Relentless: Penning the story of one of Gaelic football’s greatest teams
Mary White undoubtedly the best-placed person to tell the story but it wasn’t plain-sailing
Eamonn Ryan and his Cork team celebrate after winning the 2014 All-Ireland. Photo: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
When she found herself sitting in a rented holiday home in Blessington looking at the mountain of material she had assembled, Mary White wondered quite where she was going to start.
The plan, she says, was “to do a Bridget Jones on it” and write the book in a week, but she began to sense that she’d been a little too ambitious. By then, this Cork women’s team had, after all, won 10 football All-Irelands in 11 years, so there was lot to be writing about.
In the acknowledgements of Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers, White thanks her parents Michael and Jo for their encouragement, but that day in Blessington she was beginning to rue their faith in her.
She hadn’t, she admits, a whole of faith in herself when the notion of writing a book about this team first arose, even if there was, quite literally, no one better qualified to take on the project.
“I suppose I just didn’t really believe in myself,” she says. “But my Dad kept saying to me that I had to write a book about them, and my mother would say, ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t do it and someone else does’.
'Come Easter, I had nothing written, not a word. That’s when you begin to panic'
“But I kind of knew deep down that if I didn’t do it no one else would care enough about it to do it themselves. I wanted this team’s story to be told - and I’m not there had ever been a book on an Irish women’s team. Having been a player and having seen where they came from, I knew how hard they’d worked to get where they reached. I knew how bad it was and how far they’d come. That was the total reason why I did it.”
It was the Christmas Eve before that she met with Patrick O’Donoghue of Currach Press. Initially, the proposal was to do a book on Eamonn Ryan, the man who took over the Cork team in January 2004 and didn’t just take them to the promised land, he made them nigh on permanent residents in the place.
But White was insistent, the book had to be about the unit, Ryan and his players, they came as a package.
Do it right
She was given six months to complete the project, which might seem generous enough. But the bulk of that time was spent interviewing over 50 people in or around the team, and transcribing every word they shared. If she was going to do it, she was going to do it right.
“But come Easter, I had nothing written, not a word. That’s when you begin to panic,” she says.
Mind you, researching the background to this team proved easy enough. All White had to do was dip in to her own archives and memories.
At the age of 22, frustrated by the lack of media coverage of the Cork team, she took on the role of their PRO. And while working as a news editor with The Examiner, she used what little spare time she had to report on women’s football for the Evening Echo.
She wasn’t just an outsider looking in though. Once she got on the senior panel herself she could see, from the inside, why this team had never experienced any success, at that point never even winning a Munster title, never mind an All-Ireland.
“It was a shambles, really,” she says. “I used to play basketball for Cork with Juliet Murphy [the future Cork football captain] and it was always a massive moment in the dressing room when you saw your gear laid out for you, there was a sense of pride when you pulled on the jersey. But with the football team, the jerseys would just be pulled out of a bag and thrown on the dressing room floor.
“They were oversized, they were smelly, they were dirty, they hadn’t even been washed. There was mud and shite inside of the bag. And we’d have different socks and shorts. It was a mess. There was just a lack of respect about it all, but that came from ourselves as well as players, we were as much to blame.”
On the pitch, it was no less shambolic. White recounts a 2001 Championship game against Kerry when Cork lined out with just 13 players, not having the full complement until the second half when two more turned up. A clash with club championship games resulted in the no-shows, the county set-up such a mess the players’ loyalties lay elsewhere.
Few were more determined to change things for the better than White herself. As PRO she helped organise sponsorship for the team and arranged for the players to have proper gear bags with two sets of jerseys and matching strips. Hardly revolutionary but, she says, it meant everything.
In the book, she writes about a questionnaire being handed out to the players asking them what changes they felt were needed to give them a chance of turning Cork in to a winning team. White was the person who wrote it.
Their requests were hardly radical either, they just wanted training weekends before Championship games, a team bus to take them to their fixtures, rather than them all arriving in a flotilla of vehicles, and an end to pre-match meals like “a fry-up in a truckers’ pit stop in Urlingford”.
“In many ways, they were ahead of their time. I remember watching that press conference by the Irish women’s football team and thinking it was almost 20 years before when we were addressing a lot of the same issues. But we had people like Juliet Murphy and Elaine Harte who were so driven, they had come from other sports where things were just so much better, and they experienced excellent coaching. And here they were stuck in this absolute shambles. It just wasn’t good enough.”
The starting point for the new dawn, says White, was the 2003 county board AGM in Macroom. “And that was the obvious starting point for the book,” she says of the dramatic and “excruciatingly” tense affair during which Harte stood up and asked for a change in management after seven years of Charlie McLaughlin at the helm.
“How can you give out about things when you’re one of the players who won’t even come training,” McLaughlin bellowed from the back of the room, his finger pointing with rage at Harte. Harte’s eyes begin to fill up. ‘Well, all I can say is, if you’re there next year, Charlie, I certainly won’t be.’”
Harte was there the following year, Ryan having been appointed to the job in January 2004. The new dawn had arrived.
Not that too many of the players had a notion who Ryan was when he took over. Murphy, who went on to win just the eight All Ireland senior medals, 10 National League and nine Munster titles and six All Stars under Ryan, had absolutely no clue.
“Dad kept going on about how he couldn’t believe we’d got Eamonn Ryan,” she told White, her father, being of a certain vintage, knowing all about Ryan’s track record in Cork as a player and coach. His daughter, though, was none the wiser. “So we googled him and he had his own Wikipedia page - so we knew we’d hit the jackpot!”
Seventy players turned up for the first meeting with Ryan. His first words to them were, “well, ye want to try and achieve, yeah?”
“And the rest is history,” White laughs, “under Eamonn, the team went from nothing to ... well, if Disney made a movie about them, it’d be Mighty Ducks kind of stuff.
“The challenge for me was to avoid it reading like a series of match reports, which was the danger. I just found the majority of GAA books were kind of ‘we won this match, then we won that’, and I didn’t want it to be that. But I genuinely hadn’t a clue what I was at when I was starting out. I just tried to weave the story together by using the interviews I did with Eamonn, the players and the people around them.
“And it was a human story as much as anything to do with success in sport. I think the biggest thing Eamonn did, aside even from all those All-Irelands, was helping them grow as people. That to me is his greatest legacy. So many of them were teenagers when they started out with him and they grew with him in to adulthood. They’re so successful in their own lives now because they have that mindset, that they have to do their best, in whatever area. They were a family, they were so close. If anyone had an issue they’d always look out for one another. It was a whole other level of friendship. Such a bond.”
From the unwashed, oversized jerseys thrown on the dressing room floor, White takes us to Croke Park in 2005, when Ryan gathers his players in a huddle, “their arms tightly squeezed around shoulders and waists”, ahead of their first ever All Ireland final. And then he presents each one with their jersey, from number 30 down to number one, Murphy, the captain, the last to receive hers.
“Just small, gentle touches, there was a genius behind that. He knew what he was doing. He was exceptional at what he did. He’d get a senior player to present the medals to an underage team, he understood the life cycle, the importance of having role models you could relate to.
“I only played under him for six months, but any time I picked up the phone to him he always made you feel like you were the only person he had in his head at that moment, nothing else mattered bar you.”
It was three weeks before Ryan died, in January of this year, that he phoned White from hospital. “I’d just dropped in a few books to him, he said ‘do you mind if I write your name on them in pencil? I’ll get one of the lads to drop them back to you.’ He knew.”
Earlier, she says, Ryan’s players gathered at St Gobnait’s well in Ballyvourney for a night vigil. “They prayed for him and sang ‘Don’t give up til it’s over’. The bond between them will last forever.
“It’s funny, the proudest I ever felt about the book was when I watched Eamonn’s funeral. I was just so happy that his story and the story of his team had been written down. For him and for his family.”