Coulter says Down are 'in a great position' as they prepare for final
BENNY COULTER has suffered his bellyful of morbid bus journeys home from summer graveyards -- more than enough to make him savour the special opportunity that presents itself to his Down colleagues this weekend.
For the majority of inter-county footballers, All-Ireland senior finals are once-in-a-career moments -- if you're lucky. Throughout the past decade, Coulter must have feared that even 'once' would have stretched credulity.
Not any more, though, not after this remarkable and unexpected run to the third Sunday in September.
And guess what? Coulter, a naturally effusive type, is relishing every minute of it. Not for him the tortuous countdown to match-day: he can handle the distractions, the hype, the endless debate that all leads up to those defining 70 minutes against Cork in Croke Park.
"You have to embrace these things," he maintains. "They don't come along too often, and there are certain players who wouldn't enjoy the number of weeks leading up to the All-Ireland but, as I say, we're in a great position. And why not enjoy it, and speak to reporters and speak to whoever wants to speak to you?
"You can also focus on the game -- your training sessions in the weeks leading up to the game, they're the times to focus in on the match. And outside of that, I think you have to enjoy the banter with the supporters and obviously talk to the press also because, at the end of the day, if there was no press coverage, there'd be a crying match. So I think it's all part of the game, and it's all part of being in an All-Ireland final."
Let's repeat that again. All-Ireland final.
Coulter has played in one before -- he scored 1-2 from midfield in helping Down overcome Mayo in the 1999 minor decider -- and this prompted his immediate graduation to the senior ranks under Pete McGrath.
But if he thought big days out in Croker were set to become a recurring theme of the noughties, the young Coulter was soon disabused of such delusions.
McGrath's lengthy and initially trophy-laden tenure ended in grim qualifier defeat to Longford. For 2002 Pearse Park you can read 2006 Markievicz Park, where Paddy O'Rourke's four-year spell came to a shuddering halt, losing to Sligo by 1-7 to a paltry 0-4.
And for '06 Markievicz you can swap '09 Aughrim, where Ross Carr and DJ Kane saw their team squeezed out by Wicklow courtesy of a last-gasp Tony Hannon '45' -- cue the end of the road for Carr too.
Ergo, Coulter's first decade with Down spanned three different managers whose reigns ended in three provincial outposts, humbled by counties who can only dream of Down's storied All-Ireland pedigree.
"Last year in Wicklow was a disastrous defeat, and again it was the same old story with Down football -- we didn't even look like getting to the latter stages of the All-Ireland," Coulter reflects.
"We just didn't seem to have the team, the players, anything ... we didn't have the belief that we could actually get to the latter stages, never mind winning All-Irelands."
For Benny, still only 28 but a veteran all the same, that Wicklow defeat and the earlier Sligo debacle were two obvious low points. "There just didn't seem any light at the end of the tunnel for us," he says, recalling last summer's trip home from Aughrim as "pure devastation on the bus -- maybe not so much for the younger lads, but for the older boys, myself and Danny (Hughes) and Brendan (McVeigh)."
All of which makes Down's 14-month journey from there to here so surprising, almost surreal. How has it come to pass?
The two most immediately obvious answers are the arrival of a new manager and a prodigal playmaker back home from Australia -- namely James McCartan and Marty Clarke.
Coulter salutes the pivotal influence of both, but he also identifies a less celebrated component in Down's renaissance. "You can't emphasise how important Kalum King has been to this squad of players. He's massive for this team," says the Mayobridge clubman.
Previously, when Dan Gordon and Ambrose Rogers were manning centrefield, the pair's attacking instincts "probably left us open at the back," Coulter suggests. King may have an exotic background in cage-fighting but as a footballer he is "defensive-minded" and this, he says, has been crucial. The influence of McCartan can be measured in several different ways. On the field, he made an immediate impact: "We had a consistent run throughout the league, something we haven't had this last 10 or 11 years, not since I've been there," the long-serving forward explains.
Off the field, meanwhile, he describes a manager who brings the right blend of authority and good-old fashioned craic. "Sometimes he's just like one of the lads but, when he has to put the seriousness on, he does," Coulter explains.
As if to underline the above point, McCartan's quick wit was on display only minutes earlier at Down's All-Ireland press afternoon in Newry. Coulter had been asked, at the top table, did he sometimes wonder if he'd ever get to an All-Ireland final? Before he had time to answer, his adjacent boss was already proffering a tissue.
Maybe this explains the relaxed demeanour in the Down camp as D-Day approaches. "The way they've reacted since the semi-final has been unreal. I just can't believe how calm lads have been, how calm the training sessions have been ... it's probably that James rubs off on us. But I'm 100pc confident none of those lads will freeze," he insists.
Prior to this summer, Coulter had only played one senior championship game in Croke Park -- another morale-sapping qualifier defeat, to Wexford in 2008. This summer, though, once Down regrouped and got their heads sorted after their Ulster semi-final fadeout against Tyrone, the graph has kept going upwards.
Previous 'back door' debacles were avenged -- against Longford, not without some difficulty, and latterly Sligo, with a 19-point flourish.
But the game that truly transformed Down's summer came against All-Ireland holders Kerry in Croker: Coulter landed three points in a thrilling six-point ambush.
Deputising as skipper for the injured Rogers, he was even better in the semi-final, scoring 1-2 while stretching the Kildare full-back line to breaking point.
The dubious merits of Coulter's fisted goal have been debated ad nauseam: suffice to say, the man himself could hardly do an 'Arsene Wenger' on it. "I didn't know at that time that I was inside the square, because I was backing in and just looking at the ball," he relates. "Then I did see the replay, and I couldn't believe how far I was in the square ... I was nearly on the line."
Then again, he has long specialised in this pilfering art of the fisted goal, something he ascribes to pure instinct. "If it comes in high, I'd like to think that I would outjump most of the boys in there -- and I was lucky enough the (Kildare) 'keeper was small enough and then your boy Emmet Bolton was small too, so I had a height advantage," he recalls.
But if you want a snapshot that really encapsulates this mercurial talent, press the rewind button to Coulter's outrageous point in first-half injury-time. First we had the short lofted pass to Peter Fitzpatrick. Then, having taken the return, Coulter shoots audaciously from the right wing, with the outside of his right boot.
"We try that at training!" he laughs. "Before training kicks off, to see who can get the best point -- but I don't usually come up trumps, Marty (Clarke) is usually the top of that. They can go anywhere, believe you me."
On Sunday, if they go sailing over, you'll just know that it's Benny's day. And probably Down's year too.