Down manager James McCartan is in no doubt about it — Benny Coulter has been one of what he views as three of the lynch-pins in the side spanning recent years.
“I firmly believe that Benny along with Liam Doyle and Dan Gordon has represented the very heartbeat of Down for quite some time now. These are players who have inspired others to make their play for the county jersey and the upshot is that we now have a team prepared to play with pride, passion and skill,” insists McCartan.
Yet while Coulter’s subtle creative skills and explosive scoring touch continue to underpin a Down attack that has prospered in the surge into Sunday’s Division Two final against Armagh, McCartan must continue to exercise patience as he awaits Doyle’s recovery from a cruciate ligament injury but may decide to reinstate Gordon in his line-up following his voluntary break from football.
“We are fortunate that Benny brings so much experience to the table and the fact that Martin Clarke is now pulling the strings from centre threequarters is another major plus-factor,” states McCartan.
Coulter has harvested a string of Down championship medals with Mayobridge, represented Ireland in the International Rules series, held down a regular berth in the Ulster side and been a fixture in his county team under four different managers yet he continues to display a level of enthusiasm and vitality that would do justice to a debutant.
“It’s great to have already won promotion to Division One but we would now like to land the Division Two prize. It’s important that we keep in a winning vein as our Ulster Championship match against Donegal is coming up and that will be a massive test for us,” says Coulter.
When Down overcame Armagh last month it was a second-minute Coulter goal that precipitated an early scoring burst which saw the Mourne outfit surge into a 1-5 to nil lead — a whirlwind start that paved the way for their 1-13 to 1-5 win.
“It certainly won’t be as easy this time. Armagh have players back now who weren’t in their line-up in that Newry game and the whole team will want revenge,” states Coulter.
Charlie Vernon, Brian Mallon, Barry Shannon and Ronan Clarke are expected to be on duty this time for the Orchard County but Ronan Austin is an absentee because of a broken jaw while Kevin Dyas will continue his fight for full fitness by lining out with his club Dromintee tonight.
Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke watched his side glide past Donegal in round seven of the league but knows that Sunday’s renewal of rivalry with Down will be far removed from that straightforward exercise in Ballybofey.
“I think we had maybe 10 players who scored for us then and that does not often happen,” maintains O’Rourke.
“Obviously I would love to see something like that occur on Sunday but we know that we are going to have to work hard for any scores we get. Stevie McDonnell in particular has been doing extremely well for us but the scoring load needs to be shared. This is a game in which we will require every player to step up to the mark.”
With Ambrose Rogers and Kalum King having imposed themselves forcibly at midfield for Down since the start of the league and Dan Gordon and Peter Fitzpatrick also interesting options in this sector, Down’s ball-winning capacity may prove decisive. And this could mean that Coulter, as has so often happened in the past, will have a major say in deciding the destination of the silverware.