Wednesday 21 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Gooch left behind as time and football march on

Ageing aristocrat rudely reacquainted with rough democracy of football in Crokes exit

Colm Cooper’s number may finally be up after an outstanding career Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Cooper’s number may finally be up after an outstanding career Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Colm Cooper hasn't seemed like a footballer lately. He has become a living legend, a source of controversy, a fledgling pundit, a chat show guest, a handy target for mean-spirited criticism, an autobiographical subject. You'd have been forgiven for thinking he'd retired altogether.

The guys in the dinner jackets feted him and, in the words of Billy Joel, sat at the bar and put bread in his jar. Though maybe it was the footballer himself who wondered what he was doing there. They told Gooch how great he was and they were right about that.

But all the hoopla, the having to explain himself, the kind of rows he'd have steered away from on the pitch, the serving of those two demanding masters, publicity and posterity, can't have been fun.

They'd have taken it out of anyone, let alone a player whose career had been an object lesson in how to stay away from the off-pitch limelight.

Then, in the dying days of November, he had to leave that world and face up to men who didn't want to praise him or ask his opinion on the state of football or wonder what had been his happiest moment. They just wanted to beat him and his team. And they did.

Maybe Colm Cooper's total eclipse at Pairc Ui Rinn was simply proof that time catches up on even the greatest. When he won the ball in the seventh minute, made space for himself and took aim at the posts like he'd done a hundred times before, you found yourself already marking down the score. But the shot drifted wide.

It wasn't part of a highlight reel, this moment belonged to the unforgiving here and now.

Fifteen minutes later he found himself in a position which had become familiar of late. But the group of men who crowded round Gooch this time didn't want to take a selfie with him, invite him to their table or have their book signed. They wanted to drag him along the ground and rip the ball from his grasp because he'd just conceded a free.

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One of the game's true aristocrats was being rudely reacquainted with the rough democracy of football.

Sport can be a shockingly unsentimental thing. A showbiz script would have given Cooper one moment of magic, something to salvage from a day when all went unexpectedly wrong.

Real life handed him a free which once would have been routine and which he put wide at a crucial stage.

When he shaped to play a through-ball seven minutes from time you anticipated its perfect weight and the piercing of the defence. Instead the ball fell into the arms of Nemo's Kevin Fulignati.

The only Hollywood sports movie which came to mind was Rocky 3 and that montage which shows Sylvester Stallone losing the Eye of the Tiger before Clubber Lang clobbers him.

Maybe time is Cooper's Clubber Lang. But it wasn't all about time yesterday. Guys of the same vintage as the Kerryman, Nemo's Paul Kerrigan and Paddy Gumley, played huge parts in this Munster final upset.

The last few months have had the feel of a lap of honour for Cooper. He deserves one but it meant this game may always have been destined to be a mere footnote to his story .

Colm Cooper owes nothing to Kerry or Crokes but in a tough match on a cold winter day you probably need guys who are still in the debit column, guys who will never make The Late Late Show or be lauded at lucrative bean feasts.

Men like that can be dangerous opposition in November. Julius Caesar was right to be wary of the lean and hungry.

Nemo's performance was lean and hungry all the way through and it was enough.

Corofin go marching on too. That the Castlebar Mitchels players had to climb over a wall to get on to the pitch in Tuam might seem like an overly obvious metaphor of the plight of the club player in the GAA had it not really happened.

With the reigning champions having followed the favourites, St Vincent's, out of the competition the Galway side will fancy their chances of repeating their 2015 victory.

Slaughtneil will also feel confident after a third Ulster title in four years.

Yet there was something about Nemo yesterday which brought to mind their irresistible days in this competition when seven titles made them the most successful side in history.

All the same, they never managed two in a row. Only four teams have achieved what is one of the most difficult feats in Gaelic games. The kind of effort involved verges on the superhuman and the most recent club to do it, Crossmaglen Rangers, benefited from an almost non-existent county championship. You can't blame Crokes for seeming jaded.

Maybe the course of things was set as early as the second minute when Cooper found space to field a long pass, turned and saw Brian Looney tearing through.

Splitting

The pass did not go to hand and the ball was cleared. A few seconds later Luke Connolly was splitting the Crokes defence with an exquisite through-pass which eventually led to a point.

Connolly is the same kind of player as Cooper, an artist with the ball. With four gorgeous points from play, a couple of 45s slotted with consummate ease, a hugely difficult free landed from the left wing and a couple of shots which forced superb saves from Crokes keeper Shane Murphy, the Nemo forward gave one of the great Munster final exhibitions.

We will not see many players who can do everything Colm Cooper could. But we will see plenty of players who can do some of them.

Time and football march on. This defeat probably means the game will march on without Colm Cooper. No sentimental Croke Park finale for him.

Goodnight sweet prince. On the pitch there was nobody like him. The rest is noise.

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