Wednesday 20 February 2019

Comment: Seamus Coleman is loved by club and country - but has he really delivered on his potential?

Ireland's leading Premier League light has come a long way in the space of a decade yet O'Neill declaration raises question of whether the Donegal man has truly achieved enough ...

At Everton, Coleman is a revered figure that is well on the way to club legend status if he spends the rest of his playing days there. Photo: Reuters/Ed Sykes
At Everton, Coleman is a revered figure that is well on the way to club legend status if he spends the rest of his playing days there. Photo: Reuters/Ed Sykes
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Seamus Coleman is the captain of his country and Ireland's best player in the Premier League. He skippered Everton last week and has a fair chance of wearing the armband for Marco Silva's side on a long-term basis.

With his 30th birthday approaching in October, he is back doing it at the highest level after sustaining an injury that might have shaken the confidence of a lesser man.

At Everton, he is a revered figure that is well on the way to club legend status if he spends the rest of his playing days there.

On the face of it, he has it all. But has he achieved enough?

If Martin O'Neill is right, and the Donegal man is showing signs of returning to his very best form this season after the steady management of the setback that kept him out for ten months, then his career arc will become a talking point again.

The Ireland management believe he could play for any Premier League team yet the reality is that he plays for a club that is vying to be the best of the rest beyond the established six.

As it stands, Coleman's only career honour is a Championship final play-off win for Blackpool in 2010. Beyond that, the medal cabinet at senior level is bare. He has never played in the Champions League and the window to reach the summit is slowly closing.

Lesser players have sampled life at that level and will retire with memories of winning trophies and titles.

The language may seem harsh when, by the measure of any pro starting off in the game, Coleman has enjoyed a fantastic career, especially considering that he wasn't even mapped on the radar of any club across the water during his mid-teens. His football tale could have ended before the first chapter was completed.

At 18, rejection from Sligo Rovers was a possibility with then manager Rob McDonald deeming him surplus to requirements. It was quite a turnaround from there to becoming a first team regular under Paul Cook, never mind securing a move to Everton for £60,000 in the year of his 21st birthday.

Just under a decade on, he is Ireland's main man and has led the team through a major tournament experience in France, in addition to making more than 200 Premier League appearances and earning enough money to ensure that he should be comfortable for the rest of his life.

Coleman is a teetotaller who married his childhood sweetheart and still has the same friends he had when he was growing up in Killybegs.

He is a grounded individual without a trace of controversy on his CV and one suspects he will be able to comfortably adjust with the transition from senior pro to veteran which is still a couple of years away. There is no horror story lingering around the corner here.

He's on a deal that is worth somewhere between £50,000 to £60,000 per week which translates to somewhere in the region of £3m per year and that's before you consider bonuses and endorsements. That is an extraordinary success story.

Still, there's a difference between recognising that and saying with certainty that he has fully delivered on his potential.

O'Neill offers the view on these pages today that he feels Coleman could play for any club in the top six of the Premier League.

World-class

Granted, he's likely to say that when the question is posed to him but he has always asserted his belief in the 'world-class' quality of the full-back. His assistant manager Roy Keane has spoken in glowing terms when he is known to have reservations about the quality of other players in the squad.

And it's true that Coleman has attracted interest from the big guns during his stay at Everton, most notably from Manchester United in the summers of 2014 and 2015. He was voted onto the PFA Team Of The Year in 2014 so the transfer chat was unsurprising.

When other players get wind of such curiosity, they instruct their agent to kick up a fuss in order to manipulate the situation but that was never going to happen with Coleman who has always retained a sense of gratitude to the club that took a chance on him when others dithered.

There is a certain hypocrisy in questioning if a player has been too loyal at a time when the absence of that trait from the upper echelons of the sport is bemoaned. But the doubt will linger if Coleman's current status proves to be his ceiling.

Everton have spent big this summer in an attempt to try and close the gap with the superclubs. However, it's difficult to see them breaking out of second-tier Premier League status within the time-frame of Coleman's contract.

The good news aspect of the early stage of his recovery was the agreement of a new contract with Everton that will keep him there until 2022. Coleman appreciated the gesture and indicated that the plans were already well in motion before his Aviva nightmare - the exit door was not in mind.

"Everything had been agreed and I was due to sign it after the international break but unfortunately I got the injury," he said. "The chairman (Bill Kenwright) messaged me the night of my injury and said, 'Don't worry about it because when you come back this contract is still waiting for you'. That sums up what the chairman and this club is all about."

Reaction

The player is clearly happy and the reaction he received for his comeback game against Leicester in January illustrated the affection in which he is held.

In reality, it has cemented the relationship for good barring a dramatic change of circumstances.

No matter how well Coleman fares this season, it's unlikely to generate a fresh bout of transfer speculation. That might change at a more advanced stage of his contract, but the fear is that the ship has sailed.

Clubs would have to dig deep into the pockets and, as Jose Mourinho has found out, it can be a hard sell to convince the authorities to shell out big bucks for players in their thirties

There would be a view that the Irish attitude towards his position is out of sync with how he's perceived within the English game.

In other words, the suggestion is that there's a green-tinted view of his ability.

It's a valid discussion point. When Everton struggled defensively in the dying stages of the Roberto Martinez era, Coleman made errors too. Reputations were dented.

Nevertheless, he was doing well under Ronald Koeman when he was cruelly struck down by that horrible Neil Taylor tackle that played a big part in the derailing of Ireland's World Cup ambitions.

There is a niggling sense of regret about how it all panned out.

The argument that Irish bias has resulted in Coleman being overrated can be tackled, however.

Coleman's career has run in tandem with the evolution of the full-back into one of the most important elements of a high-level team.

This is where Pep Guardiola has addressed a weakness in his Manchester City side and they paid proper fees to sort it out. Kyle Walker cost £50m. Left-back Benjamin Mendy was a £52m buy.

Spurs' incumbent Kieran Trippier was one of England's key attacking weapons at the World Cup. Liverpool are hopeful that Trent Alexander Arnold will develop into their own star. Arsenal have the explosive Hector Bellerin.

The steadiest elite player in the position is Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta. Coleman's reliability and no-fuss approach draws some parallel with Denis Irwin, the outstanding full-back of the early Premier League years.

Nevertheless, the position has changed considerably in the intervening period and Coleman's ability to burst across the halfway line is in keeping with the modern requirements for the position.

Substance

Yet he has spent his working life with a team that generally tends to be on the back foot when they encounter opponents of real substance.

The great unknown is how he would have fared in a side that has the midfield quality to dominate matches, thus giving their full-backs the freedom to roam and function as auxiliary wingers.

History will be kind to him.

There was a feeling that his Manchester United moment had passed when they brought in Matteo Darmian in 2015. We now know that Coleman would have been a much better bet at that juncture. Antonio Valencia held that station for most of last term. Coleman would be an upgrade on the Ecuadorian.

If he does end up missing out on playing for a Champions League regular, it's simply because he was just never in the right place at the right time or just not selfish enough when he was. Inferior performers have enjoyed opportunities that he would have relished.

The top clubs might have players that are stronger in specific areas - Walker is quicker, Trippier is technically better and Azpilicueta is sharper when it comes to the basics of defending.

But the Irishman possesses an all-round package that would make him a valued member of any dressing room. His international team-mates speak of a work ethic that lifts the intensity of training sessions and brings the best out of those around them.

He wouldn't be out of place in elite company but his time to graduate into it may just have passed him by.

Irish Independent

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