By John Scally
He was the GAA’s answer to Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. Few men knew how to motivate players better than the manager of the most successful GAA team of all time, Eamonn Ryan. He put the emphasis on humility and fitness. Hence his instruction to his team to be like nuns and have ‘small heads and small bums’.
In January 2021 the GAA community mourned his passing. The Glenville/Watergrasshill man led the Rebels to their first All-Ireland title in 2005. He was a towering figure of his time with a unique capacity to redirect the traffic of sporting destiny from the back alley of failure towards the grand concourse of triumph and glory. We stand in awe.
In its rich history of the GAA the Cork ladies’ team of the noughties and beyond are the greatest team of all time. From never having won a senior title to winning 10 All-Irelands in 11 years, nine League titles and ten Munster titles their record is simply breath-taking.
They made household names of players like Valerie Mulcahy and Rena Buckley and were led magnificently by the peerless Juliet Murphy, who ranks with Cora Staunton as one of the GAA Immortals. Famously in 2013 Murphy came out of retirement to lead Cork to another All-Ireland.
Prisoners of hope at first the Cork players were both beguiled and skeptical, talking to each other to persuade themselves, listening to be persuaded that what lay before them was exhilarating – the combined intricate talents of the team fitting together like an expertly designed puzzle.
Eamonn Ryan was not prepared to accept the old ways. His message was, ‘As a team we were feared by everyone out there, but we don’t believe in ourselves. The dream can become a reality if they want it bad enough, but they need to believe.’ He told the players to realise the sacrifices needed to get to the top.
They had to be more committed, loyal to their teammates and play with pride in the jersey. There was to be no cliques, no gossip and what was said in the dressing room, stayed in the dressing room. Ryan invited Cork hurling icon Donal Óg Cusack to speak to the players, to give them a bit of advice and inspire them if he could. Cusack’s stirring speech concluded with the exhortation: ‘You can never be satisfied with just one all-Ireland girls. This has to be the start of a much longer journey, remember that.’ They never forgot.
Ryan could relate to the type of dedication that caused a top jockey like Tony McCoy to live solely on a diet of chicken and Jaffa cakes. He could understand why Herb Elliot, the 1500 metre Olympic champion from Australia, retired at the incredibly tender age of 21. He hung up his spikes because he had never been beaten over his Olympic distance and was unsure how he would handle the trauma when it inevitably came.
To outsiders these competitors are not of this world but for those like Ryan who have competed at the highest level in their chosen sport, or as Macbeth would have put it, acquired ‘the sickness’, they all think they are madly normal. They live and breathe the game.
Ryan knew why second best was just not good enough. He knew that it was the small things that make the big differences. He understood that a lot of the time winning is not about being one hundred cent better than your opponents but about doing 100 things one per cent better than the other team.
He knew that in the lead up to a big game that players want, no what they need, is an atmosphere as reassuringly familiar as the odours of home cooking; he understood how the hours peeled away like layers of insulation before a match and he can decipher the throb of misgiving that can be detected in strident predictions of success. He went through what Sir Clive Woodward calls the T-Cup, i.e. ‘Thinking correctly under pressure’.
The Cork players responded to Ryan’s motivation. Before the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin, he 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.’
The emergence of a charismatic Cork team, their thrilling rivalry with Dublin and the soaring attendances, have seen ladies’ football enjoy a much higher profile than camogie in recent years. Three times they beat Dublin in All-Ireland finals, including the never to be forgotten 2014 final when Dublin led by 10 points with just 16 minutes to go. In 2018 the Dubs finally beat them in a final to win their second consecutive All-Ireland.
For GAA fans our great teams refine the soul and bring colour and richness into the dullest life. In barren years we become blind to beauty and lose our sense of wonder, with a consequent impoverishment of spirit – the spirit that only grows by winning big games – like a flower opening to the sun.
When our team is on a winning streak it imbues us with a deep feeling and solidarity and a glow that uplifts the spirit. Great teams have a special power. They touch a deep chord in every fan’s heart; they refine the spirit when we listen to the music of life, the sound of the wind in the trees, the sound of laughter, the sounds of nature. The thunderous applause for our great teams is the sweetest sound of all. They enable us to tap into the core of life and become energised, to become in touch with our own deepest feelings and get in touch with others.
That’s the particular thrill of great teams. They can liberate the body, the heart – even the spirit – from years or generations of heartbreak. They can so lift the soul that they give it a taste of heaven. The role of great teams is to arouse the music within us that the rough, hard life we lead so often puts to sleep.
Like the eagle flying majestically or the brilliant ballet of the sparkling stars the great teams proclaim the rhythm and harmony of our liberation from the mundane. Few teams did it better than Eamonn Ryan’s Cork team. May he rest in peace.