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'There were a lot of tears shed over the last year-and-a-half, a lot of dark times and a lot of sleepless nights'

It’s been a turbulent time for former League of Ireland goalkeeper Ryan Coulter but he’s pressed the reset button and starts a new adventure in America.

Image: Morgan Treacy; ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THE WISCONSIN CITY of Madison doesn’t carry much of a profile when it comes to elite sport. Despite being the state capital, it’s Green Bay (about two hours north) and nearby Milwaukee (just over an hour east) that dominate the spotlight.

The recent unveiling of a new soccer team, Forward Madison, won’t shake things up too much but for Ryan Coulter, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime and one he’s spent years chasing.

The former League of Ireland goalkeeper is immersed in preseason ahead of the side’s United Soccer League 1 (USL 1) campaign getting underway on April 6 with a trip to Chattanooga Red Wolves, whose squad includes a trio of Irish players: Steven Beattie, Eamon Zayed and Colin Falvey.

The 10-team division (effectively the third tier below Major League Soccer and USL Championship, though promotion and relegation doesn’t exist in the North American structure) is also brand-new, owing to the expansion of the USL and how it’s capitalised on the disintegration of their rival of sorts, the North America Soccer League (NASL). Seven of the clubs are making their pro season debut while two MLS reserve teams – Toronto and Orlando – will also feature.

It’s lower-level. It’s gritty. It’s a slog. But Coulter is well used to that.             

“When you read up on inspirational stories, I don’t look any further than my own,” he says. 

“How I’ve got to this situation, I don’t know. I feel so fortunate. To get into the USL and be part of a brand new franchise, in a cool place, with a city and community that have really got behind the team…If somebody said to me a year and a half ago, ‘Right, you’re going to go through 16 months of absolute misery but this will be on the other side, how do you feel about it?’ I’d have bitten their hand off.”

It’s 10 years since Coulter headed to university in the US.

After a stint in San Diego, he eventually settled in East Tennessee State, captained the football side and got a taste of NCAA. When he returned to Ireland in 2014, he picked up some games with Keith Long’s Athlone Town and impressed. His performances led to Owen Heary bringing him to Sligo Rovers and he was enthused by the prospect of pushing himself with a team tipped to do well. But pretty quickly, everything fell apart.

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 15.46.34 Coulter in action for the ETSU Buccaneers during his time at university in Tennessee.

“To sum it up, it was probably the worst year of my life,” he says. 

“The talk was that we were going to compete for the league and I was just delighted to be getting full-time football. It was a dream. But we were a new team with lots of new signings and things hadn’t clicked and we weren’t getting the results fans were expecting. It felt like every single thing that was wrong was pointed in my direction. I used to have sleepless nights about the goals we conceded. And it took its toll on me. I came very, very close to just walking away from football. I couldn’t deal with it. Your average fan doesn’t take that into account when they’re screaming and shouting abuse. And I was young and naive too. It was my first chance at pro football so all the stuff on Facebook and Twitter…I was reading that on the day of a game. All these people coming on an absolutely hammering you left, right and centre. I learned a valuable lesson from that year. From being so fresh and excited about finally playing in the league, I never felt as low. I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.”

Coulter’s confidence took a beating and he was frantically looking for the exit door. At that stage, he was already thinking about a return to America. But there was a conflict too. He also wanted to dig a bit deeper and not give in so easily.  

“Fans are always going to be fans but there almost seemed an anger to it as well,” he says. 

I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was being an ultimate pro: getting to training early, I was fit and healthy, in the gym every day. It’s unseen stuff and you do it for yourself but it was hard to understand because I was still treated like absolute shite and things were horrendous. There was a mid-season break and it was a real crossroads moment. There was a team in the north that wanted to sign me but the club didn’t want to let me go. It made no sense. Even though they told me they didn’t want me and were going to cancel my contract, three days later they said I was playing against Longford. And where’s your head at after being told nobody wants you? But then you’re selected for a crucial home game in front of fans who couldn’t stand me, as far as I was concerned. I said that I’d play the game for me, for some sort of personal growth. And I played well and we won, which was a rarity that year. But at the end of the game, (then Longford keeper) Paul Skinner – who’s a good mate of mine and who knew all the shit I’d been going through – came up to me and gave me a big hug. And I just started crying. Football being the way it is, you don’t want people seeing that, especially after a random league game. I just put my head in my gloves.”

“That was it for me in Sligo, really. I felt I gave a lot to the place but got very little in return. There were some very good people there but the way I was treated I’d be happy enough to never go back there. Anytime I think about it it just brings me back to a bad place. I can’t say I regretted going there because it seemed like a really good move at the time. You can be the Monday morning quarterback and make all the right decisions but I couldn’t have foreseen what happened that year.”  

Ryan Coulter Coulter playing for Athlone Town versus Cork City back in 2014. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Coulter has a complicated relationship with the League of Ireland. On one hand, he remains a huge fan owing to spending much of his youth regularly visiting the Carlisle Grounds, his father Phil’s long-standing relationship with Derry City and the fact that he got his start in the game at Dundalk. But the experience at Sligo wasn’t easy to shake and despite enjoying his subsequent spells with Longford, Drogheda and his boyhood team, the off-seasons were constantly filled with worry.     

“As soon as the season ends, your loyalties to whatever club you’re with is gone for the most part,” he says. 

You’re waiting on a call to come through so you can put food on the table and pay rent. The more the hours and the days go by, it’s just a really nervous time. You’re looking at the phone every day, hoping your agent rings. You get the unknown numbers calling. You answer because you think it’s good news and it turns out to be one of those sales calls and you just feel like smashing the phone. A lot of people look at the life of a footballer and think it’s great. It can be but it can also be an extremely dark place because there are no guarantees. As an accountant or solicitor, if I’m doing a good job then there’s no reason why the company is going to get rid of me. As a footballer, you can be Player of the Month three times in a row but once the contract finishes and the club wants to go in a different direction then so be it. It’s not always performance based. It can be down to budget or what the manager wants or doesn’t want. And then you’re sitting there waiting for the phone to ring and it’s a lonely place. The stress and pressure players feel during the off-season is just incredible.”

Along with the uncertainty of the off-season and bouncing from club to club, Coulter was also juggling a long-distance relationship with his American girlfriend. Finally, at the end of 2017, he committed to a new chapter. Returning to the southern US, he started his Green Card application and pressed a reset button.

But if he was looking for a break, it took him quite a while to find one.       

“I got married in early January and I’ve been fortunate that my wife has been so supportive,” he says. 

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 15.51.10 Coulter has swapped the warmth of Tennessee for more 'seasonal' weather conditions in Wisconsin. Source: Forward Madison

“She gets it. We met in college in the US when I was on a scholarship and she realises how much hard work I’ve put into football. But during the Green Card process, I couldn’t work for four months. So you talk of somebody supporting you emotionally and financially. Eventually, my old head coach from college brought me to the University of Central Florida as goalkeeping coach, which I really enjoyed. After the college season wrapped, I went home to do my Uefa ‘B’ licence and then my Green Card interview happened in November and it was approved on the spot. And it felt like the stars were aligning a little. But you still don’t know if you’re ever going to play again. Orlando City have a team in USL 1 and I was keeping the fingers crossed that something might happen there but it never materialised. You start to contemplate, ‘Should I just move on and retire and concentrate on coaching full-time?’ Because it’s not just about me anymore. I’ve got my wife now and her life is on hold too. We want to get our own place but the longer I want to play there’s no point getting a lease in Tennessee if I get a call from a club in California. So, we were back with her parents just outside Knoxville and I was just waiting for the phone to ring. It was really tough. A lot of dark times, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of stress and anxiety.”

After the wedding, I was having breakfast with my missus. We had a chat and we agreed that if nothing came up in the next month then we’d head to Orlando, I’d get back to coaching full-time and that would be my life after playing. It was the first time we had the conversation and I’m not going to lie: it scared the life out of me, that it might be the end.”

Coulter had been proactive in starting his coaching badges and that experience appealed to Forward Madison boss Daryl Shore, a former goalkeeper with plenty of experience across US football, including a decade-long relationship with MLS side Chicago Fire. When a dual player/coach role was offered, Coulter was overjoyed.

“It wasn’t easy and there were a lot of tears shed over the last year-and-half,” he says.                 

“I didn’t want to get too excited about it because the amount of times things have popped up and then fallen through for me – I’ve been that soldier too many times. I’d been out of the game for a year and a half and there had been those dark times. Things sometimes haven’t worked out as well as I’d hoped, especially in the League of Ireland, but that doesn’t take away from how much I love the game. Alarm bells started to go off. The prospect of no more playing, no more game days, no more training, no more banter with the players. It was a scary, scary thing. And then to have everything get boxed off with Forward Madison…I don’t want to sound like a cliche but it is a dream come true. I can’t put into words how appreciative I am.”

The transition will see Coulter and his wife swap the consistent warmth of the southern United States for conditions that can be best described as ‘extremely seasonal’. But it’s a small price to pay. 

“I knew nothing about Madison,” he admits. 

“I was visualising a map in my head and thinking, Right, it’s not anywhere south anyway’. My agent told me, ‘It’s about an hour and a half north of Chicago’ and I just said, ‘The same Chicago that was just -41 degrees the other night?’ So I had to put together a good sales pitch for the missus. I told her, ‘Look, you’ll need a jacket but you’ll be alright’. There’s no-one that’s had to deal with more of my miserable nights than her so she understands.”

Considering the USL’s development in recent seasons, the club has plenty of potential. Understandably, they’re starting out small with home games played at the 5,000-capacity Breese Stevens Field. But there’s an official partnership with MLS side Minnesota United while the chairman Peter Wilt is a well-known football figure in the US and boasts an impressive background, including a long spell as President and GM of Chicago Fire while he also played a huge role in the conception of Indianapolis pro side Indy Eleven.  

The last number of years have been a struggle for Coulter but he’s ready to take his chance and start enjoying the game again.  

“When something would fall through or there’d be a setback, my Dad used to say to me, ‘Look, I believe in you and this is just character building’. But that went on for a couple of years,” he says. 

At the wedding he told me that he’s always in my corner and to keep believing. And then he says, ‘I’m not going to call it character building because if your character isn’t built by now I don’t know what we’re going to do’. I do look back on the League of Ireland with a little bit of regret because I’ve always been someone who gives 150%. Is the perception of ‘Ryan Coulter, goalkeeper’ what I want it to be back there? Probably not. And that still does get to me. But you pick your battles and I’m in a great place now.”     

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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