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Cretaro backing Coleman to lead WC qualifying charge

By Frank Craig

Raf Cretaro says anyone that still doubts Seamie Coleman’s ability to lead both club and country doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Killybegs man Coleman was edged out at right back by Matt Doherty in the Republic of Ireland side early on in Stephen Kenny’s reign.

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However, having bounced back in fine style for Everton in recent weeks, and given Doherty’s current out-of-sorts form for Spurs, there is no doubt Coleman currently heads the right back pecking order.

But meeting adversity head on and coming out the other end is nothing new for the St Cummins Hill man. And Cretaro says we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s once again proved his detractors wrong.

Cretaro first encountered that steely determination 15 years ago. It was February of 2006 and a friendly between St. Catherine’s and Sligo Rovers up in Emerald Park had been arranged.

Coleman played at centre-back that day with Cretaro – in his pomp – through the middle for the high profile visitors. The Donegal League champions might have been thumped 5-0 but a raw 17-year-old had made quite the impression.

“I remember going up to Killybegs that morning,” said Cretaro. It was freezing! I remember playing against St Catherine’s. I was playing up top, striker.

“Seamie was only around 16 or 17 at the time. He was centre back that day. I was a young pro at the time myself, 22 or 23. I remember thinking right away, this lad isn’t giving me an absolute inch.

“It was like an annoying rash that you just could not get rid off. Any time you received the ball he was in front of you. The big thing for me was he didn’t care that this was Sligo Rovers in town.

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“He was leaving a little tackle on you, nothing nasty or a foul, but just enough. And listen, anyone that wants to make it at the very top level has to have that streak.

“When I say streak I don’t mean looking to hurt anyone. It’s just that tenacity and desire to get to every single ball.”

Then Bit O’ Red boss Sean Connor was living in the Killybegs area at the time and, on the recommendation of the Rovers players, he quickly signed Coleman up.

However, he was soon on the move to Bohemians. And his successor, Rob McDonald, just didn’t see the attraction in Coleman.

McDonald would later admit. “I just looked at him and thought ‘do you really want this? I had my doubts. But I’m pleased he proved me wrong.”

McDonald’s spell at the Showgrounds would come to an abrupt end when a dispute with the club saw him walk away days before the 2007 season began.

In the lead-up to that opener, he’d already told Coleman he was surplus to requirements and that maybe he should make enquires closer to home, with a switch to Finn Harps mooted.

However, the incoming Paul Cook didn’t need convincing. And Cretaro says it was under the Liverpudlian’s influence that Coleman really flourished.

He was given a freedom to get forward and marauding runs from right-back quickly became a Rovers trademark. His touch, awareness and positioning all improved. And it wasn’t long before interested eyes cross-channel began to take note.

“Paul Cook was superb,” Cretaro explained. “For me, I’ve highlighted just how important he was for my career. I’d say if you talked to Seamie personally he’d be very close to that sentiment as well. He was a great manager for putting the arm around the shoulder.

“If at any stage you doubted your ability, he wasn’t long putting that doubt to bed. He’d tell you you’re a top footballer and he’d have you buzzing.

“Paul’s style of play was very attack minded and there was this sense of freedom within the set-up. We were allowed to express ourselves.

“He just knew what lads needed. Some lads he’d give a rollicking to at half-time because he knew they’d come out with steam coming out of their ears for the second-half.

“But he also knew the ones that needed an arm or a quiet word. That was a skill and he had it. And Seamie and him had a really good relationship. And I’ve no doubt he’d a massive influence on a lot of lads that went on to further their careers.

“Paul is a top, top manager.”

In January 2009, almost three years to the month after he’d played his last game for Junior side St Catherine’s, he was on his way to Goodison Park.

Cretaro admits he still finds it hard to fathom that such a gap was bridged in such a short space of time.

“Sixty grand Seamus Coleman, what a bit of business! But there were no guarantees that time. It was a chance, an opportunity. But again, we talked about that desire and streak and that’s what propelled him at that time.

“The odds are so stacked against anyone going over to a club as big as Everton but Seamie saw it as another challenge and he met it head on.

“Honest to god, it was such a leap. To have been playing junior football and, within a few years, be playing away to Benfica in Europe… it was crazy. I remember just staring at the TV.

“Even his debut in the Premier League, off the bench. I think it was Spurs. It was amazing. And that was the start of it. He’s gone on to captain his club and country since.

“And listen, he probably wouldn’t say it but that would have been a massive honour for him. He’d have been so proud to get that opportunity. But he’s a leader.”

He added: “And anyone that has had the pleasure of knowing him or working along side him, no one begrudged him the success he made of it. We were all rooting for him.

“There was no luck involved, it was sheer determination. Even now, he’s still the exact same lad that joined Sligo all those years ago. He really is a genuinely nice person.

“And that’s a credit to Killybegs, his family and his upbringing. He still has the same circle of mates. That says a lot. His success hasn’t changed him one little bit.

“He went to England as a young lad. He was with a local girl at the time, Rachel, and they’re now married with kids. It’s a great story.

“It’s an example and it’s something we can all point to and say ‘look, you can be what ever you want to be if you’re willing to work hard enough’.

“He’s quite reserved in a way. There’s nothing flash and what you see is what you get. He’s so close to his family and his two brothers.

“He’s had a fantastic career. And it’s far from over yet. I feel he’s hitting form at just the right time. He’s absolutely flying. He was excellent the other night against Liverpool in that role.

“The new manager Ancelotti had some high praise for him recently. And that’s a man that has seen and done it all. But it’s a really exciting time to be an Everton player or fan at this moment.

“They’re up there and it would be great if they managed to land silverware of some description.”

Cretaro might well have hung up his boots but he remains a student of the game. And whenever he’s coaching, the example of Coleman and the dizzy heights he’s scaled, is never far away.

“When things get tough he stands out,” he added. “That’s what you want in a leader. He drives things on and no one downs tools under his watch.

“He is the example to every young player in the north west and indeed all over the country. That’s what they can aspire to be. And I don’t mean that as just a player, I mean that as a person too.”

At 39, Cretaro’s last involvement in League of Ireland Premier Division football was to help keep Finn Harps in the top flight last season.

It looked like Ollie Horgan might once again convince him to remain on board in Ballybofey. But in the end the head, he says, finally won out in that tug of war with the heart.

“Listen, we’d all love to go on for ever. I was chatting to Ollie and I did flirt a little with the idea of staying on. And look, I was so grateful to Ollie and Harps for giving me that extra year to begin with.

“Again, we talk about man management but Ollie gave me the confidence that I had another year in me at that level.

“I didn’t play massive game time but I was involved in a lot of them off the bench. And Ollie valued that and maybe even the influence I could have on the younger lads coming through.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it. But for me, Covid and no crowds, it kind of made the decision a little easier. I always said that when I finished it would be my choice and on my terms.

“I didn’t want people saying ‘Jesus, he’d want to finish up he’s well past it now’. Maybe I did have another year in me but that’s often the best way to leave it. But no doubt, I’m eternally grateful to everyone up in Ballybofey.”

His one regret is that Harps didn’t get the result they deserved in their FAI Cup quarter-final clash with Shamrock Rovers back in November.

Having amazingly gone two up against the league champions, some questionable refereeing decisions cruelly gifted Rovers a route back into contention.

“Listen, events conspired against us. That game, I won’t say got away from us, but we were two up against the champions. We were in cruise control to be fair.

“We did not look like conceding at any stage. It was two dubious penalty calls that got them back into it. That’s what turned it. For me though, it’s gone.

“The positive we have to take from it was that we’d put it up to the best side in the country. The confidence every player should take from that game can be put to good use now when they get back at it.

“It’s a massive season for Harps. But for me, that’s what we should be taking away from that game. Yeah, we probably got the short straw that night but I think Harps proved that individually, and collectively, they belong up there with the best in the league.

“Take that now going forward and use that mentality to really start something special. It’s a chance to drive on. Ollie has kept all the lads he’s wanted to keep too and that’s brilliant. And he’s added some quality as well.

“The aim will be to once again stay in the Premier Division. But who knows, in a couple of months we could be talking again and it could very well be going even better than that. That’s the hope my end.”

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