"IN the school you trained the lads in the evening, you had underage games, sometimes you’d miss your own training.
“It probably wasn’t the best way to be preparing when you were playing with the Cork team but it was never something I consciously set out to do. I just fell into it. I got sidetracked a bit into the coaching. Not deliberately. Just by being in a place at a certain time.
“I coached Watergrasshill in 1967, the same year we lost the All-Ireland final to Meath, as well as doing the schools teams.
“Nobody forced me. I just like doing it. I liked being in a field. I still like being in a field.
“It’s a physical thing as well. We had a coal store at home and I liked being out shovelling coal. I liked being out in the fields.”
And he’s still there. Working with teams in the fields.
Eamonn Ryan’s CV is heaving with counties and record-breaking runs. Senior hurling titles with Na Piarsaigh and a football crown with UCC. All-Ireland minor glory in 1991 and 1993.
That famous Munster courtesy of Tadhgie Murphy’s goal in 1983. Junior success with his native Watergrasshill. An intermediate football in his wife’s parish of Ballingeary, where they’ve lived for the past few years.
He might be three years past retirement age but there’s no slowing down.
The Cork ladies footballers will drive on towards six in a row in 2010. They’ll start out in the fields and on towards Croke Park. Guided by the best coach on Leeside.
Formerly a schoolteacher in Watergrasshill, he was, in 2004, in the latter stages of his career as the GAA officer in UCC. That was more of an administrative role than a hands-on one, and Ryan was keen to get back into the fields with an inter-county side.
There was huge potential in the Cork ladies footballers – Fr Liam Kelleher and Charlie McLaughlin had done serious work underage to nurture a crop of gifted talents like Angela Walsh and Bríd Stack, plus you’d more seasoned players like Nollaig Cleary and Valerie Mulcahy.
Progress was made in 2004 – a first Munster, a place in the league final – but there was no quick fix. They eventually fell in the All-Ireland quarter-final at the hands of Mayo, their third defeat of the campaign to the closest they’ve had to arch-rivals in this era. There was also a couple of losses to Kerry and Galway.
“That first season I asked myself a few times what was I after getting into. When we played Kerry for the first time in the Munster championship, at half-time it was 3-9 to four points as we were coming off the field.
“We got to the league final, which we were winning easily until we threw it away, and then we lost the 2004 quarter-final to Mayo. That was probably my fault because I was too worked up because they had beaten us in the league final. I over-emphasised the importance of that rather than letting them play their own game.
"I’d say I did the same against Armagh [2006 All-Ireland], only that the players won it.”
If they flickered in 2004, they ignited in 2005 and they’re still burning bright. They lost a league game to Galway in February ’05 but they wouldn’t lose another for 26 months and 31 matches, when Mayo broke their spell in the 2007 league semi-final.
“That run just happened. We didn’t really realise it until towards the end.”
They avenged the Mayo loss in the All-Ireland of ‘07, and that season was the only one in five years in which they weren’t double champions. They might have been beaten six times in his first season but they’ve only tasted defeat four times since.
“We have a special group. Your job really is, not to be managing them, but that you help them become as good players as they can be so they work it out for themselves when they have to, that they become as skillful as they can be, and because of being skillful they’re able to make the right decisions on the ball.
"You could reduce decision making to just doing the right thing every time you get the ball. It sounds a bit of a cliche but it’s a very important thing.”
Ryan insists there is no formula.
“People do always ask why the girls are so successful and I’ve discovered they’re very committed in their lifestyles as well as on the training field. We’ve always been lucky with the calibre of captain – Juliet Murphy for three years and then Angela Walsh and then Mary O’Connor. And there isn’t one prima donna among them.”
There’s that bit of luck too he argues, citing examples every year, but surely a team as dominant as the ladies footballers make their own luck.
“You have to have a bit of luck and we’ve had that. That doesn’t take from the commitment and effort but you do need luck."
The ladies game is seen as a more pure form of football, less cynical, more flowing. It’s evolving though, the edges are becoming rougher and tactics more influential.
“Everything evolves. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile it was like the eighth wonder of the world — now it’s done on a daily basis. All games evolve. Cork Athletic, Munster in the ’50s, tennis, they were different games.
“Your 18-stone rugby player now is also a top-class athlete. In previous times he wasn’t an athlete in the narrow sense of the term, he was a ball winner, now they’re built like Andrew Sheridan and Paul O’Connell.”
Negativity is creeping into ladies football – not that Cork didn’t play a more defensive game when they had to in the early days – but that could be just down to the Rebels’ dominance.
“We found against Mayo that they had at one stage 11 players behind the ball this year. We were criticised for holding onto the ball in the last two minutes against Dublin but they had 12 players behind the ball and were content to stay behind the ball.
"It’s a reflection of the huge fitness in the modern game. When I played you stayed in corner-forward, now players are being deployed all over, a corner-forward is often like a cross-country runner.”
While the ladies football role has been his most remarkable, it’s just one part of his Gaelic journey.
He only turned to football at the age of 15 in Coláiste Íosagáin, never played minor for Cork but pushed hard by Kerryman Dave Geaney in UCC, was part of two Sigerson-winning teams. That put him in the spotlight for Cork and he played in the 1966 and 1967 All-Ireland defeats.
“Some of us didn’t cover ourselves in glory in the 1967 final but what can you do. Nobody sets out to play badly. It would have been nice to win one all right.”
His grá for hurling is strong. He played junior into his 50s. He’s still coaching Watergrasshill and the game still fascinates him. He recently did a project on hurley sizes and grip for UCC.
“I had a size 37 hurley when I was playing. Tommy Walsh is the same height as me and he uses a 34. I was always wondering why I never progressed as a player from when I was 17 to 27 and 10 years on again but sure I had the wrong weapon for starters.”
He might have stagnated as a player but tries to keep improving as a coach.
“To say whether you’re improving is subjective. You’d be trying to read a little but certainly to reflect, to think of the mistakes you’ve made and to not make them again, be it in man-management or in drills.
“You lose a way more than you win. If you’re a player, unless you’re cute enough to get out on top you’re going to be dropped. If you’re a selector or coaching, unless you’re cute enough to get out on top you’re going to be got rid of.
"And I’ll be got rid of at some point. And sure if I am someone will want me. Ballingeary’s U10s or Watergrasshill’s U6s. I’d have to be living in another country or dead to give it up.
“If we had been beaten by Dublin in the All-Ireland this year I’d certainly have been very depressed on the Monday but I’d have been back out in the field on the Tuesday or Wednesday with some team. I just like being in fields. It’s very hard to explain.”