Séamus Coleman becomes the leader of the Ireland pack
Proud Donegal man took extra responsibilty of captaincy in his stride
Republic of Ireland captain Séamus McCarthy commends team-mate James McCarthy during the victory over Italy at Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille on Wednesday. photograph: Laurent Dubrule/EPA
It’s always the quiet ones. When the camera closed in on Séamus Coleman’s face in the tunnel in Lille on Wednesday night, it wasn’t hard to read in the diamond intensity of his eyes that Ireland’s new captain was locked in.
The flags around his home town of Killybegs had been prominent since the tournament began. But when word began to filter through on text and social media that their boy would be captain, the fishing town was more or less draped in the tricolour: every window, every flagpole. Manus Boyle, the former Donegal forward, was training the Killybegs senior team on Thursday evening. The weekend training schedule was framed around Ireland’s match with football on Sunday.
“Och, I mean how would you be? A young fella growing up in the town. A very nice lad. Success hasn’t changed him in any form,” Boyle says. “Everyone is just delighted for him and proud of him. I’ve never seen as many tricolours around the town and banners for Séamie. Killybegs was always a soccer town and then the Gaelic took off but it was always a Gaelic town. But naw, it is huge. The hotel where his father works is adorned with flags and the town is just mad. The funny thing about it is that there is not that much talk about Donegal anymore. I know how I felt the time of Italia 90 as a young man and it is only natural that it gives the county a boost and it gives you pride to be from the country again rather than all the bull that went on for the last 10 years. There is no better boy to do that than Séamie. He just drives things on.”
Even before Martin O’Neill named his team for the Italy game, there were intimations that Coleman had been singled out for the added responsibility of captain. The Donegal man appeared at Tuesday’s press briefing alongside the manager and afterwards, he sat in the dugout for a brief but animated conversation with the Irish manager which was filmed – without audio – on the broadcast feeds in the media centre. Coleman was attentive and relaxed.
“Whatever I said to him and he said to me, it was, one, we have to be ready for the game, got to be ready for it and not only was he ready for it,” O’Neill said. “He galvanised the team as well which was great because he is, off the field, he is a really quiet lad but he has a bit of grit and determination about him which is very evident.”
Even though Coleman established a reputation as a kind of freestyle, attacking right back with Everton, grit has always been his core trait. The £60,000 (€75,000) transfer fee from Sligo Rovers to Goodison Park stands as one of the most thrifty business transactions of the profligate Premier League era.
But Coleman is never slow to talk about the days when he felt uncertain about whether he was going to get a break at the Showgrounds. Rob McDonald, manager at the club until 2007, has said subsequently that he never felt certain that Coleman really wanted the professional football life: he was laid-back and reserved and plainly a home bird.
Even after he began to turn in eye-catching performances in the League of Ireland, a move to England still seemed remote. Trials at Burnley, Birmingham City and Celtic had held moments of promise but no hard contract ever came. When Everton came with a sudden offer, Coleman’s initial reaction was one of private doubt.
In an interview with this newspaper with Michael Walker, he recalled his delight when a snowfall led to the cancellation of his flight in Derry: it gave him an extra night home in Killybegs.
From that reluctant starting point to his role in Lille represents an exceptional sporting journey. And although he has been linked to super clubs, particularly Manchester United, there is a sense that Everton’s scale suits him.
“Séamie has a grá towards the club,” says Boyle. “He loves the city because he can go around and nobody bothers him. And he comes home to Killybegs and he’d call up to our house or any of the houses and throws on the kettle. It’s not that there is no big fuss made but it is very natural. And I was saying in the Democrat that if he ever got beyond himself he has a few friends who would take him down very quickly. He will come and train with the GAA side and I’ve no doubt whether he goes on to play for United or Chelsea or PSG it will not matter to him. He will still be the same.”
The Italy game wasn’t a minute old when Coleman elected to scythe through Mattia De Sciglio in an attempt to get a ball which was out of his radar. The Italian defender collapsed in indignation. Coleman signalled his apologies to the referee and got away with it. But the tackle transmitted a message throughout the stadium.
“Very good. Very, very, very good,” murmured Roy Keane approvingly on Friday afternoon shortly before the team departed for Lyon. “I can’t speak highly enough of Séamus Coleman. A good player. No, a top player. Great lad around the place and he’s got a nice way about him. And when he was captain the other night you just knew he wouldn’t let us down. He leads in a different way; different captains bring different stuff to the party. But he leads by example and we’re lucky to have him. We’re lucky to have him. I know he’s at a good club like Everton, but Séamus Coleman could play for any of the real big teams. He could do that with his eyes shut.”
In a parallel universe, Coleman would be heading to Clones this afternoon for a Saturday night encounter with Monaghan in the Ulster championship. Michael Murphy, a year before the Killybegs man at Donegal underage level, has spoken many times of Coleman’s razor sharp attacking instincts as a ball-playing central defender. Gaelic game’s loss has been Irish soccer’s gain.
Funny, when James McCarthy cleared a ball from the Irish penalty with a brave, decisive header, Coleman was in his face, praising him, clapping him, screaming for more.
“Well, him and James McCarthy are big buddies,” says Boyle. “McCarthy would be of that ilk too: playing with men at 16. But he is a natural leader in that he leads from the front. He has been like that always.”
Whether he wears the armband on Sunday remains to be seen. But on a night of many splendid stories in Lille, the emergence of Coleman as a leader of the team was among the brightest.
“I don’t think the armband gave him the opportunity to say ‘well I’m going to try and play better’,” says Keane. “Just the way he approached the game in the dressingroom. He did the media the other night and he’s a relaxed kid, a really nice kid, I’m sure you’ve all spoken to him and he’s certainly not on an ego trip. You’re not supposed to be on an ego trip when you’re captain. Strangely enough, I’m not sure what went on in the huddle but apparently he said some pretty good stuff which is good to hear.”
It was close to midnight on Wednesday by the time the players emerged from the dressingroom. When Coleman stopped to talk with Thomas Kane of BBC Sport, he was caught unawares when he was asked what he reckoned they would make of this night in Donegal. You could hear the emotion in his voice as he spoke.
“Dunno. Look, I said earlier Donegal is my county and I’m so proud of it. Killybegs, where I’m from, the people back home: I can’t explain how supportive they have been of me since I have qualified for this tournament and wherever I go I know I am representing Killybegs. And my family back home watching I want to do them proud. And all them runs that my dad did with me back and over to Sligo are certainly paying off now.”