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'My best signing': Roy Coyle recalls Tony Coly's arrival as Linfield's first Catholic signing

 

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Tony Coly in action for Linfield.

Tony Coly in action for Linfield.

Tony Coly

Tony Coly

Roy Coyle was Linfield manager from 1975 to 1990.

Roy Coyle was Linfield manager from 1975 to 1990.

Tony Coly in action for Linfield.

It was a moment of historical change at illustrious Linfield Football Club.

A controversial decision that sent shockwaves throughout the Irish League and it came during an appalling period in Northern Ireland.

Thirty-two years ago, the signing of unknown Tony Coly broke down barriers and allowed the Blues to move forward as a club.

As then Linfield manager Roy Coyle declares, "the legacy of Tony Coly at Linfield will be long remembered".

It was in July 1988 that Coyle signed 24-year-old central midfielder Antoine Coly, who hailed from Dakar in Senegal and had been playing his football in Belgium with Club Brugge and Racing Jet Wavre.

What Coyle didn't know was that Coly was Catholic by birth. At that time, it was well known that Linfield did not sign Catholics, so the move was not universally accepted within the Blues family.

However, Linfield chairman David Campbell and the Management Committee at Windsor stood by Coyle's signing and Coly was welcomed into the Blues fold.

"At that time Linfield didn't sign Catholics, so in that respect Antoine Coly was one of my best signings," says Coyle, the most decorated manager in the history of the local game.

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Roy Coyle was Linfield manager from 1975 to 1990.

Roy Coyle was Linfield manager from 1975 to 1990.

Roy Coyle was Linfield manager from 1975 to 1990.

 

"I didn't know what his religion was, all I knew was he was a good central midfielder. All credit to the chairman and the Management Committee at the time. They said, 'Yes, go ahead' and it was one of the best decisions Linfield ever made as a club, in my opinion.

"The Troubles were raging and there was a lot of ill feeling in relation to religion at the time, so thankfully the board backed me.

"There was nothing written in the club's constitution about signing Catholics and I was never told not to sign a Catholic, but the club had that stigma at the time and perhaps Catholics from certain areas might have been wary of signing for Linfield.

"After Tony signed, the club went on to sign many Catholics and the two that stand out for me are Pat Fenlon and Dessie Gorman, but it all started with Tony Coly.

"We also signed Abdelli Kammal, or Sam Kammal as we called him, after the piano player in the film Casablanca, where he was from."

It was during the close season of 1988 that Coyle, hoping to recruit players to strengthen his Linfield side, who had just lost their League title to Big Two rivals Glentoran after dominating for six years on the spin, headed to Belgium to watch a match set up for players who were out of contract and looking for a club.

Coyle ended up signing Coly and Kammal after the match.

"I went over on my own and I was impressed with what I saw - both of them - so I signed them and they did very well for me," says Coyle.

"They were two lovely lads and the other players took to them very quickly. They were black players, which was unusual in the Irish League back then, but that didn't matter to me, nor their religion.

"What mattered to me was they could both play and would both be an asset to my team. Tony was the better player, more creative, while Sam was all about pace. He would hug the byline and fly down the wing and he was very effective.

"I'm sure there was some bad feeling towards the pair in some quarters, but when they saw the lads play, there were no more issues."

Current Linfield chairman Roy McGivern was on the terraces during those days rather than in the posh seats of the directors' box and remembers being excited about the signings of Coly and Kammal.

"These were two foreign players coming from Belgium and I was looking forward to seeing them play," states McGivern.

"I remember watching Tony score at The Oval in a Cup game against Glentoran. Lee Doherty pushed the ball inside for Tony to smash home a half-volley from 25 or 30 yards. It was a great occasion.

"They did take some stick (in terms of race). They had bananas thrown at them and there were racial undertones, but the best way to silence your critics is by playing well and they both did that.

"I don't recall too much of a reaction from Linfield fans, but this was in the days before social media. Maybe there might have been more of a reaction had they been local players.

"It didn't affect the players themselves. They loved life in Belfast, the Irish League and Linfield - and the fans also adored them.

"I think it certainly helped pave the way for other (Catholic) players like Chris Cullen under Eric Bowyer, and Pat Fenlon, Dessie Gorman, Martin Bayley and Raymond Campbell under Trevor Anderson.

"My only regret is that Tony Coly didn't stay longer at the club because we definitely struck gold with him."

Belfast Telegraph