Gaelic football season devalued by Colm Cooper’s absence
Cooper injury leaves Kerry folk lost for words
Dr Crokes and Kerry star Colm Cooper looks on in the closing stages after leaving the field injured during the All-Ireland club championship semi-final against Castlebar Mitchels, at O’Moore Park, Portlaoise. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.
Does any county in Ireland identify with one of its own in the way that Kerry does with Colm Cooper?
The county of piseogs and tall tales well told has bred its share of folk heroes down the years. But with caps respectfully doffed to Peig Sayers and her imperishable woes, to Tom Crean and John B and Daniel O’Connell, to the innumerable cast of Kerry football greats with countless Celtic crosses rattling in back pockets, to Michael Fassbender’s chameleon turns on the silver screen, to the long cast of Roses of Tralee, to Mount Brandon’s breathtaking majesty and Banna Strand and the infinite ballads and turf-smoked public houses, this is different.
The cruel injury which Cooper suffered a week ago today has hit the county hard and has had an effect on Kerry people that is seldom witnessed by the outside world. It has left them lost for words.
Yes, it is ‘only’ football and Cooper will, all going well, be back as good as new for the All-Ireland season of 2015. But his sudden absence from this year’s league and All-Ireland calendar has had a silencing effect on the county. If Kerry was listed on the stock exchange, shares would plummet. As it was, odds on the Kingdom recapturing next year’s All-Ireland drifted out towards double figures land in the hours after it was confirmed that Cooper had torn his cruciate ligament and was ‘gone’ for the year. Anyone watching that match, in which Cooper’s Dr Crokes team faced Castlebar Mitchels in the All-Ireland club semi-final would have known it anyway. Cooper’s exceptional athleticism gives him a kind of rubbery ability to absorb brute force and bounce away from heavy hits. He never looks off balance. But from the second he was tackled as he attempted a shot, it was clear that he had fallen weirdly and the stillness with which he lay afterwards spelled trouble.
The sight of Cooper then sitting disconsolately in the stand watching Dr Crokes fall short again in their All-Ireland quest added bitter substance to the current advertising campaign which claims that the club All-Ireland is the toughest medal of all.
They don’t try and pretend it can compare to the colour and scale of the summer All-Ireland championship, instead presenting it for what is: a winter competition, sombre and rain-drenched and intensely local. The adverts, in which Cooper features, shines a light on the power of the local and explores the frustrations of the greatest players of their generation in trying to take their town and their club to the pinnacle of the game. In Cooper’s time, Dr Crokes have come close but through a combination of bad luck and exceptional club teams have fallen short. As he says himself: “It’s the one medal I don’t have.”
Cooper’s sudden absence from the football year is harder to absorb because since he first burst onto the public consciousness in the summer of 2002, the guy has been like clockwork. His gifts as a footballer may be the stuff of delicate touches and off-the-cuff improvisation but he also seemed to have the durability of a Kenyan distance runner. He just didn’t break down, he looked the same and played the same. You could see the toll beginning to take to players around Cooper as the decade went on but he was still the flame haired kid with irrepressible energy.
The timing of the injury means that Cooper’s most recent appearance in a Kerry jersey was in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin last summer, a sensational game in which Cooper gave a master class in football aesthetics through the first half. The fabulousness of the match was of little consolation to Kerry, where they don’t go in for magnificent defeat too much. But to the hundreds of thousands of people watching around the country, the match offered a portrayal of Kerry as they are seldom seen. For once, they weren’t the strongest team justifying their tag as favourites but were, instead, regarded as a great if declining side taking on the emerging power in the game. The colours were classic but the mood was new. The attitude and honesty and, most of all, the spirit with which they played that game illustrated why Gaelic football has been their mode of expression for most of the century just as much as any of their garlanded winning years. There was some disgruntlement at the attention Cooper had received from the Dublin defence but not a peep from the Kerry camp.
They keep their mouths shut when they lose. But the match signalled that Kerry had not gone away. And all winter, the prospect of how Kerry and Cooper would respond to what was a brilliant All-Ireland season by the Dubs had, until last weekend, been one of the chief intrigues of the championship.
And now the Gaelic football season has been robbed of that and of a player whose gifts are so luminous and rare that he managed to float above the high walls of county loyalty. Cooper has been doing what he does for so long and so brilliantly that he even the most die-hard fans from other counties bow to the pleasure of seeing him play. The dismay is general. Before a ball has been kicked, there is a sense that this year’s championship cannot be as good as last year’s was because Cooper is not playing in it.
So what now? Kerry, rightly or wrongly, have been largely dismissed in the minds of many as potential All-Ireland champions. Kerry are, of course, diminished without Cooper but the idea that they don’t count is foolish and one they will enjoy trying to disprove. It has been a long time since they have been in that position. The lack of expectation may be liberating for the younger players trying to feel their way into what is a legacy as well as a team. Eamon Fitzmaurice has time to devise a different strategy for the season and is the right man for what is a minor crisis: calm, hyper-detailed and unafraid to try new things.
When word of Cooper’s injury broke, thoughts immediately drifted to the west coast of America, where Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers is undergoing a similarly demoralising sequence of injuries. Last April, while in the form of his life, Bryant suffered an Achilles tear and worked like a demon to return to team training seven months later. After playing just seven games, he fractured his knee in a separate injury last December. Afterwards, he sent out a twitter message: BrokenNotBeaten. He hasn’t played since and is working towards a return, day by day.
And unless Cooper’s team-mates can concoct their season-of-seasons this year, his return will mark five years without an All-Ireland title going to Kerry. His best work is far from done.