THE boyish face unto which Henry Downey has just directed the nation’s gaze softens some more.
Eamonn Coleman was a paradox. The hacked hands of a bricklayer, the proud loughshore accent that he’d never try to dilute, the mind of a psychologist and the street smarts that no university degree could offer.
Halfway up the steps of the Hogan Stand, he stares up at the dream turned reality.
“And most of all, I would like to thank a man who is Mr Derry Football himself. The man who put so much into this team and always believed in this team. And that is, of course, Eamonn Coleman,” bellows Downey.
The tears are wrestling at Coleman. He swallows down hard, blinks repeatedly, pushes his tongue around his mouth, the hefty sniffs – all the tricks of a man that has fought them off before.
When Master Young came into the Ballymaguigan U14s changing room to tell him his mother had gone to heaven, Coleman held it in. He didn’t cry at the wake or the funeral.
“Then, a month or so after she died, I went to bed and cried half the night and that was really the only time I ever did,” he said in Maria McCourt’s semi-biographical book, The Boys of ’93.
This very day 30 years ago, his face disobeyed its commands.
The players that won Derry’s sole All-Ireland on September 19, 1993 will, to a man, tell you the same thing – that they wouldn’t have won it without Eamonn Coleman.
Nor would they have won it had Anthony Tohill and Dermot McNicholl not come home from Australia, or the infusion of ’83 and ’89 All-Ireland minor winning teams not been so perfectly timed.
But Coleman answering the call and coming home out of England to take the team was the pivot on which Derry’s footballing fortunes turned.
Just when they thought it was a team’s beginning, the end appears like a stone wall meeting a bicycle.
The county board’s ill-fated decision to get rid of Coleman after the Down game in ’94 broke them.
If he’d gone of his own accord then maybe the players would have picked the pieces up again and found a way, but the manner in which it was handled was catastrophic and proved irreparable.
Whether he was the best manager in Ireland or even Derry was irrelevant.
The players looked at him as their manager.
That was all that mattered.
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Derry lost their man at the end of 1994 and with him went all sense of direction.
They staggered for a few years through the streets of Ulster football. That Tyrone pushed them about with 13 men in ’95 and then yahooed them out the gate in ’96 only made it worse.
Under Brian Mullins they’d straighten up briefly to win a second Ulster title but it was only really when Coleman came back in 2000 that the few who remained came close to another All-Ireland again the following year, losing a semi-final they shouldn’t have to Galway.
No matter which way you slice it up, the best team Derry had ever had lost their best years.
As much as there are very obvious differences in terms of circumstance, there were striking similarities in footballing terms between the situation of the last few months and the autumn of ’94.
In Rory Gallagher, Derry had unexpectedly and suddenly lost the manager they thought would win them an All-Ireland.
The only thing that they could replace him with would be someone of that calibre and stature.
Nobody in Derry, absolutely nobody, thought Mickey Harte was a realistic candidate.
There had been tensions in Louth over the proposed new stadium being pulled by Croke Park, which led to Peter Fitzpatrick stepping down as chairman before coming around again.
Harte and Fitzpatrick were very close and the rumblings were that if Fitzpatrick had stayed gone that time, Harte would have gone too.
But they managed to sew it up and as far as anyone knew until yesterday morning, it was full steam ahead for next year.
From their perspective, it’s a complete disaster.
But for Derry, this was the absolute best-case scenario.
To give their Chief Operating Officer, Stephen Barker his credit, he went after a man that nobody thought was available and secured his services.
When it seemed they had nowhere to turn, they found a slip road that might keep the show trucking.
One month today, he’ll turn 69. If there is another All-Ireland in him, this has to be it.
Gavin Devlin brings such youth and vitality and footballing knowledge to it that his part in the new setup cannot be understated. His connection to the Slaughtneil contingent, having Chrissy McKaigue in coaching with him in Ardboe at present, plus past stints in Bellaghy and Newbridge, he’s got a head-start on a lot of outside men.
Louth have played like Derry Lite for the last few years. Their televised games didn’t really do justice to the foundations they’d put in place.
Those considering Harte to be yesterday’s man can only be directed to his success in Louth.
They went from Division Four to Three to Two and within one win of Division One. They ended up in a first Leinster final for 13 years and made the group stages of the All-Ireland series.
When they took over, that looked nearly as impossible as last night’s news.
Harte will a job to have win Derry’s support over but that’s doable. The wrath of his own people might be far worse.
He’s put himself in the position where he’ll be up the line from his former All-Ireland winning captain Brian Dooher.
It happens all the time now but there was something about Harte and his inherent Tyroneness that you felt he’d never take that path.
Yet here we are. Derry manager Mickey Harte.
That sentence will take a bit of getting used to.
Eamonn Coleman’s great saying was always “the players is the men”.
And while the players is still the men in 2023, unlike in Dublin or Kerry, they haven’t won the All-Ireland yet to know the path themselves.
If Derry are to make that jump, they were badly in need a manager that knows what’s required to get them across the line.
You feared they were going to get stuck in their autumn of ’94 without having had the success of ’93.
Brendan Rogers, Conor Glass, Gareth McKinless, Ciaran McFaul, they’re heading into their peak years.
Even with a run of minor teams coming behind, Derry is not a county that can afford to leave hot irons lying about idle.
Their greatest team won one All-Ireland but they weren’t maximised.
Whether Mickey Harte is able to stop the same from happening again, time will tell.
But he was their best shot at it.