Saturday 22 September 2018

'I relied solely on my talent. That was my downfall' - How the future of Tyrone football let his senior chance slip

Kyle Coney (inset) after winning Man of the Match for Tyrone in the 2008 All-Ireland minor final replay and (left) after losing to Armagh in the 2014 football qualifiers.
Kyle Coney (inset) after winning Man of the Match for Tyrone in the 2008 All-Ireland minor final replay and (left) after losing to Armagh in the 2014 football qualifiers.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

When Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte take the field for Tyrone in Croke Park this Sunday looking to slay the four in-a-row-chasing Dublin behemoth, Kyle Coney will wonder what he could have done differently.

Ten years ago as Mickey Harte was leading Tyrone to their last All-Ireland title, Donnelly, Harte and Coney were the county's future.

It took a replay for Tyrone to overcome an Aidan O’Shea-inspired Mayo in the 2008 minor final but that mattered little as with another underage crown secured, fans had plenty of prospects to get excited about.

Harte and Donnelly were standout players but there’s no point pretending that Kyle Coney wasn’t the star and the supposed future of the Tyrone forward line. Five points from play in the minor final replay was no aberration, but rather the norm for an inside forward that was bigger, stronger, more skilful and more accurate than his teenage contemporaries and looked ready to make an instant impact with Harte’s senior team.

Coney only turned 28 over the summer so he should be at an age where his capacity for on-field destruction is at its most acute.

Instead, he is playing midfield for his club Ardboe O'Donovan Rossa and hasn’t pulled on a Tyrone jersey since January 2015.

"I wish I knew then what I know now," he says wistfully.

What was there to know? Firstly, that the size advantage, which made him look like his minor rivals’ older brother, wouldn’t shift an inter-county veteran one inch.

Secondly, that talent needs to be nurtured and not rested upon in order for it to fully bloom.

And thirdly - and probably the hardest thing for a teenage prodigy to grasp - that just because it doesn’t happen straight away, doesn’t mean it is never going to happen.

"At minor level I had a couple of years of size on most fellas and was a bit bigger and stronger," he says.

"Looking back ten years on, I wish I had the same attitude then that I do now. I’m working harder now than I ever have and I’m not even involved with the team.

"At that age, you probably read into your hype more than you should. With that success I probably thought that I was the next big thing and working hard? I didn’t need to do it because I was a bit more talented."

The Sydney Swans were big fans of Coney and whisked him off to the AFL in 2008. He quickly got the hang of Aussie Rules and his coaches were delighted with his progress as he went home for Christmas ahead of a return to Australia to continue his development.

He never went back to Sydney.

The lure of the GAA proved too strong for a teenager who looked primed to conquer it.

"I was 18, I had never been away from home and going back at Christmas, it was hard to leave again," he says.

"I was green to so many aspects of it. It was a lucrative contract. I had trained with them for eight weeks and just before I went home for Christmas the club said they were over the moon with my progress. I was training with the first team. Looking back at 28, it’s easy to say that I should have stayed, I should have played and I should have made money but I have to stand by the decision I made when I was 18."

Coney’s decision to commit to Tyrone was greeted by supporters almost like another underage trophy. The expectation was that he would come in straight away and the ease with which he made his name as a minor footballer would be replicated with the seniors.

There would have been pressure on Coney to deliver with Tyrone regardless of the circumstances but by turning down the AFL opportunity, he more or less tethered himself to the idea that he had to be an inter-county success. And that anything less than being a roaring success would be deemed a failure.

"You don’t go unnoticed when you decide to stay at home and there is an expectation to deliver immediately," he says.

"I found the adjustment to senior very, very tough. It didn’t click straight away. One of the first games I played for Tyrone was against Mayo in the league [in 2010] and it was a really wet day. I was being marked by Keith Higgins and I was taken off ten minutes into the second half. It was a rude awakening to the physicality, the speed of the game and men being stronger than me, because at minor level I had that natural strength and that didn’t take effect at senior level at all.

"You start doubting yourself a bit more. Things don’t work as clearly for you. Things just fell into place for me at minor and I did start doubting myself – 'maybe I’m not cut out for this'. At that age you don’t have the mental strength of someone at 27 or 28 and I found the going very difficult early on."

As Coney struggled to establish himself in his first few years at senior, the confidence that allowed him to fearlessly be himself as a forward drained away like hot water escaping down a plughole.

He didn’t trust himself to execute the skills he had. He didn’t trust management to give him long enough on the pitch to do it. And deep down, he knew the reason he couldn’t trust himself to perform those skills was because he hadn’t put in the necessary work to hone them.

"I was just relying on my talent to bring me through," he says.

"That was my downfall. I was relying solely on talent to get me where I wanted to be. At 19, 20, 21, you are a bit too fond of a night out when you shouldn’t be going on one and your diet isn’t what it should be.

"I always had high expectations and when things don’t fall into place you do hear grumblings about 'not producing it'. It does take a bit of a toll on.

"I didn’t care about mistakes when I was younger but as I got older, I was afraid to make mistakes and do stuff that was outside the box."

In six years with Tyrone, Coney did show flashes of being the player that everyone expected him to be. There was the National League campaign of 2012 where he kicked 0-24 in six games only for a torn abductor muscle in a club match to rob him of the championship summer, one of many injuries along with shoulder and ankle surgeries that deprived him of sizable chunks of various seasons.

In 2014, he kicked 0-8 from play against Cork in the league and was finally handed his first and second championship starts against Down in the opening round of the Ulster championship, with the two games serving as a summation of the stop-start nature of his senior career.

"I didn’t play well in the replay and was pulled off ten minutes after half time," he says.

"When you are taken off so quickly you doubt your own performance and it is hard to get your head around it to pick yourself up. Instead of going out in the next game and expressing myself, I was conservative.

"You doubt yourself in every aspect of the game. You start asking yourself if you can do these things now. At that time, I probably became a negative in the squad.

"I started complaining to other players and it becomes a drain in the squad."

Coney’s frustration reached a point of no return after he was replaced at half time of the McKenna Cup final in January 2015. He didn’t travel home with the rest of the squad and a conversation with Mickey Harte afterwards made it clear that both parties were better off with a separation.

Coney hasn’t kicked a ball for Tyrone since but as his friends prepare to take on Dublin in an All-Ireland final, he can't help but think about how things could have turned out differently, and that maybe the ten-year anniversary of his formative triumph could have coincided with the realisation of his inter-county potential.

"It is [bittersweet], surely," he says.

"I’m still in contact with some of the lads in there. Me and Peter Harte played for Tyrone from U16. Mattie Donnelly was involved in the senior team in 2010 and withdrew from the squad because he wanted to work on his game. It is nice to see them get their reward. I probably do think looking back on my career, and the success at minor level, that when you see Tyrone playing you think that you could be involved in some way.

"It’s been three years and when you see them getting ready for an All-Ireland final, it’s a bit disappointing to not be involved."

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