Wednesday 21 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: No one deserves an injury like this less than the sportsmanlike Seamus Coleman

Seamus Coleman in action for Sligo Rovers against Drogheda United. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus Coleman in action for Sligo Rovers against Drogheda United. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

I'm biased when it comes to Seamus Coleman. I can remember him all the way back as a kid from Killybegs trying to find his feet in the League of Ireland. Back then I knew he'd make it. In the League of Ireland, that is. Nobody saw him becoming as good as he did, and anyone who tells you different is a liar.

When I see him playing I always think of him as Seamie, not because I'm like one of those GAA commentators trying to show that they're down with the players, but because no-one ever called him anything else when he was at the Showgrounds.

I remember him making a debut for Everton in a game against Benfica when they got beaten out of the pitch and our young lad ended up having to confront a peak-form Angel Di Maria for most of the game with predictable results. But I remember that after enduring a harrowing time he still went bombing up the wing and cut back a beautifully precise cross, a typical gesture of defiance at a time when a lot of young lads would have dropped the head.

I remember the first time the Premier League took notice of him, Seamie coming on as a sub for Everton against Spurs and roasting his highly-rated opposite number, setting up two goals in the process. The name of that highly-rated opposite number? Gareth Bale.

Since then his progress has been astounding. He has become the best in his position in the Premier League, the best player of his generation, and, importantly, the ultimate proof that Irish football cannot do without the League of Ireland and that anyone who claims to be a fan of the game in this country but has not stood inside the ground of their local club is only codding themselves. He enlivens the dullest international friendlies, the most quotidian of mid-table clashes.

He has grown hugely but the basics of his game haven't changed much since those first faltering steps with the Rovers. The hunched run, the sudden bursts of pace, the uncanny ability to keep the head and play the right ball, the constant impression of total and utter concentration, were all there from the start. Even at Old Trafford, Anfield or the Emirates, there is something forever Showgrounds about the man.

There is no player about whom I am less disposed to be neutral than Seamus Coleman. So my initial reaction to the awful tackle from Neil Taylor which has left the Everton player with a double fracture of the right leg was, I have to be honest here, one of incandescent and mindless rage. The red mist descended, the black bile bubbled up and I was an enraged teenager on the terraces behind the goal in Sligo again.

Taylor, to my mind, was nothing less than a monster. I fantasised about writing a column suggesting that players who perpetrate fouls like this should be suspended until their victim has returned to the game.

A day later the mist has cleared. At least a bit anyway. Taylor's tackle looks unforgivably stupid but I don't think he meant to cause serious injury. It was not as bad a challenge as, for example, the one with which Sunderland's Dan Smith broke the leg of Arsenal's Abou Diaby. Or the one with which Roy Keane effectively ended the career of Alf Inge Haaland. Taylor is reported to be very upset about the injury to Coleman. Keane, on the other hand, appeared to taunt Haaland as he lay on the ground.

I don't think Keane would behave like that now but I mention that particular tackle because it shows that there are double standards applied to incidents like this. There are more than a few people who regard that incident merely as grist to the mill of the Hard Keano legend. Look how scary he is, grrr. That's because one abiding principle of Irish life, perhaps the one which underpins everything, is this: It's different when one of your own does it.

It should be written on the gates of Leinster House, emblazoned on church walls and incorporated in the mottos of schools. And perhaps inserted into the constitution. Irish people in different walks of life disagree about many things but we agree about this.

Taylor deserves a long suspension and will probably get one. But his challenge probably wasn't as bad as the one Gareth Bale had made on John O'Shea just a couple of minutes previously. In fact, I suspect that Taylor's foul may have been influenced by the way the game had heated up in the aftermath of Bale's lunge. Bale could have broken O'Shea's leg. But he didn't.

And if he had? It's a terrible thing but I wouldn't have felt quite as bad as I do about Coleman's injury because I don't have the same kind of emotional investment in John O'Shea. And if it had been a Welsh player suffering a broken leg? We wouldn't be all that fussed. In fact, we'd probably be seeking recourse to the same kind of clichés with which Chris Coleman sought to cover his player's tracks on Friday night. Because it's different when one of your own does it.

One of the most remarkable things about Seamus Coleman is that, despite being a ferocious competitor, he has risen to the top of a ruthless profession without ever being anything other than dignified and sportsmanlike on and off the pitch. No one deserves something like this less.

Right now, I have awful memories of how Jim Beglin, as good then as Coleman is now, had his career effectively ended by a tackle from Everton's Gary Stevens. There was much less of a fuss made about the horrific tackle which ended the career of another Irish international, Gerry Ryan, around the same time. Perhaps that's because the perpetrator was Henry Hughton, brother of Chris, and also an Irish international. It was harder to get your head around that one.

There were worse tackles made back then without the same terrible consequences. This year has seen worse tackles than the one Taylor made on Friday night. Most of the time the perpetrators and victims get away with it. Like most things in life, luck has a lot to do with it.

The reaction of Taylor's defenders will be that 'he's not the kind of player to do something like that'. But he is, because he's just done it. And chances are his tackle on Coleman will be remembered long after the rest of what is a pretty undistinguished career is forgotten. As the young lad in Sing Street says to the school bully, "You can't create, you can only destroy." And perhaps that's punishment of a sort too.

Irish sportswriters like to take the piss out of our opposite numbers across the water for being 'fans with typewriters' and lacking the neutrality we pride ourselves in maintaining. But that's a bit of a cod really. It's easy for us to look at, for example, British cycling with a clear eye. We have no dog in that fight.

You'll be reading a lot of angry comment about what happened to Seamus Coleman, this being an example. We'd like to think it's all prompted by a disinterested outrage at this offence to the spirit of the game. But the truth is that most of us will be hopping mad because it happened to Seamus Coleman. Had it happened to Gareth Bale we'd find it much easier to maintain the necessary sang-froid. Or maybe that's just me.

It's different when it happens to one of your own. It shouldn't be. But it is.

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