'F**k this,' I say. 'I’m going for a few pints' - Colm Cooper on being dropped in 2009
In these exclusive extracts from his upcoming autobiography, Colm Cooper reveals his thoughts on some defining moments in his life and football career – like when he was dropped for having a couple of pints in 2009, the sudden death of his father Mike, and his decision this year to call time on his days in green and gold
Jack’s back, but things are different now. The atmosphere feels skewed. He knows it, we know it. He’s written a book and there’s stuff in those pages that some feel flew just a little too close to the bone. He’s been tiptoeing around some of the boys like someone who’s just not sure what bad weather might be rolling around inside their heads. We win our 19th League title, beating Derry in the final, but the truth? I remember none of it.
I won’t say it means nothing, but it’s just not what we’re after. Tyrone are still on our clothes, still in our heads. There’s a contrariness in the group and I’m just not sure it’s a healthy one.
‘Keys To The Kingdom – The Story of the Outsider who led Kerry back to glory’ has been more than a year on the shelves now so every smidgin in it has been dissected and analysed. Some lads probably read more than they wanted.
So was Jack ever going to be accepted by the group the way he was the first time? Questionable.
I wouldn’t call it a stand-off as such, but there’s definitely a sense that the chemistry here needs a bucket and some suds. Everything feels forced. Are fellas buying totally into what the manager’s now telling us? Not sure.
I suspect when Jack did the book he didn’t imagine he’d be walking back into a Kerry dressing-room so soon again. Probably reckoned he had a bit of licence. Now he’s carrying it around in his body language. ‘F**k it, we’re sound lads aren’t we?
We draw the Munster semi-final with Cork in Killarney. My town and we nearly stink the place out. How we got away with it, I’ll never know. Cork were better than us but in the same way people seem to think we’ve got a bit of a psychological issue with Northern teams, I’m beginning to wonder if Cork have that with us. The closer they got to the finish line, the more blinkered they seemed to become.
I remember standing there in the Park at one point, wondering ‘Are we f**king gone here?’
Funny, people have been telling us we have no heart, but heart is the only thing that got us out of Fitzgerald Stadium that day. We dogged out the draw. Pure Kerry stubbornness.
But it feels like we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on a ship that’s going down here. One week later, Cork hand us our arses in a bag. Hammer us. We don’t seem to know what we’re doing and the management don’t seem to know how they want us to do it. Now we’re down the Qualifier road with all its sneaky mines and dead ends and lads looking for a big fish to fry.
We play Longford in Longford and struggle. Then we take Sligo by a point in Tralee. Sligo by a point? They miss a penalty with about five minutes to go. Jesus wept, we’re all over the place. We look like a team with no game-plan, no idea of who or what we want to be. Worse, there’s not a shred of hunger in what we’re doing. I’m sitting there in the dressing-room afterwards and I can’t believe how bad things feel. And if I feel it, others have to feel it. One Kerry player feeling out of sorts and not playing well isn’t going to be enough for Sligo to nearly beat us in Tralee. But we’re all walking around like ghosts.
Jack’s brought Mike McCarthy back into the panel and your first thought at seeing that is ,‘Well f**k it, management definitely doesn’t trust these players’. Mike hasn’t played for Kerry in three years. He’s got no training done, no strength and conditioning. He’s got no League behind him. For me, the sight of Mike coming in the gate to training just compounds the sense of things being all over the place.
Don’t get me wrong. Mike Mac is a different animal, I know that.
But if I’m a Kerry defender and I see the SOS going out in July for a man who hasn’t played county football since ‘06, I have to be thinking, ‘Hang on, what the f**k am I doing here? I’ve been killing myself since January, doing all the weights and Jack seems to think nothing of bringing in a lad who’s done none of that stuff.’
Still, maybe we’re just forgetting who Mike Mac is.
Anyway, we’re absolutely haunted to get out of Tralee. Now I’m a closed enough person and, if I’m honest, I’m just bottling up all the bad stuff in my head now. I get back to my house in Killarney and I’ve cabin fever. No way can I just sit here tonight, staring at the walls. I’m depressed with this and I just know I need to switch off. Things just feel all over the place.
‘F**k this,’ I say. ‘I’m going for a few pints.’
Just me and a high stool. That’s the only relationship I want now. No talk, no bulls**t. I don’t ring anyone. I don’t want to be getting anyone else in trouble but my head is like a ticking bomb here. And, if I don’t switch off, I know I’ll have a sleepless night. So I take myself in to Jade’s on New Street. Find a spot where I can watch the golf from America on TV. I’ve always been quite happy with my own company in a pub and now that’s the only company that appeals to me.
Now and again, someone sidles over. ‘What happened ye?’ This kind of line. ‘Yerra look, we didn’t play well,’ I say. I’ve no interest in going any deeper. Only people inside the bubble understand what we’re going through now and I’ve certainly no interest in opening up to anyone here in the pub. The golf gets my attention. I’m polite, but pointedly distant. So I sit there till closing time, head home and slip away into a welcome sleep.
I knew the rules, of course. No pints. We had Antrim in a week and, well, Jack wouldn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to hear if one of his better-known players was supping Guinness on a Saturday night in Killarney.
We’ve training the following Tuesday and the call I’m half expecting comes that morning. ‘Gooch, I want you to come into training early!’ F**k, bad news travels fast. Next thing, Darragh Ó Sé is on the line. ‘Just to mark your card, my man knows that yourself and Tomás had pints at the weekend.’
Darragh might think he’s just made my heart sink, but all I’m thinking is, ‘Hallelujah. Tomás was on the beer too? There might be safety in numbers here.’
Still, I’m probably bolshie on the phone with him. All I’m feeling is frustration.
‘I don’t give a f**k’ I say. ‘I have to go in and talk to him this evening anyway.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Darragh, ‘but there’s talk about him not playing ye at the weekend.’
‘Darragh, does it f**king matter who he plays? We’re all over the f**king shop!’
‘Look, I’m just marking your card.’
I thought Tomás and I would be called before the court together, but Jack decides to deal with us individually. So I arrive into Fitzgerald Stadium, toss my bag in a corner and because there are other lads in there early too, doing their stretches, Jack calls me outside. ‘Come out here, I want to talk to you!’
Now what follows is fairly one-sided because I put up no defence.
‘Were you drinking at the weekend?’
‘I was yeah!’
‘Well f**k it Gooch, we’re finding things hard enough...’
‘I’d expect you to show some example...’
‘I need you to be a f**king leader in this group and...’
‘I know Jack, I know...’
Then he finishes up by saying we’re going to have a meeting and ‘I don’t f**king know if you’re going to be playing at the weekend now.’ Call it stubborn, ignorant or whatever, that’d be Jack’s way. I was alright with it. I’d been in the wrong, end of story.
But next thing the meeting is called upstairs and Jack’s nowhere to be seen. None of the management are. Jack’s called the meeting, sent up Declan O’Sullivan and Micheál Quirke to chair it and decided to leave us at it. Ah Jesus. I’m fit to be tied now. To me, he had to be chairing that meeting. If we were going to be talking about leadership and why things were going so bad, should management not have been part of that conversation?
But the meeting was only about Tomás and me. About drink and the bold boys we were. Nothing else on the agenda. Lord Christ, we’d come clean. We hadn’t lied about it. We were taking whatever punishment came our way on the chin. The dogs in the street could see Kerry were all over the shop, but it was as if Jack and the management have decided that Tomás and I were the only problem.
He should have been there in that room and he should have given it to the two of us between the eyes. ‘Lads ye were f**king out of line and the two of ye have been around long enough to know better. We’re all really f**king disappointed in ye. Ye’re not starting at the weekend!’
Bang. Done and dusted.
Trouble is, he’s still tip-toeing. So Declan and Mike are in the chair, Tomás and myself apologise. We know we’re wrong but f**k we’re not schoolchildren here. Nobody discusses a punishment and then the two boys go back down to report to Jack. F**k sake, treat us like adults. Two fellas who’ve been playing for Kerry for years, this is just f**king bananas. Even now, thinking back on it just drives me bonkers. Next thing we hear a story’s going to the media that the two of us are being ‘rested’ against Antrim. Like the media are going to swallow that? Kerry are stinking the place out and they’re ‘resting’ two of their most experienced players. A load of b*****ks. Did management honestly think that 30 players would leave the Park that night and not say anything to their girlfriend, father, brother, sister or mother?
Next day, it’s front page of a national newspaper. Front page. My mother’s looking at this, my family’s looking at this. Jesus Christ, we drank a few pints. Professional rugby players will do that after a Six Nations game. Premier League soccer players? No problem. And here we are two amateur Gaelic footballers and the idea that we drank a few pints after a game is front page of a national newspaper.
To this day, I’m convinced it was because of the way it was handled. Because Jack and the management weren’t willing to tell anyone the truth. Everyone knew we’d been drinking, so how were you going to sell that ‘rested’ story to anyone?
Jack and I are stubborn enough characters and we laugh about it now. My relationship with him has always been good since. He’d say to me, ‘If yourself and Tomás f**ked off, sure I’d have had to walk!’
Looking back, I’d say he had bigger worries at the time. I’d say he was half afraid that Darragh and Marc might have taken issue with him nailing Tomás. And, if the Ó Sés were unhappy, Jack was in trouble. Believe me, this hadn’t been our first meeting about breaches of discipline. I suppose boys will be boys!
From day one, he didn’t believe the Ó Sés were buying into him. He always felt friction I suppose because of the Páidí thing in ‘03 and any impression that he might have had a role in getting rid of him. Now he had no hand, act or part in getting rid of Páidí, I can say that for absolute certain. But blood is thicker than water. So Jack felt under that pressure. But he should have come into the meeting, dropped us for the weekend. Job done. Myself and Tomás would be fairly cold about these things. We weren’t going to bear any grudges, didn’t have time for them. If anything, I’d say both of us were thinking, ‘If we don’t win this All-Ireland, we’ll be the ones blamed!’
And, trust me, we were a long way away from an All-Ireland leaving Fitzgerald Stadium that night. A million miles away to be honest.
Nothing had been resolved. No mention of tactics or a game-plan for the weekend in all the hysteria about pints. I was thick as anything heading home that Jack hadn’t fronted up. Still am to this very day.
Because that wasn’t the way to do it and I’ll always stand over that opinion. That said, knowing what came later, I don’t doubt Jack will stand over his.
Anyway, we play Antrim in Tullamore and the engine is still pinking. Tomás and I are both sent in early and Galvin gets a late goal to give us a five-point win. Flatters us. We’re still diseased. The train journey home takes us on some kind of grim safari through the Irish midlands. Lads have headphones on and eyes on the floor. Then word comes through of the quarter-final draw. Dublin.
The gloom lifts immediately. There’s an energy in us all of a sudden. Thanks be to f**k, a game to find out if we’re made of steel or straw. Lads start talking almost immediately. It’s as if we’ve all been plugged into the mains. As I’m getting off the train, I send Tomás a jokey text. ‘Are you going for a jar?’
Everything feels lighter.
The Dubs were playing well and we knew they didn’t fear us. But we didn’t fear them either because they’d never beaten this Kerry team.
For us, a side barely able to put one foot in front of the other, they were perfect for our mood now. Maybe they gave us a little inner viciousness back. Because we knew they’d think we were there for the taking.
And a whole pile of frustration would come pouring out of us that day.
For me, particularly. I got a goal at the Hill end after just 40 seconds and I think you can see in the fist-pump afterwards that I was there for business. What was I thinking? ‘No more Mister F**king Nice Guy’, that’s what. I think I’d scored the grand total of 0-5 from play in our five Championship games until then. I wasn’t leading. Then the pints thing blew up and, if I’m honest, I felt under ridiculous pressure.
But I also felt that this was the game that could change everything.
Mike Mac was now centre-back, Tommy Griffin back on the edge of the square and, defensively, things felt more solid. And next thing this man who hadn’t played inter-county football for three years comes floating up the field, the blue sea opening up in front of him. One of Mike Mac’s solos goes so high, he actually nods the ball with his head. But, still, he’s coming.
I’m no more than half in his eye-line, but maybe he knows the bad mood I’m in. Maybe he’s thinking, ‘If I get to this fella inside, there’s every chance he’ll stick it!’ David Henry is marking me but I’ve found a yard and, as the ball arrives, I know I need to get the shot away quickly because Stephen Cluxton is advancing. When it hits the net, I roar like a f**king bear. Nothing intelligible, just a roar.
But one that says, ‘We’re back!’
The Dubs don’t know what’s hit them. As we get well on top, I’m going around almost boiling up with anger. Just before half-time, we’re awarded a free about five yards outside the ‘45’. Darragh has the ball in his hands. ‘Give it to me,’ I say.
‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘What the f**k do you think I’m going to do with it, I’m going to kick it over.’
He sees a look in my eyes I’d say he hasn’t seen before. Hands me the ball. And I drill this kick, no higher than 15 metres at any point straight over the bar. Like a f**king exocet. BOOM. And that’s me making a statement. A statement about being treated like a school kid. About people trying to put me under pressure. About fellas trying to crack me.
They’d poked the bear. That’s how I felt. F**k the lot of them.
We win pulling up. Seventeen points. A slaughter. Jack didn’t see that performance coming. None of us did. How could we? We’d been operating under a cloud, all kinds of gloomy stories leaking from the camp, most of them untrue. Going absolutely nowhere and, next thing, something about the sight of Dublin gave us a pulse.
Anyway, Croke Park was our playground. People should have known it.
We beat Meath then in a nondescript semi-final on a greasy day. And we leave Croker, looking ahead to the perfect last chapter of a ridiculous season. Another All-Ireland final against Cork. The boys that gave us such a licking in July. They’re swallowing hard now and we know it.
Cork start like a whirlwind and at that moment when Colm O’Neill’s early shot explodes high into the Canal End net, I will admit I’m worried.
They race into a five-point lead, but they’re like a prize-fighter who’s put too much into the early rounds. Jack gets his match-ups spot on. Tom Sullivan on Goulding. Griffin, eventually, on O’Neill. At the far end, Tommy Walsh on Shields.
I’d say we win nearly 12 of the 15 individual battles and manage a nine-point turnaround, winning by four. We’re Cork’s worst nightmare. This is our fifth consecutive Croke Park win over them and, somehow, we just know they don’t believe they can beat us there.
It was Darragh’s last game and, suddenly, everything looked like a poem that rhymed in every sentence. We’d come through so much adversity to bring the cannister home. Half the year, people telling us we had no fight, no stomach. People seeing the drinking story and thinking some of us were just some kind of rabble.
I enjoyed the homecoming on Monday night but with the Cup going to Glenbeigh that Tuesday to honour captain, Darran O’Sullivan, I decided to get out of Dodge.
Took a flight to Malaga out of Shannon with a good buddy of mine, Edmund O’Sullivan. Just wanted to be invisible. I could sense there was going to be a lot of noise around Kerry now and I didn’t want any part in it.