Saturday 20 January 2018

Joe Brolly: Sublime finisher but Colm Cooper didn't have answers when asked tough questions

Call it blasphemy but Gooch doesn't measure up when compared to a leader like Canavan

'Great players are judged by different standards than the rest of us. Colm was a wizard on the field.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Great players are judged by different standards than the rest of us. Colm was a wizard on the field.' Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

When someone like Colm Cooper retires we tend to lose the run ourselves. It is easy to be swept away in the sentimental avalanche. It is a bit like the death of Lady Di. Any criticisms may cause a hysterical reaction. Even if you hadn't heard of her, she was "the People's Princess" (Tony Blair) and it would be downright unpatriotic not to weep publicly.

So, there is a temptation with Gooch to sit down and write the usual stuff: poets should write poems about him; painters should paint his likeness on every wall; sculptors should stop what they are doing and fashion a statue of him in every town and village in the land; dark-haired seductresses should bear his babies, etc, etc.

The media likes superlatives. "Was he the greatest that ever played?" Sean O'Rourke asked Jack O'Shea on Morning Ireland on Tuesday. Jacko, who has seen a few great footballers in his time, wouldn't be drawn.

What is certain is that Colm was the ultimate purveyor of skill. Go on the web and watch some of his goals in the Kerry championship. In one game (get it on YouTube at 'Colm Cooper goal v Kenmare 2010'), the goalie leaves his line to deliver a hand-pass to the corner-back. The corner-back is almost intercepted and fouls his man. A free is awarded to Crokes 30 yards out.

Cooper, having clocked the situation, grabs the ball. The danger suddenly dawns on the portly goalie, who back-pedals furiously towards his line. There was very little room for a lob, but this was Cooper. As the keeper looks up in desperation, the ball swoops over him and down into the net. The lads hanging over the wire burst out laughing at the audacity of it. "Eat your heart out Mikey Sheehy," says one.

He was like a computer animated footballer. Perfect balance. Perfect skills. Left foot, right foot. A perfect understanding of space and time. When he came into the Kerry team he immediately prompted oohs and aahs and laughter as he bewildered lesser opponents and seemed to score with every chance.

His goal finishing was without doubt the best I have seen. The keeper was as useful as a blow-up doll as Cooper advanced. He was a thing of beauty and, as any student of poetry will tell you, that is a joy forever.

But, as I have often pointed out, he wasn't a leader in the mould of Peter Canavan or Trevor Giles or Colm O'Rourke. He didn't have that warrior spirit needed to turn games around when they are going against your team, unlike say Henry Downey or Michael Darragh Macauley or Wee James McCartan. Or Jacko or Mikey Sheehy or the Bomber Liston. And in the white heat of battle, against serious teams, he was largely anonymous.

In 2004 he won his first All-Ireland against a terrified Mayo team that were totally out of their depth. Kerry feasted upon them from start to finish. Never has riot been run with such abandon. In 2006, they got good old Mayo again. Still terrified. As Mayo shook in their boots, the Kerry boys did their Harlem Globetrotters routine and Colm showed his magic under absolutely no pressure. The final score? 4-15 to 3-5. Only the 13 points so.

In 2007, they got Cork, Mayo's Munster cousins and it was another 70 minutes of unbridled one-way fun: 3-13 to 1-9. A ten-point win and Cork were flattered. Two years later in 2009, it was Cork again, self-destructing.

In these games, Gooch looked great. He was able to show all his dazzling skills under no pressure against heavily over-matched opponents. But between 2009 and his retirement, the rest got serious. Kerry have won just one All-Ireland since, in 2014, when Colm was out with a serious knee injury.

The inability to lead his team in adversity is not hard to illustrate. In the 2002 final, Kerry lost by a point in the face of a ferocious Armagh second-half comeback. Colm was lively in the first half and disappeared in the second. In the 2003 semi-final v Tyrone? Utterly anonymous in the face of another ferocious Ulster onslaught. Watch the game for yourself.

The 2005 final v Tyrone? A lively first ten minutes, then he disappeared. Kerry needed a leader to turn things around in the second half, but Darragh and Tomás Ó Sé couldn't do it on their own. Instead, Peter Canavan highlighted the difference between himself and Cooper. Canavan, the other great skill merchant of that era, led Tyrone to an emphatic victory, battling all over the field, inspiring his troops and scoring the crucial goal.

Colm, meanwhile, remained in Ryan McMenamin's shadow. After another few years walloping frightened Mayo and Cork teams in September, it was back to reality in 2008. Tyrone went for it again with their normal ferocity. No fear with those boys. No standing back admiring skilled forwards. Yet again, Colm made no impact and Tyrone crushed them. By 2011, Pat Gilroy had stiffened Dublin's sinew and they were no longer Mayo's Leinster cousins. Again, Colm made no impact when it mattered and again Kerry lost.

In 2012, Kerry met Donegal in the quarter-final. The previous weekend, Pat Spillane had taken me to task on The Sunday Game about my critique of Gooch in a newspaper column that morning, where I had made exactly the same point I make today. I said on TV that I expected him to have nil impact against Donegal. The exchange became heated. Pat was upset. The truth can be inconvenient.

The following Sunday, the spat fresh in the public mind, I had to run the gauntlet on the way into Croke Park. Walking the mile or so to the stadium from Kavanagh's pub, my son Rory kept grabbing my arm and saying, "Don't stop daddy, keep going."

When we reached the park, we suddenly found ourselves walking towards the entire Kerry minor squad. I spotted their joint-managers, quicksilver attacker Mickey Ned and legendary full-back John O'Keeffe, still looking like Captain America.

Then the players spotted me. Someone roared "It's Joe Brolly" and a chant started to swell from nowhere, like those impromptu chants that break out on the terraces at Parkhead or Anfield. "Gooch, Gooch, Gooch, Gooch, Gooch, Gooch," they chorused, creating a wall of sound like a thousand angry baboons. Throngs of Kerry supporters all around joined in. As the intensity increased, Rory was pulling my arm frantically. "Let's go daddy, please, let's get out of here." "Stand your ground son," I said to him.

I blew kisses to them. Then I signalled them to quieten down, waving them to silence with two hands. "Lads," I shouted, "I'll see you all here back at this exact spot at half-past five. We'll reflect on how Gooch got on today." As we ploughed through them, the chant resumed, becoming almost deafening. "Gooch, Gooch, Gooch, Gooch, Gooch, Gooch." When we got to our seats, Rory's face was shining with excitement. "Jesus, daddy," he said. "Is it like this every week?" Donegal broke Kerry that day, and Colm simply wasn't able to help. At half-past five, I went back and stood in exactly the same spot. No-one showed up. "They're not singing anymore," I sang quietly to Rory, who burst out laughing.

Gooch had a delightful first half against Dublin in 2013 when he was mismatched with the ponderous Ger Brennan and was able to run through his repertoire. But at half-time that was remedied. Cian O'Sullivan picked him up in the second half, and marked him tightly. Again, come business time, Colm was anonymous. Dublin absolutely dominated the final quarter to win by seven. Coming down the stretch, when it really mattered, he wasn't there. In the 2015 final, I can barely remember him. Save for his forlorn expression as the game unfolded and the fact that Philly McMahon outscored him. Last year, again, he was unable to help when the Dubs went for it. He just isn't that sort of player.

Great players are judged by different standards than the rest of us. Colm was a wizard on the field. A pure delight to watch, often provoking laughter and incredulity with his skills. But he wasn't a Peter Canavan. He just didn't have that sort of personality. He didn't have that refusal to accept defeat, that insatiable drive that marks out the greats.

In 1995, when Canavan almost single-handedly drove Tyrone to an All-Ireland (they were very unfortunate to lose the final by a point), the joke was born: "What's the difference between Peter Canavan and a black taxi? A black taxi only carries seven." Is it a joke if it's true?

Canavan, like all truly great players, was a leader of men. Someone who refused to accept defeat. Someone who battled to the end. Someone who thrived in adversity and regularly turned games around from losing positions. It is a simple truth that Colm was not that sort of player. When the going got tough, he didn't.

What he was, was the most skilful player I ever saw. And the most perfect finisher. But he is not the greatest. Not by a long shot. Not unless helping to beat up star-struck Mayo and Cork teams counts.

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