EAMONN Ryan’s modesty first manifested itself rolling across the gravel in Lackabawn in the form of a tiny, white Daihatsu Cuore.
On January 18, 2016, it’ll be 12 years to the day since he stood watching 70 Cork senior hopefuls fumble a ball across the Donoughmore turf. After 165 games with Ryan at the helm, they now have 29 titles in their repertoire, but their humility has stayed forever steadfast.
So, whoever it is that ventures up the windy roadway of The Farm next month in Ryan’s footsteps, must bring one thing; the same level of modesty, because it’s the very fabric with which the empire was built. ‘Small heads, and small arses’ as he’d say himself.
MODESTY MADE CORK LADIES FOOTBALL EMPIRE
In December, Ryan drove off into the sunset, aged 74, but still blissfully in love with coaching as day one. A new commute begins from his home in Ballingeary. No more will his modest mode of transport make its way to Bishopstown of a Wednesday evening or a Sunday morning. No more will he sit and sup on the miracle soup made by his longest serving selector, Frank Honohan. No question he’ll miss the chats brewed alongside the soup in the green tin-can dressing rooms. Its simplicity, its brilliance.
Whoever steps in, or steps up – whatever way you look at it – will have the reputation of a genius to follow.
There’s just a way about him. It’s a dozen years since we first met, or should I say, since Ryan placed me in midfield with Valerie Mulcahy in the trial match that day in Donoughmore. It’s just one of many stats scribbled in the notebooks Ryan has collated over the years. Each page details a single session, handwritten to perfection, just as the session itself.
Ryan is a knowledgeable man. For years I kept my distance, not knowing how to approach him. He has an aura about him. The kind that turns heads in a room.
EAMONN RYAN’S KNOWLEDGE KNOWS NO BOUNDS
It wasn’t until the press day ahead of the 2013 All-Ireland final against Kerry that I had my first proper in-depth chat with the man they call ‘The Master’. The session was complete and as journalists, what few there were, gathered nuggets for the week’s previews, I sat at the far end of the bar in Bishopstown GAA Club with Ryan to my left. As to who was in our company, I’m not so sure, but I already had my previews packaged before the press gathering, and so the chat was informal over a cup of tea.
A query soon came from Ryan to see if I could delve into the Irish Examiner archives and find a match report that included a ‘wild, hairy rugby player from Wales’ who played against a Cork outfit down the Mardyke in the Seventies. The gent’s name, I was told, was Danny Wilson. Ryan remembered him distinctly for his athletic ability.
As the years went by, unknownst to Ryan, Wilson had a son called Ryan Joseph Wilson, who inherited his father’s natural ability to dodge oncoming opponents, only with a soccer ball, not an oval one. So good in fact was young Ryan Wilson, that he signed for Manchester City, before joining Manchester United on his 14th birthday in November 1987. It was around then that the young Ryan changed his second name to that of his mother’s, Eamonn Ryan informed me, to that of Giggs.
The conversation was fascinating, He preceded to tell me of how he’d just finished reading Alan Hansen’s autobiography.
‘Do you know Alan Hansen has played three sports for Scotland?’ he asked, ‘soccer, golf and volleyball!’.
Ryan’s knowledge blew me away. The conversation was as enjoyable as it was intriguing, and there was almost a need to try and impress him back. The players say that too. The need to constantly impress ‘The Master’ is inexplicable. Even now, it’s hard to pin-point, just how he does it. But, that’s the genius in him. The subtlety of every word is a masterstroke.
It’s that skill to get the best out of the players, woven with Ryan’s modesty, that’s built the success story that is Cork ladies football. To match that will be extremely hard, if near impossible. The uniqueness of it all is far too scarce.
WHAT NEXT FOR CORK LADIES FOOTBALL?
No one’s indispensable, however. Not even Ryan, and he knows that more than anyone. Life will go on, and his decade of dominance will wash away into the history books.
What they won’t write about in 20 years however, is the Watergrasshill’s man’s real legacy. Silverware (10 All-Ireland titles, nine Division One National Leagues, 10 Munster Senior Championships) aside, the legacy will be how he changed the landscape of Cork ladies football by virtue of modesty and hard work. His own mannerisms, and that of the likes of Frank Honohan and Mary Collins in the first four years, paving the way.
Together they orchestrated a rebuild, a franchise of winning ways. Ryan, the ultimate architect.
His loyalty, and that of the players will never be unbroken, despite how the story of Ryan’s departure surfaced in the media. It’s not how he would have wanted things handled, but life has a habit of being out of your control. Ryan knows that too, and his ability to adapt to curve balls is something that’s stood him, and those he’s coached too.
But, no matter what’s come his way, modesty, has been at the crux of everything he’s done. He ventured into the job not knowing a single player, and as the rumour mill begins to churn its wheels as regards a possible successor, then who’s to say that no connections is once again the way forward again for Cork ladies football. Only time will tell. But whether it be someone already involved in Cork or not, one thing is certain, ego cannot play its part in the next chapter. The dressing room was void of that for the last 12 years, and upon that principle, players rose every time.
To find a mentor with a no agenda, nor ego, will be hard. For now, it’s just time to tip the hat to a genius, and a gent, and say the ultimate thank you.