Vintage Colm Cooper back to his mercurial best
Whether creating scores or taking them, Kerry have their ace in the pack back
Colm Cooper: “He has an innate unorthodoxy”, said Paul Galvin of his former team-mate. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
It was nothing more than a flyaway petal of brilliance on a changeable Sunday in February but Benny Coulter went home thinking about it. Kerry were up in Newry to play what soon became a rout rather than a contest so the home crowd had time to sit back and think about what it was about the Kingdom that made them different.
Coulter had, for 14 years, been one of the most instinctive and creative forwards to grace Gaelic football but on this day, he was happy to be a fan of the game. The return of Colm Cooper, for his first appearance of 2016, made those reflections a bit easier.
“He got this ball over by the sideline,” says Coulter, warming to the memory. “And he toe-tapped and at the same time managed to flick it over Darragh O’Hanlon’s head. People around me in the stand were in disbelief at what they were watching. You had to be there to really appreciate it. And he went through then and stuck the ball over the bar from the sideline. To see that skill level in the flesh – and for young Down supporters to see that. He just does things that other players can’t do, in my mind.”
If the revitalisation of the grandees of the Kerry football team – Messrs Donaghy, O’Mahony and Sheehan being the chief exhibits – has been the story of Kerry’s surging league form, then the return to vintage excellence of Colm Cooper is one of the stories of the season.
Most of all, nobody knew if he would be the same player. Cooper has been the force majeure of Kerry football for most of this millennium. The news was regarded with something akin to mourning and Kerry’s All-Ireland hopes were downgraded by everyone from Paddy Power to Moody’s; not quite AAA to junk but not far off it either – 2014 became the year everyone said Kerry couldn’t win an All-Ireland without Cooper. So that’s precisely what they did.
By the time they reached their dusty, fated All-Ireland semi-final replay with Mayo, the copper-haired forward was back on the substitutes’ bench and he was there again for the All-Ireland final. He was there but a million miles away at the same time and it was disconcerting and somehow wrong; it was like going to see Fleetwood Mac to find Stevie Nicks working the merchandise stand for the evening.
Still, Kerry won the All-Ireland and Cooper celebrated another victory without being sure of where he stood as a footballer. “I don’t feel I deserve one,” he said that October about the issue of receiving a medal. “There are plenty of other guys who deserve one. I didn’t kick a ball all year. For the record, absolutely I’m on four medals. I didn’t get a chance to kick a ball. Hopefully I’ll be fighting for another one next year.”
Officially he made his return against Tyrone in April of 2015. Last summer, there were flashes of the old Cooper – most spectacularly in the devastating quarter-final show against Kildare. But the prevailing memory of last year’s championship was of Cooper’s frustration in the rain on All-Ireland final day.
He was suffocated by Philly McMahon’s up close and personal marking style when Kerry had the ball and when they didn’t he was forced to spend his time tracking after Dublin’s non-stop cornerback.
He underwent shoulder surgery last December which seemed to threaten another interrupted season but since he was sent in that day against Down to strike 0-3, his numbers have had an ominously productive look: 0-6 v Monaghan, 0-6 v Cork, 1-5 v Roscommon. The figures hint at the kind of one-man-show stuff which the public came to expect of Cooper down the years.
“I imagine he will end up playing a number of different roles,” says Jason Ryan, the former Kildare manager. “The game has become a lot more fluid so I imagine him playing both those positions. He is a great outlet for a back or midfielder coming forward. One of his strengths rarely mentioned is that he rarely gives a ball away. He makes exceptional use of possession. Then with the ability to score off his right and left, defenders are hesitant to leave him any space.
“So number sixes marking him are reluctant to hold their position and then a manager has to get someone else to do that job so it affects the shape of the team. Whereas, if he is playing inside, it very much depends on the form of the other players around him.”
It is also very much dependent on the strategy of opposition teams. The marginalisation of the game’s natural forwards has been a dominant theme in summer football. Michael Murphy is recognised as such a devastating full-forward that opposition managers simply won’t allow him to play there. Double- or triple-teamed and all but security guarded throughout, he has been forced downfield in order to exert an influence.
Other forwards with different gifts have been singled out for the same dubious honour. Cooper has grown up with it. One of the least analysed but most interesting games of recent years was Down’s All-Ireland quarter-final win against Kerry in 2010. The Kingdom were All-Ireland winners in 2004, runners-up in 2005, winners in 2006, winners in 2007, runners up in 2008 and winners in 2009. Getting dumped out of that quarter-final was traumatic and unexpected.
Benny Coulter recalls the attention James McCartan – who knew a thing or two about flamboyant forward play – gave to Cooper in the build-up to that game. “We talked about him, absolutely. At the time, him and Donaghy were going well. We were lucky in that we had big Dan to cover Donaghy. We felt we had that covered. Then we had Damien Rafferty to mark Gooch. We were told when he got the ball, we needed to get two men on him.
“When James was managing us it would be very rare he would tell a defender to leave his man. But he did say: if Colm Cooper has the ball, you have the freedom to go and help on D. It showed how highly James rated him.
“But I think they have better players available now, with James O’Donoghue coming back and Paul Murphy up front this season . . . if Gooch hasn’t a great game they have others to step up. I feel they were very reliant on him in that period but I have just noticed in the last four or five league games – he has improved 70 per cent since that day in Newry. I could see he was just starting out on his return journey and he wasn’t as fit as he would like to be but I can’t believe how he has turned a corner. I am excited. I can’t wait to see him in this year’s championship.”
It is a general sentiment. But the memory of last September’s game could serve as a template for Cooper’s future days in green and gold. The best way to keep such a mischievously creative presence under control is to keep him busy shadowing his man. All top counties have defenders with an attack-minded streak. The assumption is McMahon will keep company with Cooper again tomorrow and that he will roam upfield when Dublin have possession.
“I think Fitzmaurice will learn from last year,” says Coulter. “He may not put it into place for the league final but if that happens again, he will probably pick someone like Donnchadh Walsh to mark whoever is breaking forward from Cooper.
“They don’t want him running about after Philly McMahon or whoever it is. He might use Paul Murphy either to track back . . . he has fresher legs and can get up and down the pitch better than Cooper at this stage.
“It will be up to the opposition team who marks Cooper but Kerry can dictate who goes back. They can use him on the 40 and leave him there.”
“More unpredictable than any other player I encountered,” Cork’s Anthony Lynch said of Cooper to Kieran Shannon of the Irish Examiner after he retired in 2011. Lynch was one of the three defenders singled out by Cooper as the toughest he ever faced. “Apart from being deceptively good in the air, the biggest difference I found with him was that he was more willing to pass the ball and bring other players into the game.”
The threat in the air may have diminished slightly now and when he turns 33 in June, he will have a decade or more on some of the lightning fast defenders he is going to encounter this summer. Defensive houses grow more crowded with street-smart players all the time; there is less and less room or time in which to be creative.
“I think at the minute he will play number 11,” predicts Coulter. “He will be okay coming up against lesser teams but when you meet teams who will try and nullify them and he will be double and tripled teamed so the modern game suits him at 11. He can make things happen. He will be more of a creator than a scorer, I feel.”
Creator. Scorer. What it amounts to is an out-an-out ball player.
“He has an innate unorthodoxy that I saw at close quarters,” explained Paul Galvin, writing about Cooper in My Own Words. “He moves in circles when everyone else moves in straight lines. He takes a bounce or solo when others kick; he kicks when others can’t see it.
“The bounce or solo was never for show, but almost always when he sensed a goal. Only then . . . He has this cold composure. He sees things differently and unconventionally. In business that is called disruptive thinking. In sport it is called genius.”
Everything that makes us wonder about Cooper is contained in that explanation; how the Killarney man seems to have that extra second of time available to him and to him alone; how he makes the game look at once like child’s play and breathtaking.
The good news is Colm Cooper is back in the role in which he is a natural – looking for the ball and leaving us wondering what is going to happen next.