This time last year Kerry were preparing for another national league final against Dublin, only on that occasion Colm Cooper was on the team bus. His old partner Kieran Donaghy was there alongside him and recounted it in his award-winning book ‘What Do You Think Of That?’
SO ONCE more we roll into the dark underground of the coliseum, 10 years on from that summer of 2006.
A lot has changed for me and Colm Cooper since then but one thing has not. We still share an unspoken ritual. We still sit across from one another on the second-last row of the team bus; me to the left and, on the other side of the aisle, him to the right. For years I’d Sèamus Scanlon immediately beside me but since he went I just sit alone, by the window, while Gooch sits alone over by the opposite window. And all the time we’ll wait for everyone else to move out — even the boys in the back row — before he’ll rise to his feet and I’ll let him out first.
As I say, we’ve never spoken about it; like a lot of things between us, we don’t need to. But ever since that game against Armagh and Francie, I never move until he moves. I always wait to follow him.
Why? Because if you’re walking out behind him, you always have a chance. I don’t know if he feels that bit more secure knowing I have his back but I know for sure that I feel massive confidence entering the lion’s den with Colm Cooper right there in front of me.
He destroyed Roscommon here the last day in the semi-final. Making plays only he can make because he sees plays only he can see. His spatial awareness and game smarts are just incredible. One year when we were out in camp in Portugal, we had a soccer game at the end of the week. The way he played, I honestly think with a month’s training he could play in the hole for Liverpool. Not that he’d keep Coutinho out of the team, but that he could play there and you wouldn’t be wondering, “What’s your man doing out there?” When Jack threw me in at full forward back in ’06, Gooch kind of took me by the hand. We never had a big sitdown in some coffee shop. We just went out there onto the field and went through how this thing could work.
Say there was a ball kicked down the line for which he’d have to bend down to win it; he explained that in that situation he wanted me to come short to him. If he won a ball that was bouncing into his chest, he didn’t want me running out; he could just burn his marker there and then, or play a ball into me. But with that low ball rolling down the line, he’d have to pick it up with a man right up his hole; it was a lot to turn around and start taking on a fella then. So he’d be looking to pop a little handpass to me running out, I’d get it, pop it back to him on the loop and he’d kick it over the bar off his left. We got countless scores like that over the years.
It’d become almost telepathic. I might be struggling in a game and he’d just shoot me this look, maybe gesturing with the hands to stay calm, be patient, stick with it. Other times then he’d give you this stern look which told you something needed to change and that it had to happen right now.
He’s deep. While I’m open, he’s guarded. I’ll hug you. I could tell you at two o’clock in the day that I love you. I might say to Gooch, “God, Colm, you’re flying lately.” He’ll never say that to me. But the day we beat Mayo down in Limerick, he sought me out on the pitch. He knew there’d been serious pressure on me that day, that I’d gone from the wilderness to suddenly being our number one option. When he found me, he shook my hand and looked me dead in the eye. As if to say, “Fair play, big fella. You delivered when Kerry needed you most.”
He’s a great man to go out with. We could be in South Africa, just the two of us, drinking strawberry daiquiri cocktails, and we’d lose all track of time, just chatting.
Whenever the two of us are drunk, the talk always turns to basketball. I remember playing against him in a first-year tournament back when I was in The Green and he was in the Sem in St Brendan’s. He was class. The football kind of took over after that but to this day he’d be into his NBA as much as me, raving about some play by LeBron James or Steph Curry.
One year we were out on a team holiday in San Francisco, drinking in a nightclub on North Beach, talking hoops again by the counter. Next thing I turned around and he was gone. I looked around everywhere inside, couldn’t find him, so eventually I headed for the exit.
When I got my bearings outside, I spotted Gooch about two hundred yards up the street in some heated conversation with four black fellas.
When I arrived on the scene, the tallest of them went, “Hey man, take this guy away! He’s crazy!”
Gooch was there to him. “No, c’mon! You and me! Right now! One on one! Let’s go!”
Your man looked at me again. “Told you. Bring this dude home.” Gooch looked at me, then pointed over to a tattered basketball court in the distance.
“None of them will take me on one-on- one, Star!”
He turned back to the boys. “Hey, tell ye what so — me and Star will take ye on two-on-two!”
Well the four boys broke down laughing. All the time they’d thought it was a fight Gooch was itching for, not a game of ball. But with it being two in the morning and brothers not always having a basketball by their side, ready to scrimmage at a moment’s notice, they let it go this time.
I’ve often played the Gooch one-on- one — in golf. If we played 10 times, he’d beat me five times and I’d beat him five times. It’s very even and it’s even more competitive.
Back in 2011 himself and Eoin Brosnan from the Crokes and myself and Daniel Bohan from the Stacks had a heated fourball series. With our two clubs wearing the same colours, we christened it the Black and Amber Cup. They beat us in Killarney, then we beat them in Tralee. The deciding 18 holes were in Fota Island where we had our training camp before that year’s All Ireland final. With two holes to play myself and ‘Bo’ were two down. But I made a putt on the 17th to bring it to the last and then Brossie fluffed a four-footer that would have won the match for them. Well, you should have seen the face on Gooch and how embarrassed and apologetic Brossie was to have let him down. Eoin’s a fine golfer yet there he was, “I’m sorry, Gooch! I’m just shit at golf !”
We could have shook hands on the 18th green there and left it at that: good game, good craic, all friends, no losers. But no losers would have meant no winners and that wouldn’t do for me or for Gooch, so we agreed that we’d play the first as a play-off hole. Everyone was so nervous, it was like the last hole in the final pairing of the Ryder Cup.
We’d win, ‘Bo’ chipping in off the green. Later on, I’d learn that on the way home in their car to Killarney, Gooch didn’t say a single word to Brossie. He was still fuming about that four- footer on the 18th that cost him the Black and Amber Cup.
That’s the thing about Gooch: he wants to win — at everything. I hate losing. Hate it! But I can accept it. After a while anyway. But while the rest of us will have a week of hell after losing a championship game in Croke Park, for Gooch it will be a whole winter. He loves Kerry and its history and tradition and puts enormous pressure on himself to uphold it.
This last winter was a particularly rough one, which is one reason why today is a big one for him. It’s a big one for all of us. Another shot at the Dubs and to break this winning streak they have against us up here, and also to set us up nicely for the summer.
Twenty-five minutes into the game, Gooch leaves Philly McMahon grasping at thin air by selling a dummy and curling it over the bar to put us up a point. It’s an outrageous bit of skill, one that will prompt Andy Murray’s mom Judy, who is in attendance, to tweet that Colm Cooper is a “wizard”. But straightaway their Cooper, Johnny, comes up the field and kicks a score of his own to cancel out Gooch’s.
That’s kind of the story for the rest of the game. For anything we do, they have an answer.
Still, we’re only trailing by four with 67 minutes gone on the clock and a good bit of injury time to be played. I’m in at full forward now and Gooch comes over to me. “We just need a score to get it back to three. Go out and tell the lads to just settle down and get the ball in our hands.” But just as we both take off running to rally the troops, one of the lads fails to read Brendan Kealy’s kickout, Paul Flynn pounces and rattles the net.
Gooch and I catch each other’s eye and we know: That’s it for today. It’s done.
HALF-TEN the following morning and I’m having breakfast with Hilary in a Killarney hotel when I get a text. Gooch: Well, LeBron, where are you?
I text him back. In town. Where are you, Steph?
A basketball thing again. LeBron’s a huge man; Steph, a scrawny, skilful fella. Already I know how this day is going to pan out. A lot of hoops talk because there’ll be a lot of drink.
I tell Hilary, “I’m going to be out with Colm for the day.”
She understands. On days like this he needs me.
I meet him in this favourite haunt of his, the Speakeasy. Grand spot. The barmen are gas with gas nicknames: Box, Snack Box and Hard Man.
Gooch asks me what am I having.
I tell him I’ll have a brandy and Bailey’s to settle me.
He looks at me. Are you sure? It’s only half-eleven in the morning!
I nod. Yeah, I’m sure.
He gives Hard Man a shout.
“I don’t believe I’m saying this, but can I have a brandy and Bailey’s for the big fella?”
Hard Man turns around and sees who has arrived. “Oh, Jesus Christ...”
It’s going to be a long, hard day, this one.
Later we go out the back and try to solve the problems of our world. Just trying to figure out ways to get better, to attack them better and what we do with their kickouts.
To be honest though, I don’t really want to go into it.
“Look, Gooch, there’s enough time to be dealing with it, and you and me with drink inside us aren’t going to fix anything here. We’ve just got to go back training harder.”
We change the conversation. See that Cavs game last week? And off we go, talking more hoops while on the gat.