Football

Benny Coulter: the wrong turns, the highs and lows of a brilliant career

Benny Coulter reflects on his playing career outside Mayobridge clubrooms Picture: Brendan Monaghan
Benny Coulter reflects on his playing career outside Mayobridge clubrooms Picture: Brendan Monaghan Benny Coulter reflects on his playing career outside Mayobridge clubrooms Picture: Brendan Monaghan

YOU could hear a pin drop in the room as Niall Moyna tore strips off the Down players after they’d succumbed too easily to Kerry in Austin Stack Park, Tralee.

The home side raced into an early, unassailable lead in their NFL Division One encounter with Down.

James McCartan’s men showed a bit more resolve in the second half, but it wasn’t enough and didn’t make up for their no-show in the opening 35 minutes.

“It was the first year I was Down captain,” Mark Poland recalls, “and we were in Division One at the time. It was 2013. The fixtures came out and James said to me: ‘Polie, for the first couple of weeks we want to get off to a good start. We play Kerry in Tralee on St Patrick’s weekend. Regardless of how that game goes, the boys can have free rein that night as there’s a two-week break after it.’

“We were abysmal that night,” Poland adds.

“Niall Moyna was in with us at the time and Niall questioned our character and our will to win. We nearly turned it around, we pulled it back to two points at one stage. Anyway, a meeting was called and Niall said that basically nobody was going out…

“We heard this chair being pulled back at the back of the room and the door nearly being taken off its hinges and all I could hear was: ‘Well, I’m f***ing going out!’

“Lo and behold, it was Benny.”

As captain, Poland had to draw on all of his diplomacy skills and massaged the tension between players and management. Despite their poor showing against Kerry, a promise is a promise, right?

Coulter says: “We were staying down for the night and James did promise us and, all of a sudden, the result doesn’t go our way and it changes?

“We were sitting there saying: ‘What the f***?’ I remember I stood up and said that it wasn’t on because we didn’t have a match the following week and we’d done everything James had asked us to do…

“We weren’t children. I was so pissed off and I just stormed out. Anyway, ‘Polie’ went out and had discussions with James and it was sorted. There was no harm done.”

The Down players hit the tiles in Tralee where they bumped into Barry John Keane, the Kerry footballer, who ended up bringing them to a friend’s wedding for the night.

“Looking back,” Poland says, “I’m glad we did those things now.

“People always saw Benny’s goals and the end product - but his work-rate off the field was just exemplary. He was the best player I ever played with.”

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IT’S rush hour in Newry and the traffic is moving at a snail's pace.

Benny is sitting in the tranquil surroundings of the Canal Court Hotel foyer and has already ordered cappuccinos and scones.

He turns 41 in June and looks lean enough to be still playing for the Down footballers against Donegal in Pairc Esler on April 23.

He weighs 13st 3lb, roughly the same weight he was during his playing days with Mayobridge and Down.

During COVID, he ballooned to over 15 stone before a friend asked him about playing a bit of junior soccer with local Carbane & District League club Cleary Celtic.

He took up the invitation and it’s been one of the best decisions he’s ever made. He scored 19 goals from centre back last season as Cleary completed an historic clean sweep.

On Easter Monday just passed, he helped the side retain the Mid-Ulster Shield at New Holm Park, Armagh.

With his managerial commitments with the Down minors, Coulter isn’t able to make all the training sessions and games with Cleary Celtic.

And he’s adamant he won’t be playing any more reserve championship football for the ‘Bridge after last year – but Thomas O’Hare will probably still send him a text closer to the time in the hope that Coulter will take a nibble.

Benny Coulter celebrates with his Cleary Celtic team-mates after winning the Mid-Ulster Shield on Easter Monday Picture: Brendan Monaghan
Benny Coulter celebrates with his Cleary Celtic team-mates after winning the Mid-Ulster Shield on Easter Monday Picture: Brendan Monaghan Benny Coulter celebrates with his Cleary Celtic team-mates after winning the Mid-Ulster Shield on Easter Monday Picture: Brendan Monaghan

“I love the soccer because there’s no pressure,” Coulter says. “You turn up on a Saturday at half-12, the game’s at two o’clock, you get changed in the wee community centre down in St Mary’s and play your game.

“It’s not as intense as the Gaelic. Last year I only played four or five championship games for the club's reserves; we ended up winning it – but it is so, so intense, the games are so hard. It’s high enough quality but I was absolutely beat after games, sore from head to toe.”

When he was playing reserve championship, the opposition would often tease him – “nothing sinister, just wee verbal digs like: ‘You’re done, Coulter. You’re finished. You’re crap…’ blah, blah, blah.

Laughing at the playful sledging, he adds: “You just had to bite your tongue. And I’d say back to them: ‘I know I’m done - but I’m still f***ing here.’”

Asked what a stranger could expect to see if they turned up to watch him playing reserve championship for the 'Bridge, Coulter smiles: “They should expect very little movement and me standing in front of the goalkeeper waiting on a high ball coming in.”

Francie Poland, who is a first cousin of Coulter’s, played alongside him for 10 years, managed him, and co-managed with him, maintains the 2010 Allstar could still do a job for the ‘Bridge.

“Benny played on the edge of the square in the reserve championship and in the final against Burren he caused havoc. Burren were full of young lads but they couldn’t handle him.”

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THE early days were magical. Between club and county, one final appearance seemed to roll into another. Coulter was a precocious talent. Great hands. An unbelievable leap. Powerful on the ground. Audacious and accurate. Cute as a fox and an absolute workhorse into the bargain.

“I just look back at some of the campaigns, especially with the club,” Coulter says.

“In the Ulster Club, I was getting the better of some of the big names. I was only 18 when I was going up for trials for the International Rules and I was one of the first seven picked. They had to announce seven players for the sponsor, Coca Cola: Padraic Joyce, Kieran McGeeney, Ciaran McDonald… boys I looked up and I was on the end of the list.”

Even though he was still a minor, he helped the Mayobridge seniors end their 80-year wait for a club championship in ’99 – not long after winning an All-Ireland with the Down minors.

Everything he touched turned to silver.

At senior level, though, Down were staring into the abyss.

Antrim’s Ulster Championship ambush of the Mournemen at Casement Park in 2000 shouldn’t have come as a major surprise, and the fact Coulter played for both the minors and seniors that afternoon probably told its own story of where the county was at.

“Literally, after the minor game, I had to run into the changing room, take off my minor jersey, stick on a senior jersey and tracksuit bottoms. I remember our minors were still doing the warm-down when the seniors ran out at Casement. Crazy when you think of it.

“Down were a shambles then. Boys were coming to the end of their careers, it just wasn’t a great squad to go into. I struggled in my first year because I wasn’t ready for it.”

Down football landed the occasional haymaker in Championship football – but the ‘Noughties’ weren’t good.

It was Armagh and Tyrone’s time.

Ciaran McKeever’s first recollection of marking Coulter was a minor match between Armagh and Down in Newcastle.

“I never really knew anything about him,” McKeever says.

“He was playing midfield and I was going to step across him, and then a high ball came in and there was this boy sitting on my shoulder catching it.”

That minor game between the two counties in Newcastle was the beginning of a fascinating duel between one of the best forwards in Ulster and one of the best man-markers.

McKeever reckons they marked each other around 10 times during their playing days.

“We played Down in a National League match in Newry one day and Joe [Kernan] told me I would be marking Benny Coulter.

“Benny had this thing where he would put his leg out and fire you across. I remember getting close to him, tracking his run and the next thing he did was this trademark move.

“I ended up on the ground and him rifling the ball into the net. I remember thinking: ‘Jesus Christ’. He was aggressive, very direct and I always felt my tackling had to be on point against Benny.

“The thing that I learned in the early stages was not to get too close to him because he could roll you and lose you with his trademark trip.

“The Armagh-Down rivalry was probably all-consuming,” McKeever adds. “Once you crossed the white line, it was a brief handshake and down to business and zero chat.”

The pair did enjoy a few International Rules tours, shared a couple beers and got to know each other.

According to McKeever, Coulter was one of the best Irish players at the hybrid game.

“I was really surprised he was never picked up by an Aussie Rules club. He was so explosive, great hands and a serious leap which is always beneficial in that game. He was just an exceptional player and could finish as well. He had all the attributes.”

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MANAGEMENT is about timing if nothing else. James McCartan’s was majestic.

Previously, the Mourne squad had been ravaged by injuries and absenteeism – issues that were keenly felt during Ross Carr’s time in charge.

“Everything fell into place in James’s first year,” Coulter acknowledges.

Aussie Rules star Marty Clarke was homeward bound, Paul McComiskey and Kalum King were involved, Ambrose Rogers was in great shape and Mark Poland was about to announce his marquee value on the county scene under ‘Wee’ James.

Danny Hughes, Damien Rafferty, Conor Garvey, Kevin McKernan, Dan Gordon and Peter Fitzpatrick were all fit and healthy.

Coulter had done some maturing too. He was 28 when McCartan took over in September 2009 and was ready to knuckle down more and drink less.

Up until McCartan came in, Coulter described his and a few of his team-mates’ preparations for Down games as “pure madness”.

“After a Saturday night game we would have gone out afterwards, out on Sunday and some of the boys might have carried on until the Monday.

“You’re turning up to training on a Tuesday night and you’re absolutely dying. Then you’d a match the following week – so your preparation was brutal, absolutely brutal. We’d four or five boys doing that in the one squad. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair on the other boys.”

He always admired how the likes of Danny Hughes, Ronan Murtagh and Ronan Sexton prepared for games and maximised what they had.

“If I could do it again I probably would have worked harder and done the things I was supposed to be doing,” Coulter reflects.

“I trained as hard as anybody, I worked my balls off, never missed. But just the small things. Danny Hughes would have done everything by the book and I wish I had done the same for 10 or 15 I was a player – just give it everything.

“But I f***ed about with the drink - there’s no point in saying otherwise. I wish I’d done everything by the book to see where it would have taken me. I only got 70 per cent out of myself. I was still playing well and thought, sure I’ll be grand, but I could've been much better.

“I definitely think I could've been one of the best players in Ireland for five or six years, but I didn’t reach that level. Had I put the work in what other boys were putting in, that could have been the case.

“Now, the older I got – around 28 or 29 – I started to do all that stuff, but for 10 years I wasn’t doing that.”

Once Down exited the Ulster Championship to Tyrone in 2010, their season took flight.

A rainy night in Newry and a scrappy win over Longford was the beginning of their unlikely All-Ireland assault. Despite the team bus taking the wrong turn for Offaly, they scraped home by two points and advanced.

They ran over the top of Sligo in Breffni Park and took full advantage of Kerry’s soft midriff at the All-Ireland quarter-final stages with Coulter, Poland, Rogers and Marty Clarke playing champagne football in Croke.

The following day Coulter remembers sitting with his Down team-mates in the Bank Bar in Newry waiting on the outcome of the Meath-Kildare quarter-final.

“I remember gathering my breath and saying to James: ‘Jesus, we’re sitting in an All-Ireland semi-final here. This has never happened to us before.’ It was class. Everybody was so, so happy. The feeling was unreal, just sitting there with the boys.”

Three weeks later, Kildare’s Emmet Bolton was like Coulter’s second skin following him around a sun-splashed Croke Park in what turned out to be an epic All-Ireland semi-final – and not without some controversy.

Reflecting on his controversial first-half goal, which should have been ruled out for a square ball, Coulter remembers wheeling away and looking up at the big screen wondering how on earth he got away with it.

“About four or five years ago, we played a challenge game for Mayobridge down in Monaghan; we were going through the gate and this boy winds down his window and shouts out.

‘Are you Benny Coulter?’

“I says: ‘Aye’.

“He says: ‘I was the f***ing umpire that day you scored that goal against Kildare!’

“And I says: ‘Fair play to you!’”

Down and Kildare produced an All-Ireland semi-final classic in 2010
Down and Kildare produced an All-Ireland semi-final classic in 2010 Down and Kildare produced an All-Ireland semi-final classic in 2010

CONOR Counihan and his Cork selectors kicked their All-Ireland final match-ups around for weeks.

Who picks up Coulter? Who picks up Marty Clarke? And Poland? And what about Danny Hughes?

“Benny was trouble, like,” says Counihan, now involved in football development in his native Cork.

“If he got ball he would score and we felt we needed somebody like Michael Shields on him. For a small enough fella, Benny could get up for a ball. But Shields wouldn’t give many forwards an inch and he was our best bet – it was simple as that.

“We could have put [Paudie] Kissane on Marty Clarke as well and we discussed that for quite a while, but in the end we went with Noel O’Leary which, I think, in hindsight was the right choice.

“Down’s attack would have worried us most at the time.

“For ourselves, we were winning League titles along the way but we hadn’t won the big one. I suppose against Down there was a lot of pressure and we saw it as do-or-die.”

The Mournemen led 0-8 to 0-5 at half-time, but Cork began to make their physical advantage pay in the second half, put the squeeze on Brendan McVeigh’s kick-outs and the Rebels finally edged in front through a 56th minute point from Paul Kerrigan.

Counihan’s men won 0-16 to 0-15. Given how the second half unfolded, Down did well to make it a one-point game.

“I didn’t see much of the ball,” Coulter says of his All-Ireland final performance. “I’d a half chance towards the end and I put it over the bar. But I was very disappointed in my game. I try not to think about it to be honest. I haven’t watched the final back to this day. We didn’t perform and midfield probably cost us with Ambrose missing.”

For the remainder of his inter-county career, Down didn’t get as close to an All-Ireland again. Clarke went back to Australia and McCartan’s squad was beset by injuries and a few exits for the next couple of seasons. 


Coulter pulled the curtain down on his own inter-county career when new boss Jim McCorry met him in the Canal Court Hotel and couldn’t guarantee him a starting berth in the team.


“I went away and thought about it. I retired then. There was no fall-out with Jim.


“I’ve total respect for him because he was the man that won us our first championship medal. He was class for Mayobridge. Only for that man; he started the whole thing off.”


Coulter always loved coaching and took a couple of underage teams right through to minor at the 'Bridge before stepping up to the senior job himself with Francie Poland and inviting Ciaran McKeever in as coach. 


“We were at loggerheads on the pitch," McKeever says, "and then one day Benny asked me to come and coach Mayobridge when he was the manager. 


“I suppose our relationship progressed from there and we got to know each other a bit better.


“These days we can have a pint together which is always good after a healthy rivalry down through the years.”


Sitting in the hotel foyer, weighing in at 13st 3lbs, approaching his 41st birthday and still looking fit enough for 15 minutes should his old Down team-mate Conor Laverty need him against Donegal on the 23rd, Benny Coulter is an open book and as earthly as they come. 


Brutally honest about the wrong turns he's taken during a playing career that yielded an Allstar, an All-Ireland minor title, eight club championships and the admiration of an entire nation, the Mayobridge man lit up so many Championship Sundays for a decade-and-a-half. 


Still pulling on a jersey approaching his 41st birthday, you wonder did he really take that many wrong turns...

Benny Coulter feels he could have achieved more during his playing career Picture: Brendan Monaghan
Benny Coulter feels he could have achieved more during his playing career Picture: Brendan Monaghan Benny Coulter feels he could have achieved more during his playing career Picture: Brendan Monaghan