Sunday 19 November 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Gooch comfortably among the greatest of corner forwards

The humble Dr Crokes man is in good company on pantheon of the best I've seen or played with

Mikey Sheehy (left), Peter Canavan (centre) and Colm Cooper (right).
Mikey Sheehy (left), Peter Canavan (centre) and Colm Cooper (right).
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

In Canadian ice hockey, Wayne Gretzky was known by everyone as 'The Great One' and the area behind the net became known as 'Gretzky's office' as he hung around to score goals and provide more assists than anyone had previously.

Colm Cooper would have shied away from such a term. He was just called Gooch, which became a term of endearment, to Kerry people in particular, but also to the wider public who admired his ability, his good grace and natural humility.

Mickey Linden, Down. Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Linden, Down. Photo: Sportsfile

Many words were written about greatness last week but Cooper's ability to communicate with young people was something few had an opportunity to witness. Gooch came to St Pat's in Navan as an ambassador, or whatever they call it, for AIB.

I gathered a few hundred together for a chat with him and was conscious that a man who was naturally shy might struggle to hold attention for around an hour. I therefore had my timings done so that he would talk and answer questions for about 40 minutes and then I would let the lads out early for lunch. Gooch spoke in their language and invited questions. They came thick and fast about his lifestyle away from football, weights, diet, his pre-match ritual, and much more.

Now, lunchtime in any boys' school is like a charge of hungry buffalo as soon as the bell goes. The only thing that unites them is a constant need to eat. Yet the talk went on and on and nobody gave a hint of movement until eventually I had to call a halt or there would have been no lunch at all. The lads were captivated by Gooch and hung on his every word. It was only then that I realised that this young man was admired by every generation and he displayed the same touch of class off the field as he did on it.

Football has been blessed by outstanding corner forwards in my time watching the game, and if the Gooch was the best of them, he had quite a few who were not too far behind. Here are ten, apart from Cooper, who I have seen or played with or against. I will allow the readers to put them in order. In other words, I am too cowardly.

Bernard Flynn, Meath. Photo: Sportsfile
Bernard Flynn, Meath. Photo: Sportsfile

Peter Canavan (Tyrone)

A man of substance - everybody knew exactly where they stood with 'Peter The Great'. He was small in stature but could look after himself and plenty of corner backs ended up chastened if they thought they were going to mess him around. Against Australia, he took on the biggest and best and gave it to them whatever way they wanted.

A brilliant scorer, but a creator too. I would bracket him and Gooch very closely in terms of ability and big-match temperament.

Mickey Linden (Down)

He was brilliant in Croke Park, Newry, Mayobridge and every other pitch he walked on to. And he kept it up for what seemed like forever. Speed, strength and an ability to score important goals were his trademarks. He looked after himself and was always in brilliant shape before gym programmes and new-fangled diets became all the rage. Any corner back who held him in open play had a good day's work done. Few managed it. An admirable corner forward with a Gooch-type personality to go with it. He wanted to play forever and it's a pity that age dictates otherwise.

Bernard Flynn (Meath)

No point in being biased if I don't show it. Smaller than even Canavan or Gooch, Flynn scored a thousand points and every one of them looked easy. If a back blocked him on his right side he just went to the left and slapped it over. Like Canavan, he could look after himself too, even if he got me into plenty of trouble as he often bit off more than he could chew - sometimes half a team were gunning for him.

Bernard Brogan of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Bernard Brogan of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

In a league final replay against Dublin in 1988, he gave one of the great individual displays as he kicked points for sport in the second half. He passed occasionally to those of us who were lesser mortals but it was only in the case of a last resort. Absolute last resort. A genius at work on many big days for Meath.

Bernard Brogan (Dublin)

On big days in Croke Park he has produced the goods. Often against Mayo too, and it was ironic that when the men from the west finally got to grips with him last year and they still could not pull it off. Great corner forwards come up with big goals when needed most. Brogan has done that time and again. There are those who feel that 'brand Bernard' doesn't need any more exposure - but pace, strength, fitness and marvellous accuracy are dependent on a daily grind of exercise, diet, and constant application a long way from the public eye. Last Sunday when Dublin needed a goal he was the go-to man. He has not gone away. A real big-game player.

James McCartan (Down)

One of the pocket-rocket types. Bred to be a star. His father, James senior, was the business in the '60s. Old reels show the power and sheer football ability of the man, and the apple fell close to the tree. James junior was never one to hide his lamp under a bushel, he was cocky but consistently produced the goods. For a small man he was well able to win his own ball and was a brilliant handpasser off his left hand. People often don't realise the benefit of being strongest on the opposite hand to the foot.

McCartan went after goals and scored plenty of them. When he and Mickey Linden were on song together, the Down forwards were a slick outfit. McCartan did a bit of damage against us in the '91 final. I was hoping some of our backs would nail him - within the rules, of course - but he had a great ability to squirm out of tackles. Plenty of hard men tried to stop him and failed.

Steven McDonnell (Armagh)

When Armagh were going well, McDonnell was almost impossible to mark. The ball could be kicked in high or low and he was able to win it most of the time. He was also very cool when in possession, often waiting to see the whites of the goalie's eyes before shooting and he buried away a stack of goals which beat many teams. McDonnell was also a two-footed player. It may seem obvious but there are few who are equally comfortable on both sides. Just because he has only one All-Ireland medal does not mean anything ­- the best of corner backs could not mark this man when he was at his peak.

James McCartan, Down. Photo: Sportsfile
James McCartan, Down. Photo: Sportsfile

Ollie Murphy (Meath)

Over a three- or four-year period Murphy was unmarkable. Especially during Meath's All-Ireland year in '99. At that stage Murphy scored the big goals when his team needed them most. With Graham Geraghty at full forward they represented a threat in the air and on the ground. Murphy did not need help in winning his own ball and had the killer instinct. He would not go for a point when a goal was on, even if it was not on. Again, a master off both feet, his career was not as long as some of the others because injury wore him down. Yet a great corner forward by any standards.

John Egan (Kerry)

Last week I mentioned him in the context of congratulating his son John on his first cap for Ireland. John Egan for Kerry was underestimated by many because he played in a forward line of stars but the players themselves knew his value. Hardly any corner back got the better of him and he had beautiful, neat feet which got him out of trouble. He scored a sack-full of goals and if he was not so unselfish he would have scored more. Another of the type where the ball could come in high or low and he would win it. A brilliant player, he would have been the stand-out forward in another county at another time.

Mikey Sheehy (Kerry)

Sometimes looked like a ballet dancer with a ball. Similar to the Gooch in terms of skill and big-game killer instinct. He was lucky though that he had Bomber Liston riding shotgun for him and the big man supplied a lot of good ball. Never looked the strongest but he came alive when the ball was in his area and again he looked for goals when they were not on in most eyes. Sheehy had vision too, was completely unselfish, and was always able to create openings for others while he kicked frees from the ground and rarely missed any easy ones. Another of the brilliant Kerry players who wore his greatness lightly. Most corner forwards are compared to him - and suffer as a result.

Matt Connor (Offaly)

The wizard of Walsh Island. Deadly finisher who often feigned disinterest for periods in games before destroying teams in short bursts. Another who believed that a point was an occasional hazard in the quest for goals. He had a bullet of a shot and a goalie getting a hand to one of his rockets often ended up with a broken finger. His scoring figures were phenomenal and unfortunately his career was ended before he was at his peak. I played with Matt on a winning Railway Cup team and was privileged to do so. Quiet, unassuming off the field, he underwent a personality change on it and became a one-man destroyer.

Steven McDonnell, Armagh. Photo: Sportsfile
Steven McDonnell, Armagh. Photo: Sportsfile

He scored something like 2-10 for Offaly in an All-Ireland semi-final against the great Kerry team so he did not run up his totals against some class of ducks who played corner back. A beautiful striker of the ball from the ground or the hand, he would get on every football team for the last thousand years. A player of absolute class.

Now readers can complain about those not on it. I saw Mick O'Dwyer at the end of his career and he was still a great player. Then Jimmy Barry Murphy was brilliant in the early '70s for Cork and if hurling was banned we would have seen more of him in Croke Park with the footballers. Maurice Fitzgerald was another class act but not really a member of the corner forwards club. John McCarthy certainly was for Dublin, and he was another goal specialist. Then there was James O'Donoghue, who looked in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a few years ago like a player from another planet, but injuries are his enemy. And what about Manus Boyle who was a star for Donegal for a while. The list goes on . . . and that is not forgetting Joe Brolly. Of all the greats, Joe was the top man - at least that is what he told me!

Ollie Murphy, Meath. Photo: Sportsfile
Ollie Murphy, Meath. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry's John Egan. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry's John Egan. Photo: Sportsfile
Mikey Sheehy, Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
Mikey Sheehy, Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
Matt Connor, Offaly. Photo: Sportsfile
Matt Connor, Offaly. Photo: Sportsfile

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