Colin Coates: 'I nearly walked away from football in my teens but I stuck with it, won every medal in the local game and played for my country'
Crues skipper Colin Coates on why he almost quit football, pulling on NI shirt, major changes at Seaview during his stay, and plans for the future
Q: How did your career start?
A: Back then, you started playing in the street with 15 other kids. At the age of about 10 I came home and said I wanted to join the local club called Boyland, based in Inverary, east Belfast. I always played a year older and can remember being a left winger. I eventually became a centre-forward and we all enjoyed it. I moved on to East Belfast Rangers where Scott Boyd was in charge. We had good players in the team but our disciplinary record wasn't the best! Scott offered me the chance to join the Crusaders or Glentoran Under-16 team. He advised me to go to the Crues as the pathway to the first team could be easier. I went on a pre-season trial and thankfully I made the cut. That pre-season training was probably the hardest I've done. I can remember playing away at Drumaness as a left-back and I had an absolute stinker on a miserable, wet day. I phoned the manager on the Sunday and said, 'That's me done, I'm finished with football'. I was only turning 16 and didn't want to play anymore. At that age there were other distractions and of course you have no idea where your career might take you. A guy called Junior phoned me on the Monday and convinced me to give it another go. Chris Morrow was involved in the same Under-16 team. I eventually progressed to the reserves and first team in 2002, making my debut in a County Antrim Shield game against Chimney Corner at Seaview. We lost on penalties, Alan Dornan was the manager and the club was financially on its knees. Many people today don't understand how tough it was for the Crues back then. It was a club drifting towards oblivion. Alan had a tough gig there but he turned to the young players like myself, Stephen McBride and Chris Morrow. I can remember suffering a bad knee injury and Alan helped put me in touch with a surgeon. I owed him a lot for that.
Q: You're still at Crusaders and one of the few one-club men in football. Were you ever close to leaving?
A: The closest I probably came to leaving was just before Alan Dornan left the club. We were struggling at the bottom of the league and I wasn't getting much of a chance. Limavady United were going well under Tommy Wright and I was ready to join them. It looked a good opportunity for a young player to progress. I considered leaving but then a Crues official told me to hold fire and two weeks later Stephen Baxter came in as manager. He played me at left-back before I moved into the middle, and although the club was relegated, I was playing football again. Stephen showed faith in me when I wasn't a polished player.
Q: You've been linked with Linfield over the years. Did that potential move interest you at all?
A: Even before I had won a league title with Crusaders I always said one with the Crues would be worth as much as a few with Linfield. There was a year on year improvement at Crusaders and I've known Stephen for a long time. He has always shown faith in me and I've won every medal. I had no affiliation with Linfield as a young supporter but I've been with the Crues since I was 15. I've won three league titles and I'm delighted with that. I'd have been happy with one.
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Q: We've seen many Irish League players further their careers in England or Scotland. Did you ever have that chance?
A: That was something I never got too hung up on. When I was a lot younger I just wanted to do well at Irish League level. I was a late developer. It wasn't until I was 22 or 23-years-old when I thought I could be a good player. Winning the Irish Cup in 2009 was a big step forward and then Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington showed great faith in picking me for my country. That was an unbelievable feeling, and around that time Glynn Snodin, who was Nigel's assistant, was at Leeds United and there was talk of them watching me. A scout watched me in a European game at Mourneview Park against a Macedonian team and I ended up getting sent off so that possibly didn't help my cause. I never pushed for a move, got an agent or knocked on the manager's door. My attitude was if it happens, it happens. Doncaster Rovers showed an interest when I was 24 but I was older, had a job and a kid on the way. But I've done a lot in the game including playing for Northern Ireland across a three-year period. Apparently I'm the most capped Crusaders player, on six appearances, and the chances of that record being broken soon are slim! Nobody can take those memories away. Football is about highs and lows and I've tasted it all from relegation to senior international recognition to winning trophies.
Q: How big a highlight was playing for Northern Ireland?
A:For the first game away to Italy, you are pinching yourself. I was centre-half with Chris Casement, and Stephen Carson, who I roomed with, was on the left wing. A centre-half pulled out of the squad quite late and Nigel told me a few days before the game I would be starting. I'd rather he didn't tell me until a few hours before the game as it gave me time to stew. You worry about performing at that level. I was marking Giuseppe Rossi and Gennaro Gattuso played in the game too. They were world champions and it was still a strong Italian team. I kept my place in the squad, which was great, and I don't think I made myself look stupid when I played! I always felt I was representing the Irish League as much as Crusaders or myself and I felt I was able to do that.
Q: You've scored 72 goals for Crusaders. Have you a favourite?
A: There's no better feeling in football. The two in the Setanta Cup final were big goals. One of the most important was away at Ballinamallard when trying to win the league. It was a very late header and it gave us the lift to win the league. The Setanta Cup was a major highlight. Linfield were the only other Irish League team to win it. Our teams were whipping boys, but against the odds we beat Sligo Rovers in the semis, and it was incredible to beat Derry City in the final.
Q: Can you believe the changes at Crusaders since you made your debut in 2002?
A: It's crazy. The club is lucky in that it's got the right people in the right positions at the right time, from the manager, Stephen, to the board members, including Tommy Whiteside and Mark Langhammer. They work tirelessly to make sure the club keeps moving forward. It would have been easy once the pitch was down and the stands went up to settle, but they got more funding and we have a fantastic Roy McDonald Centre. You can't wait for things to happen, you've got to be proactive. It's been an incredible journey for me this last 17 years and I never saw it coming. I can remember getting £10 for playing a match and I feel it's important for the new players, such as the Hale brothers who have joined (Rory and Ronan) to know where the club has come from. New players must understand the DNA and fabric of the club. Now players get full-time training, the best food and medical treatment. So many players and officials have worked hard to put us where we are and that should never be forgotten. Davy Rainey came down from the Premier League to join us in the Intermediate League and he helped us get back up.
Q: You had a great centre-back partnership with David Magowan for many years. What was he like to play alongside?
A: Davy was quiet until he got a beer in him! He was brilliant, for nearly 10 years he was top class. For someone so small, he had a great leap. He had pace and was one of the best one-on-one defenders I've seen. Very rarely did you get past Davy. He had a low centre of gravity and he could take the ball off people with a last-ditch tackle. I always told him off for being in the wrong position but he made defending look easy. I was delighted he got the league winner's medal he deserved.
Q: Best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A: Best player, Gavin Whyte. In his last season with Crusaders he was as good as I've seen in the Irish League and he has shown his class in League One. When our young players go to a club across the water, that's when the hard work really starts. Gavin is working hard and he seems to have taken it all in his stride. He was amazing to watch in training and he has this great ability to drop off and find space. We missed him this season. Gavin got us up the pitch as teams were worried about him and dropped deeper. He's a good kid and there's no arrogance with him. Toughest opponent, Jordan Owens in training! Spike (Glenn Ferguson) was always hard to play against, especially when you're a young player and still learning the game. Spike could see your weaknesses and exploit them. I won't forget the League Cup final when we were winning 2-1 and he came off the bench, scored two and we lost 3-2. He could do everything, he was strong in the air and held the ball up well. It was never an easy day facing Spike. Liam Boyce was also a handful at Cliftonville, a similar player and a huge threat with Joe Gormley alongside him.
Q: Does the new full-time environment at Crusaders affect your life?
A: Not really. Quite a few of us are older and have full-time jobs. I work for the Housing Executive and at my age it could be detrimental for me to be full-time. My body might not react well if I change a routine I've had for 17 years. If it's not broke, don't fix it. It's a big commitment from the club but it will take time for the boys to get used to it. You want the players to be fitter and stronger at the business end of the season.
Q: Why did the title challenge fall away?
A: Probably a number of reasons. Has the full-time training taken a while to get used to? Probably. We played four European games in July, including a week before the season started, so there was no pre-season. They were tough games and when the season started we were underbaked, then you fall behind and are under pressure. We didn't have the good start as a platform.
Q: What's your view on switching to a summer season?
A: I don't like the cold, I'd prefer the summer. Some of our pitches are not good. They get wet and cold. In the summer the pitches can recover quicker. You might get more families and young people coming out. I wouldn't want my boy sitting in the freezing cold. I understand both sides but summer football won't happen in my time.
Q: Have you any thoughts on going into coaching?
A: That's something I have thought about. Coaching in some capacity would be nice. I think everyone who has played football would like to pass on some of that knowledge. You've seen how countries like Iceland have changed their coaching approach to improve standards.
Q: Who has been a positive influence on your career?
A: Scott Boyd gave me great encouragement when I was younger. My dad Jim, who goes to nearly all the matches, has been a big support. I'll have to play really well for him to say I've had a good game! I've three sisters, Julie, Kim and Chloe, and they attend a lot of the games. My partner Claire has a tough gig, she is head of English at Breda Academy. That's a challenging job and she's a bit of a football widow with me off training and her looking after the kids. She supports me and knows how important the football is to me. I have to give her a lot of thanks for the sacrifices she makes. Our kids are Zach (13), Rowan (9) and Clara (5). Zach goes to Grosvenor and plays a bit of hockey, he did play football at Shorts but now he's playing hockey with his mates. Rowan plays for Bloomfield and at times he's football mad. Clara enjoys running around and going crazy. They all came to Ballymena when we won the league last season and it's great to share those moments. My mum Barbara likes to stay at home on Saturday and enjoy the peace and quiet. Claire always says the football is very different to watch when you have an emotional connection to someone. Sometimes you feel under pressure to win things for your family. I can remember before we were travelling to Ballymena for the title decider Clara was asking, 'When are we going to see the trophy?' I was thinking, 'We better win it now!'
Q: What was your lowest moment on the pitch?
A: I've lost finals and semi-finals but it was a really miserable night when we lost to Glenavon in a play-off and were relegated. It was a horrible night and the changing room was a grim place. But there was defiance straight away from Stephen (Baxter) and we quickly started preparing for the next season. In hindsight, it was the best thing to happen to the club because it gave people like me and Chris Morrow the opportunity to play regularly and find the appetite to win games.
Q: How nice was it to win the Irish Cup for the first time in 10 years?
A: That was at the forefront of everyone's minds. No team can win the league every season and we've had too many injuries. You need momentum to win leagues and sometimes players suffer from a lack of confidence too. Players who have played hundreds of games and scored hundreds of goals can still struggle for confidence at times. Self-doubt can creep in, especially when you're older when you question, 'Am I getting too old for this?' At 25 you can brush it off as one bad game. If you're older, people will ask more questions. But the Irish Cup final is always a special occasion and it's nice to share it with the family. Your victories are forgotten about quickly and the good players are able to start again and become serial winners. It can be tough, but the manager has improved the squad every year. Players like Billy Joe Burns and Paul Heatley have pushed us on to achieve more success. We finished the season with two trophies, 50 per cent of the silverware on offer, and in anyone's book that's a good season. Huge credit to Ballinamallard United for their Cup run but I felt we were deserved winners.
Q: Football is a ruthless business and managers need to make tough decisions. Is Stephen like that?
A: He's not afraid to take someone off after half an hour. At half-time, you know if you haven't played well. Stevie will give you a rocket when he feels its needed. It doesn't happen very often as we have a good, experienced squad who know how to work things out. Managers need to be ruthless but we have no big egos. The lads work well together. Everyone knows you either perform or leave. Look what happened with Darren Murray. You've got to fit into a squad or you won't stay in it.
Q: Do you have an amusing story from your career?
A: Skimmer (Matthew Snoddy) is always good for a prank. Before a trip to Sligo Rovers we met at Seaview and someone asked Skimmer if he had brought his passport, sparking much panic. When we were at Warrenpoint I was deciding which way to play in the first half and people talk about playing with the wind behind them. Skimmer said, 'Play with the hill while it's there' - he must have thought someone was going to level the ground at half-time. The European games are great and one new player had to sing a song through the tannoy. There's jokes flying all the time and I'll miss that when I retire.
Q: How long do you want to play on for?
A: Another five years. Heading into my mid-30s you could be one bad injury away from it being all over. A cruciate ligament injury would be a long time out and difficult to come back from. I feel great and can play three games in a week. As long as you enjoy football, why give it up? Gary Smyth and Noel Bailie played until 40 and that's great. I don't see myself playing for another club but the manager could have something to say! I've another year on my contract and my form has been good.
Date of birth: October 26, 1985
Place of birth: Belfast
Crusaders record: 559 appearances, 72 goals
Northern Ireland record: Six appearances