Colm Cooper meets Vincent Hogan - 'If I allowed any bit of sentiment, I'd be back with Kerry'
Colm Cooper insists there’s no going back on his decision to retire from county football – but he exits on a high after Dr Crokes’ club success
On Thursday, Tommy Galvin was strolling with some of his pupils down by the shimmering waterfront behind the Europe Hotel. A teacher in St Oliver's, Galvin is a staunch Legion man. In a town like Killarney, with its four GAA clubs, every local has an allegiance, a colour.
And, for Legion, the black and amber of Dr Crokes would be a combination for which they'd have little enough fondness. Crokes, after all, are the big cats in town right now. The Kerry, Munster and All-Ireland champions.
But some of Galvin's pupils spotted Colm Cooper being photographed by the jetty, instantly drawing their teacher's attention to his proximity to "The Gooch".
Galvin smiled. Striding over to Cooper, he pushed out a warm hand, congratulating him on his retirement. Then he turned to some Spanish students who'd been tagging along and attempted an introduction.
"This...," said Galvin hesitating, "this man here .... this is the Irish Messi!"
Cooper smiled broadly, sitting down to have his picture taken with the children and chatting away in that easy, lilting way of his. Minutes earlier, one of the gardeners - Sean Moynihan - had intercepted him with much the same unforced warmth. Moynihan's club is Spa.
"Congratulations," he said, "but, we're f**ked now, you'll be back playing every club game!"
Killarney has always been proud and protective of Cooper, but this week's narrative changed to open gratitude. His sister, Karen, sent him a photograph of her infant son, Eanna, sitting in his baby chair, a copy of 'The Kerryman' on the counter. Eanna, who shares a birthday with his famous uncle, appears to be staring down at the front page on which there is a beautifully short, simple headline.
It reads: "Thanks Colm."
In a sense, the use of Cooper's christian name seemed pointed. A reminder maybe that he was flesh and bone, not some comic book hero bouncing between fictional storylines. In his prime, he had a talent above statistic and, when the world comes to know you almost exclusively by a nickname, it's maybe all too easy to lose sight of the human story behind it.
That's always been fine with Colm Cooper too. But this week his people seemed compelled to pull him closer.
Fifteen days ago, he sat down in Eamonn Fitzmaurice's Tralee home to discuss the future.
Just under a week had passed since Dr Crokes' All-Ireland win and Cooper knew the Kerry manager was keen for clarity. They'd spoken before Christmas, Fitzmaurice making clear his desire to have 'Gooch' on board for another season. No specific role was mentioned then, nor would it be now.
For the first three months of the year, Cooper's only focus was bridging the quarter of a century gap to Dr Crokes' last All-Ireland win, for which he was an eight-year-old club mascot. Now he needed to open his mind to Kerry again. So he outlined to Fitzmaurice a small raft of reasons feeding his instinct to call time on his inter-county career.
The manager asked him not so much to reconsider as to suspend judgement for a few more days. And Cooper did, albeit knowing his mind was settled.
So last Monday week he rang Fitzmaurice, confirming the decision to retire. With Kerry facing an important league game that weekend against Tyrone, it was decided to suspend any announcement until after the game. But, of course, a complex sequence of results subsequently pitched Kerry into tomorrow's final against Dublin.
On Monday, Cooper rang again, offering to delay the announcement by another week, but Fitzmaurice assured him that there was no need. The two were always close as Kerry team-mates and Cooper was now appreciative of his old comrade's understanding.
"I basically told him that my body was tired, that I just wasn't sure I had the energy," he explains now. "I'd picked up injuries with the club, a shoulder injury against Corofin (in the All-Ireland semi-final). So I missed two weeks' training after that and then my back was quite stiff going into the final too.
"Since Christmas, I'd trained fairly well, but I seemed to be getting more and more niggles. And I was thinking to myself that going back with Kerry with all this stuff going on just wouldn't be sustainable. I was very honest and open with Eamonn. I told him that I had to take sentiment out of the decision completely.
"I just felt everyone seemed to assume I'd be going back but, if I can't be at the peak of my powers in an inter-county set-up, it's the wrong place for me to be."
In a sense, last season played tricks with his emotions and, deep down, he knew he could not stomach a repeat. Having been heavily involved in Kerry's National League campaign, he arrived into summer believing his body had, finally, recovered from the horrific knee injury that kept him sidelined through 2014.
Then fate seemed to begin pulling cheap shots at his expense.
"I got myself into great physical shape last year," he reveals, "but then I just hit pitfall after pitfall. I did my AC joint in the Munster final (against Tipperary). I got cellulitis from a cut in my foot. And then I got a bit of fluid on the knee. I remember saying to myself, 'F**k, you were in the best possible shape going into the summer, then these three things come along and just f**king scupper you.
"Like I was playing centre-forward the first two championship games for Kerry, moving well. We had a pre-championship training week in London, felt great coming home. In the best shape I'd been possibly since I got injured. Played six or seven league games, which I'd never done. So I was very positive. But then I was going back with Crokes, getting a few more niggles, so it was continuing.
"And I get extremely cranky when I'm not playing.
"The thing about it is I've seen enough doctors. I went up to Eanna Falvey in Santry before the club final and he told me, 'You'll be fine for the game, but we just need to mind and manage this...' But I feel I'm minding and managing everything for the last three years and there's only so much of that that you can do.
"I want to play with freedom and that was becoming really, really difficult for me. And I just did not feel that I could go through another summer like last year's which, potentially, was exactly what was going to happen given what I was experiencing in the last three months. That's what was in my head. That my body was saying something to me.
"Especially so when you consider what's required now. Going into Kerry training now is like going into a championship match. Every night. So even if Eamonn said to me, 'We'll manage you differently', I had concerns about that. Because I needed to do the work.
"You just can't bluff at that level."
Once made, the decision left him less torn than maybe people imagine. He hadn't sought outside counsel, because that's simply never been Cooper's way. Two days before meeting Fitzmaurice, he simply sat down alone in the living-room of the old terraced house in Ardshanavooley out of which Mike and Maureen Cooper raised five boys and two girls, writing down the potential pros and cons of a Kerry return on a sheet of paper.
"During my career, I've been very sure about everything that I've been doing," he explains now. "How I play, prepare, where my temperament is at for big matches. I think I've been very good at managing those things. I've never asked people for help with that. I've never asked somebody to talk to me about temperament.
"I've been self-coached and self-skilled to a large extent. Never used a sports psychologist. It's probably one of my strengths.
"Fellas would probably say I'm extremely stubborn. If I think something, I tend to f**king stick to it and carry it out. So I was sure enough about this decision. When Eamonn was asking me if I was happy with my decision, I definitely felt I could stand over it and say, 'Yes I am!'
"So there was no soul-searching with anyone. The only soul-searching done was with myself. And I did that on purpose. Because if I allowed any bit of sentiment into this, I'd be back training with Kerry. I needed to be cold and calculated in terms of not letting public or media or friends or work colleagues influence me.
"I needed to kind of remove myself from that and say, 'Ok, this is my decision based on what I can do and what I can't do. Not what fellas think I can do. Like I'm the only one who knows my body.
"I didn't talk to family about it. And they'd be clever enough to give me my space anyway. They wouldn't intrude in that. Maybe Karen and Geraldine were more inclined to ask other people. 'What'll he do? Will he go back?' Whereas the boys wouldn't even bring it up.
"So look I'm happy I can stand over the decision. Like I've no doubt that at some point in the summer, whether it's a Munster final or heading to Croke Park in August, I'll find myself thinking 'F**k it, I'd love to be on that bus!'
"But I know deep down I'd only love to be on that bus if I was 100pc. Not going in, knowing your body's not quite right."
He will, too, be 34 when this summer's championship begins and, for all the subtleties and grace notes to his game, he has always - paradoxically - been arguably Kerry's most furious competitor. And nothing he saw of himself during Crokes' glory march persuaded Cooper that the majesty of his best years might, somehow, be revisited.
"The club final was fine," he says flatly. "I don't think I played too well. I don't even think Crokes played too well if I'm honest with you. But we got the job done when it was needed."
The day after his meeting with Fitzmaurice, Cooper sat down to lunch with Kieran Donaghy in the Killarney Park Hotel, telling him of his intentions. The two have known each other since childhood and, though fierce town rivals with their clubs (Donaghy plays for Tralee's Austin Stacks), their relationship on a football field has often been described as telepathic.
Donaghy, having already committed to another year with Kerry, was palpably shocked by the news.
"His eyes nearly jumped out of his head," recalls Cooper. "I think he was a little gutted because we're last of the old stock in a way. Maybe throw Donnchadh (Walsh) in too and Darran (O'Sullivan) to a lesser degree. And I suppose when Kieran committed to going back, he reckoned I would too. He didn't say it, but I know that's what he was really thinking.
"But I said to him, 'Listen Kieran man, if you've got the energy and you feel strong from the basketball, of course you should be going for it. Look at the prize that could, potentially, be there.' He's an unbelievable player who'll do ten minutes for Kerry if he's asked or 70 minutes if he's asked. My decision changes nothing for him. I said that to him.
"He's still going to do his thing."
The reaction to Tuesday's statement has been startling to Cooper, given the extraordinary breadth of affection decanted in recent days. It has also disarmed him somewhat given his own natural tendency to be sparing in compliments to team-mates across the years.
"I have been taken aback," he admits. "Even local clubs Tweeting 'Well done!', it's kind of rare like. Because we're all rivals and, don't worry, we'll be crashing into each other again in no time, going at it hammer and tongs (he plays a county league game against An Ghaeltacht today).
"But there were plenty of messages from outside the sport too. The Brian O'Driscolls, the Henry Shefflins, the Shane Lowrys. Shane sent me a text from Augusta. It was seven in the morning over there when he sent it. Like I'll be engrossed in the golf over the next few days. I just think we're all influenced and motivated by different sports people.
"And I was just amazed to see that I touched these people, some of whom were performing on world stages. That they were able to post a nice comment over what they felt I stood for. That was strange, but a nice strange. I didn't see that coming I have to say."
Among the Twitter tributes was one from Judy Murray, mother of tennis star, Andy. She'd described him as "a wizard" after seeing him in action during last year's league final and, on hearing of his retirement this week, Tweeted "Superstar. One of the most skilful, versatile athletes I ever saw. And a redhead. Perfect."
Some tributes bore a kind of implied nostalgia too for when the game was more open than the jolting traffic nightmare it has, of late, become. With the game all but reduced to a martial art in some quarters, it seemed natural to pine for a time when a bewitching ten-stone elf could spring from virtually nowhere to win an All-Star.
What people maybe forget is that Cooper's arrival on the inter-county scene in 2002 coincided with the fashion for massed defence. Yet, with an indomitable heart, the footwork of a ballerina and inestimable courage, he came to establish himself as one of the greatest forwards the game had ever seen.
The memories come to him in bulk then, yet three are especially precious.
The All-Ireland win of '04 springs instantly to mind. "Firstly because it was my first All-Ireland win, but also both my parents were there," he explains. "We'd lost in '02 (to Armagh). Then '03 didn't go as we'd hoped against Tyrone. I remember thinking after that, 'F**k, will this ever happen?' Even though I was only two years in, I didn't know how long I'd last. I was looking at every year being, potentially, the last. 'If I play s**t here, I could be surplus to requirements...'
"We were staying in The Burlington in '04 and just to see the joy on my parents' faces after. And maybe relief as well. You couldn't put a price on that. I had won the man of the match, all my family were there to see it and just to see their joy... their boy had won with Kerry.
"Like even for Ardshanavooley, nobody had ever done that. It had maybe announced me as a national figure.
"So seeing my parents' faces...millionaires can never have that. You can't buy it, you can't put a price on it. Nor should you be able to. The best things you get in life, you've to earn. And you've probably got to go through a bit of pain along the way.
"So that was so satisfying. The only disappointing thing for me was that by the time my next All-Ireland win came along ('06), my dad wasn't with us anymore. So that's what makes '04 such a stand-out one."
He remembers the Monday after, the homecoming formalities concluded, and himself, Johnny Crowley and a few others repairing to the Killarney Avenue for a few quiet pints away from the maelstrom. And Kerry manager Jack O'Connor's challenging words to him "You'll have to be better next year..."
And he remembers the grinning brazenness of his response.
"Sure that'll be no hassle Jack!"
Years later, O'Connor would hoot with laughter at the memory of that. "I told you you'd have to be better and you f**ker, you were!"
Six of Cooper's All-Stars were won in years Kerry did not claim the Sam Maguire. And, arguably, none was better than '05 when, in his own words, he sometimes felt "invincible".
There was also the 2000 county championship won with Crokes as a 17-year-old in the company of his brothers, Danny, Mark, Mike and Vince. "That was huge," he agrees. "Five brothers on the team. Like, again, you can imagine what that was like for one household. I'll have those days forever."
The third memory is, naturally, the most recent one. That image of him standing in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day, eyes like saucers and arms outstretched as he prepares to vault into the embrace of Crokes coach Pat O'Shea, is one of the great GAA photographs of recent times. O'Shea has been such a fundamental part of his entire football life, that moment seemed so beautifully apposite.
And, for Cooper, the sheer joy of the day made him overlook the probability that it would be his final game in Croke Park.
"Probably everything happens for a reason," he says now. "When we got the sideline at the end, I just said, 'Well there's f**king no-one else taking this...' I was thinking if someone gave possession away, I'd regret it for the rest of my life. I ran over, I don't know was it David O'Leary or Fionn (Fitzgerald) was there, I took the ball and pushed them away. Looked up at the big screen. The Crokes management were all around me, hysterical of course. They were shouting at the referee, telling him to blow the whistle.
"And I remember the screen said 64 minutes gone. I just jabbed a short kick to Johnny (Buckley) and wanted him to pass it back to me so I could step down the sideline maybe. But before the ball even got to Johnny, the whistle went. F**k it, elation, joy... I turned around, Pat was the nearest one there and he wouldn't be the biggest man in the world. I think I nearly body-slammed him to the ground.
"Just the sheer joy. When I got up off the ground, there was a picture of me taken and I was very emotional. And I was never like that. With all the things I won with Kerry over the years, maybe that was inside but I never showed it to people. But my feeling here was, 'I don't give a f**k who sees me ... this is coming out...'
"Just when you want something so much and you've failed and failed and failed, when people told you you were this, that and the other, that you're not right since your knee injury, that your chances were gone ... that was all that hurt pouring out. And then came the joy. 'Lord Jesus, we've landed this...'"
Seldom had he ever gone into a game yearning more deeply for victory. Yet he hated, too, how so much media attention on the Crokes story seemed, inevitably, to tilt towards him alone.
"I thought a lot about this going into the game," he says now. "I remember thinking, 'I don't deserve this more than anybody else. Look at what Brian Looney's done for Crokes, Smiler (Mike Moloney), Luke Quinn, Kieran O'Leary, they've all had serious injuries, cruciates, Achilles, operations to get back. Ambrose (O'Donovan), a big soldier for us. Played on my s**t teams growing up.
"They deserved this every bit as much as I did. But there was a bit of a media circus around me.
"Like I was a leader of the team. I had to be. Johnny was captain, but if I didn't lead this team to glory, it would have been the biggest X on my career. It was huge pressure. That's why I wanted that sideline. I was saying to myself, 'Once it's in my hands, I know we won't lose it..'
"Because I won't be giving the f**king thing away.
"In the dressing-room after, Brossie (Eoin Brosnan) was sitting next to me. It never even entered my thinking that that, potentially, would be my last game in Croke Park. There was just too much joy.
"But I remember coming onto the train then, having a beer as we left Connolly Station. Funny, 25 years ago as well, the train left from Connolly too. Kieran O'Leary there, Smiler, Luke... they were chatting, having a bit of craic and my mind began to wander. I'm looking out the window, thinking, 'F**k it this is great, just like the old times...'
"Like I didn't play in 2014, so I hadn't won the All-Ireland properly since '09.
"And we're heading back to Killarney now, All-Ireland club champions, the one medal I wanted to win. Relief, satisfaction, fulfilment. And that's when it hit me. 'F**k, will this be my last time?' I mean all the years coming down on the train with Kerry, I always thought we'd be back again anyway. Thinking, 'This is natural...and even if we mess up next year, we'll be back in two years' time...' That was gone now.
"But I didn't dwell on it. There was too much fun and craic around me."
He will take himself to Ventry this evening for a friend's 50th birthday party and it is from there, in the heart of West Kerry, that he will watch tomorrow's league final tilt with Dublin.
Cooper thinks he will be happy, for now, to have that distance between himself and the Kerry story. Yet any suggestion that Dublin's relentless harvesting of silverware might have been a factor in his retirement decision is met with bracing indignation.
"The Dublin thing wasn't an issue for me at all," he says emphatically. "No. Sure when I started, people said we couldn't beat northern teams. Something like that's always going to be there. In fairness to Dublin, they've set the benchmark, but it certainly wasn't the challenge of Dublin that decided my future. I can tell you for certain I wasn't thinking to myself, 'Oh f**k, we'll never beat the Dubs I'm not going back!'
"Never in my wildest dreams. Even though they're riding the crest of a wave at the moment, Kerry can always beat Dublin at any point.
"Remember, Dublin won the All-Ireland last year by a point in a replay. And they beat us in a game that was a toss of a coin in the end. They've probably developed the skill of winning tight games. And when you do that, it gives you extra confidence. You don't panic in tight situations and that's a big skill they have at the moment, until someone cracks them.
"But who knows? Dublin mightn't be in the All-Ireland final at all this year. Who would have thought Donegal would beat them in 2014? Like if I was going back, there wouldn't be much point saying, 'I have to beat the Dubs...'
"You mightn't even see them in the summer..."
Fitzmaurice was asked last Tuesday if he reckoned there was much possibility of Cooper reconsidering his position deeper into the summer. He replied with a smile "Never say never!" That night at Crokes training on Lewis Road - Pat O'Shea having made some reference to the "quiet media day" - one of the players jokingly interjected, "Don't worry Pat, he's doing a Stephen O'Neill on it, he'll be back for the final!"
Cooper, of course, laughed along. But he won't wear green and gold again.
"No, I could never see that happening," he says emphatically. "I wouldn't have any work done. It just wouldn't work, not at all. Believe me, this is no ploy by Kerry to bring Colm Cooper back in August or something. Not at all.