Seamus Coleman interview: Home is where the heart is for Everton man
Ireland defender wants to play Gaelic football in Killybegs after professional career ends
Everton and Republic of Ireland full back Seamus Coleman on a visit to Evelyn Community Primary School in Prescot. Photograph courtesy of Everton FC
Seamus Coleman’s competitive instinct was forged on the playing fields of the north west, with a young Coleman in the colours of Killybegs soaring over his rivals in the 2006 Donegal under-21 football championship. Photograph courtesy of Donegal Democrat
Seamus Coleman is adamant Ireland can qualify from their Euro 2016 group. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Evelyn Community Primary School, Prescot: on the outskirts of Liverpool, where it merges into broader Merseyside, Seamus Coleman is moving from table to table of giddy, entranced year five and six pupils.
“How are ye over here?” he asks. “Tell me what this is about.”
Coleman listens, watches each small presentation and says: “Good luck with it.” He is a natural.
Around the classrooms slogans read: “Flying High”, “Every Moment Matters” and, in the room where Coleman sits down, “Foreverton”.
The 27-year-old from Donegal is in Everton gear and at ease. He receives an Easter card from the children with the name of his new baby daughter Lilly on it. The visit takes Coleman back to the Niall Mór school in Killybegs.
“We would have had Gaelic footballers come in,” he says, “not many soccer players. It was the Donegal team that would have been in.”
Coleman’s GAA past – and, he hopes, future – is well-known. Had it not been for Sligo Rovers’ intervention, the Everton and Ireland right back could have been appearing for Donegal in All-Ireland finals. GAA is a sport and culture he loves and, though Coleman is now a settled man at Goodison Park, it is in part because he sees a resemblance in the rootsy image of Everton – ‘The People’s Club’ – and Na Cealla Beaga in Killybegs. “Everton’s a real family-orientated club and back home the GAA club I’ve been involved with is also like that – close-knit, warm,” he says. “There are similarities, yeah.”
So there is minimal discomfort for Coleman on a day like this. While other players from English football are dragging the game’s reputation down – some of them Ireland under-21 internationals – the teetotal Coleman is a welcome prop.
That generous personality, however, should not be mistaken for softness and the Liverpool Echo are here asking Coleman about the challenge on Chelsea’s Spanish winger Pedro early on in last Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final victory at Goodison Park.
“It’s just the way it fell,” Coleman explains, “I thought: ‘I’ll have some of that.’
“But I would never go out to hurt someone. I got the ball and followed through but not to hurt Pedro. It was to let him know he’d be in a game. When I first came over I remember Tony Hibbert would often set the tone of a game with a tackle.
“It’s a while since I’ve seen the place [Goodison] rocking like that. On Saturday you could feel the positivity around the ground. There were a few heavy tackles and Goodison likes a heavy tackle, always will.”
It is seven years since Coleman joined Everton from Sligo for the paltry sum of £60,000. He is contracted to the club until 2019, when he will have turned 30, and there may be another contract after that. Everton is his English home.
But Killybegs is Coleman’s real home. This is where he was born and raised, where his family remains, where his wife Rachel comes from and where Coleman wants to be. His father Henry runs the Bay View Hotel in the town; his father-in-law Pat Cunningham works aboard the Pacelli, one of the mackerel trawlers operating from the harbour. Premier League glamour is one thing; Donegal life is another.
“I’m definitely going home, I’m a homebird,” Coleman says, without the subject being broached.
“I’ll go back to Killybegs when I finish but I think it’ll be a case of playing for Killybegs GAA and St Catherine’s, the local [soccer] club. I don’t know about the League of Ireland.”
We had just started discussing his time at Sligo Rovers, how it shaped him, whether the likes of Everton’s new billionaire investor Farhad Moshiri is interested in £60,000 bargains from the west of Ireland.
Coleman’s response to the last part is: “I hope so. There are some very good players in Ireland, there’s Chris Forrester who’s just gone to Peterborough [from St Pat’s] and been called up. He’s a talented player.”
To the general question, Coleman says: “My Gaelic background and Sligo Rovers – that gave me the will to never give up. I’m always willing to learn.
“I don’t have the talent of Ross Barkley or Romelu Lukaku but I have determination. That’s my attribute, but there are others in Ireland with different attributes.”
Beyond Coleman’s up-and-down days with Sligo, Damien Duff’s recent return has stimulated debate about the League of Ireland and Coleman’s take on this is: “Damien Duff had an amazing career and probably missed out on the League of Ireland; he went straight to the top.
“Maybe he had that longing to go back. But I’ve played my 50 games in the League of Ireland. It could change, but I think I’ll play with friends at St Catherine’s. They think I’m just saying that but that’s what I’m longing for, training on a Tuesday and Thursday night on the Astroturf or up on the Gaelic pitch with your friends. I was lucky enough to do that until I was 18. Hopefully I can go back and join in.”
The sincerity of Coleman’s desire is not to be doubted. He is not playing to any audience when he describes himself as a homebird, when he talks of walking on Fintra beach. He illustrates this with a story of what was supposed to be Day One of his professional football career in England.
As he says, his experience at Sligo, while educational, “wasn’t smooth, it was all over the place.
“Different managers came and went, some liked me, some didn’t. I stuck at it. I got where I wanted to be but I was very lucky. Sligo Rovers have great people behind the scenes, it’ll always be close to my heart. I loved it.”
But Coleman was 20 by the time Everton called, long after most Irish boys have been scouted. He had been on trial with Burnley, Birmingham City and Celtic and it hadn’t worked out. There were signs that Coleman wanted to leave, to have the across-the-water experience, but there was also the pull of the Atlantic and Killybegs. It seemed he had missed the boat. Actually, he had missed the plane.
He returns to a foul Monday back in February 2009 and says: “It was a funny one, even when I got the phone call to say: ‘Everton want to sign you.’
“It was a Friday and they wanted me to go over to have a medical. ‘You’re moving over, Monday’, I was told.
“Inside me that homebird said [sighing]: ‘Look, I’ve got to go here.’
“Every other young lad would say: ‘Brilliant!’; I was saying to myself: ‘I have to go here, I can’t not do it.’
“I was quite lonely heading away. I kept that to myself, I didn’t tell my girlfriend, now my wife, I didn’t let her know. I didn’t let my family know I was upset. That’s just the way I am. I battled through it.
“Then I got to the airport at Derry and the flight was cancelled because of snow. Something like that. I was delighted.
“I rang my brother. I could get an extra night at home. I could have gone on to Belfast and got a flight there but I rang Everton and said the flight’s cancelled, I couldn’t make it. I got an extra night with my family.
“I flew out of Knock the next day. I remember that being quite lonely.”
Coleman was not the first young Irish man to have trouble with emigration, longing and belonging, and he is not the last. Everton’s Finch Farm training ground is an impressive, modern sports complex but Coleman knows that it is once young Irish players leave it that the issues can kick in.
“I try my best with all the young Irish lads here to make them feel at home,” he says, “but you’re only with them for those two or three hours in the morning. They’ve to go back to their digs in the afternoon. There could be things they’re missing at home.
“But then you’re not going to turn down a Premier League club at 15,16. It’s difficult because the League of Ireland was amazing for me, it helped me get to where I am today. That’s the good part of it.
“But if you’re 17 and Everton want to sign you, do you take a chance and say you’ll play two more years in the League of Ireland and miss the boat?
“It’s tricky. Because I played in it, I am a big believer in the League of Ireland, there are some top players and some top clubs in it, but, again, if Man United come in for you at 17?
“I love it over here now and I’m settled but I missed home a lot. I went over at 20 and I struggled. If I’d had to do it at 15, 16 I’d have struggled massively.”
At 20 Coleman also appreciated more the mix of luck, anxiety and accident that can shape a teenager’s life when they fly over for trials. And trial sounds the correct word for it.
“At Burnley I did quite well in training,” he recalls, “but I had a trial game and was injured after 10 minutes. I was out for six weeks.
“So that never got going. Owen Coyle was the manager and he was brilliant with me and looked after me, a gentleman.
“I went to Birmingham under Alex McLeish and I didn’t really do great. It’s hard going on trial. If I was Alex McLeish looking at me that week, I probably wouldn’t have signed me either. On trial you’re trying to do too much. It’s difficult.
“I did quite well at Celtic. I don’t know if Celtic and Sligo spoke about a transfer fee. Gordon Strachan was the manager.
“There was a trial game and I trained with the first team a couple of times and he took the training. I got word that they were interested to make something happen but I don’t know how far it got.
“Thankfully Everton didn’t want me on trial. They just signed me.”
The rest, as they say, is his story. Coleman missed out on Euro 2012 – “I watched it at home with my friends or down the town with the lads. I’m not bitter about it, my form wasn’t good at the time and I didn’t think I should have gone.
“A lot disagree but I was playing right midfield at the time and we had good midfielders playing well. I have no bitterness for [Giovanni] Trapattoni at all. He gave me my debut.”
But with 32 caps, Coleman will be in France this summer. He thinks the Ireland team has developed from the 1-1 draw at home with Scotland in June of last year to the Bosnia-Herzegovina play-off victory in November.
“When we drew with Scotland at home, it was a big disappointment,” he says.
“A lot of my friends that were up at the game thought the chance had gone.
“But with Bosnia I felt full of confidence. As the group went on and we got to know each other better, and the manager got to know us better, we were growing.
“There’s some young players, some experience – Robbie Brady has come on in the past couple of years and is now a big player for us. We’re going to France to get out of the group, we’re not going for the experience.
There was a little bit of banter with Everton colleague Romelu Lukaku when the finals draw was made but, as ever with Coleman, it was the stick back in Killybegs he was considering more. Coleman’s elder brother Stevie played for Ireland in the 2003 Special Olympics held in Dublin. Stevie has cerebral palsy and a sharp sense of humour.
Not only was Stevie the first of the Coleman brothers to wear the green jersey, he reminded brother Seamus last week – when Seamus was in Killybegs funnily enough – of another international statistic.
“‘I’ve one thing you don’t have,’” Stevie said to me, Seamus explains, his tone a mixture of pride and pretend exasperation.
“I said: ‘What’s that?’
“I’ve got an international goal, you don’t.’
“And I don’t. So I need to score for Ireland to get back at him.
“He says: ‘Well, you better hurry up.’”
Fortunately time is on Seamus Coleman’s side. It has been a sometimes awkward season for club and country but with Everton there is Arsenal at Goodison Park today and an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United or West Ham to come at Wembley; with Ireland there are friendlies next week, then that opening fixture against Sweden in Paris on June 13th. It’s March but the season could be just beginning.
And no matter how it goes, when it’s done, for Coleman there will be always Donegal, Killybegs, home.