It says something about the stature and skill of the man that we’re talking more about how football will miss Colm Cooper this year than Kerry will miss him.
If it were a goalkeeper, defender, a midfielder, even any other forward, it would be about how big a loss he would be to his team, first and foremost.
Michael Darragh MacAuley’s absence would be a terrible blow to Dublin, ditto Michael Murphy’s to Donegal, Aidan Walsh’s to Cork, but the conversation would be merely about how it would affect the outcome of the football year, not the fare of football itself.
Even when Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin’s retirements in recent months transcended county bounds their losses were lamented across the GAA by an appreciation that such characters and warriors are a rare breed, a dying one even.
With Cooper, it’s the player — the joy — that he is that has triggered such a sense of loss across the country.
Discerning hurling men used say that Ring belonged to all of hurling, not just Cork. So it is with Cooper. Kerry’s loss is football’s loss. Not since DJ Carey’s temporary retirement in 1997 — not even Brian Corcoran’s in 2002 — have GAA people nationwide felt a sense of deprivation by the news one player won’t be togging out in the coming season (Cormac McAnallen’s tragic passing belonging in a separate category altogether).
Of course Cooper’s likely loss hampers Kerry’s prospects but it hardly eliminates them. As Tony Leen tweeted yesterday, Eamonn Fitzmaurice now has time to shape a different forward line.
What’s more, he has options. With Cooper, Kerry had the best attack in the country. Without him but with Declan and Darran O’Sullivan and others to return to complement James O’Donoghue, they still have one of the three most dangerous forward lines in the country.
They remain one of the top five teams in the country. This isn’t like the noughties when there was a gulf between the Big Three and the best of the rest. In the absence of any outstanding team, Kerry can still be the last team standing this year.
It shouldn’t be forgotten either just what a leader Cooper is among that group. He possesses an exceptional football intellect. In a month or two after he’s undergone surgery, he will be able to start looking beyond his own condition and mentor fellow forwards and teammates. In that way he can still influence the Kerry attack and the outcome of the championship itself. But that contribution will be invisible.
It will not be obvious and joyous to the rest of us as his skills have been for a decade and more.
We repeat. This isn’t about how Cooper’s injury suddenly lessens or increases anyone’s prospects in Championship 2014. It is about how it lessens Championship 2014.
Take last year. Cooper didn’t win the 2013 All Ireland championship but he adorned it, most notably its greatest game and probably football’s greatest-ever game.
For years we maybe took his talent for granted. His switch to centre forward last year probably jolted us into realising just how extensive and exceptional his skills are — as this latest news has jolted us again.
Ever since he burst onto the scene in the summer of 2002, Cooper has always been about something more than something as mundane as to whether he or someone else wins the All Ireland.
The man has won four All Irelands and eight All Stars. Only two of those All Stars coincided with him winning an All Ireland the same year.
In other words, there have been only two seasons in his inter-county career — 2003 and 2012 — that he didn’t win either an All Star or an All Ireland.
Six times he’s won an All Star in a year he didn’t win an All Ireland, a record only the Limerick hurler Joe McKenna can match.
If anything, we’re all being a bit selfish about his news. We’re more concerned with how we and football will miss him than how much he will miss football.
It will be a real struggle for him, not playing the game he’s played since he was a child and has continued to love like a child.
Coming back will be a real struggle too but that love of the game will sustain him. It might take him 12 months, 18, possibly even 24, to get back to normal Gooch-like levels but with his motivation and skills, you couldn’t put it beyond him.
He need only look at two of the GAA players his career and game most resembles. That other GAA ginger genius of the 21st century, Henry Shefflin, has recovered from cruciate injuries to excel well into his thirties.
At 30 Peter Canavan almost chucked in playing for Tyrone, their least effective forward of the 2001 championship, his first back after a series of serious injuries. He would win three All Stars over the following four years.
Closer to home, Mick O’Dwyer broke both his legs at Cooper’s current age but after a two-year absence returned to win two All Irelands.
We can all only send Cooper our ‘Get Well’ wishes. As well as ‘Thanks’.
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