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Benny still haunted by visions of Croke Park horror show

 

By Declan Bogue

Occasionally, Benny Coulter will find himself travelling or just musing on the sofa when thoughts of 2010, Croke Park and the All-Ireland final they lost to Cork invade his space like a cat burglar.

He does his best to chase away the unwelcome intrusion.

"A killer," he says.

"There is not a day goes past that I don't think about it. You could be driving down the road and the next thing think back to 2010. And you try to get it out of your head as quick as possible because it puts you in bad form.

"Even people talking about it puts me in bad form. It's brutal."

That summer began with a hot day in Ballybofey, Down taking the field in their club jerseys for the warm-up before facing Donegal, who happen to be Sunday's opponents in this Ulster semi-final.

Down fell behind to an early Dermot 'Brick' Molloy goal, but a side-footed goal from Coulter four minutes from the end of extra-time settled the issue.

That was the last time Donegal had been beaten in Ballybofey, in league or Championship football.

In the interim, Donegal have crushed Down's Ulster dreams.

The two sides met in the 2012 decider. Coulter had spent the weeks prior to their remarkable second-half comeback against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final offering up novenas to his broken ankle as he took daily dips in the saltwater in Warrenpoint. He made it back to start the final and although he won a couple of early balls inside, a yellow card for preventing Mark McHugh launching a counter-attack hampered him from the day.

The year after that, Donegal were All-Ireland champions, Jim McGuinness was hailed as a genius and everywhere they went, they cut off the oxygen of scores as they strangled a succession of opponents.

Down had went up to Celtic Park and beat Derry in an old-fashioned shoot-out in the quarter-final. Then they came in for the usual Tuesday night training and McCartan and his new coach Aidan O'Rourke had something very radical and different in store. Indeed, something that would repel those that talk of the 'Down Way' of doing things; they were going to mirror Donegal exactly, play their own sweeper system and hit them on the counter.

"Wee James was unbelievable that time. He did it all in three weeks," says Coulter.

"They had it down to a tee on the board, how we would play and they made it so easy for us.

"None of the boys could say they were confused, everybody had their role and we should have beat them that day, we missed an awful lot of scores.

"It wasn't entirely natural to us to play that way, but they put it across to us very well. They had two boys that covered the full-back line and covered all the avenues of balls going into Murphy and McBrearty. They had it worked to a tee."

Down lost a struggle 0-9 to 0-12, but they provided the perfect blueprint to Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke on what he might do for the Ulster final. To beat 'The System', you had to become at one with the system yourself. In doing so, Monaghan dethroned the Ulster and All-Ireland champions and mercilessly whipped away all the mystique about that Donegal side.

It would be hard to identify anyone as immersed in Down football as Coulter. At present, he is an underage coach with the county board, helping out with age groups right up to the St Colman's and Abbey CBS footballing academies. He manages and still plays with his club Mayobridge.

When the county team are playing, he is there on commentary duties.

The next generation is on its' way. Nowadays Benny runs his nine-year-old son Darragh up to under-10s training in the club, taken by his brother Kevin. He spends too much time coaching at underage to stick his oar in.

"The day that I was handed over to a coach in the club, the coach was over me and that was it. That's the way I think it should be," he maintains.

"What I see at some of the games is that some kids run over to see their father along the sideline and he is talking to his son for a minute or two while the rest of the lads are away into the changing rooms. That's not good."

When he was growing up, alongside the likes of Ronan Sexton and Michael Walsh, they played football, climbed trees or played tig, all around the confines of Mayobridge's ground, fostering the kind of loyalty that brought eight Championships in ten seasons from 1999.

"We had great men over us; Pat Garvey, Sean O'Hare, Robbie Coulter and they worked you hard," he recalls.

"We used to do blocking drills where they used to kick the ball as hard as they could. You see if you did that now, there would be objections. Sometimes a bit of tough love and hard training does the kids no harm.

"I take sessions at our club for all age groups. Sometimes in the sessions I might be hard on the lads but that's what you need to do."

He's not afraid to admit he misses the buzz of playing county football.

"You wake up on a Sunday morning to go to a Championship match, you get there and the thing you think is, I would love to be out there playing,'" he says.

A win here and an Ulster final meeting against surprise package Fermanagh is not beyond them. Down have been relegated to Division Three, but this summer has seen a return of the shock factor.

"I don't think they are far away. I have been at every game this year, been at every league game and I think they are not far away because they missed a lot of scores in some of their league games but they haven't been tested in terms of Championship.

"Tyrone tested them in the Ulster final last year and it wasn't happening for Down. They didn't react to that test good. In Croke Park, Monaghan beat them handy enough. This weekend, I think Down can beat them, but it is going to be a big, big test for a lot of players on that Down panel."

Last year, they turned a 19-point defeat by Monaghan into a two-point win. If any team can turn it on when they are least expected to, it's Down.

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