Kerry happy to play waiting game with Colm Cooper
Dr Crokes forward needs minutes on pitch after 14 months out with a knee injury
Colm Cooper has been named on the substitutes’ bench again for the Munster final replay against Cork in Killarney. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
The news came and went on Thursday night with all the fanfare of a fógra in the bottom corner of the parish bulletin. Four changes on the Kerry team, none of them Colm Cooper. With Paul Galvin back in a championship panel for the first time in 23 months, Cooper wasn’t even the most noteworthy bench-jockey. Just another schmoe.
There was no particular outrage. Radio Kerry didn’t need extra staff on the switchboard. Twitter didn’t froth any more than usual, nothing kicked off in the forums. This, it seems, is where we are. Colm Cooper, in his current guise, doesn’t make it onto the Kerry starting 15. Who would have thought we’d live so long?
Naturally, there are qualifications and mitigations and all manner of other -ations if you care to reach for them. He is coming back from a serious injury that kept him out of all football for 14 months. He is on the go since 2002. They don’t need him now as much as they’ll need him when they get to Croke Park. This replay isn’t the type of game to suit him. A little dash of fact, a little splash of opinion. Parcel off a bit from each one and you piece together a case that stands up to questioning.
But this is Colm Cooper we’re talking about. Shouldn’t Kerry just be getting him on the pitch and taking it from there? It feels a little strange to be even asking. Bomber Liston wondering aloud if there are really six better forwards in the Kerry panel than Cooper seems to low-ball the situation, given that there probably haven’t been six better Kerry forwards in history.
Since his return, Cooper has played five club games for Dr Crokes, three of which were cakewalks that were of little use to him. He got the last six minutes of Kerry’s last league game up in Tyrone. He played the full 70 against Tipperary and the last 20 against Cork. Most of all, he looks like a player that is crying out for game time.
“We don’t second-guess Éamonn Fitzmaurice,” says Dara Ó Cinnéide. “And he certainly isn’t doing this for point-scoring purposes to show how ruthless he is. That wouldn’t be his nature. But I just think they’re going to have to bite the bullet at some stage and say, ‘Let’s trust this genius like we’ve always done.’ Obviously the day will come when we see waning powers but I think that day is a good bit off yet.
“I would have been delighted to see him named at 13. If you’re a Cork man, you’re delighted not to see Gooch on the starting sheet. I honestly think that you could have him in the corner, just for a while until he finds his feet. Particularly for this game because it’s in Fitzgerald Stadium. He’s been playing in the corner of that pitch since he was a child. He can play there on pure instinct.”
Physically, Cooper is said to be in fine working order. The injury is past tense and there have been none of the knock-on strains or muscular tweaks that can often dog the recovery from a long-term knee problem. As with a lot of running-deprived players who spend a long time on the sidelines, his upper body is stronger than it ever was.
Beyond that, his greatest weapon is still perfectly intact. That vision that allows him see everything a quarter of a second quicker than everyone else on the pitch has gone nowhere. Early in the second half of the Tipperary match, he played a no-look crossfield ball to Stephen O’Brien that caught whole swathes of the New Stand in Thurles off-guard wondering what he was playing at, and drew a chorus of oohs when they realised. O’Brien took the point, Cooper took the applause.
To varying degrees, however, he is short of match-fitness, pace and confidence. None of it is chronic and all of it is related. Pat O’Shea, Cooper’s former boss at club and county level, has been watching him since he was a boy and agrees that he has been robbed of a measure of his old assurance, even if only temporarily.
“It has for sure and I think he recognises that,” says O’Shea. “Colm never had a serious injury in his life but suddenly he had one that kept him away from the game for the best part of 13, 14 months. Suddenly – and it’s hard to believe this – suddenly he had to learn the game again. From a medical and physical point of view, he had to relearn how to run again, how to twist, how to move, how to exercise.
“The same can be said for football ability. We take things for granted but you have to go back and go through how you did everything before and become proficient again in the things that made you a quality player in the first place.
“Confidence has come very naturally to Colm throughout his career but suddenly he has found it difficult to do some of the things he has always done. He hasn’t been shaking defenders as well as before, or been able to just go by defenders as he used to. That now isn’t as easy for him as it was in the past and that affects confidence.
“It’s a whole package. He needs confidence, he needs to relearn his best form, he needs to take those few steps more away from the injury. And he needs game time, obviously. That is always the crucial thing. He came back later in the year than he’d have liked, which didn’t give him a lot of National League football and it didn’t give him a lot of club games.”
That’s the conundrum Fitzmaurice faces. With O’Donoghue similarly feeling his way back to full fitness, the Kerry manager must feel he cannot accommodate them both by providing them the minutes they sorely need. And yet, a reckoning is coming. Assuming there’s a result tonight in Killarney, Kerry’s next game will be against either Kildare next week or Westmeath/Fermanagh the week after.
A theory that has gained currency is that his days at centre forward are done. Strange though it might seem given that his last appearance in Croke Park was one of the great centre-forward displays of all time against Dublin in 2013, the thinking is that the modern game has little room for a player whose game is about heads-up invention rather than dutiful work-rate. That he’s a luxury. Ó Cinnéide, for one, doesn’t buy it.
“I think possibly for this opposition, for the way Cork play and the way they attack from the half-back line, maybe he isn’t the horse for this course,” he says. “But I think if they get him into Croke Park with a bit more time in his legs, I think you could still see the 2013 version of him. I think physically he’s fine. But I think he needs to find his feet again, to judge his sphere of movement again, to see where to run into and get a sense of dimensions again.
“He got one good pass from Marc Ó Sé but even then, it was a little surprising for some people that he just took a hop and a solo and popped it over the bar. Usually the Gooch would exhaust all options in that situation and will only take the point when the chance of a goal is gone. I thought it was a good time to score a point myself. I didn’t expect him to go all-out for the jugular and to be honest I think people have been judging him too harshly on that point and that tackle [for Cork’s third goal].”
At some point this evening, the rumble in the stand will turn to a roar and Cooper will run onto the pitch. He’ll demand a pass and pull his half-dummy-hop on a defender to buy himself a bit of room and take it from there. He’ll know he’s not the main man any more but he’ll ache to play like he did when he was. He’ll know too that the job remains open.
For the great ones, it’s only right that it should.