80 not out sees Colm Cooper join elite band of brothers
Published 29/07/2015 | 02:30
Colm Cooper may be the elite Gaelic footballer of his generation but the company he is about to join will give that elite status an even greater texture.
If and when Cooper plays against Kildare in Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park, he'll be joining a small band of Gaelic footballers who have played 80 or more Championship games for their county.
Actually, it's a band of brothers he'll be rubbing shoulders with, brothers he has grown to know quite well over the course of his 14 seasons with Kerry.
It's one of the most remarkable statistics in Gaelic games that the only footballers thought to have broken through the 80 mark in terms of Championship appearances all grew up under the one roof in west Kerry.
Tomás Ó Sé leads the way with 88, younger brother Marc recently passed out his older brother Darragh, who finished his 15-year career with 81 appearances, when he started the drawn Munster final against Cork and now stands at 83 courtesy of the replay.
To match and better Tomás, Marc will, most likely, have to remain on as an inter-county footballer for a 15th season (Darragh, Tomás and their uncle Páidí all had at least 15-year inter-county careers) unless Kerry are involved in an All-Ireland final and at least two replays on the way.
We say 'thought' because there is no definitive resource, no centralised hub within the GAA for the number of Championship games played. And that leaves such lists open to challenge.
It seems, however, that some 11 players have now passed the 70 mark for Championship appearances.
Audits are compiled from county to county - Kerry's 'Terrace Talk' website stands apart as the ultimate guide to the county's storied past - but over time a picture has emerged that those with the higher numbers are generally from counties who have extended runs and have been successful in the qualifier era.
Thus Kerry, who by Sunday evening will have been involved in every one of the 15 All-Ireland quarter-finals played since 2001 (Marc Ó Sé will have played in 14 of them), lead the way because of their record of consistency.
But the picture continues to change.
On Saturday evening, Sean Cavanagh can lay claim to fifth spot on the all-time list of Championship appearances when he plays for the 77th time as Tyrone face Sligo in the opening round 4B qualifier game.
Cavanagh has been busy fast-tracking through the field this season, first matching Brian Dooher on 73 when Tyrone played Donegal in the Ulster Championship preliminary round and then drawing level with the county's most 'capped' footballer, Conor Gormley, on 75 when they played Meath in a second round qualifier two-and-a-half weeks ago.
Against Tipperary a week later Cavanagh pushed himself into joint-fifth with Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan who signed off after the 2011 All-Ireland final on 76 appearances with just Darragh and Tomas Ó Sé ahead of him at that stage.
Cavanagh, Dooher and Gormley have been helped by Tyrone's propensity to make progress through the back door.
When they won the All-Ireland title for the second time in 2005 their campaign stretched to 10 matches including Ulster Championship replays against Cavan and Armagh in the final and an All-Ireland quarter-final replay against Dublin.
In 2008, the journey wasn't as prolonged but an Ulster quarter-final replay defeat to Tyrone set them off through the back door and brought their game total to eight by the time they played Kerry in an All-Ireland final.
For years prior to the Championship restructure in 2001, goalkeepers took the lead on Championship appearances.
The legendary Kerry 'keeper Dan O'Keeffe made 66 Championship appearances between 1931 and '48 but was matched by John O'Leary when he captained Dublin to the All-Ireland title in 1995.
O'Leary went on to play four more Championship matches over the next two years before retiring after Dublin's premature exit in the 1997 Leinster Championship.
The striking feature of O'Leary's 70 games was that they were consecutive during his 18-season career. Never once was he dropped or injured.
When you consider that Marc Ó Sé will have had the benefit of 10 qualifier games and 14 All-Ireland quarter-finals in his 14 seasons it puts into perspective what O'Leary achieved too.
Last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal gave Stephen Cluxton an opportunity to pass out O'Leary and he now stands at 74, seventh on the list as we know it.
Just outside the 70 mark are two more Kerry players, Eoin Brosnan and Declan O'Sullivan, who wrapped up their careers on 69 and 68 respectively.
Other counties who have been prominent in the back-door era have not been able to get up to levels that these Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin players have been at.
Colm McFadden, Donegal's longest-serving player in terms of Championship appearances, will hit the 60 mark against Galway on Saturday evening. Christy Toye is in line for his 58th appearance.
Cork have been involved in 11 of the 15 All-Ireland quarter-finals and that essentially propelled Nicholas Murphy and Graham Canty into the early 60s (62 and 61 to be precise) before they called time on their careers.
Mayo's straightforward route to All-Ireland quarter-finals over the last five years has kept the number of games they've played to a minimum so their highest are in the 50s, Alan Dillon leading the way on 55, ahead of the now retired James Nallen on 52 and Andy Moran on 50.
Of course if Cooper had not had to sit out all six Championship games last season with a cruciate ligament injury he could breathing hard down the neck of Tomás Ó Sé at this stage.
The question now is whether Cooper will pass the 80 mark as a substitute or as one of the starting 15.
Having started against Tipperary in the Munster semi-final he lost his place for both Munster finals but his impact in the replay, in particular his creative touch for Paul Geaney's game-breaking goal, could weight the argument to include him from the start once more in his favour.
His control of the game when it needed controlling after Kerry hit the front was also significant as the champions sought a shift of emphasis following the withdrawal of their captain Kieran Donaghy.
Cooper's love of Croke Park is also a factor. He's played 32 games there from which he has mined, from play and frees, an impressive 9-35. On average, that's just over five points per game.
In the 47 Championship games he has played at all other venues his tally is 11-135, an average of 3.57 points per game for a 20-270 total.
That's a lift of more than 40 per cent when he gets to Croke Park. Obviously the better and more spacious surface contributes but the quality of opposition will generally be higher too.
In time Cooper will surely pass out Darragh ó Sé and, at 32, has the capacity to go close to the 90 mark if he was to remain on for another two seasons.
But for now his return to Croke Park, almost two years after delivering one of his most memorable performances there, is all that concerns him.