By Shaun Casey
BENNY Coulter was the ultimate wonderkid. From an early age he was destined for stardom. Just type his name in to YouTube and you’ll be bombarded with a series of career highlights that many of the all-time greats would be proud of.
You’ll soon come across the one of a youthful Coulter rippling the net for Mayobridge in a u-16 county final. Wearing the number nine shirt, Coulter reaches into the air and lands with possession having fielded his side’s own kick-out.
Before he hits the ground, Coulter swivels his body and off he goes, chasing down the centre of the opposition’s defence. The future All-Star carries the ball the length of the field, soloing with his right foot, evading tackles and out-pacing anyone within touching distance.
He pulls the trigger, with his left foot, firing an arrow of a shot to the top corner of the net, leaving the helpless ’keeper rooted to the ground before wheeling away in celebration. The ultimate wonderkid.
Now, he oversees the next crop of talented youngsters emerging from the Mourne County as Down minor manager and he hopes to turn the fortunes of his native county and see them compete at underage level once again.
“I’m enjoying it,” said Coulter, who was the heartbeat of the Down team throughout his 15-year county career. “I’ve been working with the boys over the past two or three months and it’s been brilliant.
“They’re a great bunch of lads, obviously we had to trial them at the start and cut it down, that was tough, cutting boys and telling boys they didn’t make the cut, but I’m really enjoying it. Probably a big part of it is that we’re based in Newry, we’re based in the Abbey. We’ve got a base there and we’re there every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
“We need to do things right. I asked the question of the chairman and the secretary before I took the job, are the boys going to be looked after? We needed to get a base and they have given me everything that we need.
“Underage in Down over the last seven or eight years, it’s been very, very poor. It’s been a while since the Down minors won an Ulster Championship match, I think they maybe won a few qualifiers, but it hasn’t been good enough.
“We’re trying to change the culture; I’m trying to change it to make it appealing to play for Down. Thankfully, the boys have all bought into it.
“You hear of different clubs, Mayobridge, Burren, Kilcoo, but we’re all one, we’re Down. Everybody has put their name forward this year to play for Down and we have the best panel of players that are available playing for us.”
Coulter knows what it’s like at that age. He knows the pressure and expectation that comes with being a talented youngster coming through the ranks, and he knows how to handle it.
“You’ll definitely not be about my squad if you have a head about yourself or have an ego or you don’t put the work in. The boys know that from the start, I had them last year with the u-16s and they know the way I work.
“I’ll work with them, I’ll do all I can for them, I’ll do my best for them. But they know that when we go into that changing room, when we cross that white line, when we come into the setup, we’re all one and we’re all equal.
“That’s the way it has to be. If you get ahead of yourself or you think you’re going to make it, you’ll not make it. So, I’m just trying to keep the boys grounded. We have enough men there around us to help the boys. I didn’t find it difficult (at that age) because I ran about with lads, some that didn’t play football, they didn’t care so that kept me grounded.
“We were coming through a brilliant underage club system, so we had so many brilliant players that it was never about Benny Coulter, it was all about the team and all about the group coming through, not one individual player. I think that helps when you’re coming through a really good underage system.”
Coulter helped Down win the All-Ireland minor title in 1999, hitting the all-important goal in their 1-14 to 0-14 win over Mayo. One year later, he made his senior inter-county debut, coming on in Down’s six-point defeat to Antrim, having played the full minor game beforehand. But he wasn’t ready for the cut and thrust of senior football.
“We won the All-Ireland in ’99 and I was still a minor the following year, so I played against Antrim in the minor game and then came on at half time in the senior game in the one day. I wasn’t ready for it; I was 17 but I wasn’t ready for it. You only think you’re ready, but I wasn’t physically developed.
“We got maybe four or five through from that minor team but that was the time when Down’s established players were finishing up. Ross Carr, James McCartan, Gregory McCartan was coming to the end, Mickey Linden.
“Barry Breen had retired, so had DJ Kane, all those boys had gone and Down were going through a transition period and I suppose we were stepping in and expecting to lead the team but it doesn’t happen like that and that’s why we were poor for so many years.”
One of the ‘90s greats that was still around was Coulter’s Mayobridge colleague Linden, and he took the youngster under his wing.
“Mickey was a clubmate of my own so that definitely eased the process (of entering the Down squad at a young age).
“You were coming into the changing room with Mickey and he was the main man so it was fine that way. If I hadn’t have had Mickey at that time it might have been a wee bit tougher, but it was grand because he was there. He was a massive influence on me with the club and the county and to this day he still is.”
Linden was still part of the panel in 2003 when Down reached the Ulster final for the first time in four years. The 1994 Footballer of the Year came on for the last five minutes as Down surrendered a nine-point lead to draw with Tyrone, in a game when Coulter hit 1-1.
Down should have won, and the fact they didn’t get over the line still nags at Coulter. “Looking back now it was the one that got away,” remembered Coulter, who won three International Rules series with Ireland.
“At the time we thought we’d have got back to more Ulster finals and maybe win one or two, but we were nine points up and cruising and ended up drawing that game.
“They got a penalty that they shouldn’t have, but these things happen. That’s one we should have won and if we had, we probably would have won another couple, but it wasn’t to be and unfortunately for me, I went through my career without winning anything at senior level.
“We got to an All-Ireland final, won an All-Ireland Minor, and we got to a couple of Ulster finals but no silverware. Being so young in 2003, I thought we’d be back again, but it doesn’t work like that.”
It was a career filled with disappointment. Coulter was part of the only Down team to ever lose an All-Ireland final in 2010. They returned to the provincial decider in 2012 but came up against Jim McGuinness’ all-conquering Donegal. Even at club level, Coulter had no luck on the big days.
“We didn’t get back to another (Ulster) final until 2012 and Donegal beat us. It goes by very fast, and you have to take your chances when you get them. In the early stage of my career, 2003 was a big chance for us, it was even the same with my club.
“After winning our second championship we got to an Ulster final against Ballinderry (2001), and we should have beaten them. They went on to win the All-Ireland and we were beat in another Ulster final (2004 by Crossmaglen), but that first time against Ballinderry was a big opportunity for us to win it.
“That still hurts. The Ballinderry defeat still hurts, that Tyrone defeat hurts, the Cork All-Ireland final defeat hurts. The longer it goes on the harder it is and the worse it gets; it definitely doesn’t get any easier.
“When you’re playing you always have next year, and you’ll always try to get back to that stage but now you can’t. The only thing you can try to do now is to manage teams and try to be successful and try and make this Down minor team successful.”
Although it all ended in heartache, everything clicked in 2010. Down were on the crest of a wave, led by two-time All-Ireland winner James McCartan. The prodigal son Marty Clarke had returned from Australia and Down were ready to make an impact.
“You had Paddy Tally there, you had Brian McIver, Jerome Johnston, the Abbey had opened their new school and we were based in there,” recalled Coulter. “Everything really fell into place that year and we went on such a good run, we had no injuries, we had all our best players playing.
“The likes of Paul McComiskey, an unsung hero, Kalum King came into it that year and got himself very fit. We had boys coming in off the bench, Ronan Sexton and Ronan Murtagh, everything just worked really well for us that year.
“Marty [Clarke] was a brilliant player, so fit, he probably wasn’t the fastest in the world but such a player, he was phenomenally fit. We would jump on the treadmill, and he would wipe boys out no bother.
“Danny (Hughes) would have been our fittest player, but Marty just blew him out of the water. He made such a positive impact on the team that year and he was such a good lad, even socially, he was one of the boys and gelled in with us really well.
“Marty’s a lot younger than me. Me and John (Marty’s brother) would be big mates, but Marty just fitted in so easily. Even now, he’s gone back in with Conor (Laverty) and he’s doing great work with the Down lads.
“That was an unbelievable summer,” added Coulter. “We were so good that year, we’d no injuries, we had Marty back, everybody was going well, and we were flying. We had a good first round win and then Tyrone beat us in the semi-final of the Ulster Championship.
“We played well that day but then we regrouped, and we went again in the qualifiers, we took it really seriously. It was week on week on week, matches, matches, matches and we played some great stuff that summer.”
During that qualifier run, Down unconvincingly sneaked past the challenges of Longford, Offaly before hammering Sligo to reach Croke Park and the last eight of the All-Ireland series. All-Ireland champions Kerry lay in wait, but Down had the upper hand.
History was on their side. For as long as football has existed, Kerry have never beaten Down in the championship. Coulter and co. weren’t going to loosen Down’s grip over the game’s kingpins.
“We were buzzing for that game because we all looked up to Kerry, but we never got the opportunity to play them. So, we were going into that game playing Kerry, thinking it was unbelievable.
“Kerry were probably a bit nervous playing Down, we were a Division Two team and there is the history that Kerry have never beaten us in the championship, so the pressure was all on them.
“It was just a dream to play Kerry and we one hundred per cent knew that we would beat them that day. They were missing a couple of key players and we were going well and they weren’t playing as well.
“We were in the driving seat, and everything was favouring us. We had a game the week before, playing well and we’d hammered Sligo while they had a couple of weeks wait. Tomás Ó Sé and (Paul) Galvin were missing and we ended up winning the game handily enough.”
Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare were next in the firing line and 1-2 from top scorer Coulter, including a square ball goal, set Down up for a date with destiny in the All-Ireland final.
“It was a tough opening ten minutes for me, I was marking Emmet Bolton and he was bombing up the field and I didn’t know whether to stick with him or not. But then I got the goal and the game changed for the better for us.
“It was a great game and a great occasion. It was a great summer because even after the games, we’d have all went into Newry and enjoyed ourselves with a few pints and stuff and that makes it, going out and enjoying it with the boys and having a bit of craic.
“It was a square ball, but I think goalkeepers get far too much protection anyway, there shouldn’t be a square all. You’re not allowed to touch them anyway so whether you’re in the square or not, you can’t touch them.”
Heartache was just around the corner though. Despite their best efforts, Down didn’t have enough to get past a Cork side that edged their thrilling encounter with one point to spare.
Looking back, there were changes Down could have made that may have altered the result.
“The build-up was phenomenal; it was a brilliant build up. I think we had three weeks between the semi-final and the final and the county was absolutely buzzing. We were training hard, but you just couldn’t get away from it.
“I live just outside Newry and Newry was buzzing, everywhere was buzzing so it was unfortunate that we just couldn’t get over the line.
“It was tough that we didn’t get over the line. We did think we would beat them but obviously they had a bit more power in the middle and we lost Ambrose Rodgers to a cruciate knee injury.
“He would have been our midfielder and Peter Fitzpatrick would have been coming on, but Pete had to start then and we had no key players to come off the bench to play in that midfield area. In hindsight maybe we could have moved big Dan (Gordon) out and put somebody else in at full-back.”
It’s all ifs buts and maybes at this stage, but Coulter’s year did end in glory. He picked up a hard-earned and well-deserved All-Star award but for a winner like Coulter, personal accolades mean little when the ultimate goal passes you by.
“It didn’t mean overly that much to me because I was obviously really disappointed in not winning the All-Ireland.
“To tell you the truth the All-Star doesn’t mean that much to me, even now.
“Obviously, you’d rather win a cup or a trophy, I’d swap the All-Star for an Ulster title any day of the week. It means nothing to me because we didn’t win the All-Ireland. If we had of won the All-Ireland, it would have been brilliant. I don’t even know where it is to be honest.”
The time comes when the bright lights fade, and the music stops. That time came in November of 2014, when Coulter decided to step away from the inter-county scene. He didn’t hang up the boots for good, and still togs out when he can. But coaching and managing helps fill the void these days.
“There comes a time when you just can’t do it anymore. Boys get the better of you and even at club football, there’s boys in club football that get the better of you and you start to lose that appetite,” said Coulter, who also manages Mourne club Rostrevor.
“I’m still playing away a bit at reserve level and play a bit of soccer but even now I’m losing the appetite for the Gaelic because it’s too hard. At least there on a Saturday, I go out and play a bit of soccer, it’s easy but the Gaelic is too hard.
“I coached a bit with my club, the club minors and reserves and different teams like that. I probably did see myself going in to do a bit of coaching because I do very little else.
“It’s tough (transitioning from playing to coaching), you have to look after a group, obviously when you’re a player you just worry about yourself. You turn up and you train, and you don’t think about all the stuff that’s going on.
“The manager has to organise and sort everything out, but you surround yourself with good men, that certainly helps. It’s much easier playing.”
For now, Coulter is preparing his Down youngsters for their upcoming Ulster Championship campaign, and who better to lead the next generation of gems than the ultimate wonderkid himself.