Colm Cooper Q&A: ‘It’s the hunger that keeps you going’
The Kerry corner forward spoke at length about life on and off the field last November
Colm Cooper celebrates Darran O’Sullivan scoring the first goal of the game during the 2016 All Ireland semi final against Dublin. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Last November before the Munster club football final, Colm Cooper gave an interview which was a wide-ranging reflection on football – the stresses between club and county as well as the then ongoing quest for an All-Ireland club medal with Dr Croke’s – which found fulfilment less than three weeks ago.
He also addresses the passing of the generations in Kerry football and other issues.
Q: You’ve had a full calendar year of football?
A: “It’s very full-on. If you don’t play a lot of games during the summer, you’re going to have a backlog and it’s going to finish a bit later. That’s just the nature of it. Look, in an ideal world fixtures would be finished earlier but with us we’ll be finished on December 3rd so that’s not too bad compared to some of the years in Kerry where we’ve been playing up to December 15th and 16th and 20th. We should be wrapped up by December 3rd barring replays and things so that’s not too bad. That’s the price you pay when you have success so we’re happy to have that headache.”
Are you in favour of the calendar year proposal for the club season?
“I’ve said this in the past that in an ideal scenario you’ll continue to play games through the summer and it would finish in a calendar year. I think that would help everybody but the way championships are played and there are lulls during the summer and in most counties the priority is the county team. I just think if that continues it’s impossible to do it. They’ll just have to take that pain for the time being and I think it will be a while yet before we see the finals played, if we do see them at all, in the calendar year.”
How realistic is the calendar year proposal, given you played a Munster final against Nemo in January once?
“It was January because there was a big freeze on that year. It’s not possible, unless the complete structure changes on everything. There isn’t enough weeks in the year. So, unless there’s a massive mindset change from the powers that be – whether it’s county boards of the GAA’s central committee, it’s not going to change.”
And All Ireland finals going into August?
“I don’t see any big problem with moving the finals to a little bit earlier to allow for the club season if it helps the club season. I don’t see any big issue with that if it’s going to improve the club set-up and allow games to be played because I think it’s unfair on clubs to be playing right into December. It’s a difficult time to be playing football and thankfully the weather has been pretty good up ‘til now. I would see no problem in the hurling and football finals being moved forward by a couple of weeks.”
Does the current situation encourage young players to leave in the summer?
“Unquestionably. I was just chatting to the other players here and they were telling me about a few guys from their clubs going to New York and Chicago and if you were 19 or 20, finished college, why wouldn’t you? In most case, you’re only missing a game or two games, possibly league matches, so why wouldn’t a young player who’s not on a county side go and live the life? I think clubs are accepting that now, that that’s the way it is, and players are going away and pick it up in the championship when they come back. The system, if you like, is facilitating that. That’s just the way it is and I’m sure it’s the same in every county.”
Is it a case, then, that the current system doesn’t help anybody?
“No, it doesn’t. The summer months are when it’s the best weather so you should be playing a lot more football. The problem is inter-county managers have so much power and in a lot of the cases have a very strong view on fixtures and when they want their county players. If you’re an inter-county player you’re going to be judged on the success of your team and you want them all during the summer and you don’t want them going back to clubs and picking up knocks or things. That’s the way it seems to be going and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.”
The gap to February has been difficult for Dr Crokes – beaten in three finals . . .
“Results don’t lie – we haven’t done well on that side. The other side of that is we mightn’t have that problem if things don’t go well for us on Sunday [Munster final against the Nire] so I wouldn’t be jumping the gun. It’s something we haven’t managed well over the last number of years.
“I wouldn’t be jumping the gun, so it’s probably something we didn’t manage well in the last number of years. Possibly the last semi-final against Castlebar, but things just didn’t go right for us that day. I got injured and some other fellas were injured, and we were beaten by Castlebar.
“So, hopefully if we got that opportunity again, we might be in a better position to change a few things and come at it a little bit differently. We’ve a new manager, Pat (O’Shea) is in this year.
“But to be honest, we’ll have enough to do to beat The Nire in Mallow on Sunday. So that’s our 100 per cent focus.”
Does the current format create tension between inter county managers and club managers?
“I think there’s frustration certainly from the club people, because they don’t know when they’re going to be playing and they don’t know when their championship is going to commence again after the summer. And then they don’t know when they’re going to have access to all their players. So that’s difficult for club managers to plan and they probably feel that, look, the club is what the GAA is all about, that’s what it’s built on, and we’re not getting a fair hearing here in many cases.
“So maybe that’s where the frustration of the club manager comes from. But there’s two spectrums and I’ve been lucky to see both sides of it. When you’re with the county, you want tunnel vision on trying to achieve getting to Croke Park and winning an All-Ireland with Kerry.
“And that’s the Kerry manager’s job. His job isn’t to facilitate the club structure. And the same, the club manager is only worried about his club team trying to win a county championship. So everyone has their own priorities but, at the moment, it’s creating tension and frustration and from what I’m hearing, I don’t think we’re going to see a solution any time very soon.”
Does this create difficulty when you have county players coming into the club set-up? Is there tension for them?
“I wouldn’t detect too much from our club, to be honest. We have five probably on the Kerry panel for the last number of years. Because they’re so used to it now – Kerry are finished, and they just integrate back in.
“I can only speak from our behalf and I haven’t detected that it does create any factions or friction or anything like that. So it’s just something we’ve become used to, and it’s not ideal preparation for going into championship, not seeing guys for most of the year. We might play a couple of league games, one or two championship games, but they could be three months apart. So it doesn’t help.”
Can you see a day when a player is exclusively a county player?
“Well, that’s where it would go if it went any bit professional. I’d say if I was playing with Kerry and Kerry were in charge of my contract and paying me, I wouldn’t get to play with Dr Crokes too often. It’s a little bit like the rugby – they don’t play with their club, they play with their provinces now and the country. So, I don’t think that’s going to change unless anything goes professional, and I don’t see that coming in the short or medium term.
“Look, the club structure is what makes players. It’s the first place you put on your boots and it’s the last place you probably put on your boots. That’s where you get spotted to play the high level with your county.
“So, the club is so important to people – we were just talking already with the lads about families keeping it going, generations of players coming through, it’s the heartbeat, it’s people in the club making sandwiches for teams after. It’s what the GAA is all about, and the best things in the GAA are from the club structure, so I don’t think that should ever be threatened in any way. Look, it’s one of the best characteristics of what we have in the GAA and I think we should be safeguarding it, to be honest.”
Are Dr Croke’s different this year?
“You always think you do but until you have the tests and the Munster final and possibly after Christmas, you don’t really know. A couple of years we thought we were coming with something different and maybe we were but it still wasn’t good enough.
“We know that what we have brought to the table so far hasn’t been good enough to get us to where we want to go. Are we better team? I hope and think we are. We’ve matured a bit as a team. I think the age demographic is pretty good.
“We have older guys coming through; we’ve under-21s who have come into the team. I think our squad is stronger but you have to produce it on the field and that’s going to be our task for this Sunday and hopefully for more Sundays after that.
“You won’t really know until you’re in the heat of a battle.”
Have you learned from previous defeats?
“Yeah. For sure. Maybe we weren’t as good as we thought we were. Maybe we thought we were working hard but maybe we weren’t working as hard as other people. Maybe we needed to sacrifice more and maybe we didn’t handle the Christmas break well. Again that comes from the experience of it all.
“Where possibly it could be different this year is that we’ve new management and they haven’t been involved in this before so they might bring different ideas. It would be great to win on Sunday and look forward to having that challenge ahead of us again and handling it differently.
“It would be fairly foolish for us as a mature team to think anything beyond Sunday – I’ve been around too long for that. We won’t be taking anything for granted.”
Is the All Ireland club championship the last remaining ambition?
“Well it’s a remaining one. There’s a few left! Look, I’ve been very open and honest about this for years. It’s a medal that I’d love to win. I’ve two brothers who have won it; people in the club have won it. It’s a competition I hold very close to my heart and it’s the ultimate for any club player so of course I want to win it but there’s five other guys here today who are thinking the same thing.
“If you were talking to the guys from Slaughtneil, Corofin and Brigid’s, they’ve all been there before and some of them have got over the finishing line and others haven’t. They’re having the same problems as us and we’re all dreaming of the same goal: to be there on St Patrick’s Day. But there’s a few hurdles to jump before then. We’re all dreaming of that but you can’t look too far down the line.”
What are the other remaining ambitions?
“It’s just to continue playing and win, basically. Is that to win more with Kerry? Does that mean I’m not retiring? For as long as I’m playing I just want to keep winning, if that’s with Dr Croke’s or Kerry – whatever. I hear the cliché too often: if I win this I wouldn’t care if I never win again. I’m not at all like that. I want to win next Sunday and I want to continue winning in 2017 as well.
“When you are a competitive animal, like so many of us are, you just want to continue winning all the time and a club medal would be high on the list. So it is just to keep winning as long as you can, because if you look at any great sports people’s career, you look at the longevity and how long they can do. That is why you have to admire the Brigids and Corofin lads, who have had success and are still going. That is something I would take on board a lot, how long they keep on churning it out.”
Is defeat at club level more acutely disappointing than at county?
“Look, there is huge disappointment every time you lose but the disappointment with that defeat, is that with the club, you never know if you will get the chance again. With Kerry, we are always knocking around in August, traditionally we are always there or thereabouts so you always think you will be in the mix again.
“With the club, you don’t know. We won four county finals in a row, we thought we were going to win five or six. We didn’t. We lost a couple and won two in a row again. The way we have to look at it is that we won’t be back at this stage again, the team will evolve, players will retire but of course, any time you lose – the huge disappointment for me was thinking we may never get that chance again.
“Factor in a bad injury and thinking was that the last chance Crokes will get at this level. At the time, we just didn’t know. Thankfully, my body has come right, I have got back playing. It is like a second, third, fifth chance, whatever we are now. Whatever it is, we are going to make the most of it.”
Is it a worry that so many Aussie Rules clubs are interested in Kerry youngsters?
“Yeah, but look it is something we have got used to. Obviously, we would love the likes of Mark O’Connor to be still be at home and other lads who have been up at trials in recent weeks but if you are talking to 17 and 18 year olds and the lure of going to Australia and signing a rookie contract and live as a professional, it is hard to compete.
“I would love to see the GAA maybe try to safeguard our players and try to keep them at home and keep them playing with their clubs and their counties, but I am not sure what they can do on that one because the clubs that are coming over are fairly aggressive, they are holding clinics and sure, we have our own man, Tadhg Kennelly, stuck in the middle of it.
“They are looking for the best players that they can and if you look at the Irish players that have gone to Australia in recent years, they have been making an impact. So they want the creme de la creme from Ireland and that opportunity for young guys going over, it is something they are finding hard to say no to.”
Killian Young thinks five or six will go to Australia . . .
“Five or six is a lot, can they go from any other counties, can they give us a chance! I think there will be more players going, for sure, not just from Kerry of course. There are plenty of other good minor players that are being spotted and I just don’t think there is any way of stopping it, to be honest. I don’t know what the GAA can do about it, think the lure is too much for young guys.”
What’s the Kerry view of Tadhg Kennelly’s role?
“It is his job. I’m sure there are some people, who aren’t too happy about it, that he’s coming taking the best players form his county, where he grew up and played, but at the end of the day it’s his job. He’s in recruitment of players. I think the fact that he’s taken a few from Kerry and not from other counties hasn’t (gone down well).
“But then you look at someone like Ciaran Kilkenny who went and it didn’t seem to be for him and he’s come back and won All-Irelands for Dublin and you can see what it means for him. Some of it is down to the individual as well and what they want from their careers and stuff. Look, Tadhg is doing his job. Would we like him not to be taking the Kerry lads? Of course we would but I think that’s just the nature of the beast at the moment.”
Is the decision on your inter county future parked until the end of the season?
“The Kerry decision? Oh right, okay, yeah it is. I was here actually not so long ago and I was saying the same. I’ve had very little talk with Eamonn or any of the management about it. We met last weekend but didn’t discuss it, just at a function. No, I think because the Crokes thing has been so busy and all my energies have gone into that, I just want to see how the year finishes out and see how I’m feeling about everything. We’ll make the right decision then.”
What will influence you?
“Hunger – if the hunger is there to go again, if the body comes through unscathed the next few weeks, they’re the main things, I think if those things are good and strong then they’ll be pointing in the direction of coming back. If maybe the hunger is not there or my body doesn’t feel . . . because the commitment now is drastically different to when I started.
“It’s a huge time commitment, you’re putting your life on hold, everything goes into preparing your body and I suppose when you’re over 30 and you’ve had a few injuries as well, you need to give it a little bit more. Those are the main factors and we’ll make the decision when the time is right.”
Is it a different Kerry dressing room now?
“Yeah, it is, it is. I’m getting to be the oldest one now. I suppose when they’re moving on you’re saying ‘Jesus, is my time coming to an end as well?’ because when you soldiered on so long with people it’s changed a lot.
“But that won’t have a big say in what I decide because I think you have to judge it on an individual basis. It’s only me who knows is my hunger there, how my body is feeling. When I’m making the decision I’ll obviously have a chat with Eamonn about it and I just have to be very clear on just how I’m feeling at the time and make the right decision, whichever direction we go.”
No Ó’Sés anymore . . .
“Yeah, they’ve been around a long time. They’ve contributed so much to Kerry football and obviously their uncle as well. But we always say in Kerry, you get the geansaí for a while, you hold onto it as long as you can and then you pass it onto somebody else.
“That’s why I talked about trying to win as much as you can while you have it. That’s the big thing. Kerry football was fine before Marc Ó Sé or Colm Cooper or any of those guys came along and it’ll certainly be fine after it. We never think that football will stop because we’re not playing, that’s never the way it is and there’s exciting young players coming through now. That’s the way it should be.
“There’s a little bit of a changing of the guard at the moment but that’ll work for the good as well hopefully.”