Colm Cooper: 'I'll miss the butterflies in the belly'
'Gooch' already looking forward to next year as he braces himself for summer on fringes
BEING Colm Cooper on the pitch is one thing; being Colm Cooper in the stands is quite another. He hasn't made up his mind yet but 'Gooch' suspects he'll find it too hard to stay away when Kerry's championship games roll around later this year.
His knee injury means this summer will be the first time he's watched a Kerry game from the stands since the 2000 All-Ireland final replay win over Galway.
Cooper was on the Hill with friends from Killarney that day. A year later, he was in the crowd but as part of the Kingdom minor team that played before Kerry's seniors were hammered by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Twelve months on from that, he was in the senior team that lost an All-Ireland final to Armagh, and since then long summers with Kerry have been the norm. Until now.
He has made his peace with it since, but his initial reaction was to scratch around for a patch-up solution. Having another chance to captain Kerry compelled him to explore everything, but the notion gained only a moment's traction before surgeon Ray Moran talked him down.
"We talked briefly about it," says Cooper. "But on Ray's advice we didn't. He said I might read different things but from his experience – and he has done plenty of knees – there wasn't a quick fix for me.
"A quick fix for short-term gain was never going to help me because I want to play for a few more years, so there is no point in me breaking down in July in a Munster final or something like that. And with the damage I did, I was never going to be right."
The empty time hasn't sat well. Being off work means the days are long but fanciful plans of summer holidays and Premier League games, previously unthinkable when gearing up for a championship, are now options.
"In 12 years I never missed a match with injury. I was never on crutches for any period either. It's a completely new thing and I wish it wasn't the case but that's the way it is for plenty of players. You just have to get on with it," he says.
"I'll go away with a buddy of mine. I'll try and do some different things. I'll try and get over to Liverpool for the last day of the season against Newcastle and hopefully they'll win the league. There will be chances to do things that I didn't before."
His recovery will be marked by activities rather than time and the little things will become the big things. Walking, swimming, cycling and returning to work are all milestones on the road to recovery. Patience, though, will be his greatest ally.
"Henry (Shefflin) was texting. I spoke to Colm O'Neill from Cork too and he's an incredible man to come back after three of them and he's playing very well. So it can be done," he says.
"They said the big thing is to be patient. The fact that I haven't been on crutches and haven't had a serious injury before... I think things should clear up pretty quickly.
"I'd be over-worrying about things like swelling not going down but they said that was normal and not to rush it and that week on week you will improve.
"I'm at the stage where the season is gone and I understand that. I'm going to be a supporter this year. I have drawn a line under that and there's no point in feeling sorry for myself. It's gone and that's that. As well as that, I know from playing football over the last 12 years, the year flies by.
"Before I know it I'll be back playing with Crokes and maybe Kerry and hopefully it will be like I was never away. Once I get my knee into a good, strong position, I'm convinced I'll be back soon and I'm sure the six, nine or 12 months will fly by."
Only in the darkest moments do the negative thoughts creep in, and the what-ifs are endless. It's not too long ago that a cruciate injury was a sure thing to end a career, and for someone who relies on natural balance and guile rather than power, it's a particularly worrying injury.
The nagging thought that he might not recover to his former powers is pushed aside but, he admits, the spectre looms.
"That's always in the back of your mind but I'm trying to be as positive as I can. Initially when I went to Ray Moran for the assessment for the extent of the injury there was a lot of damage in terms of cruciate, medial ligament and the fracture of the knee, so there was a lot of surgery required," he explains.
"Ray assured me, 'we will get you back but it will take time'. It wasn't a normal cruciate either because of the fracture so it might take a little bit longer.
"But it made no difference because I was never going to be ready for September anyway and even if Crokes got to a county final or a Munster club final I wouldn't have been ready for that either, so it is really going to be 2015 before I'm back.
"Once you get that into your mind and digest that then it's okay. You understand it. When Ray Moran, who is so experienced, says we'll get you back then that gives you confidence."
For the first time since he weighed in at a willowy 10st back in his debut season in 2002, Kerry can't call on Cooper. Tomas O Se and Paul Galvin are gone too, along with their medals and experience.
The next wave have big shoes to fill. James O'Donoghue – "a huge talent with a great temperament" – has already put his hand up as the new leader in the Kerry attack, but, having served as Cooper's apprentice for a couple of seasons, he and his team-mates are in at the deep end.
"It's probably fair to ask them to step in but to expect it is a different thing. It's going to be a huge challenge, but when you are coming from a county like Kerry you know you have to show different qualities every day and every year you go out," he says.
"Whether they can step up to the plate or not will show over the next couple of months. I would have confidence that guys can step up to the mark."
Dublin are clear of the rest but there's a quiet confidence Kerry will be in the last eight. From there, anything is possible.
"I think they can perform. They'll need a lot to go right. They can't afford too many injuries or suspensions from here on in," says Cooper.
"And that's why Dublin are ahead of so many teams, because they have so much strength in depth. I still think Kerry can be a major player in the championship and the main objective will be to be in the hat for the All-Ireland quarter-finals."
However the year goes, Cooper will likely be in the stands. For once, his summer will be consumed by the concerns of the individual rather than the team.
"I haven't decided whether I'll go to the games or not but I reckon I'll find it very hard to stay away as well," he says.
"There might be a lot of people pulling and dragging out of you but look, that's the nature of the beast. Because I love football so much the championship is when I'm really going to feel it. There are going to be difficult days.
"For 12 years I've known no different other than being out in the middle of the action, and to be sitting down without having a role and knowing you can't impact the game will be difficult.
"I'll miss the butterflies in the belly before matches, I'll miss the nerves and driving into Croke Park. All those things you'll miss. But the thing that is keeping me going is that I'm pretty confident I'll have those days again – it just won't be this year."
The championship will miss him too.
Irish Independent Supplement