Seamus Coleman believes his background in Gaelic football has put him in good stead for life in the Premier League with Everton.
The 23-year-old tasted success with underage Donegal teams and well as his club side Killybegs before opting to pursue a career in soccer when former Sligo Rovers manager Sean Connor saw enough of the St Catherine’s defender to offer him a contract in the League of Ireland. Five years ago tomorrow Coleman made his first team bow as a late substitute in a 5-0 FAI Cup replay loss at Derry City’s hands before joining the Merseyside giants just over two years later after a couple of excellent seasons at the Showgrounds.
Had fate decreed otherwise, Coleman might well have played before the 81,436 supporters who descended on Croke Park in August for Donegal’s All-Ireland semi-final against the eventual champions, Dublin. He was a recognisable face in the crowd instead, able to attend as he recovered from an ankle ligament injury.
“Gaelic was always my No1,” Coleman told The Guardian. “I played bits and pieces of soccer but I didn’t have a serious commitment to it. Gaelic was my chosen sport but when I was 18 I was offered a chance with Sligo and €150 a week. I thought I should at least give it a go because I could always go back to Gaelic if it didn’t work out. That was the plan anyway, but I haven’t looked back since, to be honest. It’s been unbelievable.
“I’d played Gaelic all my life and I loved it. I was on the county teams and we’d been quite successful. It was a tough decision to leave it behind. I didn’t want to leave a team that had all my mates in it. I still follow Donegal and Killybegs and keep in touch with the lads there. I’ll go whenever I can. I was playing Gaelic every week for my home town and we were winning, so it was difficult to move away from all that but, at the same time, I’d wanted to play in the Premier League in England since I was a boy.”
Coleman’s first appearance for Everton was one he has since put down to experience. Two years ago, the right-back was thrown in on the opposite flank at Benfica’s Stadium of Light, with the striking talents of Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Oscar Cardozo and, particularly that night in Lisbon, Angel di María. And similarly to the Bradywell on his Sligo bow, Coleman’s debut was a demoralising 5-0 loss.
Redemption came in early December at Goodison Park when Coleman was flung from the bench in the first half to play significant roles in the lead-up to goals from Louis Saha and Tim Cahill as Everton came from two down to force a home point against Tottenham Hotspur. The strength, energy and honesty he brought to Everton’s right wing that night, which secured a regular first-team role the following season, was born of his own education.
“I think some of my Gaelic experience has been useful here,” he says. “It’s a harder game for a start. If you get pushed you get straight back up. You don’t roll around looking at the referee for a free-kick and you wouldn’t get one if you did in Gaelic. It’s a fight – nothing too serious, but it is pure determination and I think I brought that with me here. I just had to play soccer the way I played Gaelic and thankfully it worked out.”
After a successful loan at Blackpool where Coleman played a significant role in the club’s dramatic promotion via the play-off finals, there was a repositioning on his return to Goodison. Last September at Craven Cottage, Everton manager David Moyes opted to push Coleman on from right-back to the wing and by the time the tills were totted at the end of the campaign, the Killybegs native was named the club’s young player of the year, scoring five goals and obtaining four international senior caps. He’ll be making the trip to Tallinn next month for the crucial Euro 2012 play-off, having been named in Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad on Friday.
This season, Coleman’s steady rise on the progress chart was stunted before it got a chance to develop. In a pre-season fixture against La Liga side Villarreal, Coleman was the victim of a horrendous challenge from Carlos Marchena. The ligament damage wasn’t as bad as initially feared but it meant a lay-off of four weeks but Coleman, in his own innocent way, made his way back to fitness and set up Saha’s leveller against Chelsea in the Carling Cup on Wednesday before starting against Manchester United on Saturday. He’s still living the dream.
“I got injured at the wrong time and came back quicker than I was expecting,” he adds. “I played a few games and I think I could have done better in them but it’s a long season,” he says. “This season has been harder. Teams know more about you in your second season and you have to adapt. The manager has spoken to me a few times about what I need to do and what I can add to my game. Last season was fantastic for me and I need to build on that now.
“I do find it hard to believe where I am. I’d never say no to a photo or an autograph because a couple of years ago I was the one asking. You will never hear anyone in the changing room complaining about the club’s finances. We are at Everton to do a job. We’ve got great supporters who are fully behind us and, let’s be honest, we are spoilt rotten. The facilities are fantastic, the kitchen staff, everyone, is so friendly and I just love the place. I will never take it for granted, that’s for sure.”