Dundalk FC's James Coll confronts John Caulfield of Cork City during the 1991 League of Ireland title decider at Turner's Cross. (Pic: Sportsfile)
Norman Hunter bites legs, Vinnie Jones bites noses and a snarl from James Coll is usually enough to send goose pimples shooting up and down the necks of National League centre-forwards. Carved from granite, the Scot is the sort of guy who would not flinch if ordered to spearhead the charge at Bannockburn. He is the National League equivalent of a Sherman tank.
The Irish Independent’s Philip Quinn, 1995.
Democrat: “Is that accurate, James?”
Coll: “It could be close to it, yeah. Then there was the Felix Healy thing… Ah, no, that was at Bohemians. Never mind.”
Democrat: “No, go on.”
Coll: “Do you not know about that.”
Democrat: “No.” (Perhaps all the better for not!)
Coll: “The year I signed with Turlough at Bohs (1995) we were playing up in Derry, first against second. It was nil-all at half-time and I’d made two or three tackles, ‘man and ball’ if you understand what I’m saying. Not over the top or anything, just man and ball. Felix Healy comes over, ‘you Scottish…’
“I said to him: ‘Listen, you were a shitbag as a player; you’re a shitbag as a manager. Fuck off’.
“He walked over to me, looked at me and punched me - this is the manager of Derry City. He went to do it again and I grabbed his throat and squeezed it. The referee came over and I asked if he saw what happened. He said to get behind him - I thought for my own protection - because Healy was going mad. He took out the red card and showed it to Felix Healy. Healy came again and I grabbed his throat so that he couldn’t hit me. The referee turned around and gave me a red card.
“‘What’s that for?’”
“‘Retaliation,’ he said.”
“I made a run for Healy at that stage, ‘I’ll show you what retaliation is…’ Two or three guys got me to the ground...
“I had to go to the Four Courts in Dublin to clear my name. To this day, I know I should have sued Derry City, but I was told by Bohemians and the FAI not to because Derry could have been thrown out of the league and maybe out of football. I didn’t want to go that far.
“The FAI, after they got the referee’s report, they banned me for three weeks. Felix Healy got nothing… Never a dull moment, I’m afraid.”
James Coll remains a revered figure among portions of the Dundalk FC fanbase. While lacking the profile of, say, Dermot Keely or Tommy McConville, the fondly-remembered Scot skippered The Lilywhites to the 1995 league title, having also been a spinal member of the championship-winning side of four seasons earlier.
Plucked from obscurity by Turlough O’Connor in 1984, he was an instant hit at Athlone Town, lining-up alongside Tom Connolly, Pádraig O’Connor and the likes. Reared in Glasgow, before moving to Gaoth Dobhair, County Donegal, where his father came from, at the age of 16 Coll was unsure of where his career would go.
A successful stint with Gweedore Celtic preceded a work placement in Dublin, where he featured and was spotted playing for a local side in Tallaght. On to Athlone, where he began to forge a promising reputation. So much so that Belgian giants Anderlecht lodged their interest, speaking to O’Connor, only for the clubs to fail when it came to financial negotiations.
He was only told subsequently of the talks and has never got around to inquiring whether it was money alone that prevented the transfer process from furthering.
“I remember going home to my wife and asking if she spoke French. ‘We’re going to Belgium’,” Coll recalls, chuckling.
And then there was later interest from Mansfield, which didn’t materialise. Hostility at a trial match not exactly making the newcomer feel entirely welcome.
“The manager was to meet me, but there was a match so I arrived at the airport and this guy collects me; a big, big guy. I was about six feet one and this guy was six-five; a big bulky thing. I shook his hand and he nearly crushed mine…
“‘I’m the representative of Mansfield,’ he says.
“‘Aye, James here.’
“‘What’s your position, James?’
“‘I’m a centre-half.’
“He looked me in the eye and walked up. He says: ‘I’m the centre-half and I’m the captain.’
“I’m streetwise and I knew right away, ‘I’m getting nowhere here’. He didn’t welcome me, he actually threatened me.
“When I played a game I said ‘this isn’t for me’, because I knew. He tried to do me in the match, the first-team against the second-team. I knew I’d end up digging him and that’d destroy me.”
O’Connor, for whom he still has much admiration, left for Dundalk in 1985 and had wanted to take the swashbuckling Glaswegian with him. Town’s asking fee was said to have been what scuppered the deal and Coll was sore about it. John Cleary would sign for The Lilywhites, likely in place of O’Connor’s Athlone prodigy, and every time he went to Oriel Park until moving there permanently, he felt emotional.
“When Turlough didn’t take me to Dundalk, that hurt,” Coll says.
“He drove up to my house to try and sign me - I was out, and he never came back. I think he went for John Cleary from St. Pat’s. I don’t know why he didn’t come back, but every time after that when I played in Dundalk - and they started winning - I used to visualise, ‘that could have been me’.
“Had he came for me that year, I’d have been at Dundalk five years previously and six years after… 11 years.”
Terms at St. Patrick’s Athletic and Limerick - where Billy Hamilton was building an impressive team - followed, before being reunited with O’Connor as Jim Gannon’s replacement.
“It was a no-brainer, getting back working with Turlough, because he was the best manager I ever had, going right back to my school days when I had really good managers.
“The way he conducted himself, with so much class, and when you were in a training ground, he would put his boots on, nutmeg me and laugh. But when something came up about a matchday, when you knew Turlough was talking about a matchday, you listened.
“Turlough knew what I could do; I was a leader, a winner, I pushed people up so we could squeeze.”
Determined to make his mark in an experienced dressing room, containing many 1988 double winners, it was a case of Coll getting “the first clatter in” at training. He managed that. Boy, did he manage that.
Celtic warrior Billy McNeill was his hero and who he strived to be as a youngster watching games at Parkhead.
“I used to look at the guy winning the ball in the air,” he adds. “I always wanted to be a defender and when other people were going for Jimmy Johnstone and the Lennoxes, the goalscorers, I used to go to Celtic Park to watch Billy McNeill, how he’d organise it and win the ball.”
And that was the blueprint for Coll at Dundalk. Attack the ball and win it, thus preventing any chance of conceding. Ultimately, defensive solidity was the base upon which O’Connor built his second victorious side, recruiting solid Dubliner Ronnie Murphy from Bohemians.
He would be the Franco Baresi of the partnership in the sense of mopping up whatever little got by Coll. The sweeper behind the wall. Not that anyone bar O’Connor saw the duo becoming such a success.
“That was Turlough O’Connor, the vision of the man. When I saw Ronnie Murphy coming in I was saying to myself - and Ronnie and I became best mates - ‘how the fuck is he going to fit in?’ He was big and he could tackle, but the guy, I thought his legs were gone.
“But he would just tidy up. Though he’d never stay on the ball. I remember if we were winning 3-0, I used to get the ball and pass it around the back. Ronnie would say to me, ‘don’t pass it to me’, so when we’d be well up I used to hit the ball to him hard so the forward would go for him. ‘You, ya Scottish prick… don’t be doing that to me…’ I’d do it to put him under pressure.”
The Lilywhites went 16 games unbeaten from December 1990 to the division’s conclusion in spring of the following year, the campaign culminating in an incredible victory on the last day of the season against Cork City, just as it would 23 years later.
Tom McNulty got the match- and title-winning strike at Turner’s Cross, though, in Coll’s mind, victory was but a formality.
Dundalk were winners, both historically and in the dressing room, and that was significant.
“Going down to Cork knowing they’d won everything, the All-Irelands in GAA and camogie… We were down on their patch and for us to beat them was unreal.
“But we had total belief. I looked at Ronnie Murphy, Tom McNulty, Terry Eviston and the players around me… we’d so much experience and I didn’t just feel we’d beat them, I said they’re not going to score, end of story.
“When you’ve somebody like Tom McNulty in your team you just know you’re going to do it.
“It was a bit surreal as we walked out, we saw the Dundalk supporters up in the corner and we went over. I listened to a programme the other day with Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold talking about how the crowd spurs you on. When we went to the crowd it hit us that they were after travelling from Dundalk, and we actually said this in the dressing room, ‘we cannot let them go home without the title’.
“They gave us a buzz because they were singing, but the Cork mob didn’t have the songs to get them going. Dundalk had years of winning and songs to get them going; Cork would shout and roar, but it would die down.”
They advanced to the European Cup qualifiers later in the year, losing to Honved over two legs, despite securing a draw in Hungary. Coll reckons Dundalk failed to adapt for the second leg, whereas the visitors had decisively altered their approach.
He would win Dundalk’s player of the year award in 1992, but the end was nigh for O’Connor after defeat by Shelbourne in the 1993 FAI Cup final. His departure was sad, especially how supporters had begun to turn against a man who had led the club through another golden era.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Coll, then captain, says. “Turlough is a very close man and he wouldn’t tell you the half of it, but you knew deep down that it was going on.
“Dermot (Keely) came in, full of craic, but he was all about grit and guts. There was no tactical side to it, whereas Turlough used to drag me back and explain the tactical instructions.”
CLASH OF THE TITANS
Coll openly admits he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Keely, despite the pair combining to win the league championship in 1995. A dominant figure of the dressing room, in the Keely mould, he reckons the steely Dublin native was dubious of his influence.
“I was captain at that stage,” says Coll. “He realised the way he was and I was, I was a strong figure the way he was in his playing days, so he probably knew he couldn’t take it off me.
“We were a group of players that were put together and we worked really hard - other teams in the league had better players - but when myself and Dermot clashed, towards the end of the season, I was never offered a contract and it really hurt me.
“That’s when Turlough O’Connor came in - possibly the best manager I ever worked under - and took me to Bohemians. I had to go because I knew I was getting nothing at Dundalk, where I’d given six years, a club where I thought I’d end my career.”
Perhaps their personality clash is best told via Coll’s challenge over Keely’s team selection amid the run-in in ’95.
“McNulty said it to me after, ‘I can’t believe, James, the number of people who’ve come up to me asking why I was gone’. Being honest, I couldn’t believe it myself. But, again, it’s a power thing.
“Dermot thought I had the dressing room. People were coming to me rather than Dermot. He was good and motivated, don’t get me wrong, Dermot was good, but it was the little tactical things… He dropped Eddie van Boxtel, to me the best goalkeeper in the league, and brought in Jody Byrne.
“We were winning games and going up to Shamrock Rovers trying to catch up. A ball got passed back and Jody let it go under his legs and into the goal. Before that game he’d made a couple of mistakes as well and I went to Dermot afterwards and said we’re not going to play again until you put Eddie back in. McNulty came to me and said we had to do something.
“I think that’s when Dermot took the biggest gripe against me. It was like me telling him this is what you’ve got to do. But he put van Boxtel in and we went on to win the league; it was the best call.”
A sour taste lingered and the manner of his departure still sits uncomfortably.
“It’s the most passionate I was at any football club. The sad point is I don’t think I ever should have left the club. I could see myself at the time going for my badges and taking over the club. I was well respected through the players; if any player needed anything they came to me and we discussed it and got it sorted.
“Someone in the background was talking about me getting a testimonial over the following years. Obviously I wanted to get Celtic over and I was getting in touch with contacts in Glasgow, but then there is that time period where it lay, the contract situation.
“Turlough would have got the players signed, but Dermot knew if he left it for a while somebody would come in for me and then he’d try after… ‘I wanted you to stay...’
“But he should have got me the day after we won the league. There’s players that are stronger and weaker, but if you’ve got a player and you know what he can do, you’ve got to have him in your team. It’s like going into a war, you can’t take your top general out, because you’ll be slaughtered.”
Nonetheless, he still holds great affection for the club and keeps track of their results, recalling the good days and title wins.
Quinn’s assessment was spot on, and Felix Healy would likely agree.