Gooch still doing what comes so naturally

Kerry captain Colm Cooper leads out the team in 2012. Photo: Inpho

Kerry captain Colm Cooper leads out the team in 2012. Photo: Inpho


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.

“Like, the week after I won my first senior medal with Crokes, I played minor league the following Friday and we got hammered. They were my team – my buddies, the guys I went to school with. That was my team. So it was very frustrating.”

By then, Cooper had already set out on the path that would define him.

When he visits home, neighbours joke with him about how he used to keep them up late with the sound of kicking a ball against the wall; the last child out after the others had departed. He went to countless Crokes games with Mike, his father. Friday nights in winter were spent in the Pres gym in Killarney, where the basketball team played.

“It was the highlight of the week – you know . . . Ballina or some big team would be coming. Liam McHale and Deora Marsh would be in the gym. You know, you’d see these guys on telly. That was hero stuff for us. Killarney got better year and year and the rivalry with Tralee was enormous.

“There always seemed to be overtime games. I had kind of forgotten about those nights . . . but yeah, the Friday night was massive all through secondary school.”

When Cooper played his first All-Ireland senior final for Kerry, he weighed just 10 stone.

“A jockey would be heavier,” he says, shaking his head. He could do nothing to bulk up. He had learned to compensate for his lightness with Crokes.

“We had a smart team. Guys knew how to play with you. I was just a ball player: I wasn’t strong enough for the physical exchanges.”

And that was how he seemed to arrive on the scene: a sort of boy-genius, a complete ball player whose command of the ball compensated for a lack of brawn. Before he had time to absorb the fact, he had become Colm Cooper, Kerry Footballer. And that was an honour; it was what he had dreamed of and wanted. But it was an inescapable identity too.

There are very few legitimate forms of fame in Ireland. Excelling at sport is the exception.

There was an expectation that he would showcase this uncanny repertoire of skills in his first season and he did just that. Cooper possessed the rare ability to make other teams actually afraid of what he might do to them. He reckons now that all his growing as a footballer occurred between the ages of 18 and 22.

“My handling got better. Right leg improved. I got stronger. My kicking . . . I was always fairly accurate. But I improved on it.”

His form rarely dipped and that rich line of excellence helped the Kerry side of his generation define themselves as maybe the most consistent team to appear since the fabled names of Egan, Ó Sé, Sheehy, etc, filled the Kerry imagination. The most daunting experience of Cooper’s debut season was not playing in the All-Ireland final but walking into his first Kerry training session.

“Because the way it happens is, you just get a phone call telling you to come in on the Tuesday night. The others may not even know you are coming. I was shaking walking up to that dressingroom. Stupid stuff . . . where do you sit? Most lads had an idea who I was because I’d play minor. But not all!

“Páidí was there at the time and Páidí had his own way of doing things. It was definitely one of my more nervous moments. But within a few weeks, you felt like you had been there for years.”

Now he has been there for years. It’s hard to believe Cooper already has a decade of service put in. Four All-Ireland medals is a reasonable accumulation by Kerry standards. But more important – to the public, at least – have been the countless wonderful, sleight–of–touch scores.

YouTube Cooper’s name and a goal he scored against Gneeveguilla instantly shows up, with almost 50,000 views. It showcases all of his gifts – the liquid smooth movement, speed of thought and the killer solo dummy that has left the very best of defenders swiping at fresh air. He doesn’t showboat or make a big deal of it or do anything to rub it into the opposition.

Instead, he just trots away, with trees and foliage in the background. It is easy to forget he is a local treasure as well as a national phenomenon.

Cooper follows Christy Ring’s old rule about modesty. He knows his reputation means he is a prize assignment for corner backs in club championship games.

“You put yourself in their shoes and yeah, you’d be thinking if I can keep this fella zipped, we can go a good way to stopping Crokes.”

Sometimes, he wonders what might have happened if his first game for Kerry had not gone well: if he had slipped through the sieve. For he knows where is a legion of them out there: fine players who came close but never made it and have to live with the regrets. Wiping out the Gooch in a championship game, that would exorcise a few demons all right.

The flip-side is that they have their lives. When Cooper took his leave of absence after the 2007 All-Ireland final, it was the first time he had come up for air since he was a kid on the streets at Ardshan. He took a flight to O’Hare Airport and was a guest of Trevor and Mick O’Donoghue in Chicago for three blissful months. For the first time in his adult life, he was just Colm Cooper. He gave hatch 13 the slip at Immigration.

For years, his friends had been filling his head with tales of J1s and years in Australia. Cooper was 26 when he realised that life in big time sport is by definition narrow and played out on an epic stage. Even now, his face lights up at the memory of it.

“I just did as I pleased. Took off to Boston to see the Celtics. You could watch Paul Pierce forever. Went to Florida and played golf. Was lucky enough to go to the Superbowl. Went to the United Centre. Saw Jordan’s statue. I even went skiing . . . did stuff I’d never done before. I decided, look, it is now or never to do this sort of thing.

“Who knows – circumstances in life might be different. Everything had been about football. My father passed away. So an awful lot came in a short space of time and I just said: ‘get away, experience something different’. All my friends had done it for summers or for full years so I figured I would just see how the other half live. And that’s why I fell in love with American sports. For the few months I was there, I was just – the fan.”

It was a brief escape from himself. But it may have had permanent value. It meant he could cope with the furore that followed his decision to break curfew and have a few pints. It meant he had perspective. When Colm Cooper turns out the light at night time, “Ricey” McMenamin or one of the hirsute McMahon brothers do not come rushing at him through the darkness.

Tyrone doesn’t haunt him at all. Can he understand why that triple victory was so sweet for the Ulster men? Too right he can. “Because Kerry are seen as the benchmark with the history and tradition and the players. So I can completely understand why the Tyrone guys get appreciation for beating Kerry in two finals. Fair play to them. They had a great team.”

When he said that being called a choker by Joe Brolly was immaterial to him, he meant it. Coughing up that handsome lead in the 2011 final against Dublin? Tough luck. You get what you deserve. Getting steamrolled by Donegal this summer? Kerry didn’t play well enough. “It wasn’t that physical a game, I felt. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe I didn’t do enough.”

No, none of those external opponents or issues bother him because when you are a Kerry lifer, you are wrestling against the can’t-be-bottled genie that is the Kerry football tradition. It doesn’t matter what others say or do; in the years when Kerry fall short, local voices are the loudest.

When Cooper drove past Fitzgerald Stadium in late August and September on training nights, it was jarring to find the big gates locked and the theatre ghostly. “You’d say to yourself, ‘this isn’t right’.”

Nor is it wrong. Next year’s All-Ireland championship will arguably be the most open and intense since Cooper soared into view. Donegal set a tone this year and that can only mean one thing.

“Make no mistake. Someone else will come along and say: we will go that inch higher.”

It all keeps evolving. Eamon Fitzmaurice will be the new voice of authority in Kerry. He can still see the big Lixnaw man in the dressingroom, low-key and unruffled. Now, he has made the transition.

It changes fast. But Cooper is still Cooper, floating through these heavy days. Tomorrow, he will run out with Crokes; the magician in black. It was his first jersey, after all. And someday, it will be his last.

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