Vincent Hogan: Dynamic duo
Published 05/06/2010 | 05:00
For a people tyrannised by piseoga, there's an oddly sanguine air about Kerry.
Winter bled them dry, yet any invitation to fixate on magpies or red-heads or spooky cloud formations was declined. Almost one third of an All-Ireland winning team departed, yet 'Bomber' Liston reckons that the boon of Kieran Donaghy's return to fitness measures at "maybe 90pc" in compensation.
All sport is, essentially, plumed arithmetic and, for a team down Diarmuid Murphy, Darragh O Se, Tadhg Kennelly and Tommy Walsh from last September, Kerry's book-keeping remains a bright essay in solvency.
That's mostly down to Donaghy and his easy, almost amiable, gifts of destruction. But, more specifically, it's down to the liberation his presence now grants Colm 'Gooch' Cooper.
In Thurles three weeks ago, Donaghy returned a tally of just 0-1 in Kerry's Munster quarter-final victory over Tipperary. Yet, by this writer's estimation, he contributed to a total of 2-9.
Tipp goalkeeper, Paul Fitzgerald, believes they were taken out by a virtual force of nature.
"It's almost impossible to mark him," says the Fethard man. "Most backs now play two or three yards in front of a forward. But it's impossible to do that with Donaghy. Because, if the ball goes in over your head, you're going to look a fool.
"And Kerry have serious kick-passers in the team. They're not just hoofing it in. If you put a man back as sweeper in front of him, they can just play over that man. It's almost the advantage Kerry have over everybody where, if you do play this blanket defence with a seventh defender, they can go 'right lads, we'll just go over that!'.
"And himself and Gooch seem to have an almost sixth sense of one another. Gooch is always moving off Donaghy's shoulder and they get a lot of their scores from that."
It may be overstating it to suggest a hint of resurrection in Cooper's play this season. Yet, there is no denying that, last year, he wore his weariness like a wool geansai in the sun. The few pints drank after a clumsy victory over Sligo drew lurid headlines, yet they were merely symptoms of a greater malaise.
Until they reached Croke Park last autumn, Kerry's was not a happy camp. And Cooper suffered more than most.
With Donaghy injured, he spent the summer chasing percentage balls and taking heavy hits. It was a throwback to the championship of '06 when they seemed to be sleepwalking without direction until Jack O'Connor reinvented the big Tralee man as a full-forward in the Qualifier against Longford.
O'Connor would admit later that his decision was referenced by Cooper's view that Kerry needed "more muscle" in the full-forward line.
In exchange, he said, he gave 'Gooch' the task of coaching Donaghy and, of course, the outcome was spectacular. Kerry scored three goals in the first 15 minutes, Donaghy involved in all of them.
That chemistry carried them to an All-Ireland and on through '07 and '08 -- years in which Cooper won his fourth and fifth All Stars. Yet, without Donaghy by his side in '09, Gooch returned to looking mortal.
Liston doesn't disregard the possibility of one being a symptom of the other, but is loath to buy into the notion that Cooper can no longer blossom without Donaghy pulling dimes from his ear.
"What we saw last year wasn't Gooch at all," says Liston. "Everybody knew that. There were issues in the camp, some of them tied up with the (O'Connor's) book. But you've a totally different Gooch this time.
"Look, even if Donaghy wasn't there, Gooch would still be your main man. Make no mistake, he could deliver totally on his own. That said, they have a huge chemistry between them and it's based on nothing more complicated than they talk about things.
"It's something you only get when players have been playing together for a number of years. In our time, Ger Power might say to me 'look, every time I get the ball, I want you to run. I mightn't use you, but ...'.
"You establish that between you. You might come in after a match and it'd be 'remember that time I gave you the nod ... ' And you're 'Jesus, that's what you wanted. F*** it, I know now'.
"No coach can give you that. It comes from the players."
Exactly 80 seconds had elapsed in this year's game with Tipperary when, from a low Bryan Sheehan delivery, Donaghy blithely sidestepped Ciaran McDonald and scored Kerry's opening point.
Then Gooch scored Kerry's second some minutes later after lovely interplay with the full-forward. Paddy Codd was marking him.
"They have great timing together," he says of the Cooper-Donaghy combination. "And it makes it fierce hard to mark Gooch. Kerry play a kind of criss-crossing ball in and it's hard for the back if the forward is coming across you.
"They have so many options in there. You can't foul them, you can't give them space, it's very hard to stop. The Gooch would be running, he'd see Donaghy is going to get the ball and you just hear 'Star!'.
"Next thing, the ball is laid off to him. It's Donaghy's vision when he gets the ball that's the key. He's probably the only manufactured forward they have, but he's turned into a brilliant playmaker. He knows that's his main job and he has a great leap.
"I mean for a man who is 6'5", he can get another four or five feet off the ground and his hang time is brilliant. You can see the basketball influence. I don't know how they're trained to do that, but Gaelic football teams could probably do worse than explore it."
It is often said that, under media scrutiny, Cooper's attention seems drawn to another, simpler place. He doesn't enjoy the celebrity element of inter-county football. "He'd love to just go training, no one knowing him and play matches, no one knowing him," suggests Liston.
Yet, he turned just 27 on Thursday and, for a man whose eight seasons playing county have decanted seven All-Ireland final appearances, anonymity was never an option.
In a sense, the radiance of Donaghy's personality probably eases the load now. For 'Star' has a smile that could light paper and a sense of humour that swallows negativity.
Tipperary wing-forward, Hugh Coghlan, remembers the big, beanpole midfielder who loped onto the TG4 reality show 'The Underdogs' in 2004 as "a character more than anything". Coghlan and Donaghy would play on a team that beat Kerry after extra-time that year, yet the experience prophesied little of what was to come.
"The main thing I would remember was his ability to gel with people," says the Dublin-based Tipp man. "I mean he's really exploded into something special in the last few years but, back then, you wouldn't really have seen much other than that he was an unbelievable fielder of a ball."
At the time, Donaghy was an accomplished basketball player dabbling in Junior 'C' football with Austin Stacks. He played Superleague for Tralee Tigers and worshipped at the altar of Michael Jordan. Yet, the intuition of Mickey Ned O'Sullivan (the Underdogs manager) would set in train a chain of events that Kerry, to this day, have reason to be thankful for.
The emotional dynamic between Donaghy and Cooper now has advanced a few small lifetimes from that which prevailed in '06.
Donaghy often recalls that year's All-Ireland quarter-final clash with Armagh, his first big Croke Park experience and a day that granted him an audience with the artist known as Francie Bellew. Francie wasn't one for taking prisoners and, the more he dominated Kerry's maverick full-forward, the more his goalkeeper, Paul Hearty, bellowed approval.
Maybe five minutes before half-time, Donaghy fluffed an attempt to rise a ball under the Cusack Stand, his ears immediately reddened by the din. And he recalls Cooper jogging calmly over.
"Hold tough," said Gooch. "All you need is one chance. Hold the head and don't start panicking."
Two minutes later, Donaghy fed Cooper for a point. Then he blazed the goal that finished Francie. In his book, O'Connor recalls the moment thus: "The trick with Donaghy has been getting the ball to him in basketball situations. On the hardwood, he receives the ball with his back to the hoop and makes his move, driving in hard. He does just that now.
"There's a memory, the story of the whole season. Francie Bellew on the ground behind Donaghy, the ball flying to the Armagh net past poor Hearty. Donaghy in Hearty's face with the immortal words 'Who's crying now baby!'.
"Donaghy's goal was a statement. Sticking the head into the cul baire's face. Most of the time, I'd try to keep myself calm on the sideline, but I let an old 'yahoo' when I saw Donaghy. It felt like being set free."
The memory is four years old now, yet its clarity remains undimmed. For that was the day that Kerry found the fulcrum for an attack that has, since, won three All-Irelands. One image above all others is a staple of our summers now.
It is of Donaghy fetching impossibly from the clouds and Cooper scissoring off his shoulder to wreak terror. Kerry didn't have it in '09, yet won the All-Ireland. So why on earth would they be cowed in 2010?
Fitzgerald suggests that the only weapon comparable to Donaghy in football today is Donegal's Michael Murphy. Yet, Murphy doesn't get the intelligent service that a Kerry full-forward can presume upon and, therefore, his impact is diminished.
The Tipp goalkeeper believes Donaghy is now, indisputably, the director of Kerry's forward play.
"He does a lot of the talking," says Fitzgerald. "He's one of the leaders. He's constantly encouraging everyone around him and they feed off that positive vibe. He's the one who keeps the whole forward line ticking.
"Gooch, I'd say, has played so much football and there's so much pressure on him that, at times, he probably gets a bit pissed off. But Donaghy keeps him going all through a game.
"They need his positivity."
Codd says patience is the Kerry calling-card. They roll through their options, blithely recycling possession until a clear opportunity arises. Nobody panics. Nobody plays stupid. Cooper, he suspects, is still their go-to guy.
"They're very calm," he says. "Gooch is often double-marked and, if they see he isn't free, they just turn to Donaghy with the high ball. It sounds simple, but it's very hard to stop."
A Kerry smile can contain a multitude of secrets, yet Liston believes that Gooch's body language promises good things now. "You can tell whether a fella's enjoying it or not," says Liston. "And Gooch is enjoying it. He's a different man to last year."
Even the magpies keep their distance.