RENA Buckley describes Eamonn Ryan as ‘one in a million’. Nollaig Cleary says he was a ‘real gentleman’ who was ‘all about the person and what was best for you.’ Briege Corkery adds that there will always be huge respect for the legendary Cork senior ladies’ football manager who passed away last week.
‘We are very lonesome after him,’ Rena Buckley says – and it’s easy to understand why.
The Watergrasshill man – who lived in Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh, where his wife, Pat, hails from – was the mastermind behind the incredible rise of Cork ladies’ football. When he took over as senior manager in 2004 the county hadn’t won a Munster title, but he changed that.
In a glorious era, Ryan and his brilliant team won 10 All-Ireland senior titles in 11 years, 10 Munster championships and nine national leagues.
On and off the pitch, Ryan moulded and shaped his players.
‘His dedication was unbelievable,’ 11-time All-Ireland senior football winner Buckley told the Star Sport Podcast.
‘He had a massive impact on us. How he carried himself had a huge impact on how we carried ourselves as a team and how we carried ourselves outside of the team. He set an excellent example for us.
‘We had excellent success, it was something we didn’t take a whole pile of notice of and that came from Eamonn, he led the way there.’
Before he took charge of the Cork senior ladies football team, Ryan had been manager of the county’s senior men’s footballers for a spell in the early 1980s, he managed the Cork minors to two All-Ireland MFC titles in the early 1990s, and there was plenty of club success too. Rewind even further, Ryan was a player of note as well. He could do it all, and it’s how he did it will live long in the memory of everyone who crossed paths with him.
‘Eamonn was the same off the pitch as he was on the pitch. He was a real gentleman,’ explains Castlehaven football great Nollaig Cleary, who won nine All-Irelands under Ryan.
‘He was a highly intelligent man, well read, and he brought that into his coaching as well. There wasn’t a sports psychology book or a book on a sportsperson that he hadn’t read and he brought so many of those quotes and those stories into training – and we thrived on that.’
The Cork senior ladies’ football team found their feet when Ryan took charge – even though Rena Buckley wasn’t too impressed with his first training session!
‘It was inside at The Farm – and we hadn’t much training done there at that point – and if anyone knows it, it’s the UCC grounds. There are three GAA fields and a couple of rugby pitches. Eamonn wanted to get a feel of what the panel was like so he sent us off for two rounds of The Farm. I remember thinking, ‘My God, I don’t know will I stick with this football craic at all, I may as well be doing athletics as this!’ But to be fair, training went up and up from there,’ Buckley laughs, and she was instantly won over by Ryan and his approach.
‘The enthusiasm he brought to every training session was unbelievable,’ she says.
‘At this time of the year, January, I don’t think Eamonn once called off a training session. I remember driving into The Farm on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings, it would be absolutely pelting rain, and those were the days he would be there extra early putting out the cones.
‘He lived for hard work, making sure you had your attitude right, making sure of your fundamental skills and that you were confident in yourself.’
Not only did he impact players off the pitch, but he improved players on it. Nollaig Cleary says she is the perfect example.
‘I remember when I came on the panel I hadn’t a right foot to be known. I hadn’t played a whole lot of football. When Eamonn called me up I was more focussed on basketball. He spent so much time helping me, praising me, telling me to work on my right foot,’ Cleary explains.
‘I always remember Eamonn ringing me a few years ago, he was doing a coaching conference and he wanted to remind people how important it was to work on your weak foot and your weak hand. He said we had won two All-Irelands by a point and that I had scored a point off my right foot in each of those. He had encouraged me to work on it and it worked out – that summed up Eamonn.’
It’s a testament to that particular group of Cork players that they came back season after season. They were, as Mary White’s book on their incredible exploits says, relentless. To come back year after year and win All-Irelands and to be that consistent for over a decade takes something special – and that can be traced back to Ryan.
‘It’s a testament to Eamonn that we were always so hungry for more. When you went to training you wanted to impress him,’ Cleary says.
‘Every year he often came with a new message. He would have read some book that winter or spoken to somebody and throughout that season he would carry that message and mention it now and again. He had this way of making us buy into exactly what he was saying.
‘He treated everyone the exact same, no matter if you had won an All-Star the year before, were player of the match the night before, you’d come to training the next day and he wouldn’t mention it. He just wanted to be on the pitch and whether you were a star player or just making the panel you were equal in Eamonn’s eyes.
‘At training everyone bought into that and there was a great camaraderie and we felt like we were a family – that was totally spearheaded by Eamonn.’
The tributes have flowed since Ryan’s passing, at the age of 79, last Thursday. A managerial genius. A legend in his own lifetime. A larger than life character. Engaging. Personable. Caring. And both a gentleman and a gentle man.
His contribution to GAA and life will never be forgotten.