“I’d go to war…” - Graham Coughlan lifts lid on ingenious recruitment and Sheffield Wednesday exit

Graham Coughlan loved his time at Sheffield Wednesday so much that he still lives in the city – while his son follows them home and away.
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He’s looking into the away end at Gillingham as we exchange phone numbers. Over 3,000 fans had made the long trip to Priestfield, and it really was a sight to see.

“Some Premier League clubs don’t get this kind of support,” he said afterwards. “I still think Sheffield Wednesday are amongst the top 10 biggest clubs in England.”

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And they might not know it, but the Wednesdayites played a major role in the former Shrewsbury Town man making the switch to S6. Paul Sturrock let them do the talking when he wanted to sign the defender from Plymouth Argyle, sorting the defender out with tickets to the 2005 Play-Off semis and final.

“He knew,” Coughlan told The Star with a smile. “As soon as I stepped foot inside Hillsborough, and got around the Wednesday fans at Cardiff, he knew I’d want to sign.

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“He let the club, the players, the fans do the talking for him. He wasn’t daft, he knew what he was doing… Obviously the Paul Sturrock factor was a major part of my decision, but we’d just won League One at Plymouth Argyle so I don’t know what would have happened if Wednesday hadn’t won the Play-Offs.

“As soon as they did, though, I was having a drink in Cardiff afterwards and my first thoughts were just ‘Wow – I’ve got to get in there and play for this club’. What an unbelievable day. After that I didn’t need any persuading.”

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Graham Coughlan had a tremendous debut season at Sheffield Wednesday.Graham Coughlan had a tremendous debut season at Sheffield Wednesday.
Graham Coughlan had a tremendous debut season at Sheffield Wednesday.

But the move almost didn’t happen. The Pilgrims had agreed a deal with Bristol City as they dealt with financial difficulties – but Coughlan pushed things through to make the move to Hillsborough.

“Plymouth had made it clear that they were asset stripping,” he explained. “They were looking for financial gain, and I was meant to go to Bristol City – they’d agreed a deal for me to go there. But I wanted to leave on my terms, I wanted to decide where I was going, so I chose Paul Sturrock and Wednesday. “

So off he went to Sheffield – something he describes as ‘one of the best decisions of my career’ – and fans took to him straight away.

Survival was the key for Wednesday in his first season following their promotion in the previous campaign, and an impressive end to the season saw them achieve that – they lost just one of their last nine games and finished 19th. Coughlan won the club’s Player of the Year award.

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Graham Coughlan celebrates scoring for Sheffield Wednesday.Graham Coughlan celebrates scoring for Sheffield Wednesday.
Graham Coughlan celebrates scoring for Sheffield Wednesday.

“The club gets you. It’s passionate… The fans don’t live in fairy land - they’re realistic. Even when I didn’t have a good game they’d still sing my name, and I appreciated that. They’re genuine football people who support their club to the hilt.

“I never kidded myself on. I was never going to be doing stepovers or taking people on - I never had that ability. I didn’t have the passing quality of Glenn Whelan or wand of a left foot like Chris Brunt - I had other traits.

“What I brought to the team was my heart. I’d roll my sleeves up and I’d go to war - that was what I could bring.

“Those boys had the skill and quality, and I think that mix is what made us a decent team and a decent dressing room.”

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Coughlan almost wasn’t playing football at all, though… At 14 he was forced into a choice – football, boxing or Gaelic. As chance would have it, a Wednesday legend helped him decide.

The 47-year-old said, “It was my grandad and Jack Charlton, really… Jack Charlton had transformed the national team, and we started to win games - I remember being at Ireland v Brazil, and I was hooked. He gave us football…

“Also,” he chuckled. “I didn’t really like getting clotheslined in Gaelic or getting punched in the face in boxing either. So that probably helped my decision.”

But, despite a lengthy career on the back of that choice, his spell at Hillsborough wasn’t as long as he’d have liked…

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Under Brian Laws he fell out of favour during a difficult periods in his life, and while he insists it’s all ‘water under the bridge now’ he admits that it was tough.

“I had time off - I had a personal issue, and my life came apart to be honest with you… The way I was treated, it’s water under the bridge now, but I don’t think I’d ever treat anybody in the same way. My life had been turned upside down, I was grieving. I’m probably lucky to be here, that’s how I was feeling at the time.

“It was a horrendous period in my life, one that really hurt me, and I was kicked when I was down, really… I don’t look back, and things happen, but I would have loved to stay at the club and tried to achieve a promotion. It wasn’t to be.

“I’d rather look at the fond memories, at the good things, rather than the negatives… As a kid from the streets of Dublin, I don’t think you can beat the feeling of pulling on the shirt of such a massive club, wearing the captain’s armband and scoring in front of the Kop. I don’t things come better than that – they’re the memories that I’ll keep.”

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And the memories keep coming. With a son who follows the Owls all over the country and a daughter who plays for Sheffield Wednesday Ladies, the Coughlan family’s stories in blue and white are far from done.

“There’s a bounce about the place now,” he says. “People are looking forward to their Saturday afternoons again – there’ll be bumps in the road, but I think I’ll be seeing them in the Championship next season.”