Saturday 29 April 2017

Colm Cooper: A treasure coveted in every Kingdom

Colm Cooper has been football's brightest star for 15 seasons, held in high esteem across the land

Colm Cooper celebrates the goal that sparked an avalanche against Dublin during the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Cooper celebrates the goal that sparked an avalanche against Dublin during the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Watching AIB's documentary on their employee Colm Cooper's recovery from a ruptured cruciate ligament and fractured knee cap, released two years ago to co-incide with his return to action in the final round of the League, a couple of things stood out.

The cameras followed Cooper limping down the tunnel away from the pitch on that February afternoon in Portlaoise, his Dr Crokes side beaten in an All-Ireland club semi-final for the third successive year.

As he turned the corner for the sanctuary of the dressing-room, a local Guard on duty offered him a sympathetic pat on the pack.

It was a simple, warm, human gesture but unusual, nonetheless, for an officer of the law to engage in such a way. What it shone a light on, though, was the esteem in which Cooper has been held in for so long.

Cooper scores another early goal against the Dubs in the 2011 final, but the Kingdom are caught cold by their great rivals. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Cooper scores another early goal against the Dubs in the 2011 final, but the Kingdom are caught cold by their great rivals. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

When the extent of the damage was confirmed some days later, it made a mainstream news bulletin on the national broadcaster. How many other GAA players would be afforded that status?

For the previous 12 seasons Cooper lit up just about every venue he graced, from Fitzgerald Stadium to the Gaelic Grounds but especially Croke Park where his scoring returns were statistically twice that of the rest for most of his career.

Shadow

In weighing up his future over the last few weeks and months, there appeared to be more favourable tides to stay on.

The season, already on the cusp of another League final, has a short run-in and Kerry are comfortably a top three side. Dublin's shadow darkens the horizon but the lure of a fifth All-Ireland medal for such a competitor must have been appetising.

After the role he played in seeing Crokes over the line - including his guiding hand in the 63-pass sequence that saw them keep possession for four minutes to run down the clock - the case to do something similar for Kerry has surely been on Eamonn Fitzmaurice's mind.

Scoring on his senior debut in a Division 2 league final. Photo Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Scoring on his senior debut in a Division 2 league final. Photo Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

But ultimately there is no guaranteed starting place for Cooper in the months ahead - not that he would expect one - and the idea of being an impact player just might not sit easily.

For 15 years - 14 Championship seasons - he has been Gaelic football's shining jewel, a player who has had to adapt to his game as much as any other to keep pace in an ever-changing environment.

In Kerry, a county that could probably argue the case for eight or nine of the top 20 Gaelic footballers, he holds a special place, an ambassador they see as reflecting everything right about the game.

Beyond the Kingdom people have been happy just to see him play and pull some of those tricks. Everyone appreciates what he as brought, even if it has been to their cost.

The mascot for Dr Crokes 1992 All-Ireland club success quickly grew into such a talent, even the locals reached fever pitch excitement at the prospect of what he could do.

Jack O'Connor remembered hearing about him years before he was anywhere near a Kerry senior squad.

Former Kildare captain Glen Ryan recalls a challenge with Kerry, organised between Mick O'Dwyer and Páidí Ó Sé in Limerick prior to the start of Cooper's debut 2002 championship.

In the showers afterwards, Páidí sought feedback from Ryan about their latest young star.

"Didn't pay much attention to him," replied Ryan.

"Well start paying attention because he's going to be one of the best footballers to come out of Kerry in a long time," came the retort.

Páidí 's prophetic words were ringing in Ryan's ears a couple of months later when the sides met in a qualifier and Cooper put Kildare ruthlessly to the sword. He scored 1-1 as O'Dwyer Kildare's tenure came to an end in Thurles, and by the end of the season Cooper had the first of eight All-Stars.

The winds of change from the north were already blowing hard in football, however, and Kerry had some adapting to do before things were in place for Cooper to win his first All-Ireland medal.

For the 2004 All-Ireland final Kerry successfully devised an aerial strategy that focused on the fielding ability of Johnny Crowley and Cooper. It was a side of the Gooch's game that few paid much heed to but his fetch and turn for that magnificent goal enshrined it.

In the team hotel the following morning he revealed the addition of nearly a stone in weight to help cope with the demands. You wouldn't have seen it on him.

So often, he tormented Cork defences over the next five years. Tyrone were a different proposition, though it's too often understated as to how well he played in such challenging conditions against them.

When Kieran Donaghy was shifted into full-forward midway through the 2006 Championship it gave 'Gooch' added impetus. His form had dipped and, in four Munster Championship games, he had contributed just 0-5.

But with Donaghy he developed a great axis of understanding, feeding off the big man's ball winning and acute distribution.

Paul Galvin put it nicely in his autobiography when he described the "cold composure" of a "genius".

"He takes a bounce or solo when others kick; he kicks when others can't see it. The bounce or solo was never for show, but almost always when he sensed a goal," wrote Galvin.

In recent years the emphasis of his game has been more on creation than finishing, becoming more playmaker than assassin.

He has been the safest pair of hands with possession, the timing and weight of his passes unrivalled, hopping into a chest as if the trajectory had been computer-generated.

His conversion to out-and-out centre-forward in 2013 brought him his last All-Star, and his last really great display, against Dublin, before that shattering knee injury.

By then he had an unbroken sequence of 76 Championship games played, a tally that now stands at 85, three behind Tomás and Marc Ó Sé.

He got back within 14 months but his powers were waning and for so many, the sight of him struggling to chase Philly McMahon deep into his own half in the 2015 All-Ireland final was the most accurate snapshot yet for the changed nature of the game.

He recovered some ground last year, despite picking up a further collar-bone injury, and for much of the winter there was optimism that he would return.

It appears not, though.

Irish Independent

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