Former Celtic player Tommy Coyne still loyal to Ireland

If you saw a little girl wearing a green shirt with COYNE spelled out on the back in the Paris area early last week, chances are this was Stelli Coyne. Actually, it's almost certain it was.
Tommy Coyne insists his Scotland snub made the decision to switch to Ireland an easy one, and was rewarded when he played in the 1-0 victory over Italy. Picture: GettyTommy Coyne insists his Scotland snub made the decision to switch to Ireland an easy one, and was rewarded when he played in the 1-0 victory over Italy. Picture: Getty
Tommy Coyne insists his Scotland snub made the decision to switch to Ireland an easy one, and was rewarded when he played in the 1-0 victory over Italy. Picture: Getty

While he was a popular player for Republic of Ireland, contributing hugely to one of their most famous results, Tommy Coyne won the last of his 22 caps nearly 20 years ago. He has since shrunk from view somewhat and faded from public consciousness.

But Govan-born Coyne’s loyalty remains to the Irish tricolour. Hence his trip to the French capital on Monday with wife Anita and children Mitchell and Stelli, 12- and ten-years-old respectively.

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Coyne, now 53, is left aghast by those who argue that someone who travelled to support Scotland in Spain in the 1982 World Cup should by now have switched his allegiance back to the Scots.

“I believe myself I should have got the opportunity for Scotland but I never got it,” said Coyne, who achieved the unique feat of topping the Premier League goal-scoring charts with three different clubs, Dundee, Celtic and Motherwell. “To play for Ireland was a huge thing for me, albeit it was through my grandmother. I always made sure I tried my hardest. I think I proved to people I did appreciate it.

“Scotland were in our group (for the Euro 2016 qualifiers) and people would come up to me and say, ‘who do you want to win?’ Who do you expect I want to win? I am Scottish but I never played for Scotland. It is a silly question. It would be wrong of me to want Scotland to win.”

So there’s no reason to ask why he was in Paris last week. Both his youngest children begged their father to be allowed to wear one of his old Republic of Ireland shirts. This explains the Coyne fan club at the Stade de France as the current vintage of Irish players drew 1-1 with Sweden in their opening Euro 2016 game.

Names like Keane, either Roy or Robbie, or Hoolahan are more likely to feature on tops worn by fans now. Coyne has since rather melted away, rather like he nearly did 22 years in the sweltering heat of the Giants stadium in New Jersey, after contributing to this seismic result: Republic of Ireland 1 Italy 0.

Fellow Glaswegian Ray Houghton scored the memorable winner, arcing a shot over the head of Italy goalkeeper Gianluca Pagiluca. But it was then Motherwell player Coyne whose challenge on Alessandro Costacurta spooked the normally reliable Italian defence into making not just one but two dismal efforts to clear their lines.

The latter of these, from Franco Baresi of all people, saw the ball drop at Houghton’s feet. The rest is history, which is set to be re-lived this week prior to Republic of Ireland’s final Group E clash with Italy in Lille on Wednesday, a match they will have to win to have any chance of qualifying for the last 16.

Coyne’s shift at centre-forward was one of the bravest, most selfless individual performances this correspondent has seen. It was also an early example of something that has since become so commonplace – the lone front man.

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Already forced to cope with personal tragedy following the death of his 29-year-old wife Alison, just over a year earlier, Coyne ran and he ran in the heat of a New Jersey afternoon. It was as if he didn’t care for his own personal welfare. Life had already dealt him the cruellest blow.

If there were such things as Opta statistics back in 1994, his data would have been off the grid. Coyne’s left foot got the game under way at kick-off and he didn’t stop harrying, didn’t stop making runs for his teammates until he made way for John Aldridge in the very last minute of normal time; spent, exhausted.

“If you did not do what Jack (Charlton) asked, you wouldn’t play, or he would take you off,” recalled Coyne this week. “I was told that first hand by Packie Bonner going over: ‘If you don’t do what Jack asks, you won’t even take part’.

“I found him great to work for, someone who has achieved so much. When Jack says run your socks off against Italy, you do as you are asked. Otherwise you get hooked.”

He did eventually get hooked, but only for his own good. In actual fact, probably too late for his own good.

It remains one of Republic of Ireland’s finest results, perhaps the finest. Italy, of course, reached the final, where Roberto Baggio missed the decisive penalty kick against Brazil. Baggio had got himself another shirt by then, his first having been swapped with Coyne.

Baggio is among those able to attest to the heroic nature of Coyne’s shift after being handed a sodden No.15 shirt – COYNE across the back. Sweat had poured from Coyne, so much so that his dehydrated state meant he could not provide a urine sample for drug testers for what felt like hours after the game.

It was typical Coyne was one of those chosen. Drained already, there was little more his body could produce. “I had to give one,” he recalled. “They wouldn’t let me out of there otherwise. Eventually I did. I was kind of panic stations, because I could not give a sample. It was two from each team – me and Paul McGrath, and two Italians, one of them I remember was Baresi. Just the four of us.”

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While Irish fans partied long into the night outside – estimates were that as many 50,000 of Irish heritage were inside the since demolished ground – there was uncomfortable silence in this little room. “I don’t speak Italian and they probably spoke English but I don’t think they were for speaking anyway,” said Coyne, who had started to feel light-headed as he waited – and waited – for nature’s call. He ended up on a drip in a hospital bed.

“I took in too much water too quickly,” he explained. “It basically made me drunk on water. I had really bad headaches and then went on the aeroplane and I should never have done that. I should have stayed in New York.

“We went back to Florida, where our base was, and that was the worst thing I could have done.”

Coyne recovered to start the next game, against Mexico. Indeed, having been called up to the squad as a late replacement for the injured Niall Quinn, Coyne started three of Ireland’s four World Cup games, their campaign coming to an end at the hands of the Dutch at the last 16 stage.

“I was a Motherwell player,” he said. “It was not Celtic after my name, it was Motherwell. I was picked ahead of John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino, which I am not sure went down well with the players.”

There was a comedic element to the very serious business of kicking-off their World Cup campaign against first class opposition. Charlton wanted his players, particularly those with a paler complexion and ginger hair such as Coyne, to wear white baseball caps as they walked out.

“There was no way I was waking out there in a hat,” said Coyne. “That was Jack’s idea, to keep the sun off those with light coloured skin, and hair, until the last possible moment. He didn’t even want us to go out for a warm up!”

Steve Staunton and Ray Houghton were not so self-conscious, with the former still wearing his when the national anthems were played, the antidote to the stylish Italians lining up alongside. “Jack gave one to me, I threw it into the corner of the dressing-room, ‘I can’t wear that!’” added Coyne. The only other time he remembers disobeying Charlton was turning down a pint of Guinness at their Orlando base between matches.

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Coyne, while he discarded the baseball cap, kept many of his jerseys – except the one hanging (perhaps) in the grand hall of Baggio’s villa. His two youngest children were grateful last Monday.

“Stelli wanted to wear my top I wore in 94’, v Italy. We got two jerseys for every game – the jersey I played in I swapped with Baggio. My son wore another one.”