Colm Cooper has been around so long, the world of the GAA will seem strange without him. A willow the wisp genius scampering across the field. He doesn’t seem to have grown old, nor has age wearied him. Anyone who has seen him play will never forget him. He doesn’t seem to have visibly aged from the cartoon like figure that appeared on the scene in 2002 with a haul of 1-2 in a Div 2 league final. Even now there is a youthfulness about Colm Cooper, and an impishness about the way he plays gaelic football.
He doesn’t so much kick goals and points as steer the ball into the net. A brilliant finisher, his movement on and off the ball a thing to behold. But as we know the Gooch was more than a finisher. He was an iconic presence in the Kerry and Dr Crokes 13 jersey, strangely when he wore 11 it just didn’t look right. But he had the passing repertoire of a real playmaker.
A few of us stood on a terrace in Healy Park a number of years back to watch Tyrone and Kerry. We got talking, as you do, a dad beside us had travelled from deepest Cavan to bring his two young sons on one mission. They were aged ten and eight years of age. Their mission? To see The Gooch in action in the flesh.
“I used to come up here to watch Canavan and my dad brought me here to see Frank McGuigan. He would bring me to Kerry to watch Munster championship games with Mikey Sheehy and John Egan. It was easier, you don’t realise how lucky you are to see these players. Once they go and retire, you’ll never see their likes again, and Cooper is special. The television is great but you don’t see the movement and the subtle things he does.
I kept an eye on this man and his sons. Whatever about his two lads, he was transfixed himself by the play of Colm Cooper. I suspected the pilgrimage was as much for himself as his boys.
He was unplayable that day. Playing on the 45 he gave a first half exhibition, pulling the strings. The Gooch that destroyed defences.
A report at the time logged his contribution perfectly. “With Colm Cooper running the show from centre forward, the Kingdom quickly established control, running at the home side in relentless waves… Cooper provided the killer passes that led to scores from Declan O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy and Darren O’Sullivan. The Red hands, playing into a strong breeze, were on the back foot for almost the entire first half and, by the 10-minute mark, they trailed by 0-06 to 0-01. At half time it was 1-13 to 0-5.”
Colm Cooper first appeared on the scene in 2002, kicking 1-2 in a Division 2 league final. His most recent outing on the national stage was leading Dr Crokes to an elusive club All Ireland.
Joe Brolly over the years expressed mixed views on the Gooch but he seems finally to have come down on the side of greatness: “He was the ultimate purveyor of skill. He was almost a computer animated footballer. He would deliver a ball like a butler on a silver platter. The other thing was the deftness of touch, so that he would deliver the ball to his colleague's advantage. He could bounce it in front of him, he could put it in his chest. It was a thing of beauty.”
It was Gooch’s runs across a full back line that in part led to the creation of the Tyrone defensive system. His movement and that of Mike Frank Russell led Mickey Harte to ‘defend the D’ in 2002. They had to do something didn’t they?
Playing off the twin towers of Walsh and Donaghy he caused havoc on the opposition. As part of a forward line with the likes of Declan O’Sullivan and the Star he destroyed defences time and again. Having been the team mascot with his beloved Crokes when they won a club All Ireland in ’92, he scored the decisive goal in the 2017 final, and helped orchestrate the possession game they used to see out the final minutes against Slaughtneil.
Gooch’s career will be remembered for the countless appearances in the famous Kerry jersey. A constant threat. His scoring prowess in Croke Park on the big days. The anguish in the Kingdom and GAA-dom following his cruciate injury and the joy at his return to action among Kerry people. Less so among defenders who continued to spend a night tossing and turning. His likes may not be seen again. Any young player would do worse than to search YouTube for his greatest hits, his visionary passing and to take on board his advice on finishing to Kieran Donaghey: “Place it. Don’t Blast It.”
Thanks for the memories Colm Cooper. Legend.