Donegal hurling focus ahead of the 2019 Allianz League campaign
Declan Coulter spent 12 seasons putting in the hard yards for Armagh but has swapped the Orchard county for Tir Chonaill and is now a key man for Donegal's hurlers. He spoke to Gerry McLaughlin about his hopes for the year ahead...
When Declan Coulter first met Ciara Cullen from Donegal back in 2006 it was the beginning of a pretty long goodbye to his native Armagh.
They met when both were representing their country at Shinty in Dublin.
And this was the start of the ex-Cuchulainn’s and Armagh star’s journey to eventually settle in the fertile field of the Finn Valley in east Donegal.
So, although love blossomed he did not line out for Tir Conaill until 2017, having lived for many years in Dublin.
The genial Coulter was just 17 when he made his debut for Armagh in 2005 and played until 2016 picking up two Nicky Rackard medals en route.
He was always deadly accurate from play and frees and he got his third Nicky Rackard medal with Donegal last year with a memorable exhibition in Croke Park.
That sealed a memorable year for the Killygordon Primary school teacher as he was a key figure in Donegal’s remarkable year in Divisi0n 2 B when they held their own and were only a whisker away from a possible League final appearance.
They also recorded notable victories over Derry and Down en route and are now looking forward to consolidating their position in this division as they face Kildare at home in the opening round of the NHL on Sunday January 27.
But Coulter also had a memorable achievement with Ciara’s club Setanta in 2017 as he was a key figure in their victory in Donegal and Ulster and reaching an All-Ireland JHC semi-final in early 2018.
His arrival has been one of the main reasons why Donegal hurlers have been making waves along with his very talented brother-in-law Danny Cullen, Davin Flynn (who is unable to commit this year), Lee Henderson, Ronan McDermott, Joe Boyle, and Ciaran Matthewson to name but a few.
Donegal hurling is currently at its zenith under charismatic manager Mickey McCann of Burt and Coulter is a key figure in that great revival.
These days, the 31-year-old is busy with a 10-week-old baby, building a house and preparing for the new season.
“I played with Armagh from I was 17 until I was 29 and won two Rackard Cups and we had some great players,'' he said.
“I met up with Ciara when I was on the men’s Shinty team and she was on the women’s Shinty team and the rest is history.
“I moved to live in Donegal in 2015 but did not start playing for the county until 2017.
“I was in Dublin from 2011 to 2015 and teaching in Dromore Primary School since then.”
When asked about the difference between Armagh and Donegal hurling, Coulter says the transition was pretty seamless:
“It was like moving from one hurling stronghold to another.
“Setanta is a hurling club on my doorstep and Ciara’s family, the Cullens, have been steeped in the club for generations.
“That’s a big difference from being in the car for three hours.
“There are no real weaker counties any more, only counties with less of a pick as every county prepares really well.”
Coulter recalls 2017 as being an eventual disappointment after winning the NHL and beating Armagh in the first round of the Ulster championship but then inexplicable falling to Tyrone.
“But 2018 was a role reversal as we took the Nicky Rackard Cup and beat Derry, Down and Armagh in the NHL and went close to getting to a NHL final.'' he said.
“We were only kept out of it on score difference.
“We beat Derry, Down and Armagh and that last game was a tough one in the Athletic Grounds.
“The teams were evenly matched and whoever won stayed up and it felt a bit weird playing against all my old team mates.
“At one stage I was marking Ciaran Clifford and he is one of my best friends and we were laughing about it: 'How did we end up like this?'”
Warwickshire got a good start and were leading by 0-10 to 0-3 at one stage.
But Coulter and Donegal stormed back in the second half and hit 2-7 in the opening 20 minutes.
He hit the frees, but modestly said he was under no real pressure as regular free taker Lee Henderson was out injured.
This year Coulter and Donegal will be facing Kildare, Wicklow, Derry, Down and Warwickshire and will also be playing in the higher Christy Ring Cup grade.
“We will have five tough games and we will be hoping to pick up a few points to keep ourselves in that division,'' he added.
“Down and Derry will be very tough, and we have lost the element of surprise this year and Derry will have the Slaughtneil boys back this year.
“We hear they are going well and if Derry had all their hurlers out they would put it up to Antrim as that is the sort of real quality that is in the county.
“But we have a great back-room team in Mickey McCann and Gabriel O’Kane who have us geared to fear nobody.”
But Donegal’s recent success has given them great confidence to give it a real go this season.
Coulter has only just rejoined the squad a fortnight ago as he was carrying some damaged ankle ligaments.
But there were a number of factors to consider before coming back, with him also in the middle of building the house and the the arrival of the new baby: “I was in two minds at first, but I am happy to be back in harness.”
Donegal’s first opponents are Kildare who are coached by David Herity.
“We watched Kildare in last year’s Christy Ring Cup final and they were on just before us in Croke Park;'' said Coulter.
“They;re in a good position and have had a few Kilkenny lads in there as well.
“We got a good look at them and one thing we picked up on was the way they tend to go for goals once they get inside.
“Goal is always the first option and a point was a bit of a bonus.
“And that is something we will be aiming at this year.”
One thing is certain - Declan Coulter will be right at the heart of the Donegal scoring engine - it’s something he has been doing since he was 17.
Donegal are going in with a lot of confidence after their great run in last year’s League and then taking the Nicky Rackard Cup.
Last year was the most successful in the history of the county and the challenge will be to replicate of even surpass that intensity and desire.
But there are three looming challenges tempering the optimism.
The first is they will not have quite the same element of surprise which saw them dispose of Derry, Down and Armagh last year.
Secondly, they will be facing a rejuvenated Derry side who will have access to the multi-talented Slaughtneil players.
And, they will be minus the considerable skills of Tipperary native Davin Flynn.
David has domestic commitments as well as a job that takes him all over the country.
His scoring power, vision and steel will be badly missed.
But they have a very strong management team in Mickey McCann and Gabriel O’Kane who have instilled great belief in this squad.
Apart from Declan Coulter, they will be looking to Joe Boyle, Ronan McDermott, Enda McDermott, Christopher McDermott, Lee Henderson, Ciaran Matthewson, Sean McVeigh, Kevin Campbell and Niall Cleary to spur their efforts.
They also have younger stars like Bernard Lafferty who is growing in stature every year.
Add in a clutch of fine young players from St Eunan’s and Buncrana, who contested this year’s U-21 final to boost their efforts.
The hurling base in Donegal has widened considerably in recent years with senior clubs in St Eunan’s, Buncrana, Burt, Setanta and Sean MacCumhaill’s.
This has been good news for county selections.
But an even more significant factor has been Mickey McCann’s ability to dissolve the red hot rivalry between Burt and Setanta subsume it for the common good of the county.
2019 will be very challenging and they would need to have Davin Flynn back for the end of the League and the Nicky Rackard Cup.
Otherwise it is exciting times for hurling in Tir Conaill.
ONES TO WATCH
Bernard Lafferty from Setanta is a pocket rocket with loads of power and panache and has a great eye for goal.
He has been on the county side for a few years now but many experts feel that the best us yet to come from this talented Twin Towns native.
The McDermott’s are a blue blood hurling clan in Burt and young Caolan is from a right royal line.
The younger brother of Ronan McDermott has all the attributes, skill, size, speed, great hands, grit and superb vision.
It is only a matter of time before he is claiming a regular starting slot and making a real impression.
Conor O’Grady is one of the raft of emerging St Eunan’s stars that could force their way on to the county senior side.
O’Grady is a very clean striker of the sliothar, has great pace and is very cool under pressure and is definitely a fine prospect.
He is a key figure in a very youthful St Eunan’s side.
Meanwhile Ryan Hilferty is also a good prospect for the future and has certainly made his mark in Letterkenny.
Cormac Finn also shows promise while county senior footballer Nial O’Donnell is an elegant hurler, but is unfortunately unable to commit as a result.