Eamonn Ryan: A true Gaelic games legend and an enduring legacy

RIP: Eamonn Ryan.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

ON 14 JANUARY 2004, the Cork county board officially announced Eamonn Ryan as the new coach of the ladies football team.

It was something that had been in the works for a while, with the county set-up in the doldrums. His name was mentioned in the run-up to the dramatic 2003 county board AGM; a modest five-line coaching biography on a sheet of A4 paper shared around.

Eamonn Ryan (GAA Development Officer, UCC)

  • Trained Cork minors through the nineties
  • Selector for the Cork senior men’s football panel for the last four years
  • Coached UCC seniors
  • Retired headmaster
  • Has all coaching badges

At first attempt, Ryan didn’t want to get involved because Charlie McLaughlin was still in situ as manager. But as it transpired, McLaughlin was asked to step aside at the AGM, Mary Collins took the job, and she got Ryan on board.

Looking back, that CV certainly undersold him. Over the following 12 hugely successful seasons he spent in charge of the Cork ladies footballers, he would surpass the wildest expectations of that time.

Exactly 17 years on from that appointment, a dark cloud of sadness was cast over Gaelic games circles this afternoon with the news of the renowned Cork manager’s passing after an illness at the age of 79. The outpouring of emotion that followed shows just how much he meant to so many.

His managerial career across all four codes is almost incomparable, while he also enjoyed serious success as a player.

Ryan was “the mastermind behind Cork’s rise from ruins to glory,” as he’s first introduced in Mary White’s Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers. He changed the ladies’ game forever.

A larger than life character and a true gentleman, the Watergrasshill native delivered 10 All-Ireland titles, 10 Munster championship crowns and nine National League honours through his tenure. 

But his Cork senior roles were not just restricted to his exploits at the helm of the ladies footballers.

Journey back to 1966 on a July afternoon in Killarney and 25-year-old corner-forward Ryan fired over three points, the eventual winning margin as Cork defeated Kerry in a low-scoring match. Go to 1983 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh; Tadgh Murphy delivering the dramatic injury-time goal as Ryan trained the Cork team that nudged past Kerry on the line.

The 1983 Munster final match report from Irish Independent.

On both occasions Kerry were chasing nine-in-a-row, on both occasions Eamonn Ryan did his bit in ending spells of Kingdom provincial supremacy.

All-Ireland senior success proved elusive. Galway knocked Cork out in the ’66 semi-final, Dublin did likewise in a final in ’83. A decider appearance arrived in ’67 along with a starting spot for Ryan in the Cork attack but Meath’s three-point win was rewarded with the Sam Maguire.

“I dreamed as a young fella of playing with Cork but I never had the ambition to win an All-Ireland. It was always just about making the team. It’s hard to explain,” he once said, though the prestige of owning a Celtic Cross hit him on a night out with Larry Tompkins when everyone knew him.

So Cork’s 2005 ladies football All-Ireland senior breakthrough was a landmark moment, not only for their players on the pitch but also their manager on the line.

And when he moved on from that position a decade later, the Cork senior mens’ team again sought to tap into his wisdom and expertise as he served as a selector for three seasons from 2016 to 2018.

The eldest of six, Ryan lived a nomadic GAA existence which exposed him to a range of influences. Home was Watergrasshill, in the traditional hurling heartland of east Cork. He also lived in Thurles briefly as a child, and while interested in a wide range of other sports from rugby to soccer, his first love of small ball well and truly blossomed there.

But football roles came with home sister club Glenville, and his school days in Coláiste Iosagáin in Ballyvourney which lies flush against the Kerry border. 

In 1974 he double-jobbed as a player and trainer when Watergrasshill won a county junior title. He filled various other roles in his native parish, where he was also a school teacher, but his coaching excellence saw him recruited by other clubs. Ryan is synonymous with Na Piarsaigh’s rise from the northside of Cork city, in place as coach for senior hurling titles in 1990 and 1995 and selector when they replicated that feat in 2004.

So sad to hear the news about Eamonn Ryan today – what he did for us @NaPiarsaighCork will never be forgotten. A gentleman.

— John Gardiner (@JohnGaa5) January 14, 2021

He ended up living in the Gaeltacht parish of Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh, where his wife, Pat, hailed from. When they were crowned intermediate football champions in 2006, Ryan’s influence was again visible as another win was added to a CV heaving with honours.

A run in charge of Cork minor football teams also yielded three Munster and two All-Ireland titles in a period spanning from 1991 to 1994. Kevin O’Dwyer, Joe Kavanagh, Martin Cronin and Owen Sexton were some of the county’s future senior stalwarts that came under Ryan’s watch.

He fostered rising stars in UCC as well, where in a past life he won two Sigerson Cups, played in the 1967 Cork senior county final when they lost out to Beara, and was named captain of a college’s All-Star Team.

Having also studied in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and played with Erin’s Hope in Dublin, Ryan served as GAA officer in UCC from 1999 to 2007, coaching the college to Ashbourne Cup camogie glory — they won three during his time as GAA officer — and adding silverware in that code to local success he had helped orchestrate.

A proven top-level coach in all four codes, Ryan was known as ‘The Master’ with good reason. And that’s most obviously seen through his time in the Cork ladies hotseat.

Before his involvement, they had never won a Munster senior title in the competition’s 33-year history, never mind a coveted All-Ireland crown. Hammerings at the hands of Kerry and Waterford in 80s and 90s were never too far from players’ thoughts, but the tables soon turned.

“He had a way of instilling belief and creating culture based on the attitude that diligence is the only way to make it to the top,” as Mary White pointed out.

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“He makes a commitment to be there every step of the way and equip players as best he can, but ultimately it’s they who have to get it done.”

Ryan on the line in 2008.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

That new culture he created helped a struggling Cork outfit transform into a ladies football heavyweight, their domination like no other as they lifted 29 titles out of a possible 36 through his time in charge.

Ryan was a philosopher, a grafter. His colourful playing and coaching career, marathon running, and life in general taught him to work hard and push it to the limit. His appetite to learn from others, and himself, drove him along the way, and he, in return, dished that knowledge out. The players themselves, the fundamental skills and pure hard work were at the heart of all he did.

The challenge of taking the reins in ’04 at the age of 62 was a clear focus he needed at the time, having just undergone surgery. After meticulous preparations, he soon made his impact felt.

A family man — a father of six and a grandfather — he added many more to his circle of nearest and dearest in time. A striking factor of Ryan’s glittering tenure was the family-feel to his relationship with the players. “He was infectious,” as Juliet Murphy said in Relentless, the book filled from cover to cover with anecdotes which sum him up.

Unknown to most when he took charge, a three-minute talk in the dressing room ahead of the first trial match won them over there and then. A chance to impress the new boss followed, who Murphy’s father Michael couldn’t believe they secured the services of. A quick Google search which threw up his Wikipidia page assured Murphy they’d “hit the jackpot”.

He challenged the players to get better and to raise their standards no ends, eventually nurturing a new trust and bond within the group. One like no other. 

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While they were taken aback by his basic ways and calm demeanor during his first competitive outing — the first loss of just 23 in Ryan’s 151 league and championship games in charge — they soon became accustomed to it.

After the 2014 final.

Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Both on and off the field, he helped them, and they helped him through good and bad, thick and thin, on and off the pitch. (Ryan battled prostate cancer in 2004, and not even intense treatment could stop him in his tracks.)

Bit by bit, improvements came. Other teams weren’t invincible, he assured them. Cork could mix it with the best. Mayo players have “two hands, two legs and one brain,” just like us, he told them before the 2004 Division 1 league final. While they lost on the day, he ensured his players watched the trophy presentation.

“That’s what we’re going to be doing so remember this moment.”

Foundations were set that year, and a first team meeting called in the October. Each player was handed a four-page document entitled, “The Dream Becoming A Reality.”

Our vision: To bring Cork to the top of ladies football, and to be the same as the men.Our Philosophy: To be the best in everything we do.

Our Style of Play: To win.

Win, they most certainly did. The first Brendan Martin Cup success arrived a little under a year later with a 1-11 to 0-8 win over Galway in Croke Park. A poignant moment in the dressing room set the tone that day after their jersey presentation ritual. Ryan asked his players if they saw a man on a wheelchair in Phibsboro on their bus journey to HQ.

He said: “Well, there’s worse things in life than losing today.”

A remarkable five-in-a-row followed; the 2008 win a particularly emotional one dedicated to stats man, and Ryan’s brother-in-law and great friend, Tim Murphy, who passed away shortly after following an illness.

Understandably, he was hit hard by that. He knew just how fickle life was, and how important it was to appreciate enjoy every moment.

“The sun is still shining and life goes on,” he once said after being slapped with a harsh suspension, and that’s a pretty nice outlook to have.

With his brother Jim and a Watergrasshill clubmate after Cork’s first All-Ireland win in ’05.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

He likely thought something similar after their shock 2010 championship exit at the hands of Tyrone in the quarter-final, Cork’s loss paving the way for Dublin’s first All-Ireland win. A small bit of complacency crept in, but if that heartbreaking defeat hadn’t have happened, Cork wouldn’t have gone on to win another few, he noted. After a long winter of soul-searching, a new era began.

The comeback was greater than the setback, and one story in particular from the book epitomised their next season as a whole. Before the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin, Ryan told his players how he listened to a woman on the radio whose husband had died. Asked how she was able to keep going and see light at end of tunnel, “She said she was able to keep going because she walked down that tunnel and turned on the feckin’ light herself…

“Now go out there and do the same.”

Cork soon shone bright once again as they set out on another six-in-a-row (the sixth came under the watchful eye of Ryan’s successor Ephie Fitzgerald). Galvanised, unified; they flew as one. And that friendship, modesty and humility came from the top down.

The 2014 All-Ireland final was perhaps their most dramatic day of all, their greatest escape after all the hard-fought comebacks through the years. Masterminded by Ryan after an extremely rushed preparation, and without any roaring or panic on the line, the Rebels came from 10 points down in the final quarter to break Dublin hearts.

Afterwards, Sky Blues boss Gregory McGonigle asked Ryan if he and Brian Cody would consider retiring to give other counties a chance. Not only did it come as it their 17th national title since 2005, it earned them the Team of the Year title at the RTÉ Sports Awards.

At the RTÉ Sport Awards in 2014.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Their greatest achievement in all, most involved argue, because after a decade of dominating their field, the Irish sporting public finally saluted their collective achievements.

“As they make their way onto the stage, it’s the happiest they’ve seen Eamonn Ryan,” is one recollection of the night itself in Relentless. “The man, the coach, they’ve come to love.

“At 73, he’s 56 years older than the youngest squad recruit, but receiving tonight’s award knocks four decades off him.”

They completed the perfect 10 a year later after a Munster final defeat, the team’s midnight singsong at the post All-Ireland final banquet, with Ryan front and centre, the perfect note to sign off on.

“The next one is the best one,” he said after the final whistle that day. “You’re never really happy… the enjoyment really comes when it’s [the game] over.”

'The enjoyment is when it's over' – Interview with the great Eamonn Ryan, after a 2015 League Final replay win fir @CorkLGFA over Galway. The full interview is on our Facebook page now.. RIP to a true legend.

pic.twitter.com/tmzWQ5whN9

— Ladies Football (@LadiesFootball) January 14, 2021

Tributes from Cork players today, and through the years, have summed up Eamonn Ryan. He changed their lives, that’s for sure, but he gave so much to so many in Gaelic games circles across Cork, and across the country.

“I’m sure all this adoration for Eamonn would make him crawl but his contribution can’t be underestimated,” as Bríd Stack pointed out in the final paragraphs of Relentless, in which the closing line from Ryan feels like a particularly poignant one today.

“They did their best, I did my best, and we all had a great time.”

The legend of Eamonn Ryan will certainly endure.

***

– Written by Emma Duffy and Fintan O’Toole.

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