Complex Colm Cooper relieved to finally pass on the Kerry mantle
Autobiography reveals skilful Kingdom hero was also a contrary, raging competitor
Colm Cooper celebrates Kerry’s win over Cork in the 2007 All-Ireland final. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
In his early Kerry days, Colm Cooper became used to brawny and unsmiling man-markers quietly promising to inflict grievous bodily harm on him, in one way or another.
He can easily summon the vows, if not the accents, 15 years on.
“I’ll bring you down to size ya scrawny bollocks.” “I’ll get you with the next ball, ya –––– .” Fill in whatever oath or insult you want. They came at him in torrents. There would be pinching too and the odd dig in the ribs.
Famously, Cooper weighed ten stone when he started playing senior football with Kerry and veteran defenders interpreted his skinny frame as an act of insolence in itself; what business did this child have out here, in the dark daylight of the men’s game?
And, in truth, the treatment was just an extension of what he had been hearing all the way up, from the estate in Ardshanavooly and all through school. He was the youngest of five and the smallest and he was told all about it. “Useless.” “Too weak.” “Go home to your mam now.” “Too light.” “You’ll get broken.”
He didn’t listen. If he had allowed any of it to infiltrate his thinking, it would have been over before it began.
He believes Mikey Sheehy and Charlie Nelligan may have known his name on the day he showed up for Kerry minor trials but it’s just as likely that they knew him only as the Crokes lad, until he scored 1-5 in the trial game and forced them to look beyond the lightness.
When Páidí Ó Sé called him up to the senior squad, he was auditioning alongside quality forwards like Johnny Crowley and Dara Ó Cinnéide, both of whom were as solidly composed as Peterbilt freight trucks. Maurice Fitzgerald had shimmered off stage the very year Cooper arrived and Mike Frank Russell was the resident artist and was in his prime.
Fellows were friendly enough but didn’t make a fuss of him and Cooper could all but hear their scepticism.
“I’d say privately, lads were saying: ‘fuck it, where are they going with this fella? He’ll be killed.’ But I won them very quickly I think. You can say that it is cheeky or arrogant to say that. But I won them quickly.”
There’s a tidy legend about Colm Cooper that Ireland knows well; the flame-haired mascot for Dr Crokes imbued with towny cockiness and an endless bag of football tricks who was destined to someday exhibit genius in a Kerry shirt – and then grew up to do just that.
“See, the story has worked out now. But I worked my bollocks off,” he says on a quiet midweek morning in Killarney. The Kingdom is drenched with rainfall – yellow warnings abound – but there are still a few tourists mooching about who have no idea that this slender man in a suit is the closest thing to royalty as you can get in the county.
Cooper is at the beginning of what will be a hectic few weeks of talking about himself. Last night, he sat on the most famous couch in RTÉ.
Gooch, his autobiography with Vincent Hogan, dominates the window displays of book shops around the country. Controversy wheels around a planned testimonial dinner.
Within the pages of his biography there is, indeed, that fantastical story of a football savant to whom the game came laughably easy. But that figure has also been a convenient front; a mask behind which a spiky and funny and instinctively local individual had to get on with the trickier business of living.
He had to learn on the hoof, beginning with those games with Kerry when he was a bit unnerved by how enraged those defenders seemed to be by his presence. And the Kerry squad was a no-frills apprenticeship. You figured it out or you didn’t.
“It was strange to me,” he remembers. “I was only 18. And it is not really done in Kerry, that talking. So for a couple of years, I was saying, fuck it . . . did I do something wrong here to this fella? Like, I had been playing minor league games six months earlier. Two 17-year-olds: you both jump for a ball and one of you gets it. Play away! So to go from that forced me to learn to deal with it. And initially, I wasn’t good enough. It took me a while to learn that I hadn’t upset this fella but that he was upsetting me and had me talking to him, telling him to . . . fuck off or whatever. And if a corner back can crack you, he has you.”
Cooper endured, of course; five All-Irelands, 15 years with the Kingdom, a cinematic highlights reel, eight All Stars and the perfect bookend of a club All-Ireland with Crokes in March of this year, after which he confirmed that he was retiring as a Kerry footballer.
His last All-Ireland, a soaked final which ended in defeat against Dublin in 2015, was an endurance test alongside Philly McMahon, one of the most obdurate and sticky defenders in the game. McMahon is unapologetic about an up-close and personal style of marking which would have made Cooper’s early antagonists seem like kindergarten teachers in comparison.
There was a memorable exchange after the final whistle in which McMahon appeared to try and engage Cooper in conversation while the Kerry man clearly just wanted to get away.
“I’ve never wanted to be friends with my opponents,” he admits in the book. “Never. Maybe I’m just cold like that. But it holds no interest for me.”
He describes that last final as hugely frustrating but says that the moment with McMahon just reflected how he always felt after games.
“There are things in the game that might have gone on. Without wanting to dig stuff up, by and large, win or lose, not that I’m overjoyed but you shake hands and bite your tongue. But there are occasions when you might not be happy with something – spoken or physical. And it happens.
“I can’t even remember what was said there but it was like: ‘Well done. Enjoy your celebrations.’ I don’t want an excuse for what went on or what was said. Just: well done. Go enjoy it with your team. I didn’t want a hard luck story or ‘this is why I did that’. I move on. I park things as quickly as I can because if you carry that baggage you become a bitter person for the rest of your life.”
Cooper is 34 now. Since he was a teenager, he has been the public face of Kerry football: a preternaturally creative forward with a demonic streak in front of goal, soft spoken, a purist and a polite if distanced personality in his dealings with media.
The great insight contained within his book is that while his sporting life was played out on a grand scale, his day-to-day living was almost wilfully narrow. His world revolved around the local: his parent’s house in Ardshan’, the bank where he started working after school and Fitzgerald Stadium. He has been known as “the Gooch” since he was eight but his parents and siblings always called him Colm. He doesn’t mind the nickname but agrees it quickly became larger than he understood.
“It almost became a brand,” he acknowledges.
“I mean, it’s on the cover of the book. And I think there is something in the GAA that loves to give someone a nickname. But yeah, ‘Gooch’ became this poster boy of Kerry football and at times that was difficult. Because maybe I wasn’t that person. And all of a sudden I was this person on billboards and launching this or that. Because my profile was high and Kerry were on the crest of a wave, I was sought after. And that quickly elevated the ‘Gooch’ thing.
“But there is still Colm Cooper the person who has friends and gets up and goes to work each morning. So the difficulty was that ‘Gooch’ was public property while Colm Cooper was his own person and that was the hardest thing.
“Like, to give an example. My niece plays Kerry minors now. And I went to see her play an All-Ireland match at U-16. I just wanted to go and see her play with my sisters and my Mam. I was a supporter. But you end up taking pictures and signing autographs in the stand and I felt like I was taking from her day on the field.
“And another time, I was due to appear at a schools event as a guest but they ended up asking me not to appear because they worried that my being there might distract from the event. And I could fully understand where they were coming from. But I just wanted to turn up to the thing like anyone else. Maybe I contributed to all that because I have been in the media for so long. But at other times, there is nothing I can do about it.”
It meant that like many other Kerry football lifers, Cooper all but led a covert daily existence. They learned to move beneath the radar and knew the right nooks for an escape or an occasional blow-out. The notorious 2009 episode in which Cooper and Tomás Ó Sé were dropped for a championship game for drinking (in separate towns, it turned out) is eye-opening for its timidity.
Cooper’s sin was to head down the town and watch a US golf tournament on television while he downed a few pints. That was it. He took three months to try and escape from himself in 2007 but it wasn’t until 2014 that he was finally forced to sit still and think about who he was.
The first blow was physical: an awkward tackle in the club All-Ireland semi-final against Castlebar Mitchels blew his knee out. Lying on the grass, his immediate thought was that his sequence of unbroken championship appearances for Kerry was in jeopardy.
A series of visits to Santry confirmed that his entire future as a footballer was on the line. The isolation of those weeks and the sudden sundering of the collegiality – and the cult – of Kerry football hit him hard.
Then, much more profoundly, his mother Maureen was diagnosed with cancer that March. The family had already lost their father, Mike, in 2006 to a heart attack after which Maureen began to take on both roles.
“She was the glue for us all,” he says. “The house was still busy because of her. In for tea and a chat before a match in Killarney, the kids running in the garden. That is all we knew.”
Maureen died at home that August and in the book, Cooper is both exceptionally open about those days within his family and equally honest about how little he disclosed to his team-mates at the time.
“People knew my mom wasn’t well. But I didn’t . . . particularly the Kerry lads, even Darran [O’Sullivan, one of his closest friends], I never opened up to say how serious it was. Maybe they were hearing it second hand.
“It was the Thursday after the Galway game she died. And your world is thrown upside down. The funeral was Friday and Saturday. Kerry trained on Sunday so I went up there. I needed to clear my head because I felt lifeless and I had no energy. Darran called into me and we watched Armagh playing. And I asked him when training was on and he told me Sunday. I said I might go up. And he was there, ‘are you sure man?’ It was just a really shitty time and it was tough on all the family. Sometimes the family are as guarded as I am. It might be a family trait.”
There is a section early in the book in which Éamonn Fitzmaurice, the Kerry manager, calls around to Cooper to coax him into staying on for the 2017 season, reminding him that a Crokes man would be captain. But Cooper wasn’t for persuading and halted the entreaties by saying: “Listen Éamonn, I didn’t give a fuck about you when you retired.”
Fitzmaurice burst out laughing. But he took the point. At heart, Cooper was a mercenary. Kerry football kept moving and no matter who bailed out – Ó Sé, O’Mahony, any of them – he didn’t so much as give them a backwards glance.
“No sentimental bullshit from me” he insists in the book. They couldn’t help him win All-Irelands. Now, he holds himself to the same account. He was half surprised to find himself with the other once-were-warrior names on the Sunday Game, suited and opining. Analysing. Starring in the show he’d spent summer after summer avoiding. But he was surprised, too, by how light it felt not to have to worry about Kerry’s All-Ireland fortunes for the first time in his adult life.
“Yeah,” he says brightly. “And that can be wearing at times. That expectancy. It can drain you. It can age you. Because of the pressure you put yourself under. Probably still do with Crokes. Like, I am still pretty close with some of the Kerry fellas but as the years go on, I will have less of a connection with the team. And the day will come when I don’t even know these people and maybe that is when the mask will come off a bit more.”
But it is already slipping. The sweet legend – the smiley mascot, the darling – served to disguise the truth of the contrary, raging competitor underneath. Cooper is old fashioned; no time for sports psychologists, sceptical about sports science fads (“the boys would laugh at me for showing up with a Curly-Wurly. Fat tests. You wouldn’t have wanted to have tried those on our boys”) and sounding, he knows, like a crank when he scolds about the seriousness of contemporary dressing room culture.
He goes on a wonderful comical rant that would have probably left the original Colm Cooper, the lightweight with game to burn, puzzled.
“You know, I am probably one of the few old school left. The young guys have a different mentality . . . It has moved on. Everything is orchestrated. There is like a template you follow each week. That can be charted. You hear these stories of boys signing contracts. Fucking hell! It’s a hobby like. Particularly at club level. They are different . . . There was probably a little bit of boldness in us.
“There was more opportunity to maybe have a few pints on the way home from a league match. Maybe in Adare on the way back from Donegal. But there’d be no sign of that now. And sometimes, the game can be over complicated. There is still a place for what I would call the agricultural. A bit of hardness. Toughness. We see cones and arrows everywhere now. And analysis. Goals can come from someone kicking the ball in the air and two fellas jumping and it breaks and some fella buries a goal. So I think the analysis gets overplayed.
“How many are on back room squads now? You are turning into the NFL when you look at the sideline. The young guys now have a different mentality. They are different. Maybe some people – like the younger guys with Crokes now have two All-Irelands with the Kerry minors and two All-Irelands with the Sem’ in the colleges. And they come into this environment. And they look at me and are probably saying: who is this fucking lunatic?”
Colm Cooper On . . .
“Any time there is a first thing done in the GAA, there are always questions. I knew it would create debate and opinion. That is part of it. Anything that is new can be slow and there will be questions as to where it is going and whether it will become the new norm. there has been a lot written and said and I will probably have my say in coming weeks. But am I surprised it got as much air play? Yes and no. I knew it would create debate but maybe not as much. Maybe I needed to realise that this was the GAA."
His generation of Kerry/Dublin players meeting up in the future.
“I don’t think that is going to happen with any teams because if you go back to the socialising: it just didn’t happen. Those boys [the 1970s teams) are down at the Listowel races each year. Look, if I was in Dublin at an event I would happily have a pint with any of ‘em. I am in no way bitter. I may be pissed off about things but you move on. Things happen on the pitch the whole time. You mighn’t be happy and you might exchange words. And you probably will remember these things. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to blank someone. He will never be my best friend, like.”
Whether toughness is the least-mentioned quality needed to play for Kerry.
“Absolutely. And ballsy and . . . excuse my language but if you are not a tough bastard you won’t survive in that environment. Even me coming in and experiencing tough meetings after defeats. Always after a defeat to Cork there was an inquest. We had to call each other out at times. And the first time I sat in I was thinking, fuck it, fellas won’t talk to each other ever after this. But within a night or two it was grand and we were back helter-skelter training and all is put to one side. And the intensity and honesty at training is back and there is a bit of clipping, which is good.”