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'9 years at the top could make your head swell, but come the first session of the year, they’re nobodies'

Read an extract from Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers by Mary White.

The Cork ladies team.
The Cork ladies team.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Relentless’ by Mary White.

It’s 105 days since Cork became the 2014 All-Ireland champions. Today, though, they’re just like any other team, starting out on a nine-month journey to be the best. Back to business; back to basics.

Nine years at the top could make your head swell, but come the first session of the year, they’re nobodies. They each have to work as hard as every other inter-county player, if not harder because they have to fend off the chasing pack. This is how they have done it for the last decade: every January is treated like the first.

It’s 9.40am on 11 January 2015, and cars are already whizzing through the winding entrance of The Farm. Most are purring diesel engines, heavily splattered with mud, a contrast to the flashier cars the UCC Fitzgibbon hurlers drive in minutes later.

The O’Sullivan sisters, Ciara and Roisín, are greeted by Emma Farmer outside the green-painted dressing room, their inner sanctuary for close to a decade. It’s smiles all the way, but it’s brief: they’re here to work. Ciara O’Sullivan doesn’t know it yet, but she’ll soon become the eighth captain during Eamonn Ryan’s reign.

Orlagh Farmer gives selector Frankie Honohan a hug as he shuffles across the car park with loaded water bottles in this, his twelfth season with the Cork ladies. Eamonn Ryan, nearing 74 years of age, is sitting on the boot of his silver Toyota Yaris putting on heavy-duty boots, chatting to a young hurler in a Tipperary jersey who has gone out of his way to say hello. Five cars up, and former Cork hurling goalkeeper Ger Cunningham is doing the same.

More hurlers filter past Ryan and say ‘how ya’, ‘congrats’ and ‘well done’. The Master just nods and smiles, a little embarrassed. He knows the days of celebrations are long gone. No need to mention them any more. Cunningham heads in his direction and the two legendary Cork GAA men shake hands and exchange greetings.

It’s 9.50am, 10 minutes before training is due to start, and the ladies footballers are already trotting over to the pitch right of The Farm entrance. Its rugby posts will do for now.

A batch of soccer players stroll by, gear bags thrown over their shoulders, but a handful are aware of who just passed them – ‘That’s the Cork ladies footballers, lads!’

Ryan follows the squad to the pitch and the players are already jumping, twisting, kicking balls, anything to stay warm. It’s bitterly cold but there’s nothing fancy about their gear. A fraction are wearing Skins compared to the UCC hurlers who are now sprinting past, already late for their own session.

It’s bang on 10am but selector Shane Ronayne has long counted the numbers and kicking commences. There’s a lot of hopping from one foot to the other — either from the cold or nerves. It’s time to impress, show you’ve maintained a respectable level of fitness during hibernation. This is Ronayne’s second season and he has learned to keep it simple. Jogging. Butt kicks. Lunges. They’re all done in harmony.

Ryan and Honohan watch on, leaning against the rugby posts. Reverse lunges.

A number of familiar faces are missing, but word of retirements won’t filter out of the camp until before their opening game against Mayo in Swinford in three weeks’ time. It’s not intentional, but the media don’t care for now.

Full-back All-Star Angela Walsh is expecting her first child, legendary midfielder Norita Kelly and former captain Anne-Marie Walsh have retired, and Nollaig Cleary won’t announce her status officially until the summer rolls in.

A handful of new bodies have joined the squad. It’s difficult coming into a team of multiple All-Ireland-winning players and All-Star winners, but they’re made to feel part of the set-up from day one. The veterans make sure of it. Skipping. Hopping. Jumping.

Selector Pat O’Leary runs an errand for Ronayne, who’s in his element. This is where he’s meant to be. ‘Jump and land into it girls, jump and land into it!’ he shouts, demonstrating the move himself.

Another late batch of hurlers run by. It’s 10.07am and already Cork limbs are sweating. ‘Be aggressive about it,’ Ronayne shouts.

This doesn’t look like a fluffy pre-season session for one second. The diligence and focus of the players is akin to that prior to a league final, a Munster championship opener with Kerry even. The operation is so smooth that it’s baffling to think that this is their first session in nearly four months.

Winter, and winning, didn’t distract them. This is a well-oiled machine.

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relentless

Core exercises. High knees and sprints. High heels and sprints.

‘Some of us aren’t changing correctly. Press go when you get to the green cone!’ Ronayne instructs.
10.15am: The warm-up ends. United, they walk to Honohan’s water bottles. Ryan has yet to officially welcome them as a group. He still stands under the posts, but Bríd Stack, the eldest present, approaches him. They smile and share a joke.

Ryan thanks the players for being there and then reads from a piece of paper in his right hand, explaining the next drill. There’s no dilly-dallying or ‘fannying about’ – as they’d say in Cork. As he speaks, ponytails are fixed and stretches are completed. The girls are utilising their time efficiently, just like The Master.

He points to his head. All eyes are on him and they know they need to maintain 100 per cent focus. It’s ball work straight off. Running at full tilt, handpassing. It’s freezing and the wind is picking up. Limbs are red and blue beneath the overcast Sunday morning sky, but it’s high pace, high intensity. Short and snappy.

Ryan constantly encourages, his desire for the game keeping him warm, and he follows with whistle in hand. The intensity has gone up another notch.

Liaison officer Bridget O’Brien and Frank Honohan huddle in the distance, and join Ronayne and O’Leary in a chorus of constant encouragement.

No one is hiding, new or old, and there’s communication and movement in bucketloads – surprisingly so for January.

‘A minute and a half left,’ Ryan calls out.

Everything is timed. To the second. But it’s not all perfection. Mistakes are made and a few of the fresher faces lose possession and fail to get back and defend, but that’ll soon be knocked out of them. The whistle sounds and they instantly jog it in, forming a semi-circle around their general with military precision. It’s time for a possession game.

Instantly things get faster and more physical, and blocking comes into play. The players are happy to be back. Happy to have a routine again and happy that a new year brings a new challenge. The duration of the drills is neither too long nor too short and everything is perfectly balanced to their satisfaction.

This is how Ryan has kept their attention for 11 years – by making them central in every session. Ryan looks to be in his element too. He loves this and he feeds off their energy. His son Don, the team’s statistician, arrives a little late, but that’s no surprise given the arrival of his first child, Doireann, just a few months earlier.

There’s no physio on site: Brian O’Connell is only 24 hours back in the country after his honeymoon, so he too is excused. They all have lives outside of this.

Ryan checks his watch. They’re an hour in and the drills have flown by. It’s match situation now: game on. 110%, no less — and this is just day one.

At 11.18am the game finishes and selector Pat O’Leary brings in the water bottles. Press-ups are done. Roll over: abs. Jumping jacks. Burpees. It’s old school — simple, but effective.

No one is slacking, even now when shadow punches are thrown. They will be hit; as reigning champions, it comes with the territory. But they’re not done yet. Ryan issues instructions, so sprints it is. 60 legs turn and pump. Now, in twos, it’s a tug of war for the ball.

‘Don’t let them take it off you,’ Ryan instructs. ‘Brilliant, well done. You’ve had to work hard to get to where you are so don’t give it up easy!’ he says, referring to the task at hand, but it could just as well be meant for the last decade.

‘That’s it so lads, see ye Wednesday night,’ he adds, and instinctively the players huddle together. Arms around each other’s waists as if to say this is where it starts, the first of 90 sessions in 2015.

Another year, another chapter.

Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers by Mary White is published by Mercier Press. More info here.

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