Saturday 18 November 2017

Comment: It's unfair to claim that Dubs' recent dominance over Kerry detracts from Cooper's legacy


Colm 'The Gooch' Cooper who has announced his retirement from inter-county football with Kerry. Pic:Mark Condren
Colm 'The Gooch' Cooper who has announced his retirement from inter-county football with Kerry. Pic:Mark Condren

Dermot Crowe

Over Colm Cooper's career, Cork were Kerry's most frequent adversary, but Dublin had an ever-broadening influence. Today's National League final goes ahead in Cooper's absence, even if his retirement has overshadowed it and talk of his contribution and legacy dominated the last few days.

Cooper faced Cork 22 times in the championship including replays. In that compilation were two All-Ireland finals, four All-Ireland semi-finals and seven Munster finals. Cork mattered substantially, but in the final years Dublin exerted greater authority on the Cooper and Kerry narrative.

Any fair assessment of Cooper's imprint on that storyline needs to allow for the impact of his career-threatening injury in the All-Ireland club semi-final in February 2014. That misfortune was two-fold: his cruciate snapped and he suffered a break of his knee cap. Having signed off the previous season for Kerry in the thrilling 2013 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, he missed all of 2014 while in recovery and returned in 2015 for Kerry's All-Ireland title defence, two years older, still able to contribute but with diminishing effect.

The prevailing image of that year is Cooper struggling in the All-Ireland final on Philly McMahon. The moment which captured his anguish comes just before half-time when McMahon carries the ball into the Kerry half and scores a magnificent point. Seeing Cooper playing the role of the vanquished marker, roles reversed, was as emblematic a vignette of the modern game's rejection of old orthodox ways and positional order as you might expect to see. Cooper was caught up in that evolution too, but after serious injury and into his 30s, the prospects of adjustment were beginning to ebb.

He was extremely fortunate in many ways, as he acknowledged in his retirement statement, being born in Kerry and from a club with the prominence of Dr Crokes. Eight times an All Star. Four times an All-Ireland medal winner. The lasting respect of his peers. And finishing on a high with the teary finale of him finally winning an All-Ireland club title, and scoring his team's goal. And yet he was very unfortunate too, accepting that these things are relative.

Another moment in the recent rivalry with Dublin and a particularly anguished one for Cooper. Eight minutes to go in the 2011 All-Ireland final and after a huge struggle, in which Dublin have worked phenomenally hard to suppress the Kerry attack, Cooper scores a majestic point to open up a four-point lead for the first time. He looks set to shoot off his left, then dummies on to the right, and McMahon, who had been introduced during the second half, comes flying in for the block but is left grasping air. He turns around to see Cooper kicking an exquisite point. It looked at that moment that Kerry had a grip on the match they would not relinquish.

What happened next is one of the most famous All-Ireland finishes of all time, and during that Cooper was a helpless spectator, incapable of holding back the turning tide. Kerry gave possession away in the middle of the field and from the quickly-taken free Dublin conjured the goal from Kevin McManamon which turned the game and the recent fortunes between the counties.

There wasn't much Gooch could do about those events. Nor could he be held culpable for the next loose Kerry handpass which led to Kevin Nolan's equaliser. Cooper finished joint top scorer on 1-3 and the top scorer from play on the day. He was quiet for the opening 18 minutes and then scored Kerry's goal, calmly finished as standard, to knock Dublin back on their heels.

There was an added cruelty to the late twist in 2011 as he had been captain, and it was no secret around Killarney that Gooch captaining Kerry to an All-Ireland was one of the remaining pieces of the jigsaw waiting to be filled. He didn't realise at the time that his last All-Ireland medal had been won on the field of play, the 2009 victory over Cork. Remarkably, the last Dr Crokes man to win an All-Ireland as Kerry captain was Dick Fitzgerald in 1914 until Kieran O'Leary, who raised the Sam jointly with Fionn Fitzgerald, followed him exactly 100 years later. Cooper was recovering from injury, although he was togged for the final.

After the All-Ireland semi-final win over Mayo in 2011, which featured a big performance from Cooper, Tomás Ó Sé said he felt that sometimes he was "too much of a team player". Others would argue that he was always liable to do the right thing and if that meant laying off the ball to someone else, so be it, although it is clear the point Ó Sé was making. In club games they have seen for years Cooper passing duty to players of lesser pedigree when he saw fit, whereas other county players might not be so inclined and more likely to take more on themselves for better or worse.

Cooper captained Kerry in each of the next two seasons, losing to Donegal in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2012 and then to Dublin in a semi-final in 2013, a brilliant match, as good as any from the rivalry's fabled past. Cooper, now playing at centre-forward, was magnificent in the first half, directing the Kerry forward play and picking out passes that prised open the Dublin defence. He was more subdued in the second half when Cian O'Sullivan took over from Ger Brennan on him. But sight is easily lost of extenuating circumstances, like a forward's reliance on supply and a certain level of midfield sway, matters that, if not favourable, can neutralise any forward's efficiency.

To the final ten minutes of the 2013 semi-final, the game now in the melting pot. In the 61st and 62nd minutes Cooper was involved in winning vital ball and setting up scores which wrested back the lead from Dublin. By then he had moved into the full-forward line and was being policed by Jonny Cooper.

These were critical interventions at a decisive stage of the game. That lead stood for six minutes, Dublin becoming increasingly anxious, until one of the Kerry backs, not long on the field, committed a tackle that would have looked sinful in a McGrath Cup game in January. From the cheapest of frees Dublin levelled. Kerry had one more chance, when Declan O'Sullivan's shot went narrowly wide with two minutes left. From the kick-out a Kerry player went leaping kamikaze-style from the rear of a group of players while another colleague was striving to challenge for the ball. The ball passed them both. The result - an open prairie left behind the midfield for McManamon to race though and score the goal that won it, even if it looked a point attempt miscued. In the search for culpability for Kerry's defeat, Cooper does not spring to mind.

Dublin figured only intermittently in the early years of his career. An All-Ireland quarter-final win over them in 2004 was followed by a semi-final win in 2007, before the runaway victory in 2009 when Dublin had been installed as favourites but Kerry found their groove, back in Croke Park and seeing the blue jersey in their way. That rout was ignited by an early goal from Cooper, finished with characteristic delicacy. He was a master of light touch, guiding the ball home rather than forcing it.

Cooper played against Limerick more times in the championship than Dublin but that merely proves the old line about lies and statistics. Dublin caused him and his county deep frustration and he leaves at a time when they are in the ascendancy. In the 15 seasons Cooper's career straddled, Kerry or Dublin contested the league final nine times. Only once in those years, 2016, did they meet in the decider. From Cooper's first championship meeting with Kerry in 2004, only Stephen Cluxton now survives.

The year before Cooper played his first match for Kerry in 2002, another legend of Kerry attacking play and creativity, Maurice Fitzgerald, retired. His final salute was as a sub in the heavy All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Meath in 2001. He finished the last two seasons as a Kerry player mostly coming off the bench and also had to deal with a serious injury, a broken leg, in 2000 which hampered his fluency in the final years.

In his last of 14 inter-county seasons, Fitzgerald finally got to play against Dublin in the championship. While he didn't start either the drawn or replayed All-Ireland quarter-finals against them in Thurles, his equalising point from the sideline in the drawn match is one of the most famous moments in the history of the championship. Cooper had, with 40 more championship games and two more All-Irelands won on the field, considerably more success and longer profile, helped by the arrival of the qualifiers.

Cooper's last match for Kerry was against Dublin, the semi-final loss of August 2016. He finished with five points, with one from play. Dr Crokes' win in the Kerry championship meant he could have been captain potential but the reality was that he was no longer guaranteed a starting role for the county. Turning 34 this summer and blunted by injury, the decision to retire made sense in many respects. Injury caused him to miss most of the Munster final last season against Tipperary and the All-Ireland quarter final win over Clare.

"I wasn't overly surprised," says Vince Casey, an All-Ireland medal winner with Crokes in 1992, when Cooper was the team mascot. "I know the amount of punishment he had to go through over the last few months, the amount of physio sessions he was taking in between games just to get his body right, and the amount of personal training he had to do.

"After the (All-Ireland club) semi-final it took him nearly a week to get back training again. He is a very intelligent person and he knows himself. I think the body was taking a lot longer to recover and I suppose the inter-county game has moved to a different stage."

Casey makes the valid point that for many of Cooper's years with Kerry he was playing virtually all year round, because Crokes were usually involved in lengthy club campaigns. That had to take its toll.

Cooper will be missed by all who admire football in its purest form where command and mastery of the ball divides prince and pauper and differentiates in the great chasm of triers in between. He will be missed today. And he will be missed for a long time to come, like all the great players who must leave the stage eventually.

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