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Behind enemy lines

by Christy O'Connor was published in the The Sunday Times on Sunday the 14th of May 2006

He’s graduated from a hard apprenticeship but Neville Coughlan’s best days lie ahead — Offaly need him, starting today

On a back-road meandering through the heart of the midlands and situated just a few hundred yards past the Castledaly GAA field, Neville Coughlan is deep behind enemy lines. Although he’s not met the owners of the house he’s blocklaying, Coughlan heard that they’re fanatical Westmeath supporters. Nestled just inside the Westmeath border, where the local rivalry with Offaly is at its fiercest, Coughlan had planned to hang an Offaly flag off one of the trees as the weekend drew closer. No intrusion meant. Just to mark his presence. These are the weeks to live for but the arrival of the summer and the onset of the championship never make allowances for his kind of hard labour. On most days Coughlan would lay 350 blocks but that still doesn’t grant him dispensation from the gym. The nature of the job eventually wore Benny Coulter down so much that the Down county board secured him a role as a GAA coaching officer.

Coughlan always tries to ease off on the Thursday and Friday before a championship match but that’s the only time he can alter the pace of his work to prepare for a big game. Everything else is out of his control, especially on weeks like this when the temperature is soaring well above 20C and the sun is sucking his energy dry.

“It’s very difficult during the summer because there’s no way that I can get in out of the sun,” he says. “I remember drinking over four litres of water one day last year and I went to training that evening and I hadn’t an ounce of energy. Lads were shouting at me but I think the boys are starting to understand now. It’s probably the toughest job you can do, especially for an inter-county GAA player.”

He deals with the demands because Coughlan has never looked for excuses.

Up until last year, he was one of the few inter-county dual players left in the country. Although his inter-county career to date has encompassed some of the most harrowing defeats Offaly football has endured over the past two decades, his best days as a player are still ahead of him.

He’s had a hard grounding. Bad luck, wrong decision- making, poor refereeing and umpiring decisions cost Offaly in Leinster between 2001 and 2004. But something fundamental in their mindset has held them back. Last year’s defeat to Laois was unforgivable.

That game was the most salient example of how Offaly have consistently tortured themselves this decade. They led by six points at half-time but wasted enough possession to win two games and ended up kicking 20 wides, 10 more than Laois. Coughlan doesn’t need to be told they blew it; he blazed a shot over the bar just before half-time when he had a goal at his mercy.

“Last year’s defeat was the worst ever,” he says. “We were so far ahead that we thought, ‘Right, we can relax now.’ Then we found ourselves on the back foot and we couldn’t break the rhythm. We just seem to be consistently lacking that killer touch and we’ve paid an awful high price for it.

“If we could get one or two wins under our belt, we could take off. It’s just trying to get those few wins. We feel we’re very close. We will get it right some day and we will play serious football and beat somebody by eight or 10 points. Hopefully it will start this Sunday.”

Although still only 23, this is Coughlan’s sixth year on the Offaly side. He made his debut in 2001 at full-forward on a side that was buttressed by the pillars that had held Offaly football together for more than a decade. Sean and Jimmy Grennan, Finbar Cullen and Vinny Claffey provided an initiation course in what was expected of him as an Offaly footballer.

“They were phenomenal,” says Coughlan. “Everything they said was 100% true and they would make you go through a wall to get the next ball. They were unbelievable guys to train with because they’d kill you for a ball in training as quickly as they would in the championship.

“Myself, Ger Rafferty and Alan McNamee were called in together and the boys were trying to teach us a lesson straight away. After the first couple of sessions, we knew we weren’t getting anything here so we said we might as well start dishing it back. We did and the boys respected us more for it. It’s been a long road already but it’s still only beginning.”

Hurling was always a part of him on that journey. He was on the Offaly minor hurling team that halted Kilkenny’s bid for 11 Leinster titles in a row in 2000 and he won a Leinster title against Dublin later that summer. He was first called into the senior hurling squad in 2003 and bookended that year with one of the goals of the season in Offaly’s All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Tipperary.

“The first year I tried the two I had a meeting with Mike McNamara (former Offaly hurling manager),” says Coughlan. “He’s a big man to be standing in front of you and I said to him, ‘What do you think of the dual player?’ And he said, ‘I don’t really have much time for them.’ I just said to him then, ‘Do you mind if I give it a go? ’ He said, ‘No problem.’”

He played every game for the hurlers the following season when they should have won a Leinster title. He went back with the hurlers at the outset of last season as well but his body was beginning to bend under the strain. One evening he played the first-half of a challenge game for the hurlers against Galway in Portumna before rushing off to Tullamore to play the second-half of another game with the footballers. Something had to give and he withdrew from the hurling panel before last year’s championship. He returned to the hurlers after the footballers were beaten in the qualifiers. “As far as I was concerned I was going to play dual for as long as I could,” says Coughlan. “It just came to the stage that I wasn’t getting the time with the hurling. I remember playing a game in Birr. I couldn’t read the game and my first touch was atrocious. I find myself a lot fresher this year but if you want to compete with these top boys, you nearly have to sleep with the hurl. It’s not possible, especially when lads would nearly take your life for a place in either football or hurling.”

Focusing on only one code has helped his football but Coughlan never had much time on his hands. He was always interested in photography and two years ago bought all the gear. He’s been gradually making a name for himself. He had one confirmation shoot last week and did another one yesterday. He has his sister’s wedding in his diary for later this year and, ideally, would like it to become his profession.

He wasn’t able to lay blocks on Monday because it was raining so he put on the rain-gear and headed down around Charleville Castle. He snapped some deer and a few stags before heading off to training. Coughlan probably never will have any use for the photographs but he doesn’t believe in letting an opportunity slip. He’s had enough experience of that with the Offaly footballers.

“We all felt that we really let ourselves and our county down last year and that has been driving us this year,” says Coughlan. “We have a point to prove and it has to start this Sunday. We have to show teams that we’re not messing around anymore and that we are capable of winning a Leinster title.

“I know in my heart and soul that if we put in the same effort we did last year against Laois and keep it up for 70 minutes, it’s very hard to see any team slowing us down. There’s no holds barred now. We’ve been saying that for the past few years but it really is all or nothing now.”

Win or lose, he will slip back over the border tomorrow morning to resume work. Back behind enemy lines but hopefully with the battle won.

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