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Kerry holds its breath as Cooper bids to clean up

IN a bar in Killarney Connie Murphy is sportingly reliving his ill-fated time as Kerry captain.

The year had started swimmingly. Dr Crokes landed a prestigious All-Ireland club title in March with Murphy declared man-of-the-match.

Their earlier county championship had earned him the county captaincy -- what wasn't there to look forward to. Murphy led Kerry to victory over main rivals Cork and marched on to Limerick's Gaelic Grounds to face the outsiders Clare in the 1992 Munster final. You know the rest.

At the last whistle the field swelled with Clare supporters hailing a first Munster title in 75 years. Murphy was a highly lauded Kerry player, perfectly equipped for captaincy, but his misfortune was to play at a time when the country's most successful football county entered a valley period. Luck and timing influenced your Kerry career as much as skill and drive and it had a major say in the captaincy too.

Crokes, having gone from 1914 to 1991 without a county title, would not win a local championship again until 2000 -- not nearly as long, but by then much had changed. Murphy's Kerry career had run its course, finishing five years earlier, and he was at the end of his club days. Crokes nominated Eoin Brosnan for the captaincy, but Kerry lost heavily in the All-Ireland semi-final to Meath the next year. Another 10 years would pass before they got the opportunity again.

The 2000 Kerry championship-winning team had a full-forward line of Murphy, fellow veteran Pat O'Shea and Colm Cooper, having made the team at 16. He was too young to captain club or county and Crokes would have been lying if they said that he'd have to wait so long for the chance. If he lifts the Sam Maguire today, Murphy won't begrudge him the moment in spite of his own misfortune. In September 1992, as a spectator on Hill 16, he watched a little ruefully Anthony Molloy hoist the Sam Maguire above his head.

Crokes is a big club with a vast history -- donating a famous stadium, several legendary players and an eminent coach in Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan. But since Murphy was captain there has only been Brosnan in 2001 and now Cooper leading Kerry teams into battle. Captaincy is a dish served rare. The last Dr Crokes man to win an All-Ireland as captain was Dick Fitzgerald in 1914. Crokes are favourites to retain the county title this year and Gooch could be county captain again, but nobody can say that with any degree of certainty. This could not only be his best chance; it could be his only chance.

Murphy didn't even get as far as Croke Park 19 years ago, but he did hang around long enough to play with Cooper and considers it a privilege. Their respective careers show glaring contrasts. Cooper has been part of a highly successful Kerry era, having played in eight All-Ireland finals in nine years. Murphy, before the back-door reprieve, played 15 championship matches for Kerry, and lost four of the five Munster finals he competed in. He never played in an All-Ireland final. So the captaincy isn't eating him up inside.

"After that Clare match, I did sit down by myself and ponder it," he states. What did you ponder? "Oh I don't know (laughs). It was a big disappointment, no doubt about it, but the biggest disappointment was losing the match. When we won the club championship that year you knew you were going to be captain. People start talking; there is no doubt about it, in the club, they would love to see a Crokes man bringing the Sam Maguire home.

"It's a very short-lived experience (lifting Sam), but it is some moment. To win an All-Ireland final as a player is the ultimate, but to be captain of the team, and represent your club and county, it is immense. I missed out on the good times. People say I was unlucky but, look, I don't dwell on it; I was honoured and privileged to play in the Kerry jersey when I did and I played with great players. Cork were on top, that's the cycle, that's how football works."

When the whistle went after the 1992 Munster final, Jack O'Shea had played his last match for Kerry. Seamus Moynihan had played his first. Time, remorseless and unsympathetic, did not stand still. "I remember I stayed on the pitch," says Murphy, "I'd say I was the last to leave the dressing room. I sat there for maybe half an hour (laughs), head down. We had gone so long losing and we were about to cross the line and it just didn't happen. You had to start over again."

Nobody was immune. The previous year, Jack O'Shea captained Kerry to a Munster championship but Down stopped them in the All-Ireland semi-final and with it went his dream of being first up to lift the Sam Maguire. Eight years earlier, he had been captain when Cork ambushed them in the Munster final and when a DVD documenting the Kerry captains over the generations went on recent release, O'Shea felt compelled to declare himself an unlucky leader. He is in an elite category of great Kerry players to fail in that mission. Darragh Ó Sé was denied in the 2002 All-Ireland final and 20 years previously John Egan had his moment snatched from him at the death by Offaly.

Through the last decade, Crokes made various bids to win another county title but South Kerry were their downfall, defeating them in two county finals. Instead of Cooper captaining Kerry, the duty passed to Declan O'Sullivan. In 2006, both men climbed on to the podium and jointly raised the Sam Maguire. Cooper took the captaincy for some of the campaign after O'Sullivan lost his place. The Dromid man reclaimed it for the final and when the presentation was being made both men shared the load. A year later, O'Sullivan had the stage to himself when they retained the title against Cork, becoming one of a select few to captain winning Kerry teams twice.

Winning a 37th All-Ireland is the primary goal for Kerry this afternoon but the prospect of Cooper lifting the Sam Maguire in his 10th year as a county player, and his first as captain, makes Kerry hearts beat a little faster and draws on the romantic strings. Given the stature of Dr Crokes, and the success of Kerry, it seems an extraordinary length of time since Fitzgerald last achieved that feat. Only three clubs have provided more players to the Kerry team than Crokes, but the yawning gap of 77 years without a club title better explains why they have gone so long without a player captaining the county.

If Cooper succeeds he would also be the first Crokes man to lift the Sam Maguire, first presented in 1928, and only be the third Killarney man since Fitzgerald to captain a Kerry All-Ireland-winning team, following Johnny Culloty of Legion in 1969 and Spa's Donie O'Sullivan a year later. Captains, including Mick O'Connell, have tended to play it down as little more than decoration, but, when a special player achieves it, there is an unmistakable added value to the experience for supporters.

"I suppose it is the dream of any young footballer first of all to get on the team then to win an All-Ireland, but the ultimate dream would be to captain Kerry and then to win the All-Ireland," contests Weeshie Fogarty, deputy to Culloty in '69 and instrumental in producing the film record of the Kerry captaincy tradition. "That is the pinnacle; you can't go any higher than that and there is no doubt that Gooch would have dreamt about that ever since he was a young fella growing up in Ardshanavooley."

After the semi-final win over Mayo, and a striking resurgence in Cooper's form, Tomás Ó Sé cited the captain as an incentive to win the final. Fogarty agrees. "He would be recognised as one of the all-time great Kerry forwards, and always gives his all for club and county. He leads by example and is more of a team man than an individual really, to the extent that I would say that sometimes he is too much of a team player.

"I'd say it has put a bit of pressure on him. Up to the game against Mayo he hadn't been playing well by his own standards, but I'd say there were two things to that. First of all, I'd say especially in the Munster final against Cork in Killarney, being captain in Killarney, in his own home town and before that massive crowd, might have slightly affected him and maybe he felt he should be doing more. Also, I would imagine that the reason he hadn't played well by his own standards was that he was playing out the field too much and they were using him as a kind of link man.

"Before Mayo, I said I would love to see them play him near the goal and ply him with lots of possession. And they did it for the Mayo game, kept picking him out and using him as the target man, and it is very seldom you can say this about anybody: if he gets the ball he is unmarkable."

The year Gooch made it on to the Dr Crokes team, scoring a goal in his first appearance at 16 against South Kerry in Waterville, Kerry were reigning All-Ireland champions. One of their most revered players, Seamus Moynihan, had accepted the Sam Maguire on his county's behalf. The joy felt for Moynihan that day would be replicated if Cooper were to experience the same glorious finale later this afternoon.

Vince Casey is the Crokes chairman and won an All-Ireland club medal in 1992. "There is no person deserves it more than Colm to captain Kerry to win an All-Ireland. Hopefully that will happen. He has contributed more to the game than anyone else playing at present in terms of what he has done for football in general -- his skill level, and he's a very unassuming guy. What I find incredible about him is even on the disappointing days, the couple of county finals we lost, people would come up to him after trying to get a picture, I know from playing myself the last thing you want to do is meet people, but he would stand in and take the photographs. He is a phenomenal presence in the Crokes dressing room.

"And Colm would have played in very average teams up along, including one of the worst minor teams that the Crokes had. I think they won one county league game ever. Before the Mayo game, fellas were questioning if the captaincy was getting to him; they don't know him. He is a natural captain -- if you are looking for a captain to give you an example of leadership.

"His All-Ireland record is second to none. He has always played well in the final. He had a couple of niggling injuries earlier in the year, but they have cleared up now. I have no doubt that once he goes to Croke Park it's a different stage. He was fantastic for Kerry last year, his performance against Down nearly carried Kerry over the line. We have five in the first 30 players, a great achievement, and three actually starting; that is fantastic for the club. The fact that Colm is captain adds another bit to it."

Casey reflects on the two men at both ends of the spectrum of almost 100 years of football in Crokes, Fitzgerald and Cooper, and marvels at their respective influences. "Dick Fitzgerald would have been very involved in the launch of inter-county football, he was one of the great drivers in moving from the club format, and he drove on the concept of counties like Kerry, Kildare and Dublin. And we know the new fad in the club among the young fellas is that they are all trying to pick the ball up like Colm did against Mayo the last day, when he managed to bring it up through this knees -- they are trying that and falling over.

"I'd be involved in underage coaching with Crokes and you'd find it difficult at times to get backs. Everyone in Crokes wants to be a forward. It is hard to get backs. No matter what happens, Colm Cooper will be remembered for what he has achieved already. I was playing with him that day in 2000, in his first game against South Kerry. Conditions were horrific, virtually unplayable, the pitch was heavy and totally against a lad of his skill, but he was looking for the ball the whole time, dictating what to do even at that young age. He would have grown up with Pat O'Shea, probably a person who he would have admired. And Pat was very slight as well and very skilful and corner-forward at that stage. People ask: how is he that good? He practised a lot, he had a huge talent, but he practised a lot as well."

Patrick O'Sullivan is the club's vice-chairman and a liaison officer between the Kerry team and county board. He has tracked Gooch's career from the early beginnings in the family estate through to this point, which could be his crowning glory at 28. Crokes may be favourites to retain their county title this year, but history shows that nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. Today is his opportunity to emulate a legend like Dick Fitzgerald and end a wait that goes back to the first year of World War One.

O'Sullivan says his family were a very stabilising influence and talent took care of the rest. "Where he came in the line in the family (the last of seven children), he got absolutely nothing handy, there was no such thing as being the golden child," says O'Sullivan. "There was no such thing as coming home from matches and people saying you were great. He got a great grounding. You could see from a very early stage he had serious skill. He played in completely unsuccessful teams in the club, I think the first time he won anything at his own age group was under 21."

O'Sullivan recalls his first match for Kerry against Laois in the league, scoring 1-2 in the 2002 Division 2 final, when he looked like he might blow away in the wind. He got the goal with his first touch. By the year's end he was an All Star and two years after that Footballer of the Year and an All-Ireland medal winner. His collection now extends to four All-Irelands and six All Stars. But today he will go where he has never gone before and lead a Kerry team around the field on All-Ireland final day. That it has come in the latter stages of his career deepens Kerry's appreciation.

In Killarney, the chests are out. "I played with Legion and I have seen brother play against brother and my neighbours would be Crokes, very strong Crokes, and a lot of my neighbours would be strong Legion. But in this instance, when a Kerry player puts on a Kerry jersey, everyone rolls in behind him," says Weeshie Fogarty. "Would you believe since Killarney won the tidy towns last week, they are all saying, 'now, that's one won, Gooch now with the cup next is the big thing'. Look at The Kerryman, it shows them coming back with the (tidy towns) trophy, the Lord Mayor and the people and who is the lad in the middle of it?


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