When you are truly great in Irish sport, there’s no need for the full title because everyone knows who they are. There’s Henry and TJ in hurling , the two Keene’s in soccer, O’Driscoll and O’Connell in rugby, McIlroy and Lowry in golf, McCoy and Ruby in horse racing and Katie in boxing. Gaelic football? The Gooch.
The great jack O’Connor once said “he grew up with a football” this is something that the Gooch puts down to his upbringing in Kerry and has benefitted him throughout his glittering career.
“I grew up in a housing estate in Killarney called Ardshanavooly. Pretty much in the town there was 100 houses there and lots of kids we played all sports depending what was on television at the time. If it was the Masters, we would be out with golf clubs. If it was Wimbledon, we would be out with tennis rackets but for me I was a kid always with a ball even walking to the shop or to school I always had a ball with me. You learn your natural skill between the ages of 6 and 14 of course you can improve your skill level, but the real natural piece comes early on and because I played basketball and soccer, I took a little bit of all those sports and fined tuned them and they probably complimented each other in many ways.”
Cooper wasn’t the biggest or the strongest player ever, but he never let that get in his way. He was quick, agile and had a football brain most can only dream of. He had left foot right foot dummy solos chip ups and all the tricks in the book. Former Kerry player Eoin Liston described him as “the Lionel Messi of Gaelic football. “He was a big believer that skill would always win out in the end. Everybody has different views on it but give me the small skilful guy every day I think when you get fit and strong it will take you so far but if you look at all sports and successful sports people ultimately it comes down to a piece of skill if you are talking world cup final in soccer or all Ireland final in hurling or football generally teams are very well matched but quite often it comes down to that extra piece of skill. We see it in GAA now where guys are wearing GPS trackers, I understand why its there but sometimes I think we are losing our skills and that little piece of magic.
“In Kerry I always watched Mikey Sheehy Frank Russell and Maurice Fitzgerald and they were the guys I looked up to for their skill level and today I think we are getting lost in a world of physique GPS tackle count and it does worry me a bit to be honest I think the skilful player is being moved aside and that’s a mistake by a lot of coaches. Are the guys who are being picked because they are fit and strong ultimately improving the team? I wouldn’t say so.”
No score represented his outrageous skill set more than his goal against Mayo in the 2004 all Ireland final it had everything. The catch over his head, the right hand bounce, the left foot solo, the left hand dummy bounce to evade on onrushing defender and the ice cool side foot finish to the bottom corner
“It’s one of my favourite goals every part of that goal has Ardshanavooly built all over it , catching , the dummy bounce inside and just to roll it into the corner it’s a dream to score a goal in an All-Ireland final and it left a print of all the skills I learned in Ardshanavooly it gives me great joy even now to see it on Laochra Gael or Reeling in the years its very special to me.”
Cooper was the best footballer in the country the hottest ticket around , he was a magnet for opposition defences, he was double marked, pulled dragged and kicked from pilar to post, physical and verbal abuse was thrown his way. They tried everything to put him off his game, but he never reacted he always kept a cool head and focused on his job, putting scores on the board. The way he conducted himself on and off the field he was a real class act this makes him stand out above the rest and a real role model for young footballers
“It took a bit of getting used to , in club football in Kerry at the time you wouldn’t have seen too much of it you’d get a few bangs but it went up a level on the inter county scene. Teams saw me as a threat to them winning a match and there was a feeling with me that if you get physical, I wouldn’t like it because I was a small light guy and I should be easy to throw off the ball. I couldn’t take guys on physically because I wouldn’t have that physical strength but I would look to outplay those guys and outthink them and I stuck to my guns on that and more often than not it worked because as a forward I was able to drop a shoulder or dummy solo, I knew that if I reacted in the way they wanted me to react I knew I could be getting a card and ultimately cost my team. I found it difficult at the start but as I got more mature, I learned to deal with it better I learned why people were doing it and you become more comfortable in your own skin then I think “
In Kerry family comes first and football comes second the great Paidi O’Se once described the Kerry supporters as savages. Success is expected in the kingdom anything less than an all-Ireland win is deemed as a failure. But in 2006 when Colm’s dad passed away on a Monday morning and he togged for Kerry in the league against Dublin on the Sunday he seen a different side to the Kerry supporters which he is very grateful for.
“The Kerry supporters are fantastic I think Paid i’s point was very much that they are so into their GAA and the expectancy is so high that when you lose ultimately there will be questions asked and fingers pointed, but that time we were going through a tough time as a family and the supporters knew and felt what I was going through that year was a struggle for me but between the players and the supporters they helped me through it. Quite often in sport you find out a lot about people when their backs are to the wall and certainly that time I felt my team mates and the Kerry supporters had my back and I still don’t forget that to this day.”
Cooper was once described as a “two trick pony” he mastered the two hardest tricks in the game scoring goals and points. 23-283 in 85 championship appearances 4-33 in all Ireland finals and only held scoreless on four occasions. But he was more than just a scorer as his career went on, he turned into a top class provider for his team mates. Never was this demonstrated more clearly than the 2013 all Ireland semi-final against Dublin he cut them apart with two defence splitting passes one with the left and one with the right
“It was a move that Eamon Fitzmaurice wanted to do when he came in as manager, I was very much open to the idea I was nearly 10 years playing for Kerry at that stage maybe he saw it as a fresh challenge for me he obviously saw something in me where I could influence the play and set people up. I was happy to do it and I really enjoyed it out there it gave me another sense of freedom and I grew up in Dr Croke’s where there was always a mantra that the player in the best position got the ball and sometimes that’s not always me so I got as much of a kick out of setting guys up for scores than scoring myself. Eamon thought I could give Kerry a different dimension with my vision and passing the only bad thing that came from it was after that 2013 performance against the dubs where we played so well and I enjoyed it so much the following year I done my cruciate and I never really got the opportunity to play number 11 for Kerry too much after that I just felt there was more in me to play in that position for a couple of years but injury curtailed that I did play there a good few times for Dr Crokes but I probably missed out on a couple of years for Kerry where that could have been really exciting for me but look that’s sport at least I got the opportunity to do it for one season with Kerry “
Disaster struck for the Gooch in 2014. He was on his way to kicking a routine point for Dr Crokes in an all-Ireland club semi-final when he ruptured his cruciate ligament. In Kerry, they said it was like a death in the family their footballing god would be out for a full year. But it wasn’t just the Kerry fans who were disappointed , messages of goodwill were flying in his letterbox from GAA fans all over the country, he was taken aback by this. It showed how much of a likeable character he was.
“Injuries happen but the strange thing for me was I had gone so long in my career without getting one and when this one came it was bad. I fractured my knee in the same tackle it put me out of action for 14 or 15 months but if I’m being honest it took me two years to get back to any level where I felt I was close to before but yeah it was a tough time I remember getting very down about it and wondering if I was ever going to get back playing. I got messages from people in Killarney and Kerry but I was taken back from the support I got around the country from Ulster to Connacht to Leinster it made me think people really appreciate what you do on the field and how you conduct yourself , probably when you are playing in the intercounty scene you don’t fully appreciate it but it gave me an opportunity to take a step back and say you know what you are really influencing people in a positive way so I was delighted with that and it made me more determined to get back and do it even more.”
Pat Spillane recently said that most players and managers normally get their final hurrah wrong they overstay their welcome and tarnish their reputation, the Gooch didn’t. in 2016 Dr Crokes won their first club all Ireland in a quarter of a century the Gooch walked off the stage on his terms by bringing his beloved Crokes back to the top of club football , the perfect way to say goodbye to a true legend of our game.
“It was a long journey for all of us in Dr Crokes we all had are own stories to tell the club had only won it once before 25 years previous. We had come so close we lost semi-finals and we lost to Crossmaglen in a replay in 2007 so we were wondering if it would ever happen for us , but that day against Slaughtneil was very special it was a long, long journey for the players and it was so satisfying to do it with your club on the biggest day in the biggest competition it was as sweet as any medal I won in Croke park. We didn’t play our best but the desire from the players and probably the hurt they went through before we left everything out there that day.”
It is sad to see him gone not just for what he achieved but for what he represented. In modern football players are measured by distance covered , tackles made and turnovers when really, they should be judged on their skill level. The Gooch just went out there and done his thing he played with freedom and enjoyed himself before worrying what any technology said about his performance. The youth of today might not realise just how good he was but as the torch is passed over to David Clifford to take the kingdom on their next journey of success , as long as YouTube exists the Gooch will never be forgotten.
Is he one of the greatest of all time? When you win 9 Munster titles 8 all-stars 4 all Irelands and 4 league titles you have to be.