Dublin ‘beach boy’Owen Coyle is proud of his heritage and wants both Scots and Irish to qualify, Phil Gordon finds
YOU would think that a beach soccer tournament staged in Dublin ought to be some sort of joke from Father Ted.
All that pale, Celtic skin would surely be a health hazard?
Yet, Owen Coyle testifies to its veracity, when he and another fellow Glaswegian, Tommy Coyne, carried the hopes of the Irish nation on their shoulders.
It came in the summer of 2003, when Coyle was still pulling on his boots for Falkirk and Coyne had only just entered retirement. The pair had represented the Republic of Ireland’s national side on 23 occasions but were never going to ignore the call of their football country, even if the surface was slightly dubious.
“It was quite a tournament,” recalled Coyle yesterday from his new home in Texas, where he is manager of MLS club, Houston Dynamo. “It was not held on a proper beach, but on a man-made one right in the middle of Dublin city centre.
“Portugal, who were the world champions, were there, along with France, who had Eric Cantona as manager, Spain, Germany, England and Ireland. Myself and Tommy flew over from Glasgow to join up with Frank Stapleton, Tony Cascarino and goalkeeper Kelham O’Hanlon.
“There was not much beach soccer where myself and Tommy grew up. I’m from the Gorbals and he’s from Govan, although I did play plenty of football on Magheroarty beach in Donegal with my brothers when he went there on holiday every summer.
“Myself and Tam struggled to adjust to sand at first, although I ended up tournament top scorer, and the ball is so heavy that it hurt your feet. After the first game, Tam said his feet were killing him – so he went and got socks on, and put them underneath bandages so it looked alright. You can take the boy out of Glasgow, eh?”
It is quite an irony that Coyle and Coyne should be so close. While the latter played for the Republic 22 times, Coyle’s only cap came in May 1994 in a friendly win in Holland before the World Cup finals as a substitute for Coyne. That cap is a precious moment in Coyle’s life, even if it was never repeated, because of the pride that it generated for his mother and father, who both exchanged Donegal for Glasgow.
The wonderful mix of cultures and bloodlines which have blurred over the years, as Irish people moved to Scotland, have suddenly become clearly defined by the countries facing each other in the Euro 2016 qualifying group. Football has inserted a partisan edge to the Celtic love affair.
Martin O’Neill must have found Celtic Park a surreal place last November, when he turned up as the “opposition” manager.
Aiden McGeady, a former Celtic player and native Glaswegian, was picked out to be the subject of hostile jeering from the Tartan Army, while the raucous Irish support boomed out The Fields of Athenry from the “away” end.
Saturday’s reunion in the Aviva Stadium promises to be just as fierce.
The 1-0 victory secured for Scotland by Shaun Maloney’s goal in Glasgow squeezed the qualification picture at the top of group D, with Poland at the top a point ahead of Gordon Strachan’s side and Germany, while Ireland are two points behind the Scots.
“I was at the match at Celtic Park,” said Coyle. “I was covering it for television, before I got my new job in Houston. It was a tight game, and I felt that Scotland shaded it until Shaun Maloney came up with that wee bit of magic.
“The atmosphere that night was incredible, one of the best I’ve ever experienced at an international match and that’s because both sets of fans were well-represented, rather than just one, and it will be the same in Dublin because Scotland always take a good travelling support.
“Aiden McGeady got a lot of stick from the Scotland fans at Celtic Park. I think he was a bit shocked. Maybe it was done to put him off his game, and if it was, it worked. But he’ll be keen to do well in Dublin.”
McGeady and Everton’s James McCarthy, a Castlemilk boy who also opted for Ireland under Fifa’s grandparents’ rule about international eligibility, followed Coyne and ex-Liverpool midfielder, Ray Houghton (also Castlemilk), into playing for Ireland.
Yet Coyle feels there is a need for a greater understanding in the modern world which sees another Castlemilk talent – Ikechi Anya – pull on a dark blue jersey for the country of his birth, despite a Nigerian father, Romanian mother, and moving to England at the age of seven.
“I’ve known Aiden since he was a teenager and I know his dad, John, as well,” said Coyle.
“James McCarthy also played for me at Wigan. Aiden and James 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.
“I am equally proud of where I come from and the fact I was born in Scotland and that I’m a Gorbals boy.
“But we would also 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. I want both Scotland and Ireland to qualify.”
Ironically, it is another part of Glasgow’s “Celtic” tapestry who will be under the greatest of scrutiny in Dublin. O’Neill, the Northern Irishman, who wielded remarkable power during his five-year tenure at Parkhead, now has to silence his doubters in his “adopted” country.
“Ireland can’t really afford to lose this game,” acknowledged Coyle. “That would create a huge deficit and leave them with too much ground to make up on Scotland, so that maybe allows Gordon Strachan’s side to soak up the pressure and hit on the counter attack. Scotland have played very well away from home under Gordon.
“But don’t forget, Martin got Ireland a draw in Germany. I am sure there will be twists and turns in this group to the end.”