Footballers' Lives with Tony Gorman: 'I've a lot of great memories but Coleraine deserved a bit more loyalty from me'
In the latest edition of our popular series, Irish League great Tony Gorman discusses his exit from Coleraine, his chances to play across the water falling through and his son Dale's dream of playing for Northern Ireland.
Q. Do you still live in Letterkenny?
A. I was born there and still live there. My parents live half a mile away and my wife Sheila's parents live nearby too. Growing up, we played in a street league and our area was Glencar. It was Under-11, 13 and 15 level. It was a competitive league and they were good times. Now different clubs are involved and the Donegal Schoolboys' League is regionalised before an overall winner emerges.
Q. Are you still involved with Letterkenny Rovers?
A. I'm head of youth and coach the Under-16s and Under-18s, as well as the seniors. The teams have been challenging for trophies and, between coaching and the games, we are kept busy.
Q. How did your early career gather pace?
A. We were always playing football, either in the garden or at school. From the age of 11 a few of us travelled to Derry to play for Oxford United Stars. From Donegal schoolboy teams you would get Ireland trials. Then the Mansfield Town opportunity came about when I was 16 and I had a very enjoyable time there. We had some really good players and enjoyed taking on sides like Nottingham Forest, who had guys like Steve Stone, Gary Charles and Steve Chettle, but our players didn't progress in the same way. In the FA Youth Cup we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford. That United team had Mark Robins, who scored, but I netted the winning goal and as a 17-year-old United fan I thought I couldn't top that! It shows the quality of the team we had, but a youth coach needed to take a break from the game and the players went their separate ways.
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Q. Were you just unlucky at that time?
A. I think we were possibly punching above our weight. It was proper old Third Division football and a great learning curve for me. I wouldn't have changed anything about that time, though I was a wee lad standing beside huge guys in the tunnel. You weren't spoilt, you had to work for everything. We washed our own gear, while everything is done for the modern day players. It's a different world but it's important players are aware of what real life is like at a time when they are being pampered.
Q. On your return home, why did you join Waterford?
A. Bradford City had shown an interest but nothing developed and the opportunity arose to join Waterford, where I made my League of Ireland debut. I felt I started well and the experience of playing reserve team football in England made me prepared for tougher, aggressive football. A short-term contract ended and I moved on to Galway and then Finn Harps. I was living in Dublin and training with FAI coaches Monday to Friday. After two years I went to have a year at Sligo with Dermot Keely. Ronnie McFall brought me to Portadown and that was the start of my Irish League spell.
Q. Did you have further opportunities to play across the water?
A. When I was at Finn Harps I had been to Derby and West Ham and I had agreed terms with West Ham. It was £270 a week in 1989. I thought it was a fortune! West Ham lost 4-0 at Everton, they got relegated and John Lyall was sacked. Lou Macari came in and I was left waiting on news but the opportunity was gone. Derby wanted to sign me but decided not to pay the money. While I was at Coleraine I had agreed terms with Raith Rovers and Falkirk but the clubs couldn't agree a fee. Coleraine had also agreed a fee of around £100,000 with Norwich but the manager, Martin O'Neill, fell out with his chairman and that was that. But what is for you isn't past you and I have great memories and great friends from my time at Portadown, Linfield and Coleraine.
Q. What was the lowest moment of your career?
A. When I was young I had disappointments but I never sat and sulked about them. I always felt something better would come along if I worked hard enough. The most disappointing thing looking back was being deemed surplus to requirements at Portadown, but even that decision helped me develop as a player. I struggled to adapt to the league with Portadown. It was 100 miles per hour stuff, with household names involved and the fixtures came at you quickly, but I established myself in the team and scored goals. Losing the league title on the final day of the season when we played Glenavon was disappointing because we fully expected to do the job but didn't show up. Robbie Casey missed a late chance which would have clinched the league. Ronnie agreed a £15,000 fee with Coleraine and I was on my way. It was a blessing in disguise as I had great times there. I never wanted to leave the Ports or Linfield but I developed as a player at Coleraine, where Felix Healy was the manager. He made me believe that I should be playing for Ireland and he got the best out of his players.
Q. Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
A. I thought that you couldn't realise your full potential as a player if you didn't play in the full-time game at a higher level but I've still got the medals and memories of cup finals, winning and losing league titles. The only regret would probably be leaving Coleraine when the club was in turmoil. Looking back, I went to Finn Harps at a time when Coleraine deserved a bit more loyalty from me. At the time I was owed a few pounds, but that's football, and I felt I let Marty Quinn, the fans and the club down by jumping ship. They were good people at Coleraine and my family wanted me to stay. Maybe I should have stayed longer but overall I'm very proud to have played for some of the biggest teams, best managers and been a winner too. I've lost a league and Irish Cup final but that was as bad as it got for me in my life.
Q. Has your family always been supportive?
A. My mum Teresa and dad Tony have always backed me and my brother Gareth, who played for Galway and Sligo. Dad was my first manager at Glencar and he enjoyed watching both of us play. Sheila went along every Saturday in the early days before the kids were born and a lot of travelling was involved. The family support was important and Sheila enjoyed the cup finals and parties. Some of our best friends were met through football and it's great to meet old players and fans. I can remember going to Cliftonville one time wondering how people would react and they couldn't have been nicer to me. It's nice to have that respect.
Q. Was it difficult playing during darker days of The Troubles?
A. I was young and naive and The Troubles were something that happened on the TV. You didn't feel it affected you directly, but crossing the border there were checkpoints and as a young man driving on his own I was often pulled in and everything was searched. The young soldiers were terrified and doing their jobs but I just thought I'd be okay, even though there were some terrible atrocities around that time. Football kept going throughout it all.
Q. Tell us about your kids.
A. Dale is 23 and has just joined Newport County on loan from Leyton Orient until the end of the season. Zach is 20 and is at Dublin City University, while Joel is 16. Dale has played for Northern Ireland at every age level up to Under-21s. He played in the Milk Cup and got into Desi Curry's side. The IFA coaches were brilliant with him and Michael O'Neill has met him and been positive towards him. He'd like to force himself into the Northern Ireland squad and he's worked hard to come back from injuries, including a pretty bad broken ankle.
Q. What's your view on the eligibility rule allowing players to play for either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland?
A. It's a sensitive one, and I can understand if some players feel more comfortable playing for one rather than the other. Some Derry lads have been proud to play for Northern Ireland and we are very proud Dale has represented Northern Ireland. He is a loyal player too. In the past someone from the FAI asked, 'Why is he playing for Northern Ireland, why is he not playing for us?' I just said, 'Because he wants to. You didn't want him when he was 15 and he's happy playing for Northern Ireland'. He's been able to make a career in England and that's been helped by the opportunities given to him by the support he's received. Dale just needs to try and play consistently and we'll support him as much as we can.
Date of birth: July 5, 1970
Place of birth: Letterkenny
Previous clubs: Letterkenny Rovers, Mansfield Town, Waterford United, Galway United, Finn Harps, Sligo Rovers, Portadown, Coleraine, Linfield, Crusaders