From Killybegs to Saint-Denis: charting Seamus Coleman's rise to the top

In the second of a three-part series, we track the Everton defender’s rise from humble beginnings at St Catherine’s in Donegal.
Seamus Coleman has bounced back from the disappointment at not making the Euro 2012 squad.
Seamus Coleman has bounced back from the disappointment at not making the Euro 2012 squad.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

THE NIGHT IRELAND opened their Euro 2012 campaign against Croatia in Poznan, Seamus Coleman wondered what might have been.

Carrying a sense of disappointment having not made Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad for the finals, there he stood at Fawlty’s Bar in Killybegs.

He was wearing an Ireland away shirt – the same jersey he had worn on his debut in the Carling Cup against Wales some 16 months beforehand – supping Lucozade as he cheered on the Boys in Green in that ill-fated campaign.

“To this day he has never said a bad word about Trapattoni,” says Jason Byrne, a sports journalist and Coleman’s friend from Killybegs.

“We thought he should’ve been there but Seamie just said he learned a lot from Trap and used that disappointment to spur him on.”

A unashamed homebird, Coleman frequently says his favourite weekend of the year is when the Premier League draws to a close with Everton and he packs the car in Liverpool for the trip back to Killybegs.

At the family home in Cummins Hill, it’s not unusual for the doorbell to ring at dusk on those summer evenings with a crowd of youngsters asking would Seamie mind a quick kickabout before hometime.

In such cases, they’ve always been obliged with the mammies and daddies willing to forgo calls for bedtime.

The thought of travelling to Poland with his friends in Killybegs – Byrne, Barry Cannon, Slua Boyle, Stephen Leslie and Ryan Rooney – had whisked across the mind of Coleman in 2012.

“Seamie did think about joining us but he might’ve been as well off not heading away for 12 days in a camper van!” Cannon, a wind turbine technician, says.

Barry Cannon and Seamus Coleman at Emerald Park in Killybegs last month Barry Cannon and Seamus Coleman and Emerald Park, the home of St Catherine's FC, last month Source: Barry Cannon

With their tricolour ‘Boys of Killybegs’ draped on the back of that camper, it made its way from Paris to Berlin, to Poznan and Gdansk and then back again.

“We booked on the assumption that Seamie would be picked,” Cannon adds. “But he wasn’t and at the time it was a pity. This time, though, he’s there on merit and nobody can say otherwise.”

Coleman is a cast-iron cert to be right-back when Martin O’Neill names his team to face Sweden at the Stade de France on Monday.

For Euro 2016, the travel plans are a little more fragmented. Another right-back from Killybegs – Shaun Kelly of Limerick FC – is getting married in Donegal town on Friday, June 17.

And with Ireland taking on Belgium in the early kick-off the following afternoon in Bordeaux, it means the Killybegs crew are either taking in the opener against Sweden or the final fixture against Italy in Lille.

“There’s great excitement in Killybegs and I’m lucky enough to be travelling to Paris on Saturday,” Cannon adds. “Poland was a bit like a stag party but this time I feel it’s more about the football.”

Leicester City’s success sprinkled some romanticism back into football but Coleman’s path from Donegal League to Premier League is more a fairytale from a far-off age.

It seemed for many years that Coleman’s calling would be in Gaelic games.

Manus Boyle scored nine points for Donegal when they shocked Dublin to win the 1992 All-Ireland and Barry McGowan was the county’s most stylish defender then. Both were still lining out for Killybegs when a scrawny 16-year-old Coleman joined them.

Manus Boyle 1992 1992 Donegal All-Ireland winner Manus Boyle Source: INPHO

“I first recall him playing in the Jamesie Boyle Parish League in Killybegs,” Manus Boyle says. “Seamie was about 11 and the jersey was three of four times too big for him. But he was relentless. Up and down. When you spoke to him he listened. Always listened.

“By the time he was 16 he was playing senior championship against Gweedore. We started him at wing-back but he was soon running the game from No 6. He was brilliant.”

Donegal skipper Michael Murphy, who will lead his team into the white-hot atmosphere of the Ulster SFC on Sunday against Fermanagh, recounts a similar tale.

Seamus Coleman, Michael Murphy, Damien Delaney and James McCarthy in Portmarnock Strand in 2013. Source: Alan Foley

“One day we, Glenswilly, came up against Killybegs in an U-15B league semi-final,” he said in 2013. “It will always stick in my head. Seamie was centre-back and I was centre-forward.

“It was at a time before centre-backs would be so forward-thinking but he had me on the back foot the whole time. We got hammered. I was thinking the whole time that I was the forward here and he was the defender.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve made it with Donegal and would’ve been a star of Gaelic football.”

Killybegs GAA club and the local soccer club, St Catherine’s FC, share a peaceful co-existence with such a crossover of players between the codes. Coleman, like many of his friends, played both.

St Catherine's 2004 A St Catherine's side at the club's seven-a-side competition at Emerald Park in 2004. Seamus Coleman is back left and Brian Dorrian front left Source: St Catherine's

In January 2006, with St Catherine’s top of the Donegal League Premier Division, their manager Brian Dorrian was cajoled into a friendly against Sligo Rovers.

“Sean Connor, the Sligo manager, was living in Donegal at the time and he had met Frankie Murrin – who was involved with St Catherine’s – asking for a friendly,” says Dorrian.

“We had a must-win game on the Sunday so I was stuck between a rock and a hard place but getting the chance to play a League of Ireland team was too good an opportunity.”

In the 45 minutes he played at centre-half, after which Sligo led 1-0, Coleman had shown enough against Sean Flannery and Paul McTiernan to earn an approach from Connor.

A substituted Coleman – with the Donegal League fixture in mind the day afterwards – watched on in the second half as Sligo made their fitness tell and ran out 5-0 victors.

Finn Harps had already expressed an interest and Coleman was a county minor alongside Murphy, Martin McElhinney, Leo McLoone and Declan Walsh.

Dorrian adds: “He was tenacious and always played a couple of years ahead of his age. That made him look small but he could handle himself. I’d him in the St Catherine’s first team at 16. Flannery and McTiernan had helped Sligo to the Premier Division of the League of Ireland and this young lad from Killybegs barely gave them a kick.”

St Catherine’s went onto win the Donegal League and once the Leaving Cert was completed that summer, Coleman signed for Sligo. The rest – as they say – is history.

“Had he stayed playing Gaelic football he’d have won the All-Ireland in 2012,” Manus Boyle adds. “Nobody here held it against him, the fact he was going to play soccer. Once he got that break he made sure he was going to make the most of it.”

“If injuries are kind to him he will still play for Donegal some day. That’s something that’s on his bucket list.”

Seamie Coleman of Killybegs soars over Seamus Corcoran and Cathal Ellis of Naomh Conaill, Glenties, in the 2006 Donegal U-21 football championship. Photo courtesy of the Donegal Democrat Seamus Coleman in action in the 2006 Donegal U21 football championship Source: Donegal Democrat

Boyle will “wait on the text to go around” before deciding where he’ll watch Ireland play Sweden. The Bay View Hotel, run by Coleman’s father Henry – who will be in France – is certainly an option, as is St Catherine’s sponsor, the Fleet Inn.

Dorrian, who now helps coach at Sligo Rovers and manages the Under-19 side at the Showgrounds, is content “with the peace” of watching on television at home in Roshine with his children, Matthew and Zara.

Byrne and Slua Boyle, David and John Conwell, Christopher Murrin, Damien Leslie, Sean Dowds and Ryan McNelis will be in Lille when Ireland face Italy. No camper van this time, although there’s a new flag with the same inscription as 2012: ‘Boys of Killybegs’.

Jason Byrne, Ryan Rooney, Barry Cannon, Slua Boyle and Stepen Leslie at the Olympiastadion, Berlin, in 2012 (1) Jason Byrne, Ryan Rooney, Barry Cannon, Slua Boyle and Stephen Leslie in 2012

“The hope is that we have some sort of a chance when going into that game of making the last 16,” Byrne says.

“For Seamie, he made it late as a professional footballer and had to learn things and learn them fast. He’s an inspiration to the youngsters in Killybegs and every second child has an Everton jersey with ‘Coleman 23’ on the back. He brings a great sense of pride to Killybegs.”

Cannon says: “Last weekend he was home and did what he always does – he went down to Fintra to support the Killybegs GAA team. He was home last month and we went to St Catherine’s pitch at Emerald Park for a kickabout. He’s just a normal guy – the same as any other you’d meet walking down the town.”

Dorrian adds: “How often is a town like Killybegs going to have a local playing in the Euros? It’s massive for the town, Donegal and indeed the north-west. I was in Sligo the last day and met lads who just booked it on a whim and they’re as proud of Seamie as we are.”

“He’s a role model but doesn’t try to be one,” Manus Boyle says. “He’s a role model being the same fella he always was – a nice lad from a nice family who remembers who he is and where he is from.”

Alan Foley

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