Saturday 20 January 2018

Comment: For many, Gooch will rank as the greatest to have played the game

 

Cooper scores another early goal against the Dubs in the 2011 final, but the Kingdom are caught cold by their great rivals. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Cooper scores another early goal against the Dubs in the 2011 final, but the Kingdom are caught cold by their great rivals. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Former Kerry footballer Pat Spillane. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

On the Monday after Kerry's 2011 All-Ireland semi-final win over Mayo, this correspondent set about trying to capture Colm Cooper's place in the game.

Cooper had illuminated that semi-final with his movement and magic, scoring 1-7 in one of his great Croke Park performances.

Mikey Sheehy, now a Kerry selector with Eamonn Fitzmaurice, seemed a good first port of call. Sheehy, considered by so many to be Kerry's best forward of any generation, didn't pause for breath.

"I said it long before Sunday's game. He's just an incredible footballer with no weaknesses, the greatest to have played the game in my opinion."

By 2014, in the aftermath of his horrific knee injury, another of those 1970s/80s icons, Pat Spillane, had the same line of thought as Sheehy.

"The greatest footballer I have ever known to come out of Kerry and probably one of the greatest of all time," suggested the only man to have accumulated more football All-Stars than Cooper - nine to Gooch's eight.

By then Cooper had delivered that cold-blooded finish for Kerry's only goal in the 2011 All-Ireland final and that wonderful first-half performance against Dublin in an epic 2013 All-Ireland semi-final to strengthen his case.

In Kerry there has always been a special affinity for the magic that Gooch could conjure. But beyond the Kingdom, the appreciation is just as great in many quarters.

Last month, former Tyrone wing-back Philip Jordan gave a most honest assessment in his RTE column when he placed Cooper ahead of his own colleague Peter Canavan in an order of merit.

Jordan could easily have played safe and nominated his former All-Ireland winning captain who, he felt, reached a level for four years between 1993-96 that no other player reached.

"But for sheer consistency and longevity, I think Cooper is now at the top of the pile," noted Jordan.

Such discussion is subjective. How can you really compare positions, never mind eras?

Mick O'Connell, Galway's Sean Purcell and Down's Sean O'Neill would all have a constituency of support from earlier eras.

For Jack O'Shea to win four Footballer of the Year awards must rank right up there with any achievement, his box-to-box movement, fielding and kicking in a different environment standing out.

But Cooper arrived into inter-county football when Ulster football, through Armagh and chiefly Tyrone, was at its strongest.

He did things that no other footballer would think of, never mind execute. Think of the pass to Donnchadh Walsh to set up that James O'Donoghue goal in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final or the two handpasses to Kieran Donaghy that threw an entire Down defence off in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final. For the record, Brendan McVeigh twice denied Donaghy.

His majesty against Cork on Munster final and semi-finals blurs from one year to another.

Where Maurice Fitzgerald's movement was graceful, Cooper's could be described as subtle.

Paul Galvin reflected in his memoir how his old attacking colleague "moves in circles when everyone else moves in straight lines". He has that sorcerer's touch.

For some observers Cooper did not do enough in those big games against Tyrone in the last decade, or Dublin this decade, to merit 'greatest' status.

But he was flying in 2005 when he sustained an eye injury that derailed him for a considerable period of time, while he was arguably Kerry's best player in the 2008 final, dragging them into a one-point lead before that late Tyrone rush.

He was never built to have that physical edge of Canavan or Diarmuid Connolly but, aesthetically, there surely hasn't been a more pleasant sight.

Irish Independent

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