Colm Cooper: The icon at 13 is no more. Long live the king

For 15 years Colm Cooper represented everything that we love about traditional Kerry football. Our game will be a poorer one for his absence, writes Mike Quirke

Colm Cooper: The icon at 13 is no more. Long live the king

Many years ago, on one of our earliest training camps in Portugal, we used to be allowed a few beers on the last night to unwind after a hard week under the scalding sun. On this particular trip, we had flown into Lisbon instead of the nearby Faro for some reason and were taken on the three-and-a-half-hour journey by bus to our training base in Browns in Vilamoura.

Our few beers that night turned into serious fun. The type of night out with just each other for company that really bonds a team. Most of the group saw no bed, instead deciding that we might as well stay going until we had to make the mammoth bus trip back Lisbon to catch our early morning flight. Eventually, we all made our way back to put some shape on packing a bag just before were due to go.

As we are about to leave, a quick head count revealed a missing soldier. We had left a man behind.

Gooch was nowhere to be found. Panic stations.

Now if it was me or most anybody else, the bus would probably have rolled out and said ‘tough luck boyo’.

But this was Colm Cooper. We couldn’t just leave without him.

A brief investigation was inconclusive. He was with us all night and some lads were sure he came back to the complex. How was he not on the bus? Long story short, we took off for Lisbon having to make our flight, amid a simmering panic that Kerry football had literally just lost our greatest asset. We eventually boarded the plane after what felt like the longest bus journey ever, and still no word from Gooch.

After the 4-hour flight back to Cork, we got a phone call in baggage claim that Colm was safe and well. In fact, while the rest of us were dragging our weary bodies all over Portugal and were still facing a 2-hour drive home, el Goocho had got a few hours kip, jumped in a taxi for 10 minutes down the road to Faro international airport and organised a flight directly into Kerry airport.

He was at home hours before us. The artful dodger strikes again.

Typical Colm, if there’s a better way, he’ll find it.

For the elite 1% of sportspeople in the world, you’ve probably noticed how time just always appears to slow down when they have the ball. They seem rarely rushed or hurried, even though all around them are frantically moving in different directions at 100 miles an hour. Picture Messi or Ronaldo at their peak, or Michael Jordan in basketball, they seemed almost protected by an invisible force field that keeps others from getting too close. For Gooch, it was as though time itself stood still to respectfully allow him to display his wares to the world by choosing the best option in front of him. He could find himself in a phone box being chased by a pack of wolves and he’d still have the poise to hit ‘em with a dummy solo and stroll out the door unscathed.

Iwas fortunate enough to be able to share a dressing room and many highs and lows with him down through the years and for my money, he is without question, the greatest footballer I have ever seen play.

Of course, there have been guys who have scored more, we’ve seen better free takers, stronger more powerful players who could run faster and jump higher, but there’s been nobody with the ability and footballing intelligence all in one package like Gooch.

That rare combination of talent, athleticism and IQ propelled him as one of the very few Gaelic football icons who transcended county allegiances. Supporters from all over the Ireland developed an affinity with him. Seamus Moynihan and Maurice Fitzgerald were the same, universally admired and respected everywhere else as much as they were in Kerry, but Colm was different, it wasn’t just admiration.

They loved him.

I’ve seen a lot of guys who do special things in training with Kerry in Fitzgerald Stadium, but the public never see them doing it on the big day. That’s about real belief and confidence in one’s own ability. It’s easier to do it in training when you have the safety net of trying something that won’t affect the result of a big game. You can try the dummy solo in training, the no-look hand pass, or some other skill, but then park it away on the big day and stay with the reliable safe option so as not to make an error in front of TV cameras and thousands of supporters.

But the greats are never afraid to make a mistake, that was one element of what made Colm so special, his unwavering belief in his own ability to do all those things that most guys leave in the training ground on the very biggest stage under the brightest of lights.

For all the success and achievements on the field with club and county, Colm is as humble and unassuming off it. That complete absence of an inflated ego is probably what has endeared him more than anything to so many throughout the country. For 15 years, while carrying a weight of expectation on his shoulder that few would have managed, he consistently represented everything that we love about traditional Kerry football. Our game will be a poorer one for his absence. The icon at 13 is no more. Long live the king.

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