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Eamonn Coleman honoured by The Boys of '93

Road to glory: Derry manager Eamonn Coleman after victory over Dublin in the 1993 All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park
Road to glory: Derry manager Eamonn Coleman after victory over Dublin in the 1993 All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park

By Declan Bogue

Twenty-five years this weekend, Derry won their one and only All-Ireland title, and the man in the striking picture here was the manager - the late Eamonn Coleman.

In Ulster football, Derry are routinely talked about as among the counties with the richest traditions. There are good reasons for that, but most of them are abstract.

There has been a long-established colleges scene with St Patrick's of Maghera and, of late, St Mary's of Magherafelt to the fore.

Football in Derry has always been massively popular with a heated club scene that, by the admission of those that went on to play for the county team, spilled over into the dressing rooms and didn't exactly make for great harmony among the various factions.

Along the shore of Lough Neagh is where you could locate most of those clubs, and attendances at club games going through the generations created a tapestry of stories and yarns.

But in terms of success as a county, Derry had little form. In fact, their record even now is paltry for the standing they are afforded. While Fermanagh remain on zero Ulster titles, the next county are Derry with seven in their history and, before Coleman took over, they had five.

In November 1990, they were in the Third Division and had shown little sign of adding to their 1987 provincial crown.

But Coleman was a force of nature. Part confidante, part psychologist, friend, chief goader and a sideline general that cursed all that got in his road - linesmen, referees, opposing managers - up and down.

With Coleman in charge, and the now-venerated Mickey Moran as the team trainer, they reached the 1992 Ulster final and lost to Donegal, who they then watched going on to win their first Sam.

The year after, they did it. And in style too, beating the reigning All-Ireland champions in a Clones quagmire before shocking the Dubs in the All-Ireland semi-final, then being largely in control of Cork in the final.

Winning an All-Ireland isn't meant to happen to people like Eamonn Coleman, an earthy bricklayer set in countryman ways. The man that won it before him was a hotelier, Brian McEniff. The next man was the dignified teacher, Pete McGrath, and the one after that was a doctor.

Even now, the occupations of those that are All-Ireland winning managers in football and hurling are blue-chip; university lecturers, finance directors, a bounty of educationalists and Jim Gavin, who is the ultimate high-flyer having piloted the Government jet and is now working for the Dublin Aviation Authority.

A scan back through the decades doesn't throw up many tradesmen.

The year after, Coleman began Derry's defence of those All-Ireland and Ulster titles by facing Down in Celtic Park. In what is commonly described as one of the best games ever, they lost a nailbiter.

With no football to occupy them, a good chunk of the Derry team went off to play a summer in America. Coleman went too, enthused by the idea of managing the St Brendan's club in Chicago.

He was there when he took a phone call from the Derry chairman Harry Chivers to tell him that, although he had allowed his name to go forward for the job of Derry manager again, they didn't re-appoint their All-Ireland winning manager.

The board, it was felt, wanted to win an All-Ireland without Coleman.

It brought to mind the remark Joe Kernan made on that September afternoon in 2002. His Armagh squad were travelling out of Croke Park and, for the first time, had Sam Maguire at the front of the bus.

"Mark my words," he said. "Every man in Armagh will know how to win an All-Ireland next year."

The Derry job went to Mickey Moran. The players held a meeting with him where Moran stated he was only going to hold the fort until Coleman was reinstated but, after the players gave him a fortnight to try and iron out things with the county board, Moran then admitted he wanted the job to the captain Henry Downey. Chaos reigned, with a protracted players' strike and a distrust that destroyed that generation of footballers.

All of this is noted in Maria McCourt's superb book, 'The Boys of '93', released this week.

Part-biography of Coleman, part-journalism feature on how a county tore itself apart with too many acting out of self-interest, it is not unique in sport in that most everything eventually ends badly, but it is unique in how it is expressed.

This is south Derry and Coleman at his rawest and most bitter: "I had nothing in common at all with the men who filled the boards and councils. Since boyhood, being a football player was all that filled my life. When that finished, managing players was the next best thing. For me, football was about a green field…"

His own son Gary gives the most colourful account you will ever read about a meeting with management.

Two Sundays ago, his daughter Margaret took Eamonn's place in the Derry jubilee team paraded prior to the All-Ireland final.

Her name was called out, his name was called out and those present in Croke Park remembered the wee brickie from Ballymaguigan.

But for Derry fans, he's never far from their minds.

Belfast Telegraph

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