Coleman's enduring legacy
As they begin another Ulster campaign, Dermot Crowe shares memories of Derry football's father figure, Eamonn Coleman
A FTER the death of his father last year, Gary Coleman heard that members of the 1993 Derry team were considering a suitable commemoration. Henry Downey said they'd agreed a match was the most fitting gesture and he gave it his blessing on one condition; that they wait until the first anniversary of his father's death, take their time, do it right.
Once that was decided they put their thinking caps on. Not far away in Ardboe, a hugely successful benefit dinner had raised funds for Brian McGuigan. Gary Coleman figured their event shouldn't waste an opportunity: the match would honour his father's memory but also do some good for those in need. They formed a committee, selected five charities, booked a large marquee and started selling tables for a post-match dinner at St Trea's GAA club in Ballymaguigan.
The initial target was 50 tables, seating ten, at £1,000 a pop. But interest in the event quickly saw demand outstrip supply and they had to draw the line at 64. The centrepiece of next Saturday's memorial fundraiser will be a match between the Derry 1993 team and a Rest of Ireland selection at 4.0. Some of the finest footballers of the recent past, a few still playing for their clubs, others gone to fat, are headed for this tranquil rural location on the western shores of Lough Neagh to pay respect to a diminutive figure with giant-like status in the proud history of Derry GAA.
Eamonn Coleman died on June 11 last year, aged 59, finally relinquishing his battle with cancer. Many of those due in Ballymaguigan next Saturday were also there last summer for his funeral. He was waked over two days and nights, then laid to rest beside Newbridge church on the road out to Magherafelt. At the time, Derry were in the middle of their championship campaign, managed by Paddy Crozier, a Ballymaguigan native and cousin of Coleman. The Sunday after the funeral they were beaten by Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final.
Monaghan richly deserved their win, but Derry's attentions had been compromised by a week of mourning and jarring perspective. "I think that's what happened Derry that day," says Gary Coleman, referring to the Monaghan match, "too much emotion."
It will be strange, then, to see Derry begin an Ulster championship campaign in Ballybofey today without Eamonn Coleman around, the first time in decades. Two years ago when he appeared to have won his fight against illness, he was invited to speak to the Derry players before they faced fierce rivals Tyrone in Omagh. They beat the reigning All-Ireland champions and afterwards Coleman was beaming, filled with childish joy.
By the time they were up and running in last year's championship, he had suffered a relapse and was in his final days. But they still thought he'd come out of it. The doctor who diagnosed him the first time around told the family that if you had to choose a form of cancer, then this would be it: Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had beaten it once but the second bout was more aggressive.
His death came as a shock to the many who knew him. "We thought Daddy would live another 20 years," says Gary, "he was that fit. He was training on his own before he took sick. He was telling me one night he did some hill training and the hill wasn't big enough and hard enough and he was going to get a bigger hill. And I was there saying, 'Daddy, catch yourself on, you're 56' or whatever. He was in super shape, he really was, and young at heart.
"Thing about Daddy, he was never sick. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke, he was a very healthy eater. Last person you would have thought would die of cancer."
In this quiet sanctuary beside Lough Neagh, light years removed from the blood and thunder championship afternoons he became a part of, Coleman grew up and learnt his football. Famously, he played in the 1962 county final, the only senior title Ballymaguigan won, as a 14-year-old, coming on and scoring in the drawn match and firing 1-1 in the replay, enough to retire his Castledawson opponent and old schoolmaster Felix Mackle.
In his youth he used to walk to the GAA pitch from his home, a trip of around 20 minutes. "You fond of a walk, are you?" Paddy Crozier asks in the GAA car park, inviting me to retrace those steps. "This was where they did all the training in '93, or most of it," says Crozier at the grounds of St Trea's. Crozier had Derry training there last Thursday night as they prepared for Donegal. Soon we are making our way through the fields and neighbours' backyards in the direction of Coleman's home. Looking over the lake you can see the Antrim town of Toomebridge and on the horizon the outline of Slemish mountain. A bracing wind whips in from the water and over the small green fields. "Far away from Croke Park here, isn't it?" says Crozier, enjoying the refuge it affords him.
The little strip of land that encompasses Ballymaguigan is something of a management belt. Near Coleman's home, Jim McKeever grew up. A former Derry manager and captain of the 1958 side that reached the All-Ireland final, that season he became the first winner of the Texaco Footballer of the Year award. The team was managed by Roddy Gribben, from Newbridge, a neighbouring club that was once joined to Ballymaguigan. Crozier has carried on the tradition and another local man, Seán Young, managed Roscommon for a few years.
Ballymaguigan isn't on the map in the literal sense. A small townland, unfeasibly small even by GAA standards, it doesn't have a pub or a recognisable centre, only the football pitch and grounds which for years agonised over whether or not to install a bar and demurred. The nearest pub is in Ballyronan, the nearby village that is part of the Loup. Beyond that to the south is Ballinderry, with whom Coleman won a county medal in 1981, and to the north, past Newbridge, is Bellaghy.
To the people of Ballymaguigan, Coleman was a major figure long before 1993. "When he used to be playing for Derry in the early 1970s, we'd gather round the football gap, as we used to call it there; we'd be there on a Monday night waiting on him to tell us the big stories about the day before, playing the Kerrys and the Mayos," says Crozier. "Kerry seemed an awful long way away that time."
He last spoke to him around three weeks before his death, in the company of Donie O'Sullivan, captain of Kerry in 1970 when they won the All-Ireland. "We were to play Antrim in the first round and it was washed out. We played the next Sunday and the next night he died. Donie used to come up here and see him all the time. Must have been three hours down there, Donie and Eamonn were going over old times. He was looking forward to getting out, great form."
Next Saturday's Rest of Ireland selection will be managed by Brian McEniff, an old rival, of whom Coleman once memorably said: "Myself and Brian McEniff are totally different types of people. He's a big-time hotelier and I'm an ordinary bricklayer, but we're good friends." At the time the two counties were at each others' throats. Mickey Moran, the 1993 team trainer, will manage the Derry team for the day.
Gary Coleman isn't promising vintage football but he's hoping for fine weather and a decent crowd. "We want people to go away and say they had a great night. So hopefully now the weather holds and Derry win on Sunday. A Derry win on Sunday would be huge. It will be super; everyone will be in good form."
If not? "I don't want to think on them lines. One thing we can't do anything about is Derry winning."
He will play and continues to line out in the forwards with St Trea's at 36. The 2003 intermediate medal he won with the local side is, he says, as precious and meaningful to him as the Celtic Cross from 15 years ago when he was the baby of the team. In 2002, he moved back to Ballymaguigan from the nearby town of Magherafelt where he had spent most of his life and played all his football.
His father had always wanted him to play in Ballymaguigan and Gary says it was he who put out the annual rumour of an imminent transfer. He eventually built a house next door to his father's, both looking out over the lake, expecting that they'd be over and back to one another for many years. Instead, his brother is planning to move into the vacant house at some stage.
He talks about his father now, looking out over the lake as the evening falls, and there is the same mischief in his face, even a similar style of delivery and choice of expression. Last year more people called to the house next door to see his father than he could possibly keep a handle on. Some of them had only met his father fleetingly, others were lifelong friends. All were appreciated. It reminded him of the biker funerals, like those held for the Dunlop brothers, that attracted people from all over Ireland and beyond as if all belonged to the same bloodline.
One stranger who called had a story he wanted to tell which doubled as an introduction. When Derry were looking for a manager at the start of the last decade, stuck in Division 3, rudderless, the county board asked Coleman to return from London where he had been working and take over the team. It was a cry for help. He did and the rest is history.
The mourner was on the same flight, Gary explains, and recalled that fateful journey. "He says to me: 'You wouldn't know me, but I came home on the plane from London with your father. And I said to him, Eamonn are you coming home for a wee break, to see the family?' He said (to me), 'I am, but I'm home to stay. I'm taking on the Derry team'. And the boy says, 'you're not wise; they're in Division 3'. And Daddy says, 'I'll bring home Sam in three years.' And the boy says, 'I'm not telling no word of a lie here -- I laughed at him, Gary, I actually laughed at him. I thought he was mad. He just believed that the footballers were somewhere in Derry.'"
He believed. And he was bullish about it. On big championship days, his small frame seemed to fan out like a peacock's tail feathers. Over a series of epic matches 15 years ago, the footballers he believed in repaid that trust in bold endeavour, making them all ageless spirits.
What was his father's secret? "He would have known what made people tick," says his son. "He told (Joe) Brolly he was the best forward in Ireland and he had told (Enda) Gormley the same thing. He knew to give me a bollocking, he knew not to be nice to me. One day here, after we drew with (local rivals) Newbridge in 2003, he came in there (pointing to kitchen) and he picked up the newspaper and after five minutes he says, 'I must go,' and before he looked up from the paper he says (to me) 'if you don't do something the next day don't you come back here'. And you know what? I was that frigging cross, but he didn't give me a chance to answer -- he went straight out the door."
Marty McElkennon, who worked alongside Coleman and took over from him in Cavan when he fell ill, said Coleman was the only manager he had encountered who didn't carry paper and write things down. Yet, he wasn't classically old school. Before they won the All-Ireland he brought in the sports psychologist Craig Mahoney, a fairly radical move in the GAA for the time.
"We played and lost to Donegal in Breffni Park in the 1993 league quarter-final; we were beating them five or six at half-time and in the second half they came back and beat us," Gary explains. "And the next night we trained here in Ballymaguigan. And he says, 'right, everybody into the changing-rooms,' -- and the meeting lasted two hours. We never trained. And the boy Craig Mahoney stood up and said, 'I have five questions: Dermot McNicholl! You came over to the sideline for water after 15 minutes -- why? Enda Gormley! You missed five frees -- why? Anthony Tohill! You started drop-kicking the ball and giving it away -- why? I forget the other two.'"
When they return to Ballymaguigan next Saturday, the atmosphere won't be quite so tense. In the absence of Eamonn Coleman, in body at least, it can't be what it once was. He was, like this event, a one-off.