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Stephen O'Neill and Benny Coulter are huge losses to GAA game crying out for artistry


Class act: Stephen O’Neill was a special talent

Class act: Stephen O’Neill was a special talent

?INPHO/Donall Farmer

Class act: Stephen O’Neill was a special talent

Allow us, if you will, a little time to reminisce about two players that have sailed graciously into the night this week.

Let us start with Benny Coulter. There is a marvellous passage in Eamonn Sweeney's book 'Road to Croker' about an evening he attended a match featuring Coulter's Mayobridge and Loughinisland.

The subplot was Coulter's duel in midfield against Dan Gordon.

This being 2003, and Down being Down, the action was described as end to end. The ball was an object that was propelled rather than hogged.

Two years later, Coulter was at full-forward against reigning All-Star full-back Barry Owens in a qualifier game. What cast light on a poor match was the sheer magnificence of the aerial tussles between two of the finest catchers of the ball in the province.

By 2012, with Down getting to an Ulster final, everything had changed in football.

Coulter was still able to fetch ball, but when he came down to earth the Donegal defence would swallow him.

Before that game, he delivered his verdict of modern football, saying, "I wouldn't pay in (to a match).

"I don't like the tactics in our modern game. It's basically down to how well your defensive system plays and how much you can hold out a team. Whoever sets up the best will win the game."

He added: "I always go back to the Down winning teams of 1991 and '94 - brilliant footballers but they could easily be cancelled out in the modern game with these mass defences.

"If you asked me what era I'd rather watch - no question, the early 1990s without a shadow of a doubt.

"I'd love it to get back like that."

A similar fate befell another man who left the stage recently, Stevie O'Neill.

In his first start back for Tyrone after his short-lived retirement in 2008, he played in the 125th anniversary celebration league opener against Dublin.

Any of us that were in Croke Park that night, well, it's not the €500,000 fireworks after the game we recall, but the point he spliced the narrowest of angles with down at the Canal End.

By last season, he cut a frustrated figure on the periphery of everything.

The artistry of these men was reduced to nothing by negative gameplans. As Benny says, let's hope that can be reversed.

Belfast Telegraph