Tuesday 24 October 2017

Cooper's testimonial dinner offers food for thought

Former Kerry footballer Colm Cooper
Former Kerry footballer Colm Cooper
John Greene

John Greene

Colm Cooper has a new book coming out soon, in time for the Christmas market, and it will undoubtedly sell very well. Gooch: The Autobiography is written by Vincent Hogan, which guarantees it will be a good read. Cooper is without question one of the most popular GAA personalities of the last 20 years.

But it is highly unlikely the book will contain a passage like this:

We didn't just want to beat Cork that day - we wanted to trample them into the ground like dirt. Before we left the dressing room, someone encapsulated the cold-blooded and clinical feeling in our collective heart. 'If we get a chance, let's bury these fuckers.'

Once we got on top early, that impulse and desire to keep nailing them was propelled by the crowd who were baying for blood. They kept pushing us on for more and we gladly responded to the mood of the mob. Another county would have let up. We never would.

We took great satisfaction out of hammering Cork but we wanted to beat the shite out of everyone. We wanted to embarrass players. To mentally dominate them.

Or this:

It was a selfish attitude but we didn't give a fuck. The only cause we had was to mow everyone down who stood in our way of winning more All-Irelands.

This is not the kind of talk we would expect from Cooper. These are the words, however, of former Kilkenny hurler Jackie Tyrrell, taken from his excellent new book. They are uncompromising and raw, and if it's surprising for us to see them in print, there is no surprise that this is how that Kilkenny team viewed the world. They were a team made in the image of their manager, mixing brilliance with ruthlessness.

Tyrrell signed off on his inter-county career last year with nine All-Ireland medals; Cooper signed off with five.

Next month, Cooper will be the first Gaelic footballer or hurler to have a testimonial dinner in his honour. A major insurance company has lent its support to the event. Fifty tables, with 10 per table, are being sold for the eye-watering price of €5,000 each, suggesting the Gooch is going to make a pretty penny. Two charities - the Kerry Cancer Support Group and Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Dublin - will benefit from part of the proceeds but the percentage breakdown has not been disclosed yet.

There is a lot of disquiet across all levels of the GAA at this development. The idea that a player is looking to cash in on his goodwill is not new to sport, but it is new in the GAA. The Association's history is littered with functions organised in honour of players and officials who have given great service, and where they are presented with a clock, watch, pen, a piece of crystal or whatever. But the idea that an ex-player - no matter how popular - could potentially make tens of thousands on the back of his career will disappoint, and worry, many.

At a time when most clubs and counties are scraping around for every penny, this is a bad omen, promoting as it does the individual over the idea ­- the idea of course being the principle of amateurism, and the GAA acting for the greater good.

The impression given last week was that, following meetings with Paraic Duffy, the GAA does not have a problem with this testimonial, but that is not strictly the case. In fact, Duffy initially sought legal advice as to whether or not the testimonial was in breach of its amateur status rule. It is also due to be discussed at a Management Committee meeting next weekend.

Ultimately, the GAA is uncomfortable with this testimonial and will not publicly endorse it. However, as Sean Moran noted in The Irish Times last week, "Cooper is highly regarded within the GAA and there is sensitivity about taking a stand on this matter while not wanting to personalise that stance."

There is also the argument that Cooper's status in the game is such that there are not many other players who would be in a position to organise something similar. The problem with this view is that Gaelic footballers and hurlers all over the country often enjoy an exalted status in their own communities. So while these players may not be able to command €5,000 a table for a glamorous event, who's to say they could not raise a tidy sum on their home turf as a 'testimonial' to their years of service? Everyone in the GAA can think instantly of a player on their local club scene who fits this bill. It's part of what the GAA is. And every cent given to one of these events is a cent potentially taken out of the GAA. This is the thin end of the wedge.

Then again, should we be surprised it has come to this? Hasn't the GAA been on the slippery slope for some time, with payments to managers rife at all levels of the game, grants to elite players, and so on?

Colm Cooper is not breaking any rules. He is, though, breaking the spirit of the rules. In that, he is not the first and he certainly won't be the last.

But, what if it had been Jackie Tyrrell or another of that great Kilkenny team people loved to hate who had announced plans for a testimonial dinner? Would the reaction in the last few days have been as muted? I think we all know the answer.

Tyrrell was part of one of the greatest teams in GAA history. They were admired, feared and respected as they swatted all-comers aside - but outside their own county, they were scarcely loved. I can just hear the begrudgers, 'Sure hasn't he enough as it is'.

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