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Gooch laments loss of game's elegance

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Colm Cooper. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Colm Cooper. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Colm Cooper, Kerry, in action against Armagh's Enda McNulty, left and Kieran McGeeney. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Colm Cooper, Kerry, in action against Armagh's Enda McNulty, left and Kieran McGeeney. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

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Colm Cooper. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

"THE most athletic team in the country," is how the man generally accepted as the best footballer in the country describes Dublin.

Which, in itself, is both a compliment and an explanation.

Colm Cooper is mulling over the sea of changes in Gaelic football since 2002 when, at the age of 18 and just 10 stone in weight, he played in an All-Ireland SFC final; Kerry's famous loss to Armagh and a match which, in reflection, seems very much a landmark in the tactical evolution of the sport.

"If there was a strong wind, I would have been blown over the bar I'd say," he laughs now, safely rooted in his heftier 12 stone frame. "McGeeney hit me a crack of a shoulder and I knew all about it.

"An unwritten requirement at the moment to be a GAA player is you've to be 6ft4 and built like a tank," football's most lauded artist continues.

"If you look at most county teams, every guy is lifting big weights, has to be able to run and has to be able to tackle, he's being taken over the skillful guy that's 5'10 and slight build.

"I started playing, I was 10 stone in an All-Ireland final in Croke Park which is unheard of. Ten stone on the nose ... That would never happen now. If I was starting out again right now, I might not get the opportunity. Physically I wouldn't get the opportunity with those guys."

Which is a fairly stark assessment of how the rapid change the game has undergone has altered its landscape. Some would say, a damning indictment. Either way, it is simply the way the sport has gone and Cooper is at once, mournful and accepting.

Gaelic football is, he shrugs, a lesser game for its recent trends.

"If I'm a supporter, which I am, I go to matches to see that little bit of brilliance, that little bit of class. I love to see the competitive, the fair shoulder, the hitting, that stuff as well.

"But I think if you take the class and the brilliance and the elegance of players out of it, it will be a lesser game because of it. At the moment it's happening less and less. That's worrying to be honest.

"If you take a look at attendances at games now, I think it's falling. Maybe I'm wrong on that. Croke Park are expecting 50,000 on Sunday (in the Leinster semi-final double-header). Two or three years ago, they'd be expecting 80,000 at it. If it continues to go the way it is, you'll see attendances dropping. You need to safeguard the skills of the game and the skillful players in the game."

Which leads us neatly back to Dublin.

Depending on how you see it, they are either the saviours of the beautiful game, tactically foolhardy ... or somewhere in between.

Free-flowing

Gooch, though, sees them as slightly greyer than their black and white portrayal.

"They appear to be very free-flowing, have loads of energy, very athletic. Probably the most athletic team in the country. But, because they're so athletic, they seem able to do both, get up the field, and get back, and because they're playing in Croke Park every day, you have to be extremely athletic, to play that type of game," he explains.

"I think Jim Gavin knows what he's doing. I think they're much sharper than this time last year. I think they really mean business.

"Because when a manager comes in, he puts his own stamp on things, the way he wants to play. They have the players, for that adaptability, and have the strength and depth to play to a particular county, effortlessly."

Kerry, he says, are not for turning and Cooper admits that next Sunday week's Munster SFC final with Cork will scarcely prepare either – at least in a tactical sense – for what will come down the line come August.

"It's certainly more challenging, how teams set up," Cooper explains. "I'd say 99 per cent of teams now have some structure where players play. But from a supporters' point of view, and I'd watch most games on TV, the Sunday Game, or whatever, it's very evident that teams go out to stop each other, rather than try to win.

"Teams are happy to win eight points to nine, or whatever, rather than give up 1-15. That's the way Gaelic football has gone. The reason, I suppose, is that teams are putting in so much effort, they want to keep it as tight as they can, hopefully get over the line.

"Whether that's good, bad or indifferent for football, it's not easy on the eye, for sure," Cooper adds. "You just have to learn to deal with it."


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