When Seamus Coleman suffered a broken leg under a tackle from Wales’ Neil Taylor in Dublin back in March, aside from being hugely upsetting for everyone who watched it happen, it was also a huge blow for club, country and player.
Leg breaks are one of the worst things that can happen on a football pitch. Injuries can get more serious, even just as gruesome, but leg breaks, unfortunately, are reasonably common. It makes sense given the nature of the game, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible when it happens.
When Coleman was ruled out for the long term, however, the outpouring of sympathy from everyone was both touching and entirely expected. The football community rallies around players in those moments, and Everton even offered Coleman a new five-year contract, committing to helping the player through recovery and beyond.
In some ways, that’s a stunning gesture. We can see all around us that sport – not just football – is a commercially driven operation. Squeezing out every last penny simply seems to be what clubs do these days. Whether it’s sponsored training grounds or letting a manager’s contract run down instead of sacking him, there are examples of such capitalism alive and well everywhere. Coleman’s case is really quite refreshing in that sense.
But perhaps most interestingly, it wasn’t just a new contract that Everton committed to with Coleman.
The only thing that matters more than commerce to modern football clubs – though the two are certainly linked – is results. And that’s why offering the injured player a contract was one thing, but only buying a replacement right-back like Cuco Martino – who was surely bought as a stopgap, rather than as a replacement for Coleman – is an even more impressive gesture.
The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ isn’t applying here from the club’s point of view, but in a way it does apply to the media. Coleman hasn’t been spoken about much this season, and only recently came into the news when Martin O’Neill was asked whether his Ireland side would be looking for revenge from Wales after events in March. It was an odd question given that ‘revenge’ in this case would mean breaking legs, but it was also telling: no one is talking about what having a player like Coleman out of the team means for the side.
It’s obviously hugely important for Ireland, who can’t go out and replace their stricken player with a new signing from the transfer market. But few are talking about how Everton haven’t gone out and done the same thing. Or, indeed, just how big a miss he’s been in the Toffees’ difficult start to the season.
Martina has made four starts for Everton so far this in this Premier League campaign, as Ronald Koeman has altered between a back three and a back four. Coleman’s attacking abilities mean he’d have been a perfect fit in either system. The Dutch coach has also reverted to playing Oumar Niasse up front because of his side’s imbalance up front, with a lack of pace all too evident so far this term.
Coleman wouldn’t really have solved that problem, of course, but he could have given Everton a pacey and direct out-ball on the right-hand side, especially if playing as a wing-back instead of a full-back, and relieved of certain defensive duties.
He’s been a terrible miss, and because he was missing at the end of last season – when Everton had little to play for – few people have recognised the Coleman-shaped hole in the team. They assume that because Everton ended the season poorly, it must be partly a continuation of that. In fact, last season, Everton ended their campaign with only three wins in their last nine games, which is the point when the Irish international got injured. Indeed, the 12 games prior to that run saw the Toffees win eight times and lose only once, a reasonable enough defeat away to a rampant Tottenham Hotspur.
That might put some perspective on the loss that Coleman is to Everton. And indeed it might point to the dilemma they faced this summer when they decided not to replace him, even for a season, with another first-choice right-back.
It’s a similar dilemma to the one Manchester City have faced in recent years. Their captain, Vincent Kompany, has found himself in a similar position as injuries have ruled him out for much of the last few campaigns. City, for their part, have also failed to adequately replace their talismanic centre back in that time, with pundits pointing time and time again to their defensive weaknesses, especially with the Belgian out of the team.
In a way, it misses the point, though. How cruel is it to simply replace an injured player just because he’s injured? Or where does the point come when the balance tips between staying loyal to a player who’s been a massive part of the club, and actually buying a new player to take his place because results are actually important, too?
It’s a hard dilemma. It’s a business conundrum as well as a sporting and an ethical one. But when analysing Manchester City and Everton this season, if and when both are missing Coleman and Kompany, perhaps it’s right that we take into consideration the fact that both clubs and their managers know that they have problems in those areas, but it’s actually quite hard to fix it without doing something cruel and hard-hearted.