At the end of the Republic of Ireland’s recent friendly, the captain’s armband was worn by 24-year-old Seamus Coleman. There might not be anything remarkable about that statement on first glance. Coleman is an established Premier League player with Everton who made his international debut two years ago and has helped Blackpool win promotion to the Premier League.
Yet when one considers that for the first 17 years of his life, a completely different sport was his first choice, then his tale becomes all the more interesting.
“Gaelic football was my first love until I was about 18,” Coleman told FIFA.com. “I played at all the underage levels and was a big part of the county scene. I was quite successful and really enjoyed it. But then I had to make the decision on whether I should become a full-time professional with Sligo Rovers or stick as an amateur and play Gaelic. I thought it was a chance worth taking and fortunately it’s worked out well for me. But that said, the roots of the Gaelic game has helped me: it’s a rough and tumble sport. If you get hit you get back up and it’s made me a fit lad.”
The path that the Everton right-back has walked down is one which was shared by the likes of Brad Friedel, who excelled at both hockey and basketball in Ohio, while Johan Neeskens voted ‘best batter’ when playing at the European Youth Baseball Championships in the 1960s, and Peter Schmeichel perfected his huge throw while playing handball in his native Denmark.
Coleman’s dual-discipline upbringing meant that his skills were not developed at a professional academy, but he believes that this hasn’t placed him at a disadvantage.
“From a young age lads are tirelessly being taught the technical side to the game which I definitely missed out on and that would have been a great help to me,” he continued. “But when I joined Everton I’d played 50 senior games, which a lot of young lads don’t. Playing for Sligo, which is only 90 minutes away from my home town, I was able to go back and do silly things like going to my own prom. All that makes a difference because I know if I went over to England earlier I would have struggled with homesickness. I’m glad the way I did it, because I think I took a lot over that maybe you wouldn’t have got in an academy.”
The family way
Coleman’s footballing skills were honed on the streets of Killybegs in County Donegal, in matches for local side St. Catherine’s, for ‘The Killers’ - the team that represented his estate - and by his family, notably his older brother Stevie, who is an Irish international himself.
Stevie, who has cerebral palsy, was a bronze medal winner at the 2003 Special Olympics, which is supported by FIFA through the Football for Hope initiative.
“That was a great tournament and it was brilliant for him,” recalled Seamus. “We all went out to support him – there were big opening and closing ceremonies and he had a big homecoming in Killybegs for doing so well. I also had a homecoming when Blackpool won the play-off, but he was pleased to point out that there were more people for his than there were for mine!
“Stevie’s a striker – and a good one too. He loves his football, but he’s 38 now, so we’re trying to tell him to hang up his boots. He’s having none of it though. He’s always quick to remind me that he’s the first international in the family and that he taught me everything I know. To be fair, he used to take me down to the local pitch when I was a boy. He’d stand in goal and I’d take shots at him.”
Coleman has the chance to emulate his big brother by representing the Republic of Ireland in an international tournament, with the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil just around the corner. However, they must first make it out of a tough Group C which currently sees Germany top with 16 points and Austria, Sweden and the boys in green all five points behind.
“Next month’s games against Sweden and Austria are going to be massive,” said Coleman. “I think that the outcome of those matches will have a massive impact come the end of the campaign. We’re fortunate to have a very experienced coach in Giovanni Trapattoni to guide us through it. We’re working for a man who has been through it all, he’s seen it all. He’s more tactically defensive, so I’ve learned a lot from that. Hopefully we’ll be able to get to a World Cup under him.
“My goal is to in international football is to get to a major tournament and play a part in it – and to represent Ireland at a World Cup would be amazing. It’s something every footballer strives to do. You want to play for your country and you definitely want to play for your country in a World Cup. We all want to be there playing against the best players in the world.”