Gooch still doing what comes so naturally
KERRY FOOTBALL:With four All-Ireland medals to his credit after a decade of illustrious service to Kerry, the rhythms of the GAA season remain unchanged for Kingdom star Colm Cooper
TOMORROW, COLM Cooper will resume his life as a winter footballer. Dr Crokes play Laune Rangers on the neutral turf of Tralee and their sinewy corner forward won’t be difficult to notice among the black and gold colours of the Killarney men.
Cooper’s copper gold colouring and that distinctive gait – at once languid and economical – makes him probably the easiest Gaelic footballer in Ireland to pick out. And now that he has become the most prolific scorer in the history of Kerry football, he is the figure that fathers point out to their sons.
Look! You saw him play!
In the quarter-final, Crokes played Stacks, led by Kieran Donaghy. This is the rhythm of their season. In high summer, Cooper and Donaghy form the most clairvoyant attacking axis in Gaelic football. But within Kerry, they stand at opposite ends of the field as star men in their respective sides and locked in the bitterly keen, universal tradition of town versus town.
Stacks versus Crokes; chapter God knows what. The headlines made much of a brief outbreak of disorder that followed a heavy tackle on Cooper. The Doctor’s boys won comfortably anyhow; Cooper dusted himself down and scored the goal that put too much daylight between the teams.
Killarney is a “towny” town and always has been. The natural splendour of the nearby Lakes, the piped traditional music, endless varieties of Aran sweater, pubs galore and American accents all year around: it was and remains different to most Irish towns.
“But for us, whether it was the middle of July or November, we just did our thing,” Cooper explains of his formative days growing up in Ardshanavooley.
This was at lunchtime during a whirlwind visit to Dublin for work. He would be back in Killarney for training on Thursday evening and even though he made a good stab of pretending his day wasn’t hectic, he hadn’t even had time to check to see who Kerry will play in the league next season even though the fixtures had been announced.
“So it was home from school at four o’clock,” he recalled of those simpler and more leisurely days. “Get your work done, have your dinner and then every evening there was a game. There are about 100 houses in the estate and everyone played every sport. We played football. There was a basketball court up the back.
“Whether you were eight or 16, you were involved. I learned so much from those games, dealing with guys who were bigger and faster than me. But it was just fun times. Definitely, in the last few years when I called to my mother, you wouldn’t see anything like the numbers that were there when I was growing up. But society changed too.
“We didn’t have PlayStation or iPads or Facebook: there was none of that variety of distraction. There would have been 30 kids there – older than 16 as well. Now, I do see it coming back a little bit – kids on bikes and kicking ball. And when I am driving in or out of the estate now and you see those kids, it brings you back to your own time and it is great to see. Happy memories!”
It is often forgotten that Cooper was practically plucked from his childhood games on the green in Ardshanavooley and dropped into Croke Park with almost no time for adjustment.
The celebrated film clip of his days as a mascot with the Crokes team which won the All-Ireland club final on St Patrick’s Day of 1992 was the beginning of a period of anticipation.
Cooper’s name was known nationally before most people had even seen him play.
“That was it,” he says evenly. “The nickname that was attached to it probably stuck in people’s minds.”
From the beginning, he was known as “Gooch”, a nickname that seemed better suited to some dead-eyed baseball pitcher than something dreamed up on the streets of Killarney. But the nickname gave him an instant familiarity.
Cooper won his first senior medal with Dr Crokes when he was 17. He played in his first All-Ireland final at 19. His teenage years were characterised by extremes. The team he “came up” with just wasn’t that strong. They got their asses handed to them, year after year. No exceptions were made for the Gooch.
“We just weren’t that strong. I was one of the smallest but I had to play midfield or centre forward because I was that bit skilful. But I hated the losing.
“So I played on the team the year above me as well and was going from winning by 10 points on a Tuesday night with them to losing by 20 on a Friday with our team. That went all the way up to minor level. I was playing senior when I was minor.