The Cobra: Tommy Coyne

Monday, June 11, 2018

23-years ago today, Tommy Coyne made history as a Motherwell player. 

June 11, 1995 marked the day the striker picked up his 12th international cap whilst donning claret and amber, equalling the record held for 60 years by Scotsman George Stevenson. 

With international football under the spotlight this week, we look back on the magnificent career of Coyne. 

Born in the shadow of Ibrox Stadium on a cold damp November day in what was the vintage year of our (m’lud) 1962, Thomas had grown up, like many of his peers, playing and loving the beautiful game.

Schools and boys club football soon followed for Tommy before Jack Steedman, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, at Clydebank spotted the young striker playing for Hillwood boys club from Pollok. That particular boys club has served Motherwell well incidentally over the years, with Alex McLeish, Owen Coyle, Ross McCormack and Lee Hollis having all turned out for them.

Coyne joined a very good Bankies side in a first division that included a certain football club from South Lanarkshire, at the beginning of 1981/2 season.

It would be a decent start for the talented front man with nine goals in thirty-one appearances in red and white, finishing fourth in the table. Of course that was the campaign that Motherwell FC blew all other contenders away. Ninety-two goals and twenty-six victories helped the Fir Parkers return to the top flight at the third attempt.

After improving his strike rate the following season as the Bankies narrowly missed out on promotion, bigger clubs began to take some notice of him. The start of 1983-4 season saw Coyne hit a purple patch with ten goals in eleven games which convinced legendary Dundee United manager Jim McLean to spend £60,000 on the hit man.

There is little doubt that his 18-months at the bottom of Tannadice Street was a disappointment with only nine domestic goals to his name. He did, however, hit a very important goal at home to Lens at Tannadice to earn a place in the next round of the 1986/87 UEFA Cup – a cup run that would eventually see the Arabs famously eliminate the Catalans of Barcelona.

Tommy was allowed to move up the road to Dens Park as Dundee manager Jocky Scott sought to make some inroads towards the dominant Tangerines of that time.

The move to the Dark Blues was a success as he struck up a memorable partnership with Keith Wright. Fifty goals followed in thirty months, including finishing as top goal scorer in the 1987/88 Premier League, netting thirty-three goals.

His strike rate was enough to alert Celtic manager Billy McNeil, who sanctioned a £500,000 bid for TC which was accepted.

Tommy had mixed fortunes during his spell in Glasgow’s East End, and after a little over 100 appearances for the Hoops, he was off to English Championship side Tranmere Rovers.

His brief time on Merseyside coincided with Tommy’s darkest hour, when his wife passed away in tragic and truly heartbreaking circumstances.

With Tommy and his three young sons needing family around them, Coyne looked for a move home. After taking some advice from his big brother Jim, Motherwell boss Tommy Mclean offered terms and Tommy Coyne arrived at Fir Park. It’s fair to say that the tall blonde strikers arrival at Fir Park wasn’t welcomed with undiluted joy from the Motherwell fans, who were wary of time as an Old Firm player.

His debut was in a 1-0 win over Partick Thistle at home on 30th November in front of over 5,000 punters, where Phil O’Donnell had nicked the winner. Tommy had came to a club that was clearly on the up, and when you look at the Steelmen’s line up that day, it was probably as good a side as a Motherwell fan could ever expect. In a 3-5-2 formation, Dykstra, Martin, McCart, Krivokapic, Shannon, Kirk, Lambert, O’Donnell, McKinnon, Arnott and Coyne.

A little over a fortnight later, Tommy hit his first goals, a brace, for Motherwell in a 3-2 defeat at Easter Road. Four days further on, as the Steelmen returned to the capital to face Hearts, TC again hit a double, this time backed up with a Rab McKinnon drive to secure what was at that time a rare win at Tynecastle.

Coyne played in all twenty-nine competitive games that the Fir Parkers played before the end of the season. His return to Scotland had yielded a decent thirteen goals as he began to strike up a terrific partnership with Dougie Arnott.

The day where he perhaps turned the Motherwell fans firmly in his favour was when his head flick over the flailing arms of Carl Muggleton in the Celtic goal was enough to knock the Glasgow giants out of the Scottish Cup in a third round tie at Fir Park, much to the joy of everyone in claret and amber.

Heading into April, Motherwell were firmly in the Championship race with Coyne now flying and the fans now declaring their undying love for him through the medium of song. At Easter Road, he was again on target before a late Krivokapic second secured a vital win, triggering wild celebrations behind the goals from the visiting fans.

Next up were Rangers at Fir Park, and yet again the Fir Park side rose to the occasion as a Coyne penalty and a John Philliben pile driver sent the Light Blues home, desperately worried about the title challenge from South Lanarkshire.

Four days later Tommy came up trumps again, netting the only goal at home to Kilmarnock leaving a Championship win well within our grasp with three games to go.

When Dundee United visited mid week in May, ‘keeper Sieb Dykstra, who’d been a stalwart throughout the campaign, had his shakiest of ninety minutes, as our title hopes were extinguished in a 2-1 reverse.

The arrival of Coyne had helped the Steelmen to their highest league position in thirty-five years, since the days of the Ancell Babes. Finishing just four points off the title with a team that was simply going to get better gave the Fir Park faithful major hopes that something special was about to be achieved in the near future.

It was not only Motherwell who had benefited from Coyne’s contribution to the season, Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton had also taken a shine to the man the ‘Well fans had now christened “The Cobra.” Tommy had played himself into the starting line up of Ireland’s World Cup finals campaign in the United States. His appearance in the Republics 1-0 win over Italy in New York made him the first ever Motherwell player to feature in a World Cup finals tournament.

When the Cobra showed up for pre-season back at Fir Park, he found one big difference. Tommy McLean, who without a shadow of a doubt is up there with Hunter and Stevenson in how this club has been shaped over the years, had left following a disagreement with the board over how the club should continue its evolution.

Aberdeen and Scotland centre half Alex McLeish was the man the Motherwell directors turned to in a player-manager capacity, a move again the Fir Park support didn’t whole heartedly take to.

McLeish didn’t alter things initially, pretty much leaving the squad McLean had left him alone, apart from signing two goalkeepers – Stevie Woods and Scott Howie.

The change in management didn’t seem to hamper Coyne as we went into the new season. Tommy scored in five of his first six games against Havnar Boltfelag (UEFA Cup), Clydebank (League Cup), Rangers, Hearts and Kilmarnock (Premier League) as Motherwell made a steady if unspectacular start to the fledgling campaign.

Our only defeat had been a controversial opening day one at Ibrox Stadium where a ten man Motherwell side lost out to a Duncan Ferguson winner for the hosts seven minutes into injury time, so Motherwell were yet again looking promising for the season ahead.

After eliminating the Faroe Islanders, Havnar from the UEFA Cup, it was German cracks Borussia Dortmund who stood in the way of further progress in Europe. However, on the eve of the first leg in Germany, Motherwell accepted a bid of £1.75M upfront from Celtic for our young exciting midfielder Phil O’Donnell. It was an offer the club could not turn down, and off we went to the Westfalon Stadion minus a big part of our midfield.

The performance by the Steelmen that night was immense against a team full of world class footballers. In particular, Coyne along with striker partner, Dougie Arnott caused all sorts of problems. Indeed twice, Tommy Coyne was inches from securing a result that would have shook the world. In the end, it was the home side who won it with an Andy Moeller second half strike.

The disappointment of the much awaited second leg, which took place on a Tuesday afternoon to take advantage of the substantial cash on offer from German TV was soon forgotten as Motherwell again became a force domestically.

After that first day defeat to Rangers, we went unbeaten for fifteen league games with the Cobra striking fourteen times. Included in this fabulous run were never to be forgotten wins at Pittodrie with goals from McKinnon, Kirk and Coyne, and Tynecastle with Shannon and Coyne the heroes.

Also there was that game many Motherwell fans talk about as being the finest half of football ever seen at Fir Park as goals from Coyne, Davies and Arnott secured a win over Partick Thistle. In addition, who can forget the 2-2 draw at Hampden Park against Celtic, as Parkhead was getting rebuilt, when the Cobra struck twice to silence a massive home support.

McLeish’s first season in charge ended with the Fir Parkers in the runners up spot for the first time in sixty-one years, although in truth a championship challenge was always some distance away from us.

The next three seasons saw McLeish struggle to replace the quality side he had inherited with Tommy Coyne having to produce the goods in a team that were now flirting with the drop, only at Motherwell could we go from championship challengers to a relegation dog fight in twelve months!

The 1995-96 season was a bit of a write off for Coyne with a knee injury hampering him for most of the campaign.

The following season began with the loss of Paul Lambert and Rab McKinnon who both took advantage of the new Bosman ruling, and with money in increasingly short supply, the club began looking towards the youth system for replacements.

A month after a memorable hat trick for Coyne at Rugby Park, two such products of the academy put their name in lights. After Scott Howie had been injured in a game against Celtic at Fir Park, Jamie Dolan took over the gloves with aplomb, leaving Ian Ross to bundle in an injury time winner to spark wild celebrations around three quarters of the old stadium.

If the victory over Celtic was sweet, the win at Rangers five months later was simply divine. Motherwell were desperately trying to avoid a relegation play-off against Airdrie, whilst Rangers were looking for a point to clinch the much sought after “nine in a row”.

Tommy Coyne played an integral part in a 2-0 win that forced the Rangers Directors to cancel a Championship party they’d arranged, and the planned “Conga” of Rangers fans from Ibrox to George Square after the game was ditched due to lack of interest.

Season 1997-98 was another struggle for Motherwell, and would prove to be the Cobra’s last one at the club. With manager McLeish deciding to move to Hibernian in February, the club looked to Harri Kampman to try and change the downturn in fortunes. Coyne hit a double in Kampman’s first game in charge to seal a win at home to St. Johnstone, but come the end of the season for whatever reason, Tommy left the club to go back up to Dundee.

Sixty-three goals in a little over four years, almost a goal every two games, was a great return considering a quality Motherwell squad was gradually being dismantled during his time. Tommy had a great ability to hold the ball up and play clever passes to retain possession. He was a number nine who perhaps lacked a yard of pace, but was good in the air and could protect the ball with ease. Coyne was never just a goal scorer, he was much more than that, being blessed with a football intelligence rarely seen below the top echelons of the game.

Tommy rarely dealt with the press, and was never really one who interacted with fans, but for one special reason he’ll always be one of my heroes.

He came over to my Dad’s house in May 1997 to watch the Scottish Cup final on TV as my ol’ man was in his last months, fighting a terminal illness. Tommy had known how big a ‘Well fan Fergie “senior” was, and couldn’t do enough to make his day. For a couple of hours Tommy wasn’t Motherwell’s star centre forward, he was one of the lads having a couple of beers, watching and talking about the football on the telly.

That afternoon I found Tommy Coyne to be a quiet, intelligent, witty and kind man. A top bloke who had come through some tough times, but also happened to be a helluva football player.

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