GAA Football

Kyle Coney on famous neighbours, angry words and making the most of the last chance

Tyrone and Ardboe's Kyle Coney. Picture by Mal McCann

KYLE Coney was reared in Lakeview Cottages, a tiny cul-de-sac of eight terraced houses sitting fractured off the Mullanahoe Road in Ardboe.

The houses sit in a perfect square, four facing due west towards the main road, the others penning them in on the sides, and this big tarmacked square out in front.

Gavin Devlin was the star of the site.

There was always a skip there that Coney would kick off, and most days he'd walk up and knock on the Devlins' door to see if their youngest, Horse, would come out and kick with him.

Despite being ten years his visitor's senior, most days, he did.

When Devlin started setting off with Tyrone minors, Lakeview Cottages was where the Ardboe and Cookstown lads all congregated for collection and delivery.

Coney grew up fascinated by it. Everywhere he went, he took a football with him. Solo, kick, catch. It was his all day, every day.

Devlin became a hero to him. A friend. Then manager, team-mate and, now, coach.

These days, it's another star of club and county that he calls a neighbour, with only a fence separating him from Brian McGuigan.

There's rarely a day goes past without some form of conversation between the two.

It's on the former Allstar that Coney always modelled his own game.

While he rose to prominence as the 2008 All-Ireland winning minor team's sniper, he always felt happiest supplying the bullets like his fellow parishioner.

He'd watch the way McGuigan, rather than coming to meet it, would dance across the line to look for a ball, keeping himself and the team up the pitch. Coney loved that about him.

When Coney would draw back his left foot, there was always a picture forming in his mind. The pass, the shot, the dummy, whatever it was, he'd do it, and he'd know he could do it.

His talents were special.

In another era, his would have been the household name of this team.

If he was left 11-against-six as his predecessors were, with space and men in front of him to hit, there is no question that Kyle Coney's legacy would be very different.

But as it is, he's the first to admit that his Tyrone career has not gone to plan.

A child of the noughties, he marvelled at Tyrone's glorious technicolour pursuit of Sam Maguire.

In 2003, 2005 and 2008 he'd explode from the stands and go in search of his friends and clubmates before they were whisked inside the Garda cordon to claim the prize for which he'd come to lust for himself.

Tyrone have played in one All-Ireland final since 2008, and they did it when Kyle Coney was 27.

Approaching the peak of his footballing years, one of the most naturally gifted footballers the county has produced in the last decade watched the game in Clonoe Community Centre.

If Coney had been to a match between leaving the panel in 2015 and that final two-and-a-half years later, he can't remember it.

There was a pointed effort to stay away, to avoid the haggard men chirping in his ear about how much better he could be doing than what was out there.

He never even looked about a ticket for the final.

“I just couldn't put the face on me, not going to a match all year and then just turn up there. I wouldn't do that.

“Where would I go looking one? I wouldn't want to be texting one of the boys saying ‘can you get me a ticket there?' and I haven't looked one all year.

“I just sat back and watched it. Tyrone got off to a flier, I thought they had it, but things went pear-shaped then.

“I swear to God, that's the truth, I never dreamed about going.”

And yet he'd dreamed all his life about being.

Solo, catch, kick, all day, every day.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

SYDNEY Swans had been sniffing around and no sooner was Tom Markham's silver tray passed through the Moy than Kyle Coney was boarding the plane.

It's October 2008. He landed out and stayed with Tadhg Kennelly a few weeks before moving out into a small house with Brendan Murphy from Carlow, who was on the same excursion, and a local team-mate.

The whole romance lasted barely 12 weeks.

Things had gone well. The club were happy. He was happy. He wasn't even all that mad to get back home for Christmas, but the flight was part of his contract so he went on ahead.

He never went back.

Ardboe minors, under Gavin Devlin, had won the Tyrone grade one title and were playing in Ulster against Ballinderry from four mile down the road, but on the other side of the fierce Tyrone-Derry border.

Coney was their captain and once he played in that game, everything changed.

“I probably made a decision that was a bit rash. I made it in about 24 hours,” he says now.

“Tyrone were coming off an All-Ireland in 2008, beat in the semi-final by Cork in 2009, and I didn't know if I'd be part of that team or not but I thought I had a chance of playing.

“At 17, I'd never been away from home. I'd been on one family holiday to Spain, that was it. I was probably seeing the distance I was away, you didn't know when you'd see anybody next.”

It's only occasionally it crosses his mind and he wonders if there would have been fame and fortune in it for him.

“I'm not sure if I regret it. I think about it. People ask about it the odd time, whether you regret it and I take stock a bit then. Would I have excelled at it? I'm one of those people that's confident enough to think that I would have made it.”

Knowing then what he knows now might have altered his take on it.

When he first joined the panel in 2010, he thought it would all come naturally.

That was his first mistake.

“I probably didn't do enough coming out of minors, was probably relying a bit on talent, size, feeling ‘aw this will happen if I click my fingers' sort of thing.

“It didn't work out like that, so I do blame myself, that I probably didn't work hard enough. Definitely.

“You hear people always saying your first year will be tough, you might get a bit of game time here and there, and you think fair enough.

“You think next year might be the year, but it doesn't work out. There's another one or two players still there, you don't get as much game time as you want and you start to get frustrated.

“Frustrated with yourself, with management, with different players you think are getting a better chance than you. Then when it lasts a year or two longer again, you think it's time to concentrate a bit on yourself and club football.”

He had a brilliant campaign in 2014, marked out by a superb performance down in Cork where he kicked nine points. Mickey Harte said after the game: “When he stays injury free and is working hard at his training then anything is possible with that man.”

But having been handed his Ulster Championship debut in the shortest summer of Mickey Harte's reign, Coney was back on the bench again for most of the following year.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

“The quality to win was still there but some of our greatest scoring forwards became transition players and the confidence drained from them every time they were withdrawn in games – sometimes the ball never came near them. I mean the likes of Darren McCurry and Kyle Coney, great lads who should be household names in the game but whose game never really got the chance to develop as a result of our style.”

Sean Cavanagh: The Obsession

OUT of the fragments of being pushed around Healy Park by their Blackwater rivals, Tyrone rebranded themselves with a new-age running game that took them very close to an All-Ireland final a year later.

Five years on, Tyrone are still trying to find an identity that truly fits, and Coney is trying to find one that clips into it.

He upped sticks at the end of the McKenna Cup in 2015, feeling he had to go back to Ardboe and club football to rediscover all that the past five years had drained from him.

Gavin Devlin had retired from county duty by the time Coney made his breakthrough, but the Ardboe car was still packed when it rocked up to training in his early days.

Jim Curran, the team's liaison officer, drove and Coney, Brian and Tommy McGuigan and PJ Quinn were crammed in.

By the time Coney pulled the pin, he was the only one left. The journey didn't carry the same appeal.

“Garvaghey was just starting to go and you're getting into the car, driving up and down late at night, and the company you didn't realise you had, a bit of chat and craic and winding up, the next thing you know you're 10 minutes from training.

“On your own, you see every minute.”

Mostly, though, it was about playing football. And that was something he simply hadn't been doing for almost five years.

The door was always left open to him. A week after he got married in the summer of 2018, Gavin Devlin was standing in his kitchen.

He and new wife Eileen (neé Donnelly of Edendork) had kept the mini-moon in Portugal to four days so that he wouldn't miss Ardboe's league game on the Friday night.

“It's probably one of the best games I'd had for Ardboe in years.”

The following morning, Tyrone's assistant manager visited him at home. But, with a niggle in the knee, they decided the timing wasn't right and that they'd revisit it before 2019 began.

At that point, the thought of letting it pass him by without another cut at it outweighed all else.

Refreshingly, Coney doesn't play his feelings down. Not playing angers him, the way it does any player. He's just able to stand up and say it.

He's had “a few choice words” with Devlin.

The same with Mickey Harte.

And he's big enough now to know he should have words with himself a lot sooner.

“You do be angry at him [Harte]. There's no point saying anything else, that's the man that makes the decisions at the end of the day.

“I know the cliché is to put the head down and work harder, but at the end of the day, that's the man who's making the decision on the first 15, and the five subs going on. So you do be angry.

“But you have to take a look at yourself and think ‘am I doing enough to get on the team?' Probably, in hindsight, I wasn't the worker that deserved to be on his first 15, the way he was setting up and playing. I probably just didn't fit into that as a starter.

“The system didn't really suit me as a player. Looking back, I would say I was one of those boys that wanted to do the finishing but not a big pile of the work.

“I would have been more into picking the ball up and trying to spray the pass.

“Me losing the ball would have had a part to play in terms of not getting starting games.

“I'd have maybe been brought on as a sub later on to try and make something happen, pull something out of the fire.

“That wasn't the player I wanted to be. I didn't want to be an impact sub.

“I know a lot of people would say to you that it's nice to be involved with Tyrone, but at that time, I wanted a career with Tyrone, you want to be a household name, to make a career for yourself.

“That is what every young cub dreams of.

“No lad ever dreams of being a 15-minute impact sub, trying to pull something out of fresh air.”

Starting just two Ulster Championship games, both in 2014, and only a small clutch of qualifiers that he can rhyme off hand, isn't what the fortune cookies would have told you in 2008.

“That doesn't sit really well with me. Coming off the career I had with the minor team, it should be a whole lot more.

“I should be up in the 20s maybe in terms of championship games started for Tyrone, when you think how many games they've had and how many years I was there.”

In winter, he teetered once more.

While he came off the bench in four of their championship outings last year and started the Super 8s shadow-tie with Dublin, it didn't quite feel like a breakthrough.

It almost pulled him away from it all again, but he decided that this really is it.

If what's left of 2020 goes well, he'll stick at it and see how far it takes him.

If not, then at least he'll have had a go.

Que sera, sera.

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