Monday 24 July 2017

Gooch stands tall in long list of Kerry legends

Colm Cooper has come a long way since appearing at Croke Park in 1992 as a mascot for Dr Crokes
Colm Cooper has come a long way since appearing at Croke Park in 1992 as a mascot for Dr Crokes
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

They tell you things about Gooch Cooper, all sorts of gentle, everyday snips of hearsay that hindsight smokes in incense. About how his whole life's a prayer to football, about games he elevated to poetry, opponents he turned to clay. They tell you of a steel that was always deep inside him. And, somehow, everything you hear is slightly distant and tangential.

It's as if they're talking about a comic-book hero, not a man.

In Kerry, Mick O'Dwyer's great team is like an old photograph they're afraid to take down, but Gooch gives them a reason to consider it. He is just 25, yet about to play in his sixth All-Ireland final in seven years.

His career is a lyrical mystery in a world programmed to worship at the altar of size. Mostly sport is about power and artlessness now, a kind of accessorised body-building. Intimidation was, maybe, always in the small print of gaelic football but, today, it feeds an entire philosophy.

Gooch's greatness, thus, flies in the face of convention and sound argument.

With his face of golden freckles, his elfin ears, his pale, wraith-like body, he should be easily crushed by the panting locomotives that pursue him. Gooch is the kid that every mother frets over. The tiger-moth dancing into purple cloud.

He has his own hardness, of course. Everything about his story speaks of resilience and self-containment. His talent has made him a target all his football life. So if Gooch was a nervous type, he'd have amounted to nothing in the jumpy heat of championship.


The hotter the contest, the flimsier the connect to those blithe, childhood games on the Ardshanavouley green at home in Killarney. Football at this altitude is unromantic. You park your scruple at the gate and do whatever it takes.

The view in Kerry would be that Tyrone played to precisely that code in 2005. They targeted Gooch. It wasn't subtle, yet it wasn't especially shocking either. The build-up had, essentially, signposted their needs.

One big poster, erected outside an Omagh bar, bore a cartoon image of Cooper's face -- his hair upstanding in a lick, Rascal style -- inserted into the old 'Ghostbusters' logo and set against action shots of four Tyrone defenders. The logo, of course, read 'Goochbusters.'

Midway through the first-half of that final, Cooper shipped what Jack O'Connor termed "a flake" (it was actually a finger in the eye) and it worked like a sedative.

For 15 minutes, he was a marionette with a severed string. Tyrone knew the threat he carried and how centrally that threat was piped into Kerry's collective psyche.

Still, Gooch recovered and, ultimately, played a decent final. But he was barely permitted room to breathe.

In the final minute of that game, Kerry desperately chasing an escape, Peter Canavan lassoed him to the ground in one of those biblical images that come to define an entire Championship. Across the years, few men had suffered football's dark arts more than Canavan. Yet, now, in one brief flash, circumstance demanded that the singing lark become a magpie. And the pragmatist in Canavan did not equivocate.

Gooch wouldn't have been resentful of the act. He knows that, increasingly, Kerry themselves have been compelled to do things across the years that you don't learn in kindergarten.

Football feeds the resource-ful, not the idealistic.

Yet, somewhere in all the fury and unkempt defensive patterns, he retains the gift of beguilement. Gooch still manages to move beautifully in a fevered environment. Two-footed and brave, he has been described by one opponent as "unmarkable within the rules of the game". Little wonder so many step outside those rules.

Yet what do we actually know of him?

O'Connor remembers travelling back from a wedding through Killarney in the summer of 2004, the streets packed with young people. He was in his first year as Kerry manager and seeing the throng put him in mind of Gooch.

He recalled in his book, 'Keys to the Kingdom' that "there were people all over the street, having a good time. Young ones and guys sitting on the pavement, chatting each other up and drinking. I said to myself 'How the hell does the Gooch keep his head in a town like this all summer long?'

"This man is a superstar. He's supposed to be at home in his bed while Killarney is partying."

Cooper can be bright, engaging company, but there is a devout privacy to him too. Behind those calm, phlegmatic eyes, there exists a force-field of intensity that few if any get to enter. He is eminently approachable, yet resolutely inscrutable too.

Weeshie Fogarty, the renowned former referee and current Radio Kerry presenter, was a good friend of Gooch's father Michael. They drank together on Friday nights in Jimmy O'Brien's and many would be the visitor choosing to hold court about Gooch and his genius, unaware of Michael Cooper's presence.

Sometimes, Jimmy would even be heard giving directions to Gooch's house, his Da sitting just yards away, smiling gently.

Weeshie remembers how the youngest of Michael's five boys always had people's attention. The underage finals in East Kerry would unspool on the so-called 'Practice Pitch' in the shadow of Fitzgerald Stadium. Weeshie, a Legion man, could see that Dr Crokes had possession of a nugget.

"It was very, very easy to pick him out right back to the age of 12," he says of Gooch the child. "He was just a class above anything else around."

Famously, Cooper was mascot to the Crokes team that beat Dublin champions Thomas Davis in the '92 All-Ireland Club final. And Peter O'Brien, the Crokes goalkeeper, is the one who coined the kid's nickname, given his likeness to the Goochy dolls so popular at the time.

Almost exactly 10 years on, Gooch made his senior county debut in a Division 2 League final against Laois in Limerick. The rain came down that day in buckets and the kid got washed away.

Yet Kerry knew what they had and that knowledge fostered patience.

They lost the All-Ireland final that year to Armagh and, the following August, Tyrone humiliated them in the semi-final.

This was the watershed day that ended Paidi O Se's run as manager. Against the swarm defence (remember Eoin Brosnan in the blizzard) Kerry managed to score just six points and had four of their forwards subbed. In a sense, the experience deposited a scar that has not healed.

Kerry's three All-Ireland wins since have been marked by lopsided finals, either side of that '05 loss to Tyrone. But even wisdom could not protect them against Mickey Harte's boys three years back.

O'Connor narrowed the training pitch in Killarney and pitched his first 15 into battle against 18 opponents.

No matter. They could not simulate Tyrone's fury.

Yet, the surviving doubts about Kerry's stomach for northern intensity do not extend to Gooch. His record is good against Ulster opposition. Even in that '05 final, he scored 0-3 from play having set himself up for attention by taking 1-4 off Ryan McMenamin in a League game the previous spring.

There has never been a sense that physicality makes him queasy.

Fogarty remembers approaching him in the dressing-room after last year's All-Ireland final against Cork. Gooch had contributed 1-5 to Kerry's handsome victory, the goal a brave, punched finish in the first half with Cork goalkeeper Alan Quirke closing in.

Weeshie wondered if, maybe, Gooch had fully considered the likely physical consequences of positioning himself between a scrambling goalkeeper and full-back.

"Did you know that the goalkeeper was coming off his line," asked Fogarty.

"Oh I did," said Gooch. "I heard him coming." Not a flicker in those eyes. Spiritually, he has taken his knocks.

His father died suddenly at work in the spring of 2006 maybe nine months after his best friend, Kieran Cahillane, was drowned in one of the lakes around Killarney.

It has never been Gooch's way to invite people behind the closed door of his private life, yet those on the periphery were in little doubt of his pain.

"What that man went through was unbelievable" says Fogarty. "And you must remember that he was still only a young fella. Colm was living at home.

"You can imagine him then going home every night, consoling his mother. He's very guarded, very private. Not easy to get at.

"His father was a steely kind of a man too. That resolve would have been there. But Colm wouldn't have been human if that period didn't hit him savagely."

Football, in a sense, was his way of coping. Michael Cooper died on the Monday after a League game against Tyrone in Omagh and, six days later, Gooch played as an influential substitute against Dublin in Killarney.

That September, he lifted the Sam Maguire with Declan O'Sullivan under the Hogan Stand.

There, too, you could trace a glimmer of his steel.

O'Sullivan, the '06 captain, had been unable to get his place on the team and in his absence Gooch inherited the armband.

But O'Sullivan and Jack O'Connor were Dromid clubmates and when the manager restored him to the team in All-Ireland final week, conspiracy theorists went into overdrive in Killarney.

Fuelling the fire was the fact that O'Sullivan was replacing Cooper's Dr Crokes clubmate Eoin Brosnan. East Kerry being pillaged by the south.

If O'Connor anticipated a sulk, he didn't get it.

"I think Jack was waiting for me to give a reaction," Cooper reflected of the following night's training session.

"I just said 'that's fine'. Jack was probably waiting for me to say 'f**k you, I was captain!'

"But I didn't. It wasn't about me lifting Sam Maguire. I couldn't care if Jack lifted it himself, or if Brossie came on and lifted it.

"Maybe Jack was waiting for me to say something smart to him, but I didn't."

No man is immune to the endless tugging of the seasons, though, and Gooch finally stepped out of the loop last Christmas. He took leave of absence from his bank job and left the country for a five-month break.

He needed space in his life and, for Cooper, Kerry will never offer that.

His form since returning has, he declares, been no better than "average". Yet Gooch Cooper's average is another man's day of days.

Where will history place him?

In Kerry, the pantheon -- from Lyne and Culloty to Sheehy, Egan, Liston and Spillane -- is not easily scaled. As a journalistic act, Fogarty is in the process of picking his 15 most stylish Kerry players since 1955 and Gooch is already pencilled in at right-corner forward.

He declares: "He's probably one of the most gifted and stylish corner-forwards that Kerry has ever produced. But the thing is we still don't know is he going to get even better.

"I always say that I'm waiting for the day when Colm Cooper will have the perfect game. He's one of the greats, no doubt. But how great is he? We'll just have to wait and see."

Genius confirmed, then. Just the hue of it to be settled.

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