Tuesday 12 December 2017

Linden insists that Down hot-shot Coulter’s time has come

Down's Benny Coulter
Down's Benny Coulter

MICKEY LINDEN was 36 before he won his first ever Down senior championship medal in 1999, some 60 years after Mayobridge's previous title.

Over the next nine years, right up to last September, he expanded that collection to seven in the club's most glorious period ever.

Linden can think of lots of reasons why Mayobridge have been elevated to such a level of supremacy in their own county. But one name keeps coming back to him.

"We probably would have won a couple of titles anyway with the stream of players coming through. But Benny Coulter accelerated the whole process. He's just been phenomenal."

Benny Coulter. You've heard the name but there's no guarantee you will instantly recognise the face.

He's been there in your mind but you've never really absorbed how good he is because beyond the early rounds of the Ulster championship, it hasn't really been an issue.

Benny and his Down team-mates are today playing championship in August for only the second time in their lifetime. Only once before, in 2003, when they took Tyrone to an Ulster final replay and lost heavily before bowing out in the qualifiers six days later to Donegal have they lasted this long.

Moreover, it's their sixth championship game, as many as Peter McGrath's 1991 and 1994 All-Ireland winning sides played, and it's in Croke Park, the first time a Down team will fulfill a championship engagement there since '94.

For Down that statistic more than anything else represents how steep their fall from grace has been and how Coulter has got lost in the abyss of constant failure.

On occasion those striking red and black shirts have surfaced in the capital. Four years ago they lost a Division Two league final to Offaly and in 1999 and 2005 they picked up All-Ireland minor titles there, adding to the mystique of their success rate in All-Ireland finals played there. Between senior and minor finals they have only lost one from nine (All-Ireland minor final in 1966 to Mayo).

Their recent records and results belie that tradition and it's been their neighbours and rivals Armagh who have made Croke Park a home from home.

But today offers Coulter a new stage and one that Linden feels he can thrive on.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for him and for Down. Benny has great ability and awareness of what's on around him. Sometimes he lays off a pass and you wonder to yourself 'how did he think that was on.'"

Rich praise for one of the most celebrated forwards of his own era whose own career at inter-county level, in terms of success, didn't take off until his late 20s.

Linden feels Coulter would have had little trouble fitting into either of the All-Ireland-winning teams he played on.

"He'd have done a job anywhere. Benny has the experience of playing midfield in an All-Ireland minor final (1999) or anywhere in the forwards. With Dan Gordon at midfield now for Down and playing so well Benny is no longer drawn outfield.

"The team is much less dependent on him than it has been in the past," says Linden.

"The pressure has been taken off him to some extent by John Clarke's resurgence. Kevin McKernan and Danny Hughes have also been chipping in and that has helped him because there have been times when he has been a one man show."

McGrath gave Coulter his debut while still a minor in 1999, an obvious recognition of his talent. When he took over as International Rules boss in 2004 Coulter became one of the central cogs.

"Benny Coulter is one of those few players in the country that has the capacity at any time to single-handedly decide the outcome of a game because what he does always has significant end product," says McGrath.

McGrath has no doubt that if Coulter was 10 years younger than the 27 he is now he'd have a stream of callers to his house in Mayobridge with Aussie accents selling him the dream.

"That dream could quickly become a reality for Benny because he has a lot of the attributes required to make it in that game.

"He has this vertical leap," says McGrath, "a spring that allows him to get up and catch a ball without needing a run at it. And he has power without being robustly strong.

"There are few better goalscorers in the game. Benny just has an eye for goal that I have seen in few other players. His average is close to a goal per championship game," reckons McGrath.

So far this year he has managed to bag goals in every single game with the exception of the Ulster semi-final against Armagh.

In both his years as international manager McGrath used him as one of his pivotal attackers and in both years he delivered, particularly 2005, when he was one of the few to carry a threat to the Australians in Perth and Melbourne."

A year later, in that infamous Croke Park test that brought about the suspension of the series, he was the victim of a number of crude tackles that left him thinking about any future role he might have in the game.

So how highly does McGrath rate him?

"If I was sitting down to pick an All-Ireland Gaelic football team I'd find it hard not to find a place for him in the forwards. I know others wouldn't see it the same way, simply because they haven't seen enough of him."

Linden has seen enough of Benny on local stages, from the wonderful strike against Castleblayney that gave him one of his first Ulster club championship goals to the hat-trick he scored against Bryansford in last year's Down semi-final.

His time has come.

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