Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 22 April 2018

'Genius' Cooper earns special O'Connor praise

Colm Cooper celebrates
after scoring Kerry’s only
goal in the second half of
yesterday's All-Ireland SFC
semi-final against Mayo
Colm Cooper celebrates after scoring Kerry’s only goal in the second half of yesterday's All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Mayo
Colm Cooper stems the resistance as he blasts the ball home for Kerry's first goal
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

So the search party can be recalled then. They can hand back in the torches and the maps and get on with their lives again. We need fret no longer.

At around five minutes to four yesterday, the missing man turned up where he was always most likely to be, back at the scene of so many of his most prolific days.

In Kerry there has been no shortage of concern in recent months that Colm Cooper has cut too much of a peripheral figure for their liking. It has been no Lord Lucan evaporation, but still the key statistical pointers were down and having tremor effects on Kerry's solid triple A rating. The markets were nervous.

Against Limerick three weeks earlier, he had one of his quietest days at the venue that has always defined him most, three points, two from frees, on a day when Darran O'Sullivan and Bryan Sheehan outgunned him. In the Munster final against Cork, he was little more than a domestique as Declan O'Sullivan grabbed five points and held his hand up as the most likely team leader.

mesmeric

It wasn't what the summer had threatened to be. Not after some of the mesmeric league displays the captain had delivered.

Inevitably, Croke Park would bring the best out of him. And on a day when the two O'Sullivans were caught up in their own battles, 'Gooch' gave us the most vivid reminder of why he remains the best footballer of his generation and, quite probably, one of the greatest of all time.

There'll be any number of stats men thrusting sheets of paper into James Horan over the next few weeks with details as to why Mayo lost their first All-Ireland semi-final since 1999. Turnovers here, kick-outs there, foot passes off the radar and so on.

But the real palpable difference was 'Gooch.' They couldn't and didn't deal with him sufficiently. No shame in that though. When he's in this form there's few, if any, that can.

By our count he was involved directly in 13 of Kerry's 21 scores. Some of that involvement was tantamount to no more than knocking a close-range free over the bar. But every move he made had productivity and economy written all over it, from catching Declan O'Sullivan's hooked kick before half-time to his slide and gather to send Paul Galvin away for his opening point just seconds after his second-half introduction.

These are the days he loves and this is the venue he thrives in most. In 28 Croke Park games for Kerry he has amassed 8-119, giving him an average of just over five points per game. At all other venues that average dips to just under 3.5 points, 9-98 in 36 games.

His 1-7 had Jack O'Connor purring with admiration for a man who can now look forward to preparing for an eighth All-Ireland final in his 10 seasons with Kerry.

"We felt that game was in him. Certainly over the last fortnight he looked very, very sharp in training," admitted O'Connor who, if his involvement with Paidi O Se as a selector in 2000 is factored in, is just 70 minutes away from pushing himself into second place behind Mick O'Dwyer as the most successful manager of all time.

"This is his theatre here, his happy hunting ground, and no better place to come into form," acknowledged Jack, who sought a shift in emphasis in recent weeks to get him more involved.

"We felt we weren't playing to his strengths and getting him on the ball enough. A bit part of it today was about getting him on the ball, because he's a genius with the ball. It's never wasted and maybe we weren't actively looking for him enough in the games up to now.

"But we were never overly worried about Gooch, because we know what he can do."

So do Mayo, but that didn't help them prevent the onslaughts he directed either side of half-time.

Four of Kerry's five unanswered points between the 26th and 34th minutes had his mark all over them as they turned a two-point deficit into a three-point lead, 0-8 to 0-5. Five of their first six points after half-time were similarly shaped.

And it was a goal on 53 minutes that ensured that they'll be training under those darkening September evenings once more, the environment that so often brings the best out of them.

For O'Connor there will be satisfaction that they have put a defensively orientated team to the sword with so much to spare. Mayo sat Kevin McLoughlin back throughout the first half and his presence set Kerry thinking hard as he broke up so many of their attacks.

Physically, Mayo brought more to Croke Park than O'Connor had experienced from them in three previous meetings on his watch, but that suited Kerry fine, he admitted.

"We needed a game like that. I thought that was the most physical game by far (this season), even more physical than the Cork game. That might have had more pace in it, but this was very, very physical.

"The two teams left on the other side of the draw, Dublin and Donegal, are no shrinking violets. They're going to hit and hit hard, so it was good our fellas got that experience out there today, and we have to build on it, because I didn't think coming into this game we'd been tested -- we need to be tested."

A compliment then to digest over the winter months for Horan, who O'Connor admitted has brought a "tougher edge" to Mayo in his short spell in charge. But for Mayo there's that gnawing feeling that this shouldn't have been a nine-point defeat. They were far too competitive, far too combative for that.

How did it get away from them with such stealth? Inevitably the talk returns to grandmaster of this crucible. "We'd a few guys on him at different stages during the game," said Horan. "But if Gooch gets good quality ball in, that's where the problem is, that is the root cause.

"We were getting beat in the middle of the field and Kerry were getting a lot of breaking ball and that's where they were getting their momentum. We tried to make changes there to halt their momentum, but we found it hard to change there."

The story of so many summers now.

Irish Independent

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