Roy Coyle: If I hadn’t won Linfield that Shield, I’d have been hurled into oblivion
The most prolific trophy winner in Irish League history, Roy Coyle, on how a defeat shaped his era of success, the disappointment he shared with George Best and the top player he ever watched here.
Fifty trophies in the most successful Irish League managerial career ever, one more even than Sir Alex Ferguson... and all Roy Coyle wants to dwell on is a defeat.
Football managers the world over are judged and defined by trophies and results. Great when they’re winning, gone when they’re not.
Coyle’s achievements, including 13 league titles with Linfield, Glentoran, Derry City and Ards, will likely never be equalled. In British football, only Coyle, at Linfield, and Kenny Dalglish, with Liverpool, are believed to have won national league and cup doubles as player-managers.
Yet he never voluntarily mentions the highs as we chat for over an hour in his comfortable home in a leafy avenue in his native East Belfast.
The launching pad and driving force for all his success, and the living it provided, he reveals, was a single defeat.
Equally surprising, he says the trophy win he cherishes most was the first, in what you might think would be an afterthought for him, the often undervalued Co Antrim Shield.
“I’m convinced if I hadn’t won that Shield final for Linfield I would have been hurled into oblivion and there wouldn’t have been a career to sit here and look back on now. The margins between success and failure in football are that narrow,” reasons Coyle, still active in the game that has been his lifelong passion, now aged 71, as Glentoran’s director of football.
How remarkable to think a generation of Irish League football fans might never have heard of one of its most instantly recognised names and faces?
“Not at all,” he smiles. “A young player turned up to sign at The Oval recently and thought I was the secretary. He had no clue who I was. You can be quickly forgotten in this game.”
In context, he takes us back to April 1976 and an Irish Cup final his under construction Linfield team were routinely expected to win against then B Division Carrick Rangers.
But in an historic upset, the like of which as not been seen since, supposed no-hopers Carrick, then managed by his now good friend Jimmy Brown, triumphed 2-1.
“It was all going so well,” Coyle recalls. “Martin Malone gave us a first minute lead but we didn’t drive home the advantage and then bang... Gary Prenter scores twice for Carrick and I’m staring down the barrel of a gun.
“I’d only been in the job as player-manager from the previous November. It was my first job in management coming back from playing in England, and it wasn’t just my inexperience that left many Linfield fans with reservations about my appointment.
“Quite simply, some of them hated me as I’d played for their biggest rivals Glentoran and I’d history with them from some ding-dong Big Two battles, including a particularly fierce league decider at The Oval when they had Billy Sinclair sent off for head-butting me, although I did make a meal of it.
“So I had a lot of convincing to do, and my first 18 months were a nightmare. Linfield managers don’t get time to start winning things. But I lost that first cup final to a then junior team in my first season and then a year later we were back in the final only for Coleraine to thrash us 4-1.
“It was the Coleraine side of the great Dessie Dickson, who scored, and Liam Beckett even managed one of his rare goals.
“The drums were beating among impatient fans and questions were being asked in the media. I was under serious pressure going into the Shield final against Glentoran a week after the Coleraine defeat.
“I am certain now if I had lost that game, I would have been sacked and no-one would have heard of me again.”
Instead, a 3-1 win in a minor trophy final changed the course of Coyle and Linfield’s destiny.
Ten league titles, a myriad of cups and annual excursions to Europe followed.
And with every one, he admits, the memory and spectre of Carrick loomed large. This most driven and determined of managers says he cannot recall a single standout trophy celebration.
“Every time I won anything in my career,” he insists, “I looked back on that Carrick result. It remains the low point of my career and the yardstick I measured everything against.
“I never wanted to experience again the painful, rock bottom feeling I endured that weekend. That is what drove me to become a winner.”
Proving his doubters wrong was to become a rite of passage for Coyle from his youngest days in the game right through until the end of his 32 year full-time managerial career in a brief spell at Newry, the only club where he didn’t win a trophy, in 2007.
Every time they said he had lost his touch, proud Coyle raised a trophy in response.
It was a trait that kept him in demand from chairmen under pressure to deliver a proven winner, right up until a retirement broken by three caretaker spells at Glentoran, where he continues to enjoy his advisory role, never missing a game or training session.
“Being around players keeps you fresh,” he says. “I couldn’t envisage a life without football.”
That’s despite the adversities he has encountered and overcome from the outset.
It is woven into football folklore how a young George Best was rejected as too small by the Glens — football’s equivalent of the record producer who turned down The Beatles.
Less well known is that East Belfast schoolboy contemporaries Best, Coyle and Eric McMordie were given the thumbs down at a schools international trial, again for their perceived lack of stature.
“The mindset then was you had to be six feet tall to be a footballer,” reflects Coyle. “George didn’t do too badly and Eric went on to have a decent career with Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland.
“It wasn’t as if George was a late developer. Everyone who saw him in schools or street football in East Belfast knew he was destined to become a big, big star. Not only that, he was a fabulous guy, very generous and very humble. I am proud and privileged to have know him from our earliest days.”
Glentoran ought to have been a natural progression, too, for the young prospect Coyle, showing promise as a versatile defender or midfielder.
Instead he ended up at Ballyclare Comrades and smiles as he recalls how a certain Jackie Fullerton, a classy winger before he became a TV commentator, spotted him in an Irish Cup tie and recommended him to Fullerton’s then manager at Ballymena United, Scot Alex Parker.
“Jim Platt was also in that Ballymena side and I’d a good two years there before Glentoran finally showed an interest. I was swapped for a forward, Jim Herron, and it was a dream move for an East Belfast lad, born and raised on the Beersbridge Road.
“Peter McParland was their manager, a Northern Ireland legend. It was 1969, two years after the Detroit Cougars legend had been established and many of those players were still in their prime. I looked around the dressing room, saw the likes of Walter Bruce, Billy McKeag, Bimbo Weatherup, Albert Finlay and Tommy Morrow and realised I needed to take my game to another level to succeed in that company.
“That was a feared Glentoran team, always in contention for league and cups, and any young player coming in, looking to improve, was always going to benefit.”
Coyle’s reward was a move to Sheffield Wednesday for £12,000, paid in instalments: “I wasn’t long married and was thinking of emigrating to Australia to start a new life with my wife, Abbie. But my good friend Jim Emery, who scouted for English clubs, set up a trial with Sheffield Wednesday that led to a move.
“They were in the old second division and I loved every minute of my time there. It was living the dream. If you love the game, you want to be a professional footballer.”
But it all ended abruptly after five Northern Ireland caps and a transfer to Grimsby, still a source of regret for Coyle who blames no one but himself.
“I fell out with the manager, Tommy Casey, the old Northern Ireland international. I refused to play for him — you do daft things like that when you’re young,” he reflects.
“When I heard, quite literally, out of the blue that Linfield were interested in bringing me home as player-manager, I couldn’t believe it. I thought they hated me because of my Glentoran connections and that if I was going back anywhere, it would be The Oval.”
As we now know, despite that shaky start, the foresight and faith of the Linfield committee paid off handsomely.
The trophies kept coming, 31 in 15 glorious years in an era unlikely to be repeated.
Coyle managed some of the Irish League’s most gifted players and biggest personalities.
The legendary Bald Eagle, Peter Rafferty: “A fantastic bloke and one of the best trainers I ever managed.”
Keeper George Dunlop: “The word character was invented for him.”
Peter Dornan, solicitor and founder of the Players’ Union: “A highly intelligent player and person. He was the shop steward of the team.”
Martin McGaughey: “A brilliant goalscorer. Like myself, the Linfield crowd took their time warming to him. But he was quality. I remember the season he won the European Silver Boot.
“We flew to Paris on a private plane to collect the award with Chelsea’s Kerry Dixon who won bronze.”
Winger Billy Murray he rates the most gifted of a golden generation at Linfield.
But asked to name the supreme talent of his playing and management career, he opts for Glentoran hero Johnny ‘Stumpy’ Jamieson: “I was star-struck when he joined us from Crusaders... the things he could do with a ball... of all the great players I’ve worked with, Johnny was a bit special.”
Everything ends badly, it’s said, otherwise it wouldn’t end, and the tap on the shoulder he expected 15 years earlier at Linfield came in 1990 after the cardinal sin of losing seven out of seven games in a season to Glentoran.
“Nothing lasts forever,” he reasons. “The club felt it was time for a change and the parting was amicable. I bore no grudges then or now. You move on. I had a living to make and not long after that, Ards offered me employment.”
And just to reassure him that his stock remained high, Derry City then came calling, paying £7,000 to prise him from Ards to the Brandywell.
“Again, I feared, wrongly on this occasion, that past connections might be held against me but I could not speak highly enough of the way the Derry people received us. Abbie and I moved up to Derry and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there,” he emphasises.
A League Cup and European football followed as Coyle delivered his obligatory trophy success. Back then to Ards until finally, in 1997, it was Glentoran’s time to put the pursuit of success ahead of their supporter misgivings at hiring who they then saw as a Linfield man. The football wheel had turned full circle and, when it finally came to rest nine years later, three league titles, four Irish Cups and 16 trophies, in all, rested in the Oval boardroom. They were spoiled and they didn’t know it.
Married at 16, Roy and Abbie will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary next month.
When he’s not at the football club, he spends his time walking daughter Jacqueline’s dog to keep up an exercise regime and collecting his two great grandchildren from school. Jacqueline is married to former Linfield player Paul Mooney while son Darrin played for Linfield and Everton.
As a manager, Coyle’s opinions were always sought after and his views on the game today are equally valid.
He is not one of those former players or managers who bemoans the state of the game. His gripe is more with the stage on which they are asked to perform.
“There is not much wrong with Irish League football as a product,” he contends. “The standard is good and the entertainment often superior to some of the televised games we see from England and Scotland.
“But, sadly, our facilities for training, playing and spectating do not measure up across the league.
“Some grounds are frozen in time, our own at the Oval included. Investment is badly needed but promised funding to redevelop the stadium can’t be released until Stormont is back up and running.
“Even those clubs whose grounds have been upgraded need to do more. The days of expecting supporters to turn up at three o’clock on a Saturday and go home at five with a burger at half-time are long gone.
“People expect more. There has to be a matchday experience to entice them in. Where are the museums and heritage centres, for example, where clubs can celebrate their traditions and legends and pass on their history to new generations?”
It would be a brave man who would call Roy Coyle a museum piece, even in his seventh decade, but might not the story of his football life and times be Exhibit A in the type of attraction he envisages?