‘Whatever you do, don’t retaliate’ - Colm Cooper on who really hit him in the 2005 All-Ireland final
I’m sitting on my arse in Croke Park early in an All-Ireland final, barely able to see out of one eye, and the ref’s telling me not to retaliate to something that hasn’t, it seems, even merited a free
Tyrone didn’t invent sledging in the GAA, let’s be very clear about that. As long as I’ve been playing, there’s always been a mouth or two determined to make themselves heard. But Tyrone were different.
They were the first team I came up against who seemed to regard trash-talk as being just as fundamental to the game as tackling. And they were relentless in ’05. Right from the throw-in, a constant commentary.
‘F*** you’re playing awful s**t Gooch, I’d say you’re not long for the hook...’
‘Bet ya I’ll beat you to the next ball that comes in....’
Harmless enough in comparison to some of the stuff I’ve heard reported since, but heading in one direction. Ryan McMenamin would be my marker in that year’s All-Ireland final and ‘Ricey’ almost prided himself on being able to wind a forward up. Personally I never minded playing on him because he was never the stickiest corner-back in the world. Maybe his mouthing was to compensate for that.
He’d hit you the odd dig into the back too and try to annoy you with these little pinches, hoping you might throw an elbow back and get the line. Tyrone were pushing the boundaries that year – maybe over-stepping them at times – and who could really blame them?
Pushing those boundaries would bring them their second All-Ireland in three years. We’d felt we were better than them that year, but history tells us we were fooling ourselves.
They had it both ways, you see. Players like Peter Canavan and Sean Cavanagh and Owen Mulligan and Stephen O’Neill who’d have made any team with their talent. And fellas to do the other stuff. If they were getting away with that other stuff, what did we honestly expect them to do? Hand us a written apology and vow to change their ways?
Bottom line, if winning demanded Tyrone be nasty, they were more than willing to be that. It didn’t make them unique in the annals of Gaelic football, did it? Some of the most successful teams in history would have cut a family member in two just to get past them to a ball. I get that. Kerry haven’t exactly been angels when it’s come to use of the dark arts. But sledging? No, that’s not really us.
Anyway, Tyrone didn’t give a shit then about what anybody thought. They didn’t care if people hated them.
If anything, I suspect they took energy from that idea. And they particularly got a kick out of pulling the rug from under a fancied Kerry team. Part of that, I suspect, was in reaction to the way Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly had become a kind of Punch and Judy Show on the Sunday Game once Pat had patented that term ‘puke football’.
All of that just added fuel to the Tyrone fire. ‘Everybody hates us. F*** them!’
I’m often asked was I one of those who came to hate them. My honest answer is I hated the fact that we couldn’t beat them. And, yes, they were hateful to play against, no question. They were testing you in every single way. But the big issue for me was that they were allowed to do it. That’s the bit I really hated, the stuff that would go unpunished.
But then, maybe that’s the 5pc they feel got them across the line.
Was the sledging actively promoted within the Tyrone dressing-room? Only they can answer that.
But almost every last one of them seemed willing to do it. When you think about it, there was no penalty for it. A referee could never hear it so, in every way they could, Tyrone just played the system.
There are different kinds of hatred I suppose. I mean I can hate Bernard Brogan or Ciaran Kilkenny for the damage they’ve inflicted on Kerry in recent years. Same thing with Canavan and Cavanagh and Mulligan and O’Neill back then. But it’s not real hatred, is it? If anything, it’s grudging respect. But the hatred you feel towards those who just make it their job to niggle? That’s different. That’s closer to the real thing.
This anti-football stuff. Winning by hook or by crook. Horrible.
THERE WAS AN INCIDENT in the ’05 final that had an adverse affect on me for much of the first half. I was making a run in around the penalty spot, just trying to lose my man.
And Tyrone’s goalie, Paschal McConnell, kept charging out towards me, as if trying to block my run. On this one occasion, his glove made contact with my face.
I got this horrible sensation of grit in my eye and immediately went down. And all around me became a symphony directed towards the referee, Mick Monahan. ‘Diving ref, diving, diving, diving...’ They were like squawking birds on a wall.
I’m telling them to f*** off with themselves when Monahan comes across to me and says ‘Whatever you do, don’t retaliate!’.
So I’m sitting on my arse in Croke Park, barely able to see out of one eye, and the ref’s telling me not to retaliate to something that hasn’t, it seems, even merited a free.
There are two umpires standing, hands behind their backs, no more than a few feet away. Don’t retaliate?
‘Well are you going to f*****g take action or what?’ I ask Monahan.
His silence is the answer I expected and I’m rattled now. Maybe we’re all rattled. Rattled and frustrated. Rightly or wrongly, I reckon I’ve just been taken out of the game, possibly in a pre-meditated move, and the ref’s only answer is to tell me not to hit back?
Tyrone were never going to go holding doors open for me, were they? We knew something was coming, but what do you do when it lands?
Maybe the lack of anger in us as a group that day said more about us than we were willing to absorb at the time. Because all we gave Tyrone in return was just noise.
I’d started well, had kicked a point and was beginning to motor. Next thing everyone’s barking and roaring and squaring up for an argument and, without knowing, the game is being played on Tyrone’s terms. Was the McConnell thing pre-meditated? I can’t honestly say. And let’s be straight, it wasn’t what lost us the match.
Tyrone were hungrier than us, meaner than us, better. Take away the mouthing and they still had something over Kerry. Their small men hit our big men harder than they’d been hit before. Stopping fellas in their tracks, big Kerry bulls getting bounced back on their arses. Balls getting turned over.
Canavan scored a class goal on the stroke of half-time from a Mulligan knock-down, then Harte took him off for a breather before sending him on again to close the deal.
More evidence of how they were re-thinking the game. We ended up chasing the game and, in the dying seconds, Canavan pulled me down with a virtual rugby tackle as I sprinted to take a return pass. Their best player doing whatever it took. Not giving a shit what anyone might say on that evening’s Sunday Game.
He’d been blackguarded himself enough across the years, so could you really blame him?
GOOCH: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Colm Cooper
published by Transworld Ireland on October 5 2017. Copyright © Colm Cooper 2017