Benny Coulter: New mindset, same desire
Benny Coulter says he's happy to buy into Down's changed style, writes Damian Lawlor
IT was a spring weighed down with baggage. Injuries, defections and near misses all conspired to send Down tumbling to Division 2, a place from where it seems no All-Ireland can be won.
With one game to go and relegation already certain, clouds hovered ominously although Benny Coulter knew a shaft of light would break through at some stage.
"We only just went down," he says. "We had a real fight against Tyrone, and a last-second defeat to Cork which ultimately cost us."
Coulter's eyes betray a lack of serious disappointment, darting instead with the expectation of summer. "The league was frustrating, but we had injuries, lads emigrating and players leaving. But then we had new guys getting their chance, which is always good. And I think James McCartan has done very well to keep us among the elite counties these past three years because we've just lost so many players. From the 2010 All-Ireland final squad we have about 12 players left. If even that."
It's clear Coulter rates McCartan highly, as both a man and a manager. "Expectation is huge in this county, despite the fact that we've lost our best players," he shrugs. "Lads out injured for crucial games; Marty Clarke and Caolann Mooney in Collingwood; others retired; emigration. Yet he gets us to an All-Ireland final in 2010, an Ulster final and an All-Ireland quarter-final last season. And until a few weeks ago, we were still in Division 1.
"People still have a go, but if only they saw what that man does for Down. He goes into training at 5.0pm when the rest of us don't hit the field 'til about a quarter to seven. By then, he has all the video work and analysis done. Then he's the last man to leave that night. Always on the phone, always planning. Looking ahead. Pure Down."
McCartan has also broken away from Down's swashbuckling style of football. These days, they employ a blanket defence like the rest. "We leaked a lot last year so we've had to put a lot more men behind the ball," Coulter explains.
"We have to do whatever is best because our defence does get a lot of criticism in media. In fairness we can't complain too much – we conceded three goals against Donegal last year and then Mayo tanked us in the All-Ireland quarter-final. We know exactly where we have to tighten up. Niall (Moyna) has come in and works on defence more than anything."
Coulter once famously said he wouldn't pay a tenner to watch a Gaelic football match because the game had become so negative. An ace poacher, he's now joined the gamekeepers and that surely makes him a sell-out?
"It definitely does," he accepts. "Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be inside waiting for the ball for 70 minutes, but that doesn't happen anymore. More importantly, we were not getting results. There was no chance of getting back to the level we want without changing our style.
"I was totally against the system because it's different to the Down way. But because we haven't as good a defence as the likes of Donegal, Cork or Kerry, we need to shove more men behind the ball and if that means us forwards getting back, so be it. I'm comfortable enough doing it although I'd rather be inside. I'm 31 next week, so it's just a pity they didn't ask me to play this way 10 years ago!"
The extra stamina work to get him up and down the field for 70 minutes leaves him finely tuned for today's Ulster opener with Derry.
The results of this new approach are there for all to see, Coulter himself has played a few club games lately and felt he could go for another 20 minutes at the end.
That's the positive. The downside is that because he was so often deployed at midfield during the league his scoring returns suffered. Indeed, he only managed four points throughout that campaign.
Down had to look elsewhere for scores, but in typical Down fashion another scoring sensation emerged – Donal O'Hare fired 2-34 (2-10 from play) to become their top marksman.
O'Hare will have a huge role to play this afternoon, especially with other forwards struggling for scores, but the likes of wing-back Ryan Mallon and wildcard Niall Madine, who saw just 13 minutes of league action but has featured in all subsequent challenge games, will instead be asked to drive the side on.
"We'll be without Dan Gordon (broken bone in his foot), Conor Garvey (damaged eye) and Niall McParland (hip), but a few boys have staked a claim for a place in recent challenges and that's a bonus," Coulter agrees.
"So no excuses. We're in decent shape. The Down fans probably still see us as the 2010 All-Ireland final team but if people look at it closely, it is a totally different side James has now. We're trying to get to that level again but it's not easy – last year, for example, we stuck with Donegal for 40 minutes and then went to sleep. They just steamrolled us in the last 15 minutes."
This time around Niall Moyna is having more of an influence and Donegal's template is an obvious one to follow, but is it difficult to change players' mindsets? Shifting from a traditional, swift style to a more compact, defensive structure is not simple.
"I don't think it's difficult to get 30 inter-county players to adjust to a style," Coulter reckons. "But so many teams can't adapt to it. Once some men cross the white line, their heads go and everything goes out the window."
With that in mind Coulter is asked to specify exactly what Moyna and Brendan Hackett have brought to the Down backroom. His retort is short.
"Well, Niall has brought a lot more fitness to it. We went back in January and through the league, we didn't train as hard as other years, there were a couple of hard sessions. But we stepped up training leading into the Kildare game. It's all fitness, fitness, fitness. We're doing a lot more running; running without the ball.
"All on the pitch, not laps. It's short and intense – to go back to the half-back and full-back line, you have to do it. You look at Donegal and Mayo and the fitness levels they have. Up and down the pitch, up and down all the time."
To track the players' efforts, the GPS tracking system was dragged out. Coulter went with it, but says there is no hope of him ever wearing one in a championship game.
"I think it would hinder you; I would feel it as a weight," he says. "Some guys are very uncomfortable with it. I wouldn't like to wear it during a championship game because it doesn't sit well."
But he smiles and insists that he'll do anything else asked of him. For a guy facing into his 14th season, you can see his hunger to win is still immense. He made his debut in 2000 against Antrim having played in the minor game beforehand. He came on at half-time in the senior clash but says he didn't do much else – a charge that has seldom been levelled since.
It remains a massive shame that he hasn't yet managed a provincial medal, but in a province as tough as Ulster, he accepts it as almost a fact of life.
"I'm definitely going to be leaving in the next couple of years. There is a chance that some day I will win an Ulster medal. There is also a pretty good chance that I mightn't. It wouldn't be great to end your career without a medal. But it definitely wouldn't have been a waste of time either. I have got so much out of football, I played for Ireland, I won eight championships with the club; got to an All-Ireland final. That's a bit of a help."
He's only once watched the video of the 2010 final defeat to Cork – and that's because McCartan made the team sit for it. He often reminds himself to get on with life but there are days when it just floats into his head and lingers, like a bad tune that just won't go away.
"I'm probably still not over it. You'd be driving in the car some day and you'd be thinking about it and say maybe that's the chance we didn't take. But that's life. There are worse things that happen in life."
Another road to September unwinds today and tactics will be crucial. On that score, Coulter rates Derry manager Brian McIver hugely.
"He was only a number two with Down when he was with us, but he would go around all the lads, have words with everyone individually. And he knew every other team. That was his key strength. At least Paddy Bradley won't be there, though, that's one less Bradley for us to worry about. It's hard to know what Paddy's injury state is but if he was fit and training in Down for his club team, he would be playing for Down."
So too would Coulter's Mayobridge clubmate Cathal McGee, who scored three points for London in their famous win over Sligo last weekend. McGee was Mayobridge's player of the year in 2012 and was responsible for half of Mayobridge's scores last year, averaging seven points a game.
"He left for work," Coulter laments. "That was the only reason he went. He couldn't get work here and went to London in January. But sure Down GAA has been seriously hit by emigration. Lots of young lads are heading to Australia, London, or the States. The Longstone club has 10 lads over in London at the moment, they are killed with it. Almost wiped out. They are a small enough club to begin with, and they are struggling at the minute to get numbers, even to train, and they are a Division 1 team. It is unfortunate but most clubs are losing players here."
To stop the player drain, a win today is paramount. Coulter knows it won't be easy, though. It never is in Ulster.