Belfast Telegraph

Andy Coleman: 'My fears when I needed a life-saving operation, the heartbreak I felt when my hometown club Newry City went out of business and why players are picking up silly wages'

 

By Graham Luney

Dungannon Swifts goalkeeper Andy Coleman opens up on his brush with death, why he said no to a move to England, his real birth name and why he would love to keep playing into his 40s.

Q. What is your earliest football memory?

A. My dad took me out for kick arounds, I played for a local team Midway United and came through their youth system. Barry Gray, who is now Cliftonville manager, was my boss from Under-15s to 18s, they were good times and we made good friends. Barry and Barry Trainor took over the reserve team at Newry and brought the Midway team along. Reserve football was my first taste of the Irish League. My dad managed local teams around Newry and, until 21 or 22, I would play for him as a central midfielder. It stood me in good stead as I was capable with the ball at my feet. Barry saw the potential in me becoming a goalkeeper and I had no other choice.

Q. What has been the best and worst moment of your life so far?

A. I'll start off with the worst. I was playing for Newry and we had started the season against Dungannon. We won 4-0 and had a game the following week. I had been in training on the Thursday night and worked my socks off, feeling great. I was standing in work on the Friday and I felt this pain in my abdomen. It was the worst pain I have felt and it took my breath away, I couldn't get away from it. I ended up in Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry with a perforated ulcer between my stomach and my bowel. The ulcer explodes and you poison yourself. There was poison going into my stomach. I ended up being rushed in for a last-minute operation. The medical experts told me I could have died if I didn't have a quick operation. They tried to give me morphine for a few hours but it wasn't working. That was lucky, though, because if I had passed out I probably wouldn't be here now. They knew there was something wrong, a doctor came in in the middle of the night, they did a scan and I was straight into the operating theatre. I can remember I could barely talk going in and saying to the nurse, 'Is this a big deal?' and at that stage I just wanted pain relief. I'll never forget that pain, it was horrendous and I could hardly breathe. It was very scary to feel fine one night and the next day lie on a hospital bed dying. I felt the fittest I had been in my life but then it was all doom and gloom. I can remember telling my dad to call Gerry (Flynn, manager) to tell him I couldn't play. That was nearly eight years ago and, touch wood, I've been okay since. That experience led to one of my best days. I've no children so it would probably be my first game back which was against Linfield. I played well, saved three penalties and knocked them out of the League Cup. I'll never forget that feeling, I was overcome with relief and happiness and there were tears in my eyes. It was an emotional moment for me and it was a game that probably didn't mean too much to too many people but it meant a lot to me. It was about four months after the operation.

Q. Can you give us an insight into your family life?

A. My mum is Anne and Andy's my dad. I have three brothers, Thomas, Gareth and Peter, sister Tracey and fiancée Ciara. She's been an absolute saint. I used to come home after a game and sit in a dark room but the older you get you learn to let it go, it's not the end of the world. She put up with that for years. She checked Twitter and Facebook to see how the team was doing to find out what mood I was coming home in! She doesn't like football, which is probably good for our relationship. We can switch off on a Saturday night and not talk about football, that can be a good thing. Her first game last season was the Irish Cup semi-final against Linfield. She really enjoyed the day out, her family would be bigger fans and talk to me about it. At the beginning of our relationship she wasn't aware of the sacrifices, particularly around Christmas time, why we couldn't go places or do things because of football. She's not into sport, she's training to be a radiographer and I like that in her. She was a manager of a retail store and wanted to push herself on. She went back to university to do a degree and for me that says it all about wanting to better herself. I love that in her and I love living in Newry. There has always been a bit of travelling apart from Warrenpoint but I wouldn't change anything. My friends and family are there and I love it.

Q. How did you and Ciara meet one another?

A We worked in JD Sports in Newry together. We'll not be getting married for a few years until she finishes her degree and the finances are right. She's five years younger than me (27).

Q. Considering your expert handling skills, can we assume you won't drop the ring at the wedding?

A. Yes, it will be in safe hands! We had our engagement party in September the night we drew with Crusaders. She was sorting that out while I was gallivanting in Belfast!

Q. After you left Newry City in 2011 the club went out of business the following year after a winding-up order was served by the High Court as a result of non-payment to a previous manager, who took and won an unfair dismissal case against them. They have since reformed as Newry City AFC and compete in the Bluefin Sport Championship. What was it like to be at the club when it was folding?

A. That was my last year at Newry and it was hard to watch because my father and his best mate always went to Newry games over the years. Growing up I would have been at the Showgrounds with him and his mate Mickey McAlinden. I progressed from watching them to playing for them but my last season ended with me standing in the changing room looking at the kitman and tea lady standing there in tears after relegation. Behind the scenes the club was a mess, a shambles, management were coming and going and it was hard to watch people you respected and cared about suffer. People were in tears, they were devastated. On the pitch when Gerry (Flynn) was there we had a go, we had good players but that team never fulfilled its potential. Things behind the scenes weren't done properly. We were pushing on, getting to semi-finals and finals, but a new chairman came in and a few times he came in and showed the wages on the table after a game and said, 'You don't deserve this, you're useless' with a few swear words thrown in. A few players who weren't from Newry thought, 'I'm not going to fight for him'. It was a no-win situation and not a good environment to be in. I think the chairman had an idea about the future of the club and the manager saw things differently. It was just a shambles, very sad. Newry was never a massive club with a massive following but they were like Dungannon now, a tight-knit club with a small but loyal fanbase. They had to drop down five or six divisions and I watched them compete with teams who shouldn't be sharing a pitch with Newry City. But the fans never let the club die, and it is them and people like Darren Mullen (manager of Newry City AFC) who grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, along with Mickey Keenan who I always looked to, and showed their love for the club by rebuilding it.

Q. Is what happened to Newry City a big warning to other Irish League clubs?

A. Yes. I look at a lot of clubs and they are too busy trying to pay players two or three hundred pound a week instead of sorting out their infrastructure. Boys are getting big wages when clubs don't have grounds or training facilities. Clubs' youth systems aren't what they should be. They should do what Dungannon are doing and try to produce their own players. Seven or eight of our players came through our youth system. Dungannon could have invested big money in players but they haven't, every penny goes into the youth set-up. It's reaping its rewards, there are young lads going to England and progressing into our first team. That would be the best direction for Irish League clubs instead of throwing hundreds of pounds at boys who are travelling long distances and not caring much. Nacho Novo was a prime example - why was he here, did he want to be here? No, definitely not. It's different for the likes of big Roy (Carroll) who has had an unbelievable career, he has affiliations with Northern Ireland and Linfield and he just wants to prolong his career. Other boys come in just to pick up a wage.

Q. But as a player you would gladly accept that money, wouldn't you?

A. One hundred per cent yes, I can understand that, it's people's livelihoods and their jobs, but players are on good money and the top clubs must be able to afford to pay them. You look at mid-table and lower-table sides paying out big money and you wonder how can they afford it, will it catch up with them? We could end up with another Newry City situation which no one wants to see. I've been around the Irish League for nearly 13 years and no one wants to see clubs going the way of Omagh Town or Newry.

Q. Despite playing for Portadown's rivals Glenavon, were you saddened to see the club docked points for making undisclosed payments to players and suffering relegation?

A. Yes, I was. When I was at Glenavon the games against Portadown were always great occasions with big crowds but the game has lost that now. When the Ports found themselves in trouble it reminded me of the Newry situation and you never want to see a club struggle. A club the size of Portadown and with their considerable support should be in the Premiership and, although they have struggled for form, it would be great to see them back in the top flight. I'm sure they'll be back.

Q. When an outfield player makes a mistake he can often get away with it, when a goalkeeper makes a mistake it can lead to a goal. What is that pressure like?

A. It can be horrible at times. It's the worst feeling in the world because, for me personally, I feel I have let everyone down. Even though you might have made 10 saves in the game, if you've let one in you've let everyone down and that will never change. We have been around long enough to know that if you make a mistake you just move on from it. You don't let it affect you, you work harder and try to make it up to the boys at a later date.

Q. Can you recall a mistake that haunted you for a long time?

A. I remember one of the first times I went to Windsor Park, it was unbelievable. I was probably having one of the best games I've had in a long time. The ball came to me in the second half, one of the boys hit a back pass, I produced a stray kick and Peter Thompson lobbed it over me from about 30 yards. It was a real low moment because I was playing so well. I think we lost 2-0, it was around Christmas time and we had a night out which didn't help things as I was a young lad having to deal with the disappointment.

Q. What has been your best and worst moment as a player?

A. The Newry situation is the worst, the way things ended up with grown men and women crying. It's their livelihood, and when clubs fall away, people get let go. It may be part-time football but people still have bills to pay and it's not a nice situation. My best moment was probably playing for Glenavon against Portadown on Boxing Day, it was a full house at Mourneview and it was a long-running joke that we hadn't beaten them in years. I think we scored in the 94th minute and beat them 2-1. That was the turning of the tide for Glenavon to move in the right direction. It was a really good feeling to play in front of a full house and to see what it meant to the fans to get that win on Boxing Day in thrilling circumstances.

Q. Do you have any regrets?

A. It's a hard question because I had a few chances to go across the water. There was a bit of interest from Sheffield United and Watford. When I was leaving Newry and going to Glenavon there was a chance to go to Oxford, who were in a lower league in England. The wages were not great but they were probably giving me more of an opportunity than anything else. I could have done well but I'll never know. I was 23 or 24 but I signed for Glenavon. When I was younger my attitude was not the best and I was going out with friends rather than being dedicated. Robbie Casey, Mickey Keenan and Gerry Flynn called me in and said, 'What are you doing here? We believe in you so much, if you've got the right attitude you can make a good career for yourself in the Irish League if you knuckle down and stop messing about'. Since that day I haven't looked back. If you can find anyone in the Irish League with a better attitude, I'll shake your hand. I'm first in the training ground and last off it and that won't change.

Q. Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

A. It's got to be Mickey Keenan, I have so much respect for him, a former Footballer of the Year. He was the first goalkeeping coach I had when I was 21. He worked me very hard and improved me so much. It's not just taking crosses and rolling about on the ground the way outfield players think we do! I was lucky to move to Glenavon where Reggie Hillen was also very pivotal in my career.

Q. Goalkeepers are close to the fans during matches, have you ever had anything thrown at you?

A. Not really. When you're younger you're a bit more stupid and you might say something back to them. It's just immaturity, and when you're older you try to have a bit of craic with them. You're joking away and I love it. The good thing about the Irish League is that the supporters are on top of you and there's no getting away from it. You try to relax and not get involved in arguments. There's no real hassle or nastiness, it's just good banter.

Q. Who was your favourite footballer growing up?

A. Probably big Pat Jennings as he was from Newry too and he's a legend. You could throw a stone from my house to his house and I looked up to him because of what he achieved. After that, I had massive respect for Shay Given. Like me, he wasn't overly massive but he was very agile and a fantastic shot-stopper. He was playing in the Premier League and he was standing out, doing well while not being the biggest in stature.

Q. What is the best advice you have received?

A. 'When you become number one, train every day like you're a number two'. I can't remember who said it but it stuck with me. Train hard and don't take anything for granted, train as if you want to take someone's place. If you're number one that doesn't mean the hard work is done, you have to work even harder to push on.

Q. Who was your toughest opponent and best player played with?

A. When I was coming through there was Vinny Arkins. Maybe I was young and small but he seemed about eight foot five, he was massive and really intimidating. He was a brilliant player and, striker wise, him and Glenn Ferguson stood out over the years. In the modern day Irish League I must say that Rhys Marshall is a very good footballer. He was a young lad coming through when I was at Glenavon and I always wondered why he never went to England. It is harder for a defender though, compared to a striker who gets the headlines. But I'm telling you now, that lad is as good as anyone. He's a brilliant right-back, left-back, centre midfield, he could play anywhere. I'd say Gary (Hamilton) is really happy that he has hung onto him. When Portadown signed Kevin Pressman I was in awe of him too because he had played in England and then faced me. The best I've played with must include big Winkie (William Murphy) and John Convery, I would look at centre-halves who are in front of me and they were superb. But Lee Feeney's brother Cullen would be my choice. That might surprise a few people, but of all the Feeneys he had the most talent and, like Rhys, he was versatile and unbelievable. You need to play with players to appreciate them. He would never have a bad game but never fulfilled his potential as he was a bit of a rocket head! I liked that about him probably more than anything!

Q. Do you have a favourite holiday destination?

A. We're not married and we don't have children so we do get away when we can. We love Portugal and Mexico. What has happened there with the earthquake is heartbreaking.

Q. Do you have a favourite book?

A. I don't read much but the last one was on Harry Redknapp. We are all massive Spurs fans and we try to get to watch them every season. I liked Paul Merson's book as well for the stories. The (Dungannon) Swifts boys are more into the Power series on Netflix.

Q. What music are you into?

A. I get stick from the boys about that too. Growing up in the Nineties, anything with a good dance beat gets me going.

Q. Is there anything you can tell us about yourself we don't know?

A. Yes, my name is Mark Andrew. Everyone knows me as Andy Coleman but on my birth certificate it's Mark Andrew. I don't know how I've ended up being called Andy. I was born around Father's Day and my dad wanted me to be called Andy but I was meant to be called Mark, so they decided on Mark Andrew. Somehow over the years Mark has gone missing. It's a strange one and I'm not sure my best friends even know that.

Q. How long are you going to play on for?

A. I'm only 32 now and I'll see how I feel. In the last nine years I've had broken wrists, posterior cruciate, broken nose, snapped ligaments in my hand and a stomach operation. You won't have a nose like mine if you're not a goalkeeper! If I'm fit and healthy maybe I'll play until I'm 40 or 42. Look at Davy O'Hare who was at Glenavon with me playing into his 40s and he loved it.

Q. Are goalkeepers not well protected by referees these days?

A. I'm not sure about that. People say they are but not so much in the Irish League, which is physical. Players get away with a lot more, which is good too.

Q. Have you a passion for coaching?

A. I do, yes. I work for Just4Keepers as well as my other job. I do boot camps, and I don't want people experiencing what we did and not receiving their first goalkeeping coaching until they are 21 or 22. It should be done from you're 12 upwards at least. My long-term plan would be to go back to my hometown club and do some coaching. I have the experience and know-how to help keepers progress to the Irish League.

Snapshot

Date of birth: June 13, 1985

Place of birth: Newry

Previous clubs: Newry City, Glenavon, Loughgall, Dungannon Swifts.

Dungannon record: 108 appearances

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