'Fear helps me to focus. It's part of my make-up'
Colm Cooper has always been a marked man but that doesn't make it any easier, writes Marie Crowe
I t's 7.30 last Monday night and Liverpool are kicking off against Aston Villa in half an hour. Colm Cooper supports the former and wants to watch the game, but with no TV available he insists it's okay to continue.
This will probably be his last interview as Colm Cooper, Kerry player, for some time because as soon as Jack O'Connor recalls his side for training in the new year, he will be Colm Cooper, Kerry captain.
It's a natural progression. Cooper has worn the green and gold since 2002 when Páidí ó Sé called him in for trials. The youngest of seven -- five boys and two girls-- football was already a way of life by then having served his apprenticeship standing on sidelines with his father.
"You could find myself and my father anywhere," he recalls. "Even if the lads weren't playing, we'd go to any game that was on. My brothers used to call me the tag-along. From under 12B matches to junior or senior games, it's what we did; football was bred into me."
While Cooper appreciates that being the captain of Kerry is an honour, he's not fazed by the task. There are lots of big characters in Kerry who automatically shoulder the leadership responsibilities.
Although still only 27, he is wise and only too aware of the importance of his role in Kerry football. Getting his game right is vital, it's the most important thing for him and for his team and that's not going to change.
"I'm not someone who goes around banging tables or banging doors or anything like that. I suppose I'm at the stage of my career where I've been around for a while and I've seen good days and bad days. I think when you have that bit of experience guys look to you a bit more, they look for a bit of advice. That's been happening with me for a while anyway.
"Guys take on board what you have to say. They might give out to you a bit too. I've been around nine years and I still look for advice. And that is the beauty of the GAA, whether you're 17 coming in or 34 nearly ready to retire, advice can come from anywhere, particularly with the group in Kerry and the Crokes as well."
Cooper's Dr Crokes met Kieran Donaghy's Austin Stacks in the county final in front of a 10,219 crowd. An exhibition in the second half by Cooper sealed the deal for Crokes, won him the man of the match award and guaranteed the captaincy for 2011.
The pair have clicked on the pitch ever since Donaghy burst onto the scene in 2006. Cooper responds well to him -- it's Donaghy's attitude and his demeanour that really gets the corner-forward going. "He is a very likeable character and you rarely see him without a smile on his face. It helps when I have him beside me because I might not always be in great form, but if I'm playing with a good player who has a smile on his face then it puts me in good humour and I operate better when I'm in good humour."
In many ways Cooper's life is consumed by football and the game is just as consumed by him. Being the top scorer in five All-Ireland finals has guaranteed fame for the Killarney native. "You get a profile when you're successful and then you get recognised most places that you go, well I do anyway with my big red head. I don't think I'll ever get used to it and it can be difficult at times; everyone wants to come up and talk to you about the match and how preparations are going. And if there are any rumours going around they think that you will have the answers."
Good press and bad press come hand in hand. In 2009, he made the front and back page headlines after being dropped by Jack O'Connor. "People went totally overboard and it wasn't nice to be pasted across the front of the paper like I killed someone. I have my own take on it, but if you are a high-profile person you're going to be faced with that whether it's right or wrong. I've my perception and other people have their own perception of things.
"I can't change what people think but I'm not a professional. I don't get paid so I don't have to come out and clear the air. When someone starts paying my wages for playing football then they can come out and dictate to me and make me answerable. I have a life as well."
Colm Cooper's career is littered with All-Irelands and All Stars, but the lows are there too. He has lost almost as many All-Ireland finals as he has won, he has lost county finals and All-Ireland club finals, he is no stranger to defeat.
"Losing is not a nice place to be, everyone has gone into dressing rooms and cried and left Croke Park and thought I'm never going to make it back here again. Some days you really do think 'feck this, I'm not playing any more' but after a few weeks you get back into a routine an the eagerness comes back again.
"If you don't lose, you don't understand the importance of winning. When you lose and come back and win, it's more special, you appreciate it a bit more."
Cooper concedes that Kerry simply weren't good enough against Down last summer, but having to do without Paul Galvin and Tomás ó Sé didn't help matters. Watching their neighbours Cork lift the Sam Maguire wasn't an easy pill to swallow either.
"They deserved it," he admits. "Beating Dublin when they looked dead and buried showed great character but I reckon if they didn't win this year they could have forgotten about it."
Success has made him a marked man, with some opponents claiming he is too well looked after by referees, but as far as Cooper is concerned the rules are there for people to abide by. That's not always going to happen so the referee must deal with the fall-out. "The rules are not there to protect players. I'm not going out looking for protection. I go out and play within the rules as best I can. I'm not into going out trying to get extras. I never have."
Cooper has worked with big-name managers. He knocked a good laugh out of Páidí; Jack O'Connor let the experts take charge of the physical training but as soon as the football started it was all his; Pat O'Shea was vocal, very hands on. But he was very witty, had the banter and really got the lads going. "I'm not into roaring and shouting, I'm more cool and calculated," he reveals. "You can give me a bollicking, that's fine I can take that on the chin, but some managers roar and shout constantly and I just don't respond to that. If that's happening I just switch off and go into my own bubble and focus on my own game."
A lot has changed in Kerry football since Cooper's arrival. Players have retired and managers have come and gone. But when preparing for a game there is no variation, he has yet to alter his routine. He has a favourite seat on the bus, in the dressing rooms in Croke Park, in Fitzgerald Stadium and at home in Dr Crokes.
"I get a bit nervous the day before a game but I just get on with it. I'm too old now for nerves. When I was younger I had fear and I still play with a bit of that. It's good to have a bit of fear. I don't want to lose. I'm a bit cautious and I want to do a good job. Fear helps me to focus, it's part of my make-up.
Sleeping, on the other hand, is something he never had a problem with. Before the 2007 All-Ireland final, his roommate Paul Galvin had to wake him up at ten minutes to two "He came in the door and said 'any chance of you waking up? We've an All-Ireland at half three'."
Cooper was mascot back in 1992 when Crokes won their first and only All-Ireland club title and played his first county final when he was 16. But the recession is hitting everyone. Cooper knows that this might be the last year all this team are around, so they need to make the most of it.
"We have a few lads not working and the reality is if we weren't as successful as we are, competing in county finals and playing Munster club, I've no doubt a lot of the lads would be in Australia or America.
"If someone asked me to go to talk them I couldn't give them an argument to stay around. Obviously I want them here and the team wants its best players around but it doesn't pay the mortgage or put bread on the table. There is every chance these lads could go once this season is over and I can't fight with them.
"I think the GAA could be doing more for players. I know it's not feasible to look after every club player, but the GAA is big business now, there is revenue coming in, maybe not as much as before but there is still money there and I think they could still be doing more. They are paying top guys up there. Surely they can toss around ideas and could come up with something to benefit the guys who are struggling."
Although Cooper would love to be a professional player, he values his club too much to risk it. If the county board were paying his wages, then Kerry would be his team and he'd never get to play for Crokes. The club structure would fall to its knees and that would spell the end of grassroots Gaelic games.
For now, though, Cooper must get on with the task in hand. It's the middle of December and his season is still in full flow. In fact, it's almost come full circle. He has yet to get a break since this time last year. That means the training ban doesn't affect him. Today's scheduled bout with Nemo Rangers has been called off again, and with a post-Christmas refixture likely, the training will go on.
He still has games to play, as do most footballers in Kerry. And that's frustrating -- there will be no rest this year for the corner-forward.