Interview: Owen Coyle on Scotland and Ireland

Gorbals lad Owen Coyle pictured in 1994 playing for Ireland, his parents' homeland. Picture: Robert Perry

Gorbals lad Owen Coyle pictured in 1994 playing for Ireland, his parents' homeland. Picture: Robert Perry

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When you are born in Scotland to Irish parents, where do your loyalties lie, asks Moira Gordon

THERE is a wee chuckle and while it would be an exaggeration to say it is a nervous one, it is one that suggests Owen Coyle knows that he has to tread cannily. “Are you trying to get me in trouble?” he asks. Of course not. But, surely, it’s a valid question. Where will his loyalties lie when the Republic of Ireland travel to Glasgow to face Scotland on Friday in the quest for European Championship qualification?

Nature versus nurture. The country of his birth versus the country of his caps. It’s a tough one even for a man as diplomatically astute as Coyle.

This is a man who is passionately proud of his days dotting about the Glasgow high rises. He always attributes the hard-working ethic instilled in him there as the platform for his success as a player and as a manager and has credited the sense of community it imbued in him with helping mould him as a man, a husband and father.

But that community consisted largely of Irish immigrants, so each culture, each nation’s influence is layered one on top of the other. But Coyle is not a papier-mache patriot, there is more substance to him than that. It simply illustrates a complex sense of identity shared by ex-pats and immigrants all over the world.

“Of course it goes without saying that I was proud to play for Ireland,” says the former Wigan and Bolton Wanderers gaffer, who was linked with the managerial vacancy before Martin O’Neill was appointed. “Both my parents were born in Donegal, and my dad is dead now, god rest him, but it was a huge thing for my dad and my mum for me to represent Ireland. It was a huge thing for me, too. But, equally, I am very proud of where I come from and the fact I was born in Scotland and that I’m a Gorbals boy. I’m proud of that as well.

“When I look at that group, what I want is both Scotland and Ireland to qualify. If we concede that Germany will probably win the group, I truly believe that Scotland and Ireland, between the two of them, will be second and third. The second-placed team will go through automatically and I think whoever finishes third will be capable of winning the play-off. For me, on that basis, the two games they play against each other will determine who will finish second and who will finish third in the group, so they are massive games.

“The perfect scenario for me is that both teams qualify for the European Championships and with regards who finishes higher, in a sporting sense may the best team win!”

Wooed by Ireland while he was still playing at Dumbarton, Coyle has admitted in the past that part of the decision was based on ambition. He wanted to play at the highest level possible and when he looked around the Scotland squads he didn’t see an obvious opening for him.

“I was U21 at Dumbarton and Ireland had watched me five or six times. In fairness to Craig Brown, who was Scotland manager at the time, he had also asked me to join up with the Scotland U21s, but, if truth be told, I think that was more to stop Ireland getting a hold of me. To give balance to it, Scotland U21s at the time were unbelievable. They were all players who had played Premier League for Celtic and Rangers and Aberdeen at the height of their powers.

“Guys like Robert Fleck, Ian Durrant, Gordon Durie, David Robertson, Joe Miller, Derek Ferguson, Peter Grant, Derek Whyte, it was a top, top team that Scotland had at U21.”

But it wasn’t simply a business deal, trading nationality for the lure of caps, there was a sentimental element, too.

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“I was brought up in the Gorbals, but the area I lived in was called Little Donegal because of the number of Irish immigrants and the bottom line is we were brought up in that community and we would spend every summer in Ireland, the full eight weeks of the holidays, so it felt natural for me to play for Ireland. It was a comfortable part of my culture, but I’m still fiercely proud of where I grew up. I have been really lucky and I do feel like I have a foot in both camps.

“With Scotland and Ireland, there are so many similarities, even down to the nature of the people. There are also many other similarities and I don’t want to go off on a history lesson, but, in terms of the actual countries themselves, the people have known difficult times and there are so many similarities on that front, but, equally, they are both nations who passionately love the game of football and they have, at different times, had very successful teams. Scotland qualified for a long time for all the major championships and Ireland had a spell of that. But like all the so-called small nations, it’s cyclical. Look at Belgium now. I think that looking at both nations, now is a good time for both of them to capitalise and qualify for these European Championships.”

As luck would have it. Coyle’s first game for the Republic of Ireland came against the country of his birth, in an U21 fixture, at Easter Road, in February, 1987.

“I actually scored within two minutes. But they went on to beat us 4-1 with Robert Fleck getting a hat-trick. I played U21, B internationals and then eventually got a full cap, coming on as a substitute when we beat Holland 1-0, with Tommy Coyne scoring the winner, just before the 1994 World Cup. It was a great time and we were all comfortable with my decision. I don’t think there was as much emphasis on it as there is just now.”

During that era, border controls between the international sides was less scrutinised and certainly less criticised. Unlike the decisions taken by James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady in recent years, Coyle almost operated under the radar. In Scotland there was no hullaballoo and in the Republic of Ireland dressing room, the fact he qualified through both his parents rather than a single grandparent offered him a greater claim to the shirt than most.

“Aiden and James are both boys who I know very well. But, truth be told, I was playing at Dumbarton, so the spotlight wasn’t on me as much as it is on them now. But I have to remind people that Scotland, for many years, have played boys born in England. People have to have balance and understand. I didn’t ever hear much mumping and moaning about the fact that one of the best goalkeepers, Andy Goram, who was born in England, represented Scotland, so people shouldn’t be hypocritical.

“I knew Aiden growing up. His father, John, was a very good player, but he’s a teacher now. James played for me at Wigan last year and both those boys love Scotland, make no mistake about that, and they are very proud of where they grew up, but they made a football decision.

“That doesn’t diminish how much they feel for the country they grew up in. They don’t forget their background, the people who helped them and the part they played and those boys come back to Scotland all the time because they love their family and their friends and everything that goes with that.”

Looking back through Scotland teams, he picks out guys like Goram and Stuart McCall and claims people should be more respectful of others’ choices and not just the choices of those who chose to play for Scotland. “Everyone has their reasons and we should understand that. I was very lucky. The era I played in was probably more tolerant. There was a bit of banter from supporters, no more than that. Things have changed a wee bit, unfortunately, and some people want to be a bit more vitriolic.”

But none of that dulls his excitement for Friday’s fixture. Loving the fact both nations have found some footballing form and are winning in a style he finds easier on the eye, the deciding factor could be who comes through this weekend with more of their top players unscathed.

“You get pivotal moments in groups that can decide what way things are going to go. I did the Motherwell v Dundee United game with Gordon on Friday night for TV and chatting to him I can tell how excited he is. He knows he is playing a very good Ireland side, but, equally, he knows that when he has his very best players available then Scotland have shown that they are a very good side. May the best team win!”

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