Eamonn Ryan proved coaches willing to make mistakes have the most success

The late, great Cork guru had a growth mindset that meant he was always learning and improving
Eamonn Ryan proved coaches willing to make mistakes have the most success

Cork manager Eamonn Ryan's joy at the final whistle after defeating Monaghan at Croke Park in 2013. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

RUDYARD Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ was one of Éamonn Ryan’s favourite writings.

Ryan saw such meaning in the words that he often quoted them to the Cork ladies footballers. Ryan was always looking for a deeper meaning, a different purpose. Stanza three of ‘If’ explores the idea of perseverance, and never giving up. Kipling also extends the concepts of success and failure in that stanza, saying that we should be able to lose everything we’ve earned and still have the motivation to build it back up.

When Cork met Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final in Birr, the players were nervous and anxious beforehand. It was at the same juncture 12 months previously when Cork had imploded, losing to Tyrone, and suffering a championship defeat for the first time in six years.

Ryan gathered his players around him in a huddle and began telling them a story he had heard on the radio a few days earlier about a woman whose husband had passed away.

The presenter asked her how she kept going, how she was able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Ryan told the group her answer. 

“She said she was able to keep going because she walked down the tunnel and turned on the feckin’ light herself…..Now go out there and do the same.” 

As Ryan delivered that last line, he jumped into the air, his toes reaching almost two feet above the ground. It was like an act of defiance from Ryan, a simple message that certainly hit the mark he intended.

Cork manager Eamonn Ryan and selector Frank Honohan at the final whistle after defeating Dublin in 2014. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork manager Eamonn Ryan and selector Frank Honohan at the final whistle after defeating Dublin in 2014. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

For so long in that game, Cork’s fears and anxieties were realised as the doubts from the previous year returned. Dublin led by six points before Cork clicked into gear, hitting seven unanswered points, and keeping Dublin scoreless for the remainder of the match. They’d flicked the switch and turned on the light.

When the great light went out for Ryan last Thursday, the huge outpouring of emotion and universal level of affection for Ryan was a fitting tribute to the brilliant man he was and the massive legacy he left.

Ryan’s success was incredible, but his greatest achievement was how he viewed those achievements through the prism of the characters he moulded and shaped, rather than the multitude of All-Ireland medals he helped those players to win.

In a poignant column written by Valerie Mulcahy in the Irish Examiner last Friday, Mulcahy described her last conversation with Ryan last August, and how reflective he was on their shared past.

“His words sounded coated in contentment,” wrote Mulcahy “secured by the satisfaction of what he had achieved with us as much off the field, than on it.” 

One of the key instruments of Ryan’s power was his ability to connect with his players. Age or generational differences were never a barrier. 

Ryan constantly wanted the best for his players but his humility and openness in that pursuit revealed his true self to the players, who in turn, were absolutely invested in that commitment together.

Ryan and his players were energised by each other’s company. Most of the players grew up together on that team. The training ground was where they hung out with their best friends. Being together was as important as winning. And creating the environment to foster such unbreakable bonds was perhaps the greatest testament to Ryan’s leadership.

DUAL DEMANDS

The players would have followed Ryan anywhere. Having so many dual players over the years was never easy, especially when there were so many unnecessary fixture-clashes with camogie.

Ryan just focused on the next task. Yet on the one occasion when the players were on the verge of rebelling, they had his full support. Nothing ever came of it but that was the loyalty and respect Ryan always showed towards them.

That unique and special symbiotic relationship grew stronger with each passing season. As Ryan got older, the players always felt that being in their company made him feel younger.

Cork were a brilliant team but how they won was as important as what they won; no matter how many obstacles they faced in the most competitive era for ladies football, Cork always found a way.

Ryan always made it sound so simple that it would have been easy to think that his ways were old-school. There was a time when he admitted that he was. Then Ryan started to educate himself, open his mind and expand his coaching portfolio and philosophy.

Ryan was in his late 50s when he discovered that coaches with the growth mindset – the willingness to make and learn from mistakes – are the ones who achieve.

What he subsequently achieved was one of the greatest acts of service imaginable because of Ryan’s wider impact on the group. 

Valerie Mulcahy and Eamonn Ryan got a heroes' welcome from the Shed after bringing the cup to a Cork City game at Turner's Cross. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Valerie Mulcahy and Eamonn Ryan got a heroes' welcome from the Shed after bringing the cup to a Cork City game at Turner's Cross. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

In Mary White’s excellent book ‘Relentless’ Juliet Murphy articulated the respect she and all the other players had for Ryan.

“I get emotional talking about him now,” Murphy told White. “Our lives are completely different because of him. He has changed our lives. We can never thank him enough for what he has done for us.” 

In the final chapter of that book, Ryan didn’t speak about legacy because, in his mind, life would move on, new winners would emerge, new chapters would be written.

New chapters have been, but Ryan’s teachings will endure. What Kipling said, Ryan did. In Stanza 3 of ‘If’, Kipling talks about forcing “your heart and nerve and sinew/ To serve your turn long after they have gone’.

Ryan certainly inspired his players to do extraordinary things for themselves, creating memories and golden moments that will forever be linked to their former manager, coach, mentor, leader, tutor and – above all – late, great friend.

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