Cooper irreplaceable yet Kingdom must try
AGAINST the Dubs in Croke Park and eight days later against Derry in Fitzgerald Stadium, Kerry's half-forward line lacked that little something.
It lacked a spark of inventiveness and creativity. A cause for concern for sure. At the same time Eamonn Fitzmaurice and, indeed, the Kerry public weren't panicking. Not with Colm Cooper to come back into the side come championship. Creativity and inventiveness are Cooper's stock-in-trade.
Without the Ardshanavooly artisan, the Kerry management team must formulate a different approach and, in all likelihood, a different set of approaches. Cooper was such a talent that he could thrive in all environments and against all opponents.
There is no like for like replacement for Cooper. Not in Kerry, not in any other county. The Kingdom do have a range of options that they can go with and, if there's a silverlining to this most horrible pieces of news, it's that it came early in the year allowing the management team time to gather their bearings and react accordingly.
It gives them five league games to experiment with different players and different approaches. So what will they do? Will they keep the same basic game plan as last year and try groom a player to suceed (nobody can replace) Cooper in the number eleven shirt?
Will they go with an approach that served them well in pervious campaigns? Will they try something completely different? Will they focus on pace? Will they go for a young gun with a point to prove or an older head with experience at the top level?
The most obvious move Kerry could make would be to return Declan O'Sullivan to the number eleven shirt he made his own from 2004 onwards. You could do a lot worse than placing a four time All Ireland winner on the forty. A man with three All Star awards.
O'Sullivan brings pace, vision, great ball carrying ability and let us not forget leadership qualities: twice he led the Kingdom to All Ireland success as captain (2006 & 2007). He would bring a different emphasis to Cooper. More direct we would suggest. Less of a conductor, not that he can't pick a pass.
James O'Donoghue probably has the most potential of any member of the Kerry squad to develop into a conductor in the Cooper mould. There are certain parallels between the two men. Both ridiculously talented footballers. Both Killarney men. Both natural number thirteens.
The Legion man did drop back to centre-forward for a spell in the game against Derry and he did improve matters there. Given more time in the role he'd likely flourish. The trouble with that is that you lose his threat inside.
One of the main reasons Fitzmaurice felt comfortable moving Cooper to the forty was the rapid development of O'Donoghue in the full-forward line. If he's to move O'Donoghue, then he'll want assurances that at least one of the younger players is ready to step up to the plate. There's a big couple of weeks ahead for Conor Cox and Stephen O'Brien.
With Mikey Sheehy confirming that he's close to a return to fitness, Darran O'Sullivan must be thinking he should be given a run on the forty. It's an experiment at least worthy of consideration. Remember a couple of years ago when Jack O'Connor played him on the half-back line in a McGrath Cup match?
Yeah? Well that's proof he's much more versatile than he's often given credit for. Later that spring he was given a run of games at centre-forward and played some of the best football of his career. He seemed almost liberated in the middle and you can be absolutely certain there's not a centre-back in the country who'd relish the prospect of O'Sullivan bounding towards them at full tilt.
What about the man handed the number eleven shirt earlier in the season, Bryan Sheehan? Could he be Kerry's main man come championship? He's got a sweet strike of the ball and from his time at midfield we know that he can distribute the ball as well as anybody.
He's not Cooper nor would he claim to be, but the St Marys' man would bring different strenghts. He'd be a valuable presence around the middle of the pitch for kick-outs. For all his brilliance not even Colm Cooper would do that for you and given how Kerry's midfield fared against Derry, Sheehan could prove invaluable.
What other options are there? Marc Ó Sé has been touted in some quarters... he's just too valuable at the back. Dáithí Casey is an intriguing prospect. A forceful presence, a quality footballer. What of Stephen O'Brien and Mikey Geaney, Kerry's two centre-forwards in the league games to date? We remain to be convinced that the forty is the right place for either man.
There's no getting away from the fact that there's going to be a Colm Cooper-shaped void in the Kerry team this summer, but what's that they say? Hope springs eternal. The world keeps turning, even when a giant is felled.