DECLAN Coulter is no stranger to Nicky Rackard Cup Finals, but next Saturday’s decider will be unique for him, as he looks to win the championship in the colours of Donegal.
Coulter was one of Armagh’s best hurlers over the past decade, and he played in four Nicky Rackard Finals with his native county.
He was on the losing side in 2007, 2015, and 2016, although he was man-of-the match when the Orchard men got the better of Louth in 2012.
The 32-year-old is now starring for Donegal after relocating to the Cross, and he will make the trip to Croke Park once again next Saturday to take on Warwickshire.
“I have played there a few times – some successful, some not so successful,” said Coulter.
“Every kid growing up wants to play in Croke Park.
“But there’s playing in Croke Park, and there’s winning in Croke Park, and they are two very different things.
“I’ve sat on the pitch and looked up at too many other teams lifting trophies to let this slip.”
Coulter first linked up with Donegal last season, but it wasn’t a year to remember as they performed poorly in the championship despite a promising start.
However, the team’s fortunes have been transformed this season under the guidance of Mickey McCann, and after comfortable victories over Tyrone, and Leitrim, they booked their place in the All-Ireland Final with a 4-22 to 1-10 triumph over Monaghan in Owenbeg.
Coulter said: “It was a good win, especially after Monaghan beat us last year, and beat us handy enough.
“We knew it was going to be a tough assignment coming in. With Monaghan, you have to match their intensity before you do anything else.
“We knew we had enough good hurlers and footballers to do the business, but it was nice to see everything that we have worked on over the last four or five weeks kind of clicking.
“But there is still plenty to work on too.”
After notching five points in the win over Monaghan, Coulter is unlikely to be dropped for the final unless he picks up an injury.
However, he won’t be resting on his laurels and he knows that there are quality players like Lee Henderson and Joe Boyle, who could step into the team and not weaken it in any way.
“Lee would start in pretty much every other county in this division, and the division above.
“He’s a great player, but he just got an injury at the wrong time.
“That’s the thing about Mickey – if you are on form, and you deserve the jersey, then you’ll get it.
“It’s healthy to have that competition. I have played in more than enough teams down through the years where you have had maybe 11 or 12 players, and you’re looking at the line if some man gets injured, and you have nobody to come on.
“That’s not the way it is here, and that has made for a really good buzz at training.
“Gabriel (O’Kane) has brought a whole new dimension to the training this year, and the boys have really bought into it.”
Coulter has experienced plenty of big games over the last 12 months, as he helped Setanta to the Ulster Junior Hurling title.
There was disappointment after his club team lost to Ardmore in the All-Ireland semi in January, and the Primary School teacher then took a short break and spent some extra time at home with his wife Ciara – who is Donegal captain Danny Cullen’s sister – and their daughter Lara.
“I took time off after the club campaign had finished.
“I just said to Mickey that if you want to be fresh come this time of the year, you need a break, and Mickey was more than happy about that. He would be very good as a man manager.
“I was going well at the time and you want to stick at it, but it’s a long year.
“I took two weeks off and they were great. You need a bit of time at home, and to throw the feet up.”
Donegal’s success in the Nicky Rackard Cup has not come as a huge surprise, as they were excellent in the league this year.
They may not have won promotion, but it was still a real breakthrough campaign in Division 2B.
McCann’s charges won three games against Derry, Down, and Armagh, and that has given them huge confidence.
They are likely to face a stern test in the decider in Croke Park, and Coulter says that everything that has gone on before now will matter for little when they cross the white line.
“Gabriel said to us during the week, with the exception of Antrim, we have beat every team in Ulster – Derry, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, and Monaghan – any team that we could meet, we have managed to beat them.
“Obviously we have Warwickshire the next day, and they are a very, very good team.
“We will probably be going in as underdogs. I know they have a few lads from Belfast and down the country.
“But we will just treat it as 15 lads against 15 lads. We just need to win our own battles on the day.”