Colm Cooper recalls being tormented by Ryan McMenamin, serenaded by Philly McMahon and the worst thing ever said to him on a football field.
The nastiest piece of work I’ve met on a football field didn’t spit on me or punch me or even threaten to inflict grievous bodily harm.
He just said: ‘That was a great thing that happened to your cruciate’.
You meet all sorts. And this mule left the sourest taste. After the difficulty I’d had psychologically coming back from the knee injury in 2015, it was a low blow that upset me more than any reducer I came across in 15 years with Kerry. I’ve been punched and kicked, trash-talked and intimidated, but that one left me flabbergasted. I didn’t know how to respond. That was a great thing that happened to your cruciate. He won’t get much luck for that. Hopefully, karma hits him a nice shoulder at some stage.
Testing someone’s mettle is all part of it. I’ve been getting special attention since I was 18 with Dr Crokes. I was prime rib. Light and salty. The club here in Killarney prepped me well.
One night we were training in Fitzgerald Stadium for a championship game against Austin Stacks and my oldest brother Danny was marking me. He’d be the hardest of the Coopers. He wouldn’t be backwards about coming forwards. I got a ball down by the terrace side, doubled back, dummy solo, left Danny for dead. Lovely, delighted with myself.
The next ball that came in, he nearly put me through the fence. Danny used wear a gumshield. He took it out. ‘You ok down there? Go home now and tell Mammy what I done to you. And don’t ever chance it again.’ He fixed his gumshield and jogged back into the full-back line.
If I put myself into the opposition dugout, am I going to let Colm Cooper or some such blow holes in my ambitions? If this fella is a threat to my team winning, something’s got to be done to minimise him. To reduce him.
I’ve been tormented by Ryan McMenamin, serenaded by Philly McMahon in more recent times. It’s the lot of an inside forward who doesn’t have a name for being able to look after himself. I’ve tormented one or two of them in my day too. There are ones who advertise their intentions early. Ones who like to natter, test your jersey, its durability, and your own mental durability. The ones I laugh at are the defenders who you might destroy and they still spend the day chirping in your ear. Like how do they even concentrate on what’s going on in the game?
In the early years, I would always answer back. ‘There’s a sub coming on, that must be for you, little boy, they’d say’.
‘Mercifully I won’t have to listen to you for long,’ I’d respond. I was naïve. When I was involved in conversation, that was the 5% from my focus that the wily back was looking for, just enough perhaps to get over the line.
McMenamin was one of those, he was always very vocal. In 2005, Tyrone targeted me. That was fine. It was one of my best years with Kerry, I was in line for player of the year before the final. There were a couple of incidents that day, neither of which I’ve a problem with, like the clown with the cruciate comment. Mickey Harte was very inventive. In that final, Paschal McConnell played way out of his goal, which was something I had never seen. He was always in my eyeline, whether I moved towards the Hogan or the Cusack Stand. Next thing he was sweeping so far out from goal that I had to run around him to avoid him, which made my movement slower. I’d never seen a goalie do that, but in its own way it unsettled me.
Then I got a poke in the eye from behind. Never saw it coming. Did it affect me? Of course, it did, it affected my vision, and we were still in the first half. It wasn’t so much a thump, but that a thumb went into my eye. It lessened my performance. What could I do about it?
Referee Mick Monaghan came in to consult with his umpires. Here you were looking for a bit of reliable information from behind the goals. Monaghan said: ‘Don’t retaliate’. That really bugged me. Retaliate against what? He must have known something happened then.
Late on, I played a one-two as we scrambled for an equaliser. Went for the return, rugby- tackled into touch. Do I have less respect for Peter Canavan for doing it? Not at all. That’s part of it. I was only 23 and wide-eyed then. People in Kerry think the intensity of the 2003 semi-final against Tyrone was the beginning of it, but Armagh in 2002 — not so much the sledging, but the ferocious intensity of northern football — was a massive eye-opener for us. Armagh and Tyrone were out of their minds to win an All-Ireland and in doing so they set down new ground rules.
Something I had going for me was inner belief. Some forwards get edgy if they don’t get an early touch. I was happy to wait, ride out the early pleasantries. The less a defender is involved, the edgier he can get. Some make it their business to chat and chat. Philly McMahon has a reputation for being incredibly vocal that’s well earned. Yes, he has plenty to say for himself, but no-one can lose sight either of how consistent he has been or how important he is to Dublin.
At a general level, what I’ve found is that the black card offence for sledging is impossible to police, unless you happen to have a Dave Coldrick secret microphone on the referee.
You might be frustrated by stuff going on, but showing it is a cardinal error. At the end of every match, I shake hands with every opponent. Sometimes, when fellas are talking awful rubbish, they shouldn’t spoil their mean streak by saying ‘sorry for that during the game, that’s just the way I am’. Whatever grudging respect you might have evaporates. Pinching, roaring at me into my ear all day and now you want to hug and be best friends? That’s the stuff that cracks me up. You’re that type of person or not.
There was one defender who tormented me and shook my hand afterwards. He said nothing, and that said lots. Right, I sorted you. That would leave me going away admitting: Well you know what? He did. But the ones who go out to do you, then want to be portrayed as angels? Are you kidding me?
The one I admired most was Marc Ó Sé: A proper, no nonsense defender. He backed his ability above anything else. That’s what I admired most. We went toe to toe when we were both playing our best football, and we’d both get a kick going home if one had mastered the other. Driving home, thinking ‘If I can handle this fella, I will be ready for anything in two weeks’ time.’ You’d get a rap in training but nothing below the belt.
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