Off The Ball's Eoin Sheahan tracks the hero's journey of his fellow county man
In the immediate aftermath of last summer’s All-Ireland semi-final, as people from Kerry and people from Dublin darted for the Croke Park exits, those left rooted to their seats will have seen Colm Cooper on the big screen.
They won’t have seen his face, nor did they need to; his shadow alone had the look of a man in agony. As the camera followed him down the corridor to the Kerry dressing room, he looked ready to pull the hair out his scalp, and the realisation set in that this might actually be the end.
I remember first hearing about Colm Cooper with more clarity than I remember first seeing Colm Cooper play. It is early 2002 and I’m at my grandmother’s house in St. Finian's Bay (coincidentally the same view that Jack O’Connor’s front garden faces). At seven years of age, I haven’t quite developed an appreciation of underage structures nor do I pay any attention to the conveyor belt of wunderkinds that might fuel the future happiness of Kerry football folk.
But this is an exception. My father tells me that we are going to Tralee the following night to watch the Kerry under-21s play against Limerick. We need to see 'The Gooch'. This feels important.
I don’t remember the game. In fact, I don’t have a clear memory of watching the Gooch in the flesh until later that year. All I remember from early 2002 is the hype and, neglecting the advice of Public Enemy, Kerry people believed every bit of it.
In his debut season at senior level, there was that qualifier run, that Man of the Match performance against Kildare, that destruction of Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. Having been enchanted by Maurice Fitzgerald breaking the hearts of a city with half of his foot the previous year, 2002 felt like evidence that every time a Harry Houdini departs, magic of a different kind is only on the doorstep.
Of course, also in 2002, you see Colm Cooper lose an All-Ireland final. For someone with five All-Ireland medals, it might seem strange, but defeat became just as important a part of his footballing make-up as victory did. Of course, losing big matches added to the intrigue and the narrative surrounding Gooch, but it also reminded us that a genius is nothing without a challenge. After 2002 and 2003, Cooper had to solve the equation of getting his hands on a Celtic Cross. He had to adapt.
Getting himself out of tight corners had to become a trademark of his in order to first of all thrive, and then reach the Mount Rushmore of all-time Kerry forwards. He became Ferris Bueller on his Day Off, wriggling his way out of impossible situations, making other characters involved in the tale look increasingly foolish.
However, as much as Gooch adapted, footballing systems could be altered just as much. His individuality - and individuality in Gaelic football in general - might have been sacrificed for the machine.
Cooper’s fellow Crokes man, Dick Fitzgerald, wrote the following about non-Gaelic Games in his now century-old book, How to Play Football:
“In a manner, the individual in the modern game is a disadvantage to his side, if his individuality asserts itself strongly - so strongly, at least, that he tends to be too much of an individualist and too little of the mere machine.”
If Fitzgerald were to exist 100 years later than he did, he might well have moved today’s Gaelic Football landscape under the remit of that description. While Cooper is undoubtedly an individualist, he is also the dream team-mate. His transition from a 13 to an 11 was evidence of this. With the increasingly systematic nature of Gaelic football, Cooper ended up being the personification of the happy medium: The spark of ingenuity that works within the confines of the machine.
In fact, the mixture of the regimented and the inspired is in happy tandem with another of Fitzgerald’s ideas:
“Gaelic Football fortunately does not tend in the direction of reducing its players to the mere machine level. True it is that combination - and combination of a sufficiently high standard - is much prized. Each player is taught to see the advantage of combining with everybody else on his side, and of playing at all times unselfishly. But, such is the genius of the game itself, that while combination will always be prominent, the brilliant individual gets his opportunities time out of mind, with the result that, after the match is over, you will generally have a hero or two carried enthusiastically off the field on the shoulders of their admirers.
“Then, too, Gaelic Football is what may be called a natural football game.”
As Colm Cooper - master of that natural football game - sat in that Croke Park dressing room last August, those who knew it was the end probably thought it was a cruel and undeserving way to go. 2014 and 2015 provided disappointments of very different types, so 2016 provided the ultimate chance for poetic justice. In the end, 2016 provided the ultimate reminder that poetic justice doesn’t really exist.
Except sometimes it does. Those in the same stadium on March 17 this year as Cooper fell to the turf in delight at finally clinching that one elusive medal would probably feel that poetic justice is exactly what occurred, that the genius finally cracked that last equation.
Thankfully, there are still more moments of Colm Cooper, Dr Crokes footballer for us to witness, but it is a sad goodbye to Colm Cooper, Kerry footballer. He enthralled those who are old enough to remember the greatest Kerry team of all time and enthralled those who were innocently informed that a new era was about to dawn some 15 years ago. That magic will forever be missed.