time, but what are the other team going to be doing? Sometimes you were thinking you were getting one up on Eamonn but he was nearly that step ahead of shutting you down.

“From a management point-of-view, he was always good to come up against because he challenged you as well. Sometimes we never got the better of them, but we were there or thereabouts.

“Eamonn obviously seemed to guide the win, which was again, a testament to his character… how many tight games Cork did win.”

McGonigle learned even more valuable lessons by examining Ryan’s mannerisms and temperament, and taking that into his own coaching style.

He sees himself, and others, as “nearly too high-strung at times”, but he never saw that in The Master.

“Maybe that’s an age thing, I don’t know, but nothing ever seemed to be too much bother for Eamonn. He always seemed to be sort of laid back.

eamonn-ryan-and-captain-briege-corkery-with-her-dog-hernandez Ryan and Briege Corkery with her dog Hernandez during the warm-down after a 2014 championship clash. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“But he had a seriously, seriously good group of players. The respect that you can see between both the players and the management, it was like a marriage made in heaven, so to speak. They were just right for each other at that time.

“Eamonn relied as much on them, I would imagine, as much as they would have relied on him. His backroom team, he had different people in over the different course of the years but the message still stayed the same. I would have always thought he was very clear; he wanted the girls to play football and express themselves but it was never about Eamonn Ryan as such.”

************** 

McGonigle and Houlihan both tell great stories which sum up Eamonn Ryan the person; 2016 for his, 2014 for hers. 

McGonigle often exchanged phone calls with Ryan, hanging on to his every piece of advice when he needed a steer. But this one came out of nowhere.

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The background, in brief. He held a “bone of contention” with the LGFA, feeling he was overlooked for the managerial ticket on the 2016 All-Stars Tour to San Diego after his exploits with Monaghan and Dublin, Ulster and Jordanstown.

“I was obviously disappointed,” he says. “Completely out of the blue, I got a phone call from Eamonn Ryan.

“Eamonn made the point that he was disappointed that I hadn’t been selected to go on the trip, and if he could have given up his position to let me go, he would have but it wasn’t within [the remit].

“I thought it was a lovely touch. That was the side of Eamonn that you would have had, that maybe other people wouldn’t have seen.”

While great rivals on the field, the pair were great friends off it, sharing endless conversations about life away from football.

Ryan’s daughter lives in Maghera so that was always a hot topic; the travelling up and down, the long hours spent on the road and, of course, his beloved grandchildren.

Houlihan can also attest to how easy it was to talk to Ryan about everything outside of football.

A picture she came across shortly after the news of his death brought a big smile to her face; one of Ryan and his wife, Pat, at a banquet on that memorable trip to Hong Kong.

sarah-houlihan Houlihan facing Cork in 2015. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“It must have been Pat’s birthday or something because there was a little cupcake with a candle but to see the smile on Eamonn and Pat’s faces… that summed him up. That was him off the pitch, he was great craic. He was just lovely.” 

************** 

If there is one great day that stands out among Eamonn Ryan’s greatest days, it was the comeback final of 2014, Cork coming from 10 points down with 16 minutes to play to beat McGonigle’s Dublin by one.

As Eamonn Ryan makes his way down from the stand, Dublin manager Gregory McGonigle asks if Kilkenny hurling coach Brian Cody and himself would consider retiring so as to give other counties a chance.

This is the 17th national title win for Cork that Ryan has overseen since 2005. Ryan can barely answer, after witnessing what is arguably the greatest quarter-hour of football his players have produced during what has been the most remarkable decade.

- Relentless, Mary White, 2015

McGonigle didn’t get the answer he wanted on the day; Ryan was there again 12 months later. But when he did step away, Cork dined at the top table again in 2016.

He points to Jim Gavin leaving the all-conquering Dublin footballers, and how that success continued, or how Mick Bohan succeeded him in the Dublin ladies job  and steered them to four-in-row. “That’s just how things change,” he nods. “But Eamonn…”

He stops to think for a few seconds.

“Maybe it’s a bad way to say it, but I thought he was nearly… your grandfather type thing where you’re going, ‘You can’t just not like this man.’

“Maybe some teams found it easy not to like me, I was sometimes too loud on the sidelines, but you could just never get that with Eamonn. He was just very down to earth.

“As the saying is, ‘It’s how coaches make you feel as a person sometimes, not just about the trophies you’ve won.’ I think that’s going to be Eamonn’s lasting legacy.

“His legacy is phenomenal, what he’s done for ladies football but even not just ladies football…”

That’s something McGonigle, like many, has realised over the past few weeks: just how successful he was across all four codes, and how many instrumental roles he played on various different coaching and management teams through the years.

“His legacy, from a ladies football point of view, for me is guaranteed,” McGonigle nods. “They’re obviously the greatest team of all time to play the sport.

“I would say if you could live your life or do your coaching as close to what Eamonn Ryan has done, then you’d be close enough to nearly being perfect. You mightn’t always have the success but I think how he coaches is the way that we should all want to try and coach.

“Develop relationships with players, that there’s a trust and a bond there that the players respect the management and likewise, the management have the utmost respect. Once you finish up football, it’s about still having that relationship.

“That’s maybe a thing that I have taken from Eamonn; you just need to be possibly a bit more personable, and maybe have a bit more care and a bit more respect for people.

“From a coaching point of view, I think a lot of people can learn from Eamonn Ryan, and I think that will be his testament, that people in five or 10 years will still be talking about him.” 

He can see many of Ryan’s former Cork players go on to be excellent managers and coaches in their own right, and they’ll certainly keep his memory alive.

They were the first people Houlihan thought of when she saw the news this day four weeks ago.

“To everyone else from the outside, we knew a legend of a man he was, but they’ve lost a great coach and a great friend to a lot of them. They soldiered for years together. It just showed the man he was, the tributes that came in for him.

“I really felt for that Cork team and all the Cork players that soldiered under Eamonn. They’ve suffered a great loss as well. They lost a great manager, and a great friend. They were one big family and Eamonn was almost like a Dad to many of them.”

As the quote goes, “That is your legacy on this Earth when you leave this Earth: how many hearts you touched.”

Eamonn Ryan touched many, and those people left behind will undoubtedly drive his enduring legacy on now. 

Namely his beloved Cork ladies, Houlihan concludes.

“I think they will come back, and I really believe a factor will be for Eamonn Ryan.

“Eamonn, for many years, he built that Cork team up. While he has a great legacy, I think Cork will come again and I think the backbone will be Eamonn Ryan. I have no doubt he’ll have something to do with it.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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