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Dr Crokes are privileged to have a number of talented people across a range of portfolios.  Two of these, Colm Cooper and Éamonn Fitzgerald met recently to discuss football.  Below, you have the opportunity of reading Éamonn's account of that encounter, which appeared in a local publication in which Éamonn has a regular column.  Enjoy.


On the Ball      Killarney Advertiser   
Éamonn Fitzgerald       20-05-2011 
  
Captain Colm Cooper; Gooch simply the best, better than all the rest 
  
“All comparisons are odious”, a quote attributed to some 14th century unknown author. I read that somewhere, sometime. I’m updating it to ‘all comparisons are odious, including this one’. But, still we judge and this week I am comparing Colm Cooper to the greats of Gaelic football, past and present. 
Like all human assessments we make they are subjective, even when we strive to temper them with objectivity, its antidote. 
  
On Sunday next, Captain Colm will lead out Kerry to play Tipperary in the first round of the Munster SFC. (By the way there will be extra-time, if the sides end level.) You have to start somewhere and the significance of the venue will not be lost on the new Kerry captain. This is the 75th anniversary of the official opening of the Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, commemorating the great Dickeen, 5 times All Ireland winner and author of ‘How to play Gaelic Football’, the first GAA book ever, published in 1914. Read that again. No misprint, yes 1914. World War 1. 
  
Colm and myself sat down in one of the meeting rooms of Dr Crokes, as the Angelus bell rang on Saturday evening last. The request to meet him was mine; the arrangements were his. Dr Crokes were scheduled to play Rathmore at 7.00 pm in a run-of-the-mill Kerry county league home fixture; himself, Eoin Brosnan and Kieran O Leary were not released to play by Jack (O Connor) like all such Kerry team members. Still Gooch wanted to be there with “the lads “, when they togged out for the game. We looked out over the magnificent Dr Croke grounds; we would not be interrupted, and even if someone entered it would be one of our own. 
  
In my opinion, Colm Cooper is the best GAA footballer based on 6 decades of watching players of all ages perform in venues all over Ireland. I believe Gooch is simply the best, better than all the rest and I need to clarify that sweeping statement. 
What’s so special about Gooch? What’s he got and why is he at the pinnacle of GAA footballers? Answer you own questions first, before you seek the assessments of others. 
  
Gooch is the greatest- my assessment 
  
Gooch is the best footballer because this football genius has skill, enlightened vision (and tunnelled, when needs be,), confidence, competitive spirit that drives him into and out of situations other people wouldn’t even dream of contesting, pride in the geansaí, and for all those personal characteristics, he is still the complete team player, who can deliver the big performance on the big day and on the big stage. You could set your clock with his timing and his decision- making is clinical .His deceptive baby face hides the inner mental steel ,a sine qua non for the highest achieving sports elite and he has that Wow factor. 
I’ve watched him on the big occasions, on the big stages, but also in non -descript club games attended by a few dozen people, which can be just as revealing. 
The great deliverer struggled and learned. 
 That’s my perspective; see below the view of others.` 
  
Sport is a game of inches 
  
Sport is a game of inches and when inches counted in Croke Park, he delivered. He has scored a total of 7 goals and 109 points in 26 c’ship matches in Croke Park, a whopping average of 5 points per game and he has never come away from Croke Park scoreless. Even in the most recent defeats by Down (2010 c’ship) and to Dublin (2012 league) he shone like a beacon, while others faltered. He sent two brilliant goal passes to Star v Down. The big Tralee fella missed, twice. If it had been the other way round Gooch would have raised 2 green flags and there may have been a different result. That’s consistency from the great deliverer. Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships “.The essential fact about sport is that you don't know what happens next. No one does. We watch sport not for the victory, but for the struggle. Colm has struggled, but he has learned and gone to the top of the class. 
Lest you think his path to glory has been paved with gold did you know that he lost more games, big and anything but big games, than most would even dream of? 
How about this for a record. Lose 3 All Ireland senior football finals, beaten in an All Ireland club final in a replay to Cross (Crossmaglen Rangers), lost this year’s Munster club final to Nemo Rangers, lost 2 if not 3 Kerry SFC finals to South Kerry; victory in those games would have him receiving the Sam Maguire in 2006 and in 2007 instead of Declan O Sullivan. Now that would have been very special. Dick Fitzgerald, a fellow Croke man captained Kerry to win the 1914 and 1915 All Irelands. Gooch would have repeated that feat, only if those single pointers v South Kerry went over. Yes, sport is a game of inches. Sickening. It pained Gooch, but he learned and moved on. No Croke player captained Kerry to win the All Ireland SFC since Dickeen in 1915. Many Croke players captained Kerry these past 97 years, but they did not bring home the only big cup that matters in Kerry, that helps to shorten the winter. 
. 
  
No ‘éirí in airde’ 
  
No éirí in airde’ in this fella. He knows where he came from and he hasn’t lost the run of himself .The Cooper parents from Ardshanvooley, Maureen and Mike (R.I.P.) reared 2 daughters Geraldine & Karen and 5 sons Danny, Mark, Mike, Vince, and Colm, all accomplished footballers. He is the youngest and learned the skills of the game on the narrow confines of the streets of that housing estate and in the small field behind the houses. “It used to be packed up there, usually with just the one ball,” he recalled. A light, small ‘cratur’ had to be crafty, slick, a fast decision-maker, able to weave your way past and around the big guys. No prisoners taken. The late great George Best said that he also learned his trade in the narrow streets beside his Belfast home. Lamp posts for goalposts .You had to learn to survive in this home base; learn the lessons that would stand to you on the big stages, where your uncanny silken skills seemed like pure instinctive genius to the packed stadia. Instinct how are you, learned skills are more like it, if that is again not one of the paradoxes of sport. 
  
The Ardshan bus 
  Ardshan steeled Gooch to steal so many future scores and when he first got on the Dr Crokes bus in 1975 at Ardshanvooley to join the Saturday Under 8 coaching, Colm was focussed and ready. In Croke Park Mick O Dwyer was unleashing the Kerry team of the Golden Years. Back home the Dr Croke club coaches were kindling new fires, to be stoked by others in the club, that would burn brightly in GAA HQ’s greatest Field of Dreams. Colm continues to merge those dreams into reality; he won the first of his 4 All Ireland medals in 2002 and the quest continues. After all fellow Croke, Paul Russell won 6 All Irelands. Three more to go to top that; yet an other new challenge for Gooch. 
He never missed the Saturday morning bus for coaching. He was waiting with the Ardshan contingent, including Tommy Bracker Regan, grandson of the Kerry All Ireland four –in—row team of 1929-1932 and the Horan brothers, all big guys. Four to dive for the front seat and no seatbelts then. A red head, four footer, and a bit, weighing in at well under 5 stone had to time the dash. Did he ever miss? Does he ever miss? 
  
A rare opportunity 
  
This private conversation with my fellow clubman was special, a rare opportunity to delve deeper inside the mind of a football genius. The end line is as good a place as any to start. 
  
“Colm, you’re 27 years old now, surely 2015 is as far as you can go in the Kerry jersey. You’ll continue with the Crokes of course for some time after that. 2015 would mark the centenary of Dick Fitzgerald captaining Kerry to All Ireland victory.” 
  
The eyes narrowed, as he said. “I am going to take it one year at a time and I will continue to play as long as I enjoy it, whatever year that is “. Tunnel vision in action. 
  
 How about managing Kerry in time? 
  
“That’s a decision for the years ahead. All I want to do now is to play”. Still cautious. Need to strike an inner nerve to get him to open up. 
  
What will your captaincy style of Kerry be? 
  
“I’ll tell you what it won’t be, a fire and brimstone speech in the dressing room. There won’t be any flinging of chairs or stools that is supposed to happen in some dressing rooms. That’s not my style. The most important thing is for me to play well myself and bring the rest of the lads into the game. That would be my best contribution,” he said as he fielded questions with the same surety as he does with the O ‘Neills on the pitch. 
  
What about being dropped in 2009? 
  
 I need to see some of that steel by reminding him of times, when everything wasn’t right with him. July 2009, Kerry had survived (barely) in the qualifiers against Sligo in Tralee. Tomás Ó Sé and Gooch went for a few social pints after the game. Jack O Connor heard about it and dropped them for the next round v. Antrim. Watch those eyes. 
 “My biggest disappointment was that I would not be left play for Kerry that day. I always want to play with Kerry and Crokes. We were told to sit down and take the sanction. We sat down as we were told, but when I was told to go on during the game I tore on and was delighted to do so. We moved on very quickly from all of that and Kerry went from strength to strength and we won the All Ireland. 
  
You’re no lover of the Compromise rules series with Australia’. 
  
“Don’t get me wrong. I loved playing for my country and regarded it as a great honour, but the year I was there it all turned sour. I opted out. I had no great ‘grá’ for it.” 
  
So often many of your markers give you torrid time of it. 
  
Yes, that happens, but I know it is a physical game and you get on with it. You can draw the umpires’ attention to it, but if they don’t act… You learn to put up with it. I just move on and concentrate on my own game. It can be frustrating; they have the power to do something about it. 
  
 His toughest opponents, as distinct from his dirtiest ones. 
  
 “There are loads of them. You meet fellows who are physically much stronger than you, others better fielders, more much faster, deceptively so for defenders. They are in the club scenes as well as in the inter-county. They all provide their own challenges for me and I must deal with those.” said the prince of the understatement. 
Like Muhammad Ali he can float like a butterfly, but for all their beauty floating butterflies and dis-engaged players don’t win matches. Like Ali a great player needs to sting. Raise an other flag for Gooch. Is it green, or white? Whatever you’re having yourself. You order and he’ll deliver. 
  
Pay to play? 
Colm is an AIB bank official in Tralee, does a full week’s work, pays income tax, the universal social charge and more, and the rest of the time is consumed by the GAA. 
 You could have been a millionaire Colm, if you had opted for a professional sport. 
“If I had the opportunity I would love to have been a professional sportsman. Several GAA players would admit that to you off the record, but they won’t say that in public. I was watching that English soccer game on TV today. One of the players is being paid £ 220,000 a week. That is farcical”. 
I reminded him of a few former under age players  from this area who are making a fine living across the water and it isn’t with the top glamour soccer clubs either ; they haven’t a fraction of the football genius or the media profile of Gooch. “There are pros and cons. If I was a pro, I wouldn’t be looking out the window here with you on the Crokes pitch. I love watching professional players, of course and am always learning from them. I admire Federer, and his unequalled record in tennis, Michael Jordan of course and Tiger (Woods) for his competitive spirit. His form has dropped, but the will to win of those three and many more is unbelievable. I also play to win… always”, he added. 
He could be on the road full time launching projects of all kind and fronting merchandise promotions, such is his popularity, surely at present the most marketable persona in Irish amateur sport. 
  
Your high profile puts you under a lot of pressure. 
  
“It does put a lot of pressure on your time, particularly all the time we put into training and in to games. I am asked to do all kinds of openings and numerous charity appearances. If at all possible, I will always stand in for a photograph with people who ask and I will not leave down a child, who wants a photograph. Neither will I refuse a charity. Sometimes I might have to postpone it, if we are at the very serious time of preparation for a big match, but I accommodate people, whenever possible. A high profile GAA player has to deal with the down side of popularity. It can be very awkward if you are out for a meal with your friends or your family, or such social occasion. People interrupt and your precious free time goes a begging once more. However, that is something you manage.” 
  
 It’s almost 4 years since I last did a formal interview with him and he appreciated that space. We did meet several times, of course in victory and in defeat in the intervening years. 
  
John O Shea, currently volunteer Director of Juvenile Coaching with his club, Dr Crokes said this week.    
“In Colm’s 10 years as an inter-county footballer, no matter how busy his schedule is, he always made himself available to all our under-age teams. His enthusiasm and co-operation in anything we've asked of him is a testament to the quality of person he is. We, the under-age coaches, have been very fortunate to have his and our other inter-county players Eoin Brosnan, Kieran O' Leary, Daithí Casey, and Johnny Buckley’s time whenever we called on them. We really appreciate that. 
  
Escaping 
  
Getting away from it all is difficult. At one stage he took out a 90 day visa to go to the States. “That was one of the best times I ever had. Botty, Paudie, and Tatler went with me. We went to the Superbowl. What an event, the biggest in American sport. The boys came home, but I stayed on in an apartment in Chicago. There I lived a normal life and the American way of life opened up a whole new experience for me that stood to me. I got the maximum out of it, 88 of the 90 days allowed. I came back refreshed and really began to enjoy my football again. 
He cherishes the odd occasions when he can play golf. He never misses an outing of Dr Crokes golfing society, unless circumstances dictate otherwise. He’s new to the game. He has got to learn the basics. He finds it frustrating but he is a fast learner. I did notice that he won a prize last week in the Killarney G&F club competition. He’ll come down. How quickly will be in inverse ratio to the successes of Kerry and Dr Crokes. The handicapper has the knife ready and poised. Colm won’t settle for just being a prize winner. He will want to win a Major. Let’s hope that is a long ways off, so that we can continue to see this superstar in action, before 
  
 As others see Gooch 
  
I spoke to a cross section of people whose assessments of GAA players, I respect. I asked them the same questions as I posed to myself. How good is Gooch and what’s he got that’s so special. All stated that he is a football genius. That’s a great start, but that alone is not sufficient. Wasn’t it Gray said that ‘”full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air”. The Gooch flower thrives in the oases of Croke Park, Fitzgerald Stadium and countless other GAA club pitches. The great Beckenbaur, der Kaiser is remembered for his elegant style, his leadership qualities, and his domination on the soccer pitch. That’s also Gooch. Beckenbauer once said that he lost many races from A to B, “but I don’t start from A.” There is a commonality about all time greats, if that is not a paradox in itself. All the following GAA judges had their own revealing take on Gooch. Read on. 
  
Pádraig O Shea; His first formal coach, the man to whom Colm always refers to ,who gave him his first formal coaching with Dr Crokes and tied his laces, 
when tiny cold fingers could not do so. “Gooch has everything and he is a lesson for every juvenile. Small, and light, losing most games, yet winning the war. He stuck with it and look where he is today. A gem. 
He brought great skills with him from playing at home in Ardshan, but he always wanted to learn more. He always seemed to have the ball, at a time when we had 2 footballs at most for a coaching session, unlike now. Small and frail, he was constantly playing tricks with the ball and was in the thick of everything, one of the lads. A small red head kicking a ball over senior cross bars. How did he do it? Magnificent Gooch. 
  
Frances O Sullivan, one of those dedicated band of Dr Crokes ladies’ club persons, who do Trojan work. 
“Gooch is the best of them all; he’s a great player and what I really admire about him is that he has great time for the young kids and he is a really nice guy. 
  
Mikey Sheehy. From one all time great Kerry corner forward to another. 
  
“Gooch is the best I’ve seen and I don’t say that lightly. He’s an unbelievable talent. He has no weakness in his play, two great feet, can win his own ball, and is a great fielder over his head. He will score but is unselfish, the team player who will pass to a better positioned colleague. He is incredible and we are very fortunate to see him play. Gooch is a once off” 
  
Pat O Shea, winning All Ireland manager with Kerry and also a very successful manager with Dr Crokes, singles out one of his club mate’s qualities that sets him apart from any other top player in the country.” Bravery. That’s Gooch. Very few people give him credit for that. He is always prepared to put his body on the line to go to the ultimate to win that ball against all the odds and ship heavy tackles, that most would shirk. He’ll do that to score himself and equally to win the ball and pass to a team mate. In a tight game you can depend on him to do the right thing at the right time. He will be patient; he won’t panic and then he’ll strike. He’s mentally tough. 
  
Jackie Looney. Coaching Croke juveniles for decades before the word coaching became an acceptable concept in the GAA, is the shrewdest local judge of a club footballer, I have encountered. 
“Colm won nothing coming through our juvenile grades (and that is most unusual for Crokes). They didn’t win a title; they hardly won a match, but he stuck with it, even though he was very small physically. He was still only 10 stone when he won his first All Ireland. An outstanding individual scorer, always yielding his own 4/5 points everyday, he brings others into the scoring process, yielding more scores. 
  
Ted Owens . Former trainer of the Cork senior hurling and football teams, unusually succinct said”, Gooch is highly skilled, great vision, unpredictable, a great individualist, but equally a great team player, elusive. A very special talent and Gooch has the X factor.” 
  
  
Cormac Bonner. All Ireland winning hurling hero and All Star played hurling with Dr Crokes, when he came to live in Kerry. 
“A ‘ciotóg’ is very difficult to mark in hurling and it must be the same in football. Colm is a thinking player, focussed and determined and he’d go through the wall for you. What awareness. Just recall that All Ireland final against Cork, when he said he heard the goalie coming out above the roar of 80,000 supporters. No time left. A brave flick and an other goal. End of Cork “ 
  
Jimmy O Brien; Gooch, his father the late Mike and Goochmania adorn the walls of this man’s pub and well known GAA meeting place in Killarney. That wall is as close as anyone will get to the film stars names on the golden footpath in Hollywood. 
 “ Use all the fancy words you want, he is special and did you know he was nearly a Cork man. His father Mike was a native of Clonkeen, just on the county bounds (Kerry/Cork border). One day here in the bar the Luceys from Ballyvourney said to Mike Cooper. When you came out of home to the main road it was much nearer for you to turn for Ballyvourney than to continue in to Killarney. Why did you do it, we could have had him for The Rebels? As quickly as his son would snatch a score, Mike replied. “I’d no chain on the bike and the fall of ground brought me free wheeling down as far as Mick the Bridges. Since I was that far I decided it was better to keep going into Killarney.!!!!! 
 “The half-talk code of mysteries 
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight,” 
captured so beautifully by the poet of the stony grey soil of Monaghan, Patrick Kavanagh got an airing in Job’s that night. Howls of laughter from Gooch’s father. 
  
Eugene McGee  The best GAA analyst I have encountered and the man who masterminded the loss of the 5-in-a- row for Kerry in 1982 
  
“Gooch’s greatest skill is the ability to read the football thoughts of the players around him and then he has an incredible ability to snatch scores in very tight man-marking situations that not alone bring success to his own team, but at the same time undermine the confidence of opponents. 
All great sports people, either in the GAA world or not, have special qualities that separate them from the majority of their peers. They are the ones that earn the ultimate honour of never being forgotten even when their career is over. Lester Piggott, Muhammad Ali, Maradona, Pele, Jack Kyle  and in the GAA people such as Christy Ring, Mick O’Connell, Matt Connor,  Sean Purcell and many, many more. 
Such heroes are remembered above all for achieving as close to perfection in their sport as is humanly possible so that they are remembered forever afterwards  ahead of players who are outstanding performers , but not quite at the superstar level. 
 Gooch Cooper is well on the way to being such a performer in Gaelic Football 
  
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. The iconic figure and legendary voice in GAA broadcasting, since he first hit the airwaves in 1949 is in a better position than most to assess the ability and class of the 2011 Kerry captain. Focal scoir to Mícheál, the octogenarian, 
  
Picking teams from the annals of Kerry Football with labels suggesting the ‘Best of All Time’ is an honoured pastime among the aficionados of the great game in the Kingdom. Debate is often heated and verdicts inconclusive in many cases, but that is not surprising considering the talent available from the era of the great 'Dickeen' Fitzgerald to the present day. However, there is unanimity among the seers of this age that Colm 'Gooch' Cooper simply has to be included in any selection of the ‘Greats of All time ‘.I agree with the rating cast on the Dr. Crokes' genius, who is the very popular 2011 captain of the Kerry team.
The exquisite quality of his football, his pride in the sport and the manner, in which he represents the association single him out as almost unique among a glittering array of legendary Gaelic Footballers.
 
  
Running out of space….. 
All Ireland winners 2011. 
As usual, I predict my All Ireland winners before the balls are thrown in. I expect no change from last year, Tipp for the hurling and Cork for the football in 2011. Because of this week’s extended profile of Colm Cooper, the reasons for my choices are held back until next week’s edition of ‘On the Ball ‘. Sin a bhfuil de chúrsaí spóirt don tseachtain seo.