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Final heartache haunts Benny Coulter four years on

By Declan Bogue

First things first. He won't be back. Not even if he hits three goals for Mayobridge in some April league game and gets a phonecall the following night. He will politely turn any comeback requests.

To the wider public, Benny Coulter the Down footballer will be no more. Down county board will send out the rather quaint yet thoughtful 'thank you for your services…' letter, but the show's over.

And he's ruthless in his assessment of his playing days. "I am not content with my county career, 100% not, because we didn't win the All-Ireland in 2010," he says.

"If we had have won that, it didn't matter if we won Ulster after that. It got to the stage after 2010 where all I was looking for was an Ulster title. That would have been a consolation for 2010. But it eats at me. It will until such time I can help Down win an All-Ireland."

He sat down with Jim McCorry, the new manager. He stated his position to the 32-year-old. No complaints on that score either.

"In fairness Jim was great. He just left the decision up to me. I met him, he told me what was expected and I fully understand 100% that everybody has to be committed and it is all or nothing."

He took counsel from those he trusts. In his club, he had serial All-Ireland winners in Tom O'Hare and Mickey Linden to lean on. He met up with Danny Hughes and noted how he felt freed up by his own retirement. The problem?

"I just hadn't the motivation to come back. It came like a thief in the night, but once it was gone, it was gone.

"It would have been a bad way to start a new campaign, going there and not wanting to be there.

"I just knew by the time February came and the National League came it would have been a disaster."

What does he leave behind? A career that ranks among the very best.

Thankfully, that bustling, powerful run, economical solo and dead-eyed finishing remains enshrined in the YouTube age.

One example: The goal he scored in the Down under-16 county final against Liatroim in 1998. He catches a Mayobridge kickout, solos 50 yards or so before planting a left-foot shot into the top right corner of the net.

Genius. But see it for yourself. It's had more than 57,000 views already.

If he feels a failure, he is being way too hard on himself.

He recalls watching Cork's Daniel Goulding fluff a series of '45s' in the 2011 Munster final. The September before that, he hit three of them, along with four tricky frees to spirit away an All-Ireland from Down by a single point.

Down were up 0-7 to 0-2 after 27 minutes of the final. The gap was three points in their favour at half-time. Then Conor Counihan brought on Graham Canty and Nicholas Murphy to take over midfield while Down were short-staffed, Ambrose Rogers watching on with his cruciate injury.

"Me and James (McCartan) would have talked about it at times and he would mention he should have moved me out to the middle of the field that day…" says Coulter.

"It was that tense that day there was no thinking time. An All-Ireland final is just there and you have to get it right. You couldn't go in and say the boys were nervous or the occasion got on top of us. We were ready for it."

Two years later he was in an Ulster final but got battered and rammed into from all sides against a Donegal team that were at the height of their powers, majoring in tying up the opposition's biggest talents in knots of frustration.

Coulter was no shrinking violet, but he will remain one of those star forwards who have become disenchanted with the direction that Gaelic football takes when one team decide they are going to adopt an anti-football policy.

There was one club league game earlier this year, prior to the Championship when Mayobridge manager Mickey Walsh put him in at full-forward for his height. He doesn't name the opposition, but…

"I literally touched the ball twice because they had that many men behind the ball. We beat them 0-9 to 0-6 or something," he says.

"Since that then I have been playing midfield. It's getting so bad. I used to love playing full-forward for the club. It's getting to the stage now when I just hate it. I would rather be out around the middle, getting your hands on the ball."

Likewise, he won't miss the stage hardmen with their dirty strokes and their yapping.

He tells a story about an Ulster Championship game in the Marshes around a decade ago. One defender would not shut his mouth and spilled bile from it all day. A while later, Coulter was togging out before a Railway Cup match for Ulster when the same defender came up to introduce himself.

"I wouldn't look at him," he recalls.

"We were on International Rules with Ireland out in Australia, and myself, Stevie McDonnell and Paddy Bradley became very friendly. We asked each other, 'who was the biggest prick you marked?' for the slabbering. We all picked the same name."

Life will go on and his involvement in GAA just alters.

He is chairman of Mayobridge's Strictly Come Dancing event, and that takes up its own time.

He is proprietor of Benny Coulter Gloves and takes orders from even Mayobridge's keenest rivals, a demonstration of how he is held in universal fondness by his own people.

Last Friday night at the Canal Court, he was named on the Down All Stars team from the club year. That team face Jim McCorry's first Down selection tomorrow in a fundraiser for the Southern Area Hospice (throw-in 2pm, Pairc Esler).

Already, he has a dander up for the game.

The appetite may have waned, but the warrior spirit is never truly extinguished.

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