David Kelly: Genius finally hangs up his boots
WHEN Liam Coyle announced his retirement last week, a little bit of the dreamer died in all of those who had been privileged to witness him play. The word 'genius' is too often mis-appropriated yet, in the Derryman's case, one is unashamedly tempted to apply such a glowing description.
Coyle's languid, almost contemptuous approach to the physical aspects of the beautiful game in deference to the more alluring pleasure of the aesthete, was the preserve of the last Bohemian.
Crippled by an injury in his prime when international fame beckoned, the blue brace which he wrapped around that infamous knee was a reminder to us that notwithstanding the obstacles put in our way, the spirit should always remain strong. It is a matter of legend that Alex Ferguson, Sven Goran Eriksson and Brian Clough jostled for his services in 1989 before, in his words, "I got wrecked by Peter Eccles" in the coarse landscape of Oriel Park, Dundalk on a cold winter's day.
He played on for another 70 minutes, not realising his knee was slowly buckling beneath him. Afterwards, he sat on the team bus on the way back to Derry. These days, a football club would probably get sued for such medical negligence. Coyle has never blamed anyone. Instead, for too long he blamed himself, pitied himself. His life was as shattered as the knee which propelled him to do one thing he loved. Play football.
"I went on the piss," he recalls of an 18-month period when his life veered out of control. "There was nothing else for me to do. I saw specialists and they could do nothing for me. They reckoned I'd be in a wheelchair if I kicked a ball again. I was off the rails, beating myself up over it. What was I without football?"
For Liam Coyle, football was all he'd ever known. It had been ingrained in him from the cradle; his father, Fay, had represented Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup and the family home shadowed the Brandywell. The genes marked Liam out as a footballer, years before his hat-trick debut in 1988 against Cobh.
"My father wouldn't have been a direct influence on me," admits Coyle. "Of course, everywhere I went, I was known as Fay's young fellah. But Da never encouraged me to play. He left it up to me. My mother, Sheila, would have been a bigger influence, she was always pushing me."
The early years of Coyle's youth were played out against a backdrop of bleak, cyclical, mindless sectarianism. Living in Derry in the 1970s, one had two choices. Coyle chose a path which steered away from the 'struggle'. Jimmy McCartney's Brandywell Harps was Coyle's sole devotion. "Some of my best friends went to jail," remembers Coyle. "Theirs was a different world. But now we're all getting on with our lives. Those were different times."
The buzz of Derry City joining the League of Ireland was easily absorbed by a teenage football fanatic. When Noel King signed him on his 18th birthday, it was like a dream come true. Until he discovered a quirk of the professional game. They called it training.
Coyle doesn't do training. For most of his career, he didn't even do running. Or anything that expends unnecessary energy. "He was a big lazy shite but then all he wanted to do was play football," says Jim McLaughlin.
King had other ideas. His players trained whether he liked it or not. So he off-loaded him to Finn Harps for a few months. Then McLaughlin arrived in Derry as a director of football; recalling Coyle was one of his first duties. Derry's magnificent treble followed and the local prodigy established himself amongst his then more illustrious team-mates.
"He had this rare ability of being able to acknowledge where each of his passes should go, where each of his team-mates was going to run," recounts McLaughlin. "He was the quickest thinker I knew, a centrepiece around whom the game flowed."
He made his one and only appearance for Northern Ireland towards the end of that 88/89 season. Booed, inevitably, by the Windsor Park bigots, it was nevertheless a proud moment for Fay's son. "I should have scored with a header at the end," recalls Liam, "that probably cost me a few caps."
His display in the FAI Cup final replay against Cork City, the final part of the magnificent treble, alerted Bingham to Coyle's talent. Archie Knox, Manchester United's number two, would have drooled at the prospect. But Knox missed the replay, having been impressed by Brian Carey's marking job on Coyle in the drawn game. United were still interested though, as was Derryman Liam O'Kane, assistant at Nottingham Forest. When Derry played Benfica in the European Cup, Eriksson made polite enquiries.
And then came Dundalk.
"In hindsight, it seems that a year out would have probably done me and I would have returned stronger than ever," muses Coyle. "They found a black spot on the knee and I was told that was it. Finished."
He was 21. His education was minimal. He sank into despair. His mother concocted ancient recipes of holy ointment and liquids and rubbed them on his knee almost daily. She was a strict devotee of the faith; once she placed leaves from a particularly symbolic Fatima plant between the slices of his ham sandwich. Coyle preferred simpler pleasures, like Guinness and Scotch.
"One morning, I just woke up and said to myself, 'What the f*** are you doing with your life?' I knew I had to stop descending any further into despair. I had to start playing football again."
The Buncrana Cup, a summer competition which mostly featured Irish League players, launched his comeback. It had been two-and-a-half months since that horrific day in Dundalk. "I was scared but excited. Once I was out there, I murdered them on the field. I knew I was ready."
Roy McCreadie had witnessed Coyle's tentative return and he coaxed him into a competitive comeback with Omagh Town. "I thought there might be a backlash in Derry because they'd had a testimonial for me and everything. Now I was joining another club. I was very cagey."
It was as if he'd returned from the dead. He had a season with Omagh before his home town came calling. "I said no originally but something just dragged me back," he remembers. Many in the game were sceptical. Could he survive in what was an increasingly physical and fit league? The early to mid-90s was a barren period in domestic soccer and many feared for Coyle and his rickety knee.
An FAI Cup win was his reward in 1995 but Derry lost the league title on the last day of the 94/95 season, although Coyle scored his personal favourite of the 112 goals he scored in 390 appearances for the club. They did win the league two years later, after Coyle spent a sabbatical with Glentoran after falling out with Felix Healy. In Belfast, Coyle became a cult hero and is still recalled fondly for his exploits in their IFA Cup win of 1996.
If his goal to win the Cup final two years ago did not ensure him immortality in Derry, then last year's strike to secure the club's Premier Division status was surely a fitting way to conclude a spectacular story. This chapter, at least.
He will remain inextricably linked with Derry as their chief scout. Perhaps, as Jim McLaughlin says, we should be glad he's retiring now, unbroken by the game he decorated for our pleasure. But we'll miss him. His youngest child, two-year-old Jack, echoed all our sentiments last week when he sheepishly posed a question of his father. "Daddy, is it true you told them you're hanging up your boots?"
Sadly, it's true. His greatness may have deserved a wider stage but, selfishly, we're glad he illuminated our lives for longer than even he thought was possible. Thanks for the memories, Liam.