Tuesday 26 September 2017

Croke Park's master and commander

Kingdom's talisman never fails to rise to the occasion when he takes to the GAA's biggest stage, writes Colm Keys

Colm Cooper. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Cooper. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Colm Cooper takes a glance back behind him and rotates those light shoulders on which so much heavy responsibility has been placed for the last nine years.

He nods his head back behind him from high in the Hogan Stand to illustrate the field below him and the simple movement tells more than words ever could.

Croke Park, all green and resplendent, looks an inviting prospect, even in April. It excites him.

The lawnmowers beneath him are purring, the place is being readied for the gladiators arriving here over the next few months. Among them, he will be the lightly-armed sorcerer.

For Cooper a season is measured on what happens here in September, the destination always outweighing the journey.

"Seeing the boys there cutting the grass, it gives you a bit of a grá for the championship," he declares.

Why wouldn't 'Gooch' love Croke Park?

It is his stage, his theatre, the place where he has showcased his amazing gifts most often and with most impact.

Consider these statistics. In 26 championship games in Croke Park he has scored 7-109, an average of five points per game.

At all other venues, from Killarney to the Gaelic Grounds and Portlaoise, 33 games in all, his cumulative total is 9-83, or 3.33 points per game.

So his strike rate is 50pc higher at Croke Park.

There have been days like the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin, or the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Cork, when he has shot the lights out.

And there have been days -- many fewer it must be said -- like the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, when he has been restricted.

But never has there been a day when he came away from Croke Park scoreless.

Perhaps nothing illustrates his affinity with the place more than his last two visits there. Both ended in defeat but both, for different reasons, amplified his genius.

His two passes to Kieran Donaghy that could have given Kerry a lifeline against Down in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final were the marquee moments of a mesmeric display that was, unfortunately for Kerry, in isolation.

And his points spree against Dublin in the February league match under lights ranks up there with the best he has produced on the great stage: he hauled his team back from a four-point deficit, albeit ultimately in vain.

He has had disappointment there -- five senior championship defeats from 26 visits, all to Ulster teams. Tyrone undid Kerry three times, Armagh and Down once each, to bookend the nine championship years of Colm Cooper so far.

But for all the northern exposure of the 2000s, for all the evolution that football has experienced, the last decade belonged to him.

History will remember the coming of Tyrone as a force in the game. But it will document the same period as the time of the Gooch.

This year he is captain of Kerry outright for the first time. In 2006, when Declan O'Sullivan was dropped, he assumed the role until the All-Ireland final, when O'Sullivan was restored.

GRACIOUSLY

O'Sullivan graciously invited his colleague to share in the lifting of the Sam Maguire Cup, but it was O'Sullivan who made the speech.

Dr Crokes' victory in last year's Kerry championship ensures that Cooper will be captain outright for his 10th season of championship football and that just seems right. Leadership has grown on him with the years.

When Crokes found themselves 13 points down at the interval during their recent Munster club final with Nemo Rangers in Mallow at the end of January it was Gooch who provided the reassuring words in the dressing-room before the management arrived.

He'll be a captain by deed more than word in a dressing-room laden with strong voices.

"Whoever's captain is captain," he declares with a degree of indifference about the whole thing. "We've enough big characters around the dressing-room besides one guy to be making speeches and banging tables and all of that stuff.

"We let the football take care of itself on the field and that's the bottom line.

"It (captaincy) brings responsibility and a couple of different things. This is my 10th championship, it's about time I started growing up, I suppose. The young guys coming through look up to the older guys a bit more, and we have to accept that and help guys out as much as we can."

But the new protector may also still require his own protection screen. Kerry have long since developed a consciousness of the treatment so often meted out to their most prized asset.

His world is not always neat swivels, stealthy sidesteps and dainty kicks. More often than not it's a hard, uncompromising environment that he faces. This was evident the day Kerry travelled north to Armagh in March for a league match they won convincingly, but during which they were reminded that Gooch remains an object of obsession for opposing defences.

When he was left in Killarney for the subsequent journey to Monaghan, there was a strong suggestion that Kerry were boxing clever with their talisman.

Why subject him to more of the same in a place like Inniskeen, against a team that left him requiring minor eye surgery 12 months earlier? It made sense and paid off.

It's remarkable that he still has the patience for battle after all the scrapes and scars. In 2003 he allegedly came off the field after the All-Ireland semi-final with teeth marks on his arm.

Two years later there was the mystery of the goalmouth incident beneath the Canal End when he was left requiring attention to an eye. There was no definitive version of what happened to leave him in need of attention.

No one was cautioned after an extensive consultation between the officials, but having built up a head of steam up to that point, whatever happened deflated Gooch for a crucial 20 minutes when Tyrone regained control.

Kerry learned from that incident and in the corresponding game 12 months later against Mayo a protection mechanism, which had been pre-planned, was triggered when things got tense around him.

As Jack O'Connor would later recall in his autobiography, Gooch was never to be left isolated again.

"When Gooch got a clip early in the second half we knew what to do. Donaghy wasn't long going in and sorting him for retribution. I told him that was to happen. I said I didn't ever want to see the Gooch isolated if he is after getting a flake," recounts O'Connor.

Cooper himself has learned to cope with what's thrown at him.

"I'm around 10 years now and you know what you're going to get. Football is competitive wherever you go. You'll have good days, bad days, physical games, not-so physical games. You just get on with it and I'm around long enough to accept that. You deal with it."

With Donaghy there is an element of 'minder' about the relationship on the field that they enjoy. Off the field they are good pals and that rapport is reflected in Gooch's description of his attitude as "infectious".

EFFORTLESSLY

You suggest that playing beside a man who can grab a ball so effortlessly and distribute it with such soft hands provides those around him with the perfect armchair ride.

"Armchair ride? Nah, I won't give him that much! Kieran's a good player. He's come in and is a bubbly character, he's very enthusiastic and he brings out the best in guys and everyone can see that.

"He's a fun guy to be around and he's easy to play with and he has all the skills. He won the Footballer of the Year in 2006 and I think his good attitude is infectious. I think he'll have a big championship. At least, I hope he will."

After the last league game, against Down, O'Connor said he felt an energy from his players that wasn't there last year. The captain has that feeling too.

"Since coming in after Christmas, the players have shown great spirit. They've won league games and were pretty close to beating Cork, so I think you'd have to be encouraged by the league performances," said Cooper.

But nothing draws more encouragement in Kerry that the form of Gooch himself.

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