In the autumn of 1990, just seven years after guiding Derry to an All Ireland Minor title, Eamonn Coleman was parachuted in from a footballing exile in London to help bring the Derry seniors back into the realm of respectability. Barely three years since his native county had won the Ulster SFC crown, in 1987, it was deemed that someone was required to “improve the state of Derry football”. Coleman was to be the man to do it.
And so it began. Nobody really saw it coming, but Ulster football was on the cusp of its most successful period and Derry would be carried on the crest of its wave.
** For more content like this and to receive our Monday morning UnTitled GAA Newsletter direct to your inbox: CLICK HERE
Maria McCourt’s new book, profiling those Oak Leaf glory days – that culminated in an All Ireland SFC win in 1993, as the title of the book reminds us – is written in the words of her uncle and All Ireland winning manager, Coleman. Perhaps there can never be a definitive version of Derry’s success in that period, such are the different facets that make up the story – players, fans, officials and management – but coming eleven years after Coleman’s untimely passing in 2007, this account is an unexpected delight, ostensibly because it is told by the man himself. And you can hear him in every sentence.
The book takes the form of a chronological retelling of those memorable days of the early 90’s. From county board officials offering the genial Ballymaguigan man the manager role, through the joy and despair of 1992. As expected, the centrepiece is the 1993 Championship itself, before delving into the murky waters of ’94. Those of a certain vintage will be well familiar with the stories by now, but it’s the insight that accompanies them that adds a real layer of depth to The Boys of ’93. Getting trash-talked by Donegal fans during the Armagh/Donegal replay in 1993; the lack of a pitch inspection ahead of a clearly waterlogged Ulster final; the homecoming bus not making it through the Oldtown in Cookstown. And earlier tales, like Coleman breaking Fr Seamus Shield’s (Derry’s victorious 1968 Under 21 manager) ankle, and his childhood in Ballymaguigan.
It is a lively, entertaining read, but those minute levels of detail, told in that characteristic voice – a distinctive hybrid of South Derry and Loughshore – gives the book its flourish.
Eamonn Coleman’s strong characteristics come through also. One of these was his pragmatism; exemplified by his ability to manage the different personalities within the squad. He’s famously remembered as a player’s man, but didn’t shirk the difficult decisions. Whether it was dropping a player before the biggest games, or a risky half-time substitution, or merely telling a committee member (a “jumped up little nothing”, if you will) where to go. Coleman was able to make the correct calls, to achieve the specific goals at hand. He said himself: “you need to be a psychologist to be a good manager“, but that was just one of the roles he played with success.
One of the book’s recurring themes is that “the players is the men”, but speaking at last week’s launch of The Boys of ‘93 in Belfast, Coleman’s captain, Henry Downey, claimed that Eamonn was harsh on himself to believe that it was all down to the footballers themselves. Downey said that Coleman as manager was “the driving force behind everything they did, the architect of Derry’s success.”
…”Mr Derry Football himself” (Downey’s famous moniker still has the potential to send Oak Leaf fans into goosebump territory).
Reading The Boys of ‘93 it seems unlikely – borderline absurd – that anyone other than Coleman could have guided the Oak Leafers to the promised land. In Derry, we barely even knew that promised land existed. Yet Coleman had a plan to take us there.
Downey also conceded that whilst this was a book he wanted to read, it was also a book he was “dreading to read”. Most of that dread probably centres on the retelling of Coleman’s sacking in 1994, less than a year from the 1993 triumph. It is the most controversial section of the book. His words are strong and delivered with the clarity of one who still felt the pain – over a decade later – at what was a truly scandalous decision from a group of men more interested in preserving their own power, than the new power their county had attained at a national footballing level.
It was personal and Coleman knew it: “If I failed as a manager then sack me for failing as a manager; I’m a big boy, I could’ve handled that. But after forty-seven games in charge, forty-two wins, a National League title and the county’s first ever All Ireland, they couldn’t say that. What the county board had done was just spiteful.”
Joe Brolly – who was corner-forward in 1993 – also spoke at last week’s launch. He still speaks with passion about Coleman’s removal as manager, describing it as “deliberate treachery”. He singles out the chapter in the book, told by Eamonn’s son Gary, who also won an All Ireland medal in ’93, as a “blistering account, set out very, very vividly” of his father’s betrayal. And if anyone believes that this retelling may have a touch of revisionism about it, Brolly was at pains to assure readers that it is “a very faithful – in every way – recreation of the civil war”.
Gary Coleman’s words are indeed stinging, but he was someone who was affected by the whole sorry affair more than any other individual. Described by Brolly as the “bête noire” in all of this, his narrative expresses the reality of the horrible situation that had enveloped Derry football, just as its golden generation was hitting its peak.
Perhaps it still leaves a bitter taste for the reader, just as events did for Derry fans 24 years ago. However, the enduring legacy of this colourful tale is Eamonn Coleman’s ingenuity, and perception as a football manager. His understanding of what it took to bring a group of Derry footballers together and lead them to the greatest prize. (Nobody has come close to repeating the feat, except for Coleman himself in 2001. That is no coincidence.)
In the crafting of this unique book, Maria McCourt has skilfully achieved her aim of bringing Coleman’s words to life. The tone, the mischief, the humour; it’s all in there. His personality leaps off the pages. Eleven years after his passing, that is what makes this publication such an important chronicle of the most important era in Derry football… because it is told by Eamonn Coleman.
Our greatest ever manager, telling us once again how he did it. With the best Derry players that ever was.