The GAA manager who delivered the Sam Maguire to Derry for the first time
Born in Ballymaguigan, a hamlet on the outskirts of Magherafelt in 1948, Eamon Coleman first played for his local Gaelic Football senior team at the age of 14. Noted as a prodigious talent after helping his local club, St. Treas win the Derry senior championship that same year, Coleman went on to represent Derry at all levels in an illustrious playing career. He won Ulster titles at minor, under 21 and senior level. Coleman went on to manage his county on two separate occasions, and most famously led Derry to their historic first All Ireland victory in 1993.
Derry’s young prodigy
Eamon Coleman had only turned 14 when he made his first appearance for Ballymaguigan in the 1962 Derry Senior Championship Final. His team were pitted against parish rivals Castledawson in the final. The game was a tight contest and ended in a draw, the replay allowed the young Coleman to show his skills when he scored a goal and a point to help edge their neighbours out in an absorbing contest.
Coleman soon developed into an outstanding young Gaelic Footballer, and played on the Derry Minor (under 18) team that won Ulster and All Ireland titles in 1965. The team was bolstered by players who had helped St. Columb’s College Derry win the Hogan Cup, and included Malachy McAfee, Tom Quinn, and Peter Stevenson, all future Derry senior stars.
This gifted side extended their victories to an All Ireland under 21 championship a few years later defeating Offaly in the final by 3-9 to 1-9. Hopes were high that senior success would follow when Derry collected only their second Ulster title in 1970. Unfortunately for Coleman and his colleagues, Derry were defeated by an outstanding Kerry team in the semi final, and the team never reached its potential despite winning further Ulster titles in 1975 and 1976.
A foray into management
The end of Coleman’s playing career coincided with an offer to manage the Derry Minor team in the early 1980s. His managerial and motivational skills were proven when he led the Derry team to an All Ireland minor victory in 1983. It was a great success achieved with a talented side, with Dermot McNicholl and Damien Cassidy among the notable stars on the team. He stayed with the team through under 21 level and was extremely unfortunate to lose to a star studded Cork team in 1985.
But the call that Coleman had been waiting for finally came in 1991, when he was selected by the Derry county board to manage the county senior team. There were no great expectations for his first year in charge of the team, but helped Derry reach the Ulster semi final and they were unlucky to lose to eventual All Ireland champions Down after a replay.
Hopes were raised for the 1992 campaign, and a narrow victory against old rivals Tyrone in the National League final was followed by a three point victory over the same opposition in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship. Derry then defeated Monaghan and reigning champions Down to reach the Ulster final, where they faced Donegal.
This was to prove a disastrous day for Derry, as Donegal, who played much of the game with a player less due to Noel Hegarty being sent off, defeated Derry by 0-14 to 0-9. After promising so much, Derry had failed to deliver on the big stage. The following year was crucial for Derry and especially for Eamon Coleman. The 1993 league campaign witnessed Derry reach the quarter-finals but Donegal again proved to be too strong.
A time to deliver
The first round of the 1993 Ulster Championship put Down and Derry together for the third year in a row. This game was perhaps the defining point in Coleman’s managerial career with Derry. Down were torn apart, and Derry won comfortably by 3-11 to 0-9, with impressive displays from Anthony Tohill and Enda Gormley in particular.
A comfortable win over Monaghan created another final with Donegal; and this time Derry gained revenge. A muddy pitch proved no problem to the style and finesse of Derry that day. Anthony Tohill gave an outstanding performance in midfield to help Derry win by 0-8 to 0-6 and to land their first Ulster title under the guidance of Eamon Coleman.
After a thrilling All Ireland semi-final victory over hot favourites Dublin in Croke Park, Derry faced Cork in the Final. It was a chance for Coleman and players such as Dermot McNicholl and Johnny McGurk to gain revenge for their defeat in the 1985 under 21 final to the same opposition.
An exciting game ensued with some great scores, Seamus Downey scored the decisive goal for Derry in the first half and went on to win by 1-14 to 2-8. Eamon Coleman went into the history books as the first manager to lead a Derry senior team to an All Ireland victory. Derry and Coleman deservedly basked in the glory of this great success.
Cavan and Longford
In 1994 Derry were unfortunate to be beaten by Down in the first round of the Ulster Championship, and less than a month later, Eamon Coleman stood down from his position as manager of Derry. A number of other challenges awaited him – he became manager of Longford between 1995 to 1997 and also successfully managed a number of club teams in Cavan between 1997 and 2000.
Coleman received another opportunity to manage his home county in 2000, and led them to an All Ireland semi-final in 2001, where they were extremely unfortunate to lose to the eventual winners Galway. He retired a year later after a defeat by neighbours Tyrone, but he will always be remembered as the manager who delivered Sam Maguire (the All Ireland trophy) to Derry for the first and as yet, only time.
By Cathal Coyle