There’s a brilliant football book by Paolo Hewitt and Paul McGuigan called ‘’The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw’’ about an obscure footballer from the English lower leagues in the 1970’s called Robin Friday. If you can imagine a mix of Best, Cantona and Barton, then that was Robin Friday. He played for Reading [alongside Eamon Dunphy] and Cardiff City and was a great footballer as well as being an extremely troubled character. In an era when lower-league action was rarely filmed Friday went unnoticed by the public at large, hence the title of ‘’The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw’’ – unless you had a season ticket at Reading or Cardiff in the 1970’s you probably never saw Robin Friday.
I read the book when it came out and again recently. It got me thinking. Who could I bestow the title on in a League of Ireland context? A couple of names came to mind, and they would only be my choices – we would all have different nominees for the title.
Firstly I thought of Tony O’Connell, who played for Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Dundalk between 1959 and 1971 [he also had a stint in America in the early 1960’s]. He also played 2 full Ireland internationals. I’d put Tony O’Connell in this bracket because he’s a player I’ve heard a lot about through family [he is my wife’s uncle] but given the era he played in little footage survives. Thankfully you can find Tony’s winning goal in the 1970 FAI Cup final for Bohemians on youtube. That Cup win against Sligo Rovers ended a 34-year wait for major silverware at Dalymount Park, and it vindicated the decision of the Dalymount hierarchy to abandon their policy of not signing professionals when they signed O’Connell as the club’s first professional in 1969.
O’Connell was a maverick. He bought himself out of his Dundalk contract so that he could sign for Bohemians – a revolutionary step for a young League of Ireland player in 1969. He had also been to the US very early in his career where he was nominated for an ‘’All Star’’ during his time at New York. A spell at Toronto City saw him play alongside Malcolm Allison and Tony Book.
The other name that came to mind for ‘’The Greatest League of Ireland Footballer You Never Saw’’ was Graham Coughlan. He’s a player I did see play in most if not all of his 11 games for Bray Wanderers, but his time at the club was so short [2 months at the start of the 1995-95 season] that most Bray fans wouldn’t have seen him.
The start of the 1995-96 season was a magical time for Bray Wanderers. Pat Devlin had returned to the club for a second spell as manager at the back-end of 1994-95 and hope was in the air. The Messiah was back. He brought in some talented players and promoted some local talent from the League of Ireland B side. One player who came in was Graham Coughlan from Leinster Senior League side Cherry Orchard.
Bray made an outstanding start to the season. They got to the semi-final of the League Cup for the first time in the club’s history and won the First Division Shield, overturning a 3-0 first-leg deficit to defeat Waterford United. Instrumental in these achievements was Graham Coughlan at the centre of defence. He played with a courage, confidence and commitment that belied his age [he was 20 at the time]. The League Cup and Shield exploits had been great and the League proper was about to start, with promotion a real prospect after several seasons avoiding or having to apply for re-election. And then …. Coughlan was gone! Blackburn Rovers stepped in for him, such were the stories that had reached them about his performances. This was the Blackburn that had just won the Premier League, remember!
Coughlan stayed at Ewood Park until 1999 but never broke through. The remainder of his career though was a long list of successes and achievement. He played for Livingston, Plymouth Argyle, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United, Shrewsbury Town and Southend United [where his playing career ended in 2013 but where he still is, as first-team coach]. He was Plymouth’s Player of the Year in 2001-02, the same season he made the PFA Third Division [now League Two] Team of the Year. In 2003-04 he was again Player of the Year for Argyle and he made the PFA Second Division [now League One] Team of the Year, and was also named divisional Player of the Year by the PFA. A further Player of the Year award was bestowed on him at Sheffield Wednesday in 2005-06.
In 2002 Plymouth Argyle conducted a poll among fans to mark their centenary as a professional club. Coughlan was picked in the Team of the Century. He’d be in my Bray Wanderers all-time XI. The greatest Bray Wanderers player you probably never saw.