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'It is hard you can't give him the send off he deserves but I'm sure he's looking down saying, 'Not to worry, lads''

Shane Ronayne recalls working alongside Eamonn Ryan.

Updated Jan 16th 2021, 5:27 PM

SHANE RONAYNE WAS a bit red-faced about the circumstances of his appointment on the Cork Ladies backroom team.

eamonn-ryan-with-shane-ronayne Shane Ronayne with Eamonn Ryan after Cork's famous comeback victory in 2014 All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

It was 2014, and the Munster side were a long established force in Ladies Football, two All-Ireland titles short of the perfect 10.

Ronayne had met the Cork manager Eamonn Ryan before. While at the helm of the Cork U16 Ladies the previous year, Ronayne invited Ryan to speak to his players before an All-Ireland final.

The seniors were playing at the same venue that day and Ryan called over to speak to the youngsters while they were warming up. He then stayed on to watch the game. This was a team that boasted talents like Eimear Scally, Hannah Looney and Eimear Meaney, all destined to one day graduate to the senior ranks.

By the end of the year, a position had opened up in Ryan’s backroom unit. Some of the selectors had stepped away and Ronayne was drafted into the fold.

“Absolutely buzzing” is how Ronayne describes his memory of the opportunity while speaking over the phone with The42.

The only problem was that nobody told Ryan about his new recruit.

“He [Ryan] famously says that he didn’t know I was coming in,” Ronayne recalls. “I rang him one night and said, ‘Eamonn, I’m glad to be coming in with you.’ He hadn’t a clue I was coming in at all.

“I felt very embarrassed about it.”

It was the slightest of bumps. A minor miscommunication which quickly gave way to a brilliant working relationship that would last for two years. Cork finished each of those campaigns as All-Ireland champions to complete that hunt for 10 titles.

Both Ryan and Ronayne departed the Cork set-up after 2015 but their friendship continued to run and run.

“We built up a very good working relationship and personal relationship outside of that,” Ronayne continues.

“You’d be talking to him on a daily basis about everything. He’d be ringing about school.

“He was fascinated by human nature and things that were going on in school and how things were changing, and what kids were relating to. I suppose that helped him relate to whoever he was dealing with. He’d deal with an underage team the same way he’d deal with an adult team.

“The two years was just a wonderful experience with Eamonn and something I’ll never forget. So many good memories from the two years.”

eamon-ryan-with-shane-ronayne Ronayne and Ryan worked together with the Cork ladies for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Their bond was still tight when they spoke over the phone again before Christmas gone by. Ronayne had heard his friend was ill in hospital and wanted to check in.

“I spoke to him that night and we’d a great chat for nearly an hour,” he says.

“You knew by him [that] he was very sick but he was still telling stories. I was glad I got that opportunity just before he died to have a good chat with him and reminisce about everything.

“I’m glad I got the opportunity to talk to him one last time.”

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Understandably, Ronayne held some pre-conceptions about what to expect when he linked up with the Cork seniors in 2014.

A team of their quality, he thought, must be engaged in complicated training methods. He was anticipating intricate drills that would explain the mystery of Cork’s greatness.

What he encountered was quite different to what he had imagined. The secret was that there was no secret to Cork’s success under Ryan.

“Everything was so straight forward,” says Ronayne as he casts his mind back to that first session.

“He was meticulous in his planning and I hope all these things have rubbed off on me that way. Everything was written down and he had these hardback A5 notebooks. Every single session was detailed in it, he had it all planned out.”

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Ryan’s passing brought an expected outpouring of gratitude this week, not just for the impact he left on the GAA community but for the way he affected people’s lives away from sport.

Father figure is the term that is most often used to describe Ryan’s relationship with the Cork team.

The players of that time reiterated that feeling once again while paying tribute to his memory in the hours after his death.

“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life,” was the opening line of Orlagh Farmer’s dedication to Ryan.

And change their lives he did. It was the same for Ronayne, who speaks so eloquently and sensitively about his former mentor throughout our chat. 

He talks about Ryan’s enthusiasm to embrace new changes and trends in Ladies Football as well as his curiosity in other sports, always seeking out different ideas that could improve the team.

Ronayne has since carved out his own path in management, taking over the Tipperary Ladies and Mourneabbey Ladies in that time. Success followed those appointments as Ronayne guided his sides to respective All-Ireland crowns; a testament to the lessons he learned from his apprenticeship under Ryan.

He hopes to continue applying Ryan’s law as he prepares to take over the Waterford footballers in 2021.

“A lot of what I’m trying to achieve, if I can come anywhere close to what he has done then I know that I’m doing well.

“I’ve learned so much about sport and life, and school [from him]. He was just able to relate to everyone. There was a bit of a family atmosphere all the time at training and after training.

“I had only two years with him, but the simplicity of what we did at training. He was a brilliant coach of the really basic stuff. He was able to break it down and give you little pointers and teaching points.

 ”He was just infectious and you couldn’t but be drawn to him because he was so knowledgeable about everything. He was able to relate to whatever situation a player might be in, whether that was sport or within their lives. He had a genuine interest in listening to people, to their stories.

“You’d be going away from sessions writing down what we did that night and picking ideas. He was very inspirational that way.”

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Ronayne knew his friend was unwell but the news of his death still hit him hard.

This wasn’t Ryan’s first encounter with illness and he had come through those battles before, the fighter in him always steering him through. 

“He was down in Tipperary to present the All-Ireland medals to the team that won the intermediate All-Ireland.

“He was just coming back out of a spell in hospital. He wasn’t well but he was still in great form. He was fantastic that night. Lots of people in the room would never had heard Eamonn speak before and he left a lasting impression.”

For many of those who knew him, grieving for Ryan’s loss will have to be done privately. The ongoing threat of the Covid-19 pandemic means that only 10 people are permitted to attend funerals at the moment.

Naturally, Ronayne would prefer to be able to attend along with all those who were touched by Ryan throughout his 79 years. But that will have to wait for another time.

“It is hard that you can’t give him the send off he deserves. I’m sure it would be the biggest funeral ever in Cork. We were hoping we’d be able to do a guard of honour but we don’t know.

“It’s very disappointing and hard for everyone who knew him that we can’t pay proper respects to him, but I’m sure he’s looking down saying, ‘Not to worry, lads.’ That’s just the way he was.

“He couldn’t have visitors when he was in hospital and he was just pragmatic about it and wasn’t complaining about it. It’s difficult but we have to respect what’s going on at the moment. We’ll probably mark it in the future when we can.”

It started out with a phone call, and ultimately, it ended with a phone call too. One more chat before saying goodbye to a GAA icon who helped shape the future of Ladies football, but would never accept the credit for it.

A winner always.

“It was just a fantastic experience to be in there. You learned so much and you had such good days as well. The incredible success that was still going on and the hunger those players still had.

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