Written to mark 25 years since the Ulster SFC final of 1993.
Most men haven’t played in a county final. Very few men have played in multiple county finals. And almost no men have played in two county finals in two different counties seven days apart. But Eamonn Coleman wasn’t like most men.
25 years ago the wee professor of people emerged a victor from the old Clones changing rooms perched high up in the corner of the O’Duffy terrace. “We won this game between February and May on the training fields of Ballymaguigan and Maghera,” he boomed.
It was July 18th, 1993, a day on which the rain fell incessantly during a summer that lasted forever.
To discuss Eamonn Coleman is to probe the soul of his county itself. His story, and relationship with Gaelic football – carved in Oak from an early age when he trained as a 14-year-old with that prince of players, Jim McKeever – was like all great love stories and relationships: not without friction, but enduring nonetheless.
“Seamus, I always knew you were a bit of a rascal.”
Eamonn’s own words, spoken from the flat of his back on a Sunday in 1967, and recalled by his man-marker for the day, Lissan’s Seamus McRory.
“As Eamonn attempted to sidestep me, he tripped on a rush bush and literally fell across my feet,” says McRory. “The referee, a future prominent county board official, blamed me! But Eamonn flashed that impish smile and just said ‘would you ever lift me up from this bed of Lissan rushes?’ So I did.”
Following that game between Lissan and Ballymaguigan, 14 years passed before the men would speak again. Having won a Derry championship with Ballinderry in 1981, Coleman fielded for Athlone in the Westmeath final 7 days later, scoring three points, but ending up on the losing team. McRory had attended the game, now being a Longford native. He had also watched Coleman the previous weekend.
“I had to renew acquaintances,” explains McRory. “I went to congratulate Eamonn on his magnificent, personal performance. Though never referring to the time we last had met or indeed who I was, he looked up at me with that knowing and unforgettable look.
‘“Sure it was easy playing here’ he said. ‘There were no rushes to contend with!’”
Coleman’s elephantine memory and acute understanding of people is something which radiated throughout his life. His fun loving – yet often spiky – public persona was one thing, but his ability for subtle brilliance was shrouded. Just as it should be.
It was May 30th, 1992. As dusk fell over Saint Oliver Plunkett’s Park in Greenlough, some of the Lavey players suddenly dashed from the pitch midway through a championship game with Newbridge.
Hugh A McGurk, in attendance to watch his sons and his club, took ill and passed away aged 76 years. The game was abandoned. Naturally, it was a night that Johnny McGurk will never forget.
“The following year we were preparing to play Down in the Ulster Championship in Newry,” recalls McGurk. “A few days before the game, Eamonn took me aside. Away from the rest of the players, he spoke quietly. He asked me did I know what date the game was on.
“‘My father’s anniversary’, I replied.
“‘So, you’ll be delivering a big performance then,’ he said. ‘You’re on (James) McCartan.’”
Contrary to public opinion of the time, Derry emerged from the Marshes as comfortable winners. Coleman emerged to face the media in fine form.
‘Youse boys know nathin’ about football’ he famously taunted the waiting reporters, pointing at the 3-11 to 0-09 score still showing on the board.
Johnny McGurk had held James McCartan scoreless and Derry marched on with newly earned belief.
“That was Eamonn,” says McGurk, who went on that summer to kick Derry’s greatest ever point. “He was the man at the back of the bus holding court and playing cards. He was involved in all the slagging.
“‘I love taking money off you, McGurk’, he’d say, whilst rubbing his belly in laughter looking a reaction. No-one else could have brought that group of players together at that time.”
And together they still are, today, 25 years on. Minus the wee general.
So, how did it all happen? How did the 14-year-old Jim McKeever-inspired boy become the bobbin around which an historical tale was woven? A Derry team that was beaten by Down in ’88, by Donegal in ’89, hammered by Donegal in ’90 in front of 5,000 people at Clones, was grabbed by the scruff of the neck by Coleman and went toe to toe with the world and the would be All-Ireland champions of 1991 the following summer. The Mourne men were lucky to salvage a replay in the Athletic Grounds and Derry were frustrated by Donegal again a year later. But in 1993 the dam eventually burst.
Was it Adrian McGuckin’s St Pat’s Maghera football factory? Brian McIver’s revolution at St Pius’? Brendan Convery and Lavey’s plan to ‘sneak up on an All-Ireland from behind and grab it by the…’?
Hours of chat there, which, at the end of the day, is what the GAA family does best. It was also a past-time Coleman excelled at. A man of the people, most knew Eamonn via his musings in the media.
“I started as a trainee with the Irish News in 1999,” says Paddy Heaney. “I’d ring him to get injury news on Cavan. He understood what journalists needed. We’d spend 10 minutes on Cavan and I’d have enough to do me. Then he’d say: ‘And what about Derry, Paddy?’
“We’d talk then for another hour. Derry football and this player and that player. That’s where his heart always was.”
Eamonn Coleman led Derry to Ulster finals in Clones in 1992 and 1993. His last was in 2000. Beaten by a single score by Armagh, Eamonn shook Brian McAlinden’s hand and wished him well, one football man to another.
And then he fumed at all around him.
Brilliant cutting one-liners were thrown at the ghosts of officials and absorbed with glee by waiting Dictaphones and scratched furiously onto notepads. He had been suspended earlier in the year for comments made in the media but he had said exactly what he meant his entire life and he wasn’t going to stop now. “They can’t suspend me now,” he bellowed. Here was a man who had moulded a team that had ‘rare skills and big-boned men but remained somehow a blue-collar outfit’. A group who went on to be leaders of men, first climbing the steps of the Hogan stand and then to the top of multiple professions. Yet, a group who were all undeniably led by one alpha male. A man who left school at 16, became a bricklayer and whose voice was instantly recognisable with the rhythm of the Loughshore – direct, clipped, and unvarnished, yet brimming with emotion. And there was a certain magic in that distinctive staccato beat. It could charm, cajole and when needed, cut through ice. A man who knew his own mind but had a genuine respect for the opinions of others. A man with that rare gift in life, the ability to listen, was asked in that dark Clones corridor to summarise his thoughts there and then…
He didn’t take long.
“I started with Derry and finished with Derry. I’ve enjoyed it,” came the reply.