Before they all gathered for lunch in the Dromhall Hotel yesterday to move on from the All-Ireland final evisceration by Corofin in Croke Park, a handful of Dr Crokes players and stalwarts happened upon company in the clubhouse on Lewis Road.
Above the hallways and landings decorated with framed mementoes of pioneers and revered founding fathers like Dr Eamon O’Sullivan, Small Jer O’Leary and Dick Fitzgerald, some of the club’s most influential present-day figures conceded in a wordless way that the road to redemption could be without Pat O’Shea, their guiding light, and Colm Cooper, the footballing figurehead. Given the breadth of their respective influence on the club, the
departure of O’Shea as senior manager and Gooch as team leader would be seismic.
Sunday afternoon was chastening for the club, and the loss of O’Shea and Gooch would cut deep, but no one is taking a bulldozer to the structure just yet. The headquarters on Lewis Road is as advanced a football laboratory as there is in the grassroots game.
A footballing academy in the pure sense, the club has honed a style of play easy on the eye and without compare in Kerry. Pat O’Shea, the smartest pitch coach I’ve seen, steers the development of the six-year-olds through rigid and proper portals from the ground up every Saturday. He threads a philosophy of ball retention, kicking excellence, and intelligent movement right up to senior and the respect for him in the club is absolute.
But Crokes have had to contemplate life without O’Shea or Gooch before. Five years ago, at his peak against Castlebar Mitchels in an All-Ireland club semi-final, Cooper crumpled in a heap before half-time under the side-on challenge of Castlebar defender, Tom Cunniffe.
There are crude metrics for measuring when the powers of a sporting icon show the first sign of wane, but none as excruciating as a fractured kneecap and torn cruciate ligament at the same moment. It’s a crudely appropriate bisecting of Cooper the footballer and his influence on the game: the untouchable Gooch pre-2014 and the modified recast on his return from the horrific injury more than 15 months later.
A question: How was it that Cooper transcended all colour of GAA politics, all inter-county creed and rivalry? Yes, he was Kerry gold, from a county with mountains and breathtaking lakes as picturesque as one of Cooper’s curling scores, but he was not that Killarney. Gooch was always less picture-postcard and more housing estate grit, the youngest in a family of seven who honed himself and his craft on the roads around the Ardshanavooly estate on the rim of the town.
When he started with Kerry in 2002, still only 18, he was a 10-stone bag of bones with an ill-fitting jersey flowing around him like a chiffon nightgown. He had red hair and crooked teeth, an uneven haircut and no pretensions or understanding of the demanding stage he had strolled onto.
Kerry legends, with their chiselled torsos, looked curiously upon him when he told them in the Fitzgerald Stadium dressing room before training he’d eaten nothing all day but a Wham bar. And then he’d stroll out and embarrass every defender in the joint.
The proletariat loved that about him. He was elusive and magical. He was inventive and disruptive, a teenage waif doing his thing on the green fields of Ireland.
Anyone who has savoured the delights Cooper has sprinkled, like hundreds and thousands, over local and national audiences will understand that frisson we all experience from a Gooch moment, when something beautiful is created in sport not by chance, but by design.
We pretend for a little moment we’re the only one savvy enough to have noticed it — that frozen rope of a diagonal pass that doesn’t so much bounce as nestle into its target. We subconsciously brush shoulders against the person beside us in a moment of shared experience or slap a rolled-up match programme into the palm of our left hand.
Even at home, in front of the television coverage, we rock back in the armchair and buck our legs — both of them — in the air with a yelp that brings loved ones in from beyond to make sure we haven’t suffered a seizure.
“He has an innate unorthodoxy,” his former Kerry colleague Paul Galvin once maintained. It is evident from the pages of Galvin’s autobiography that one disruptive thinker got the other. “He stood still where other forwards would run; having the nerve to wait and wait and wait until the right moment is a rare quality. He moves in circles when everyone else moves in straight lines. The defender will move towards the ball, then realise Gooch hasn’t moved at all, so he turns around to look for him. And when he does, he’s dead. That’s when Gooch strikes.”
Cooper has been that antidote to the mano-a-mano culture of team sport today, an
individual expression of joie de vivre that he can provide with a move, a feint, a spatial awareness. Coaches call it separation.
Dr Crokes would swap the defender detailed to mark him several times during training sessions, not to present new challenges for Gooch, but to prevent him from destroying their self-esteem. Kerry soon followed suit as he began to eviscerate the best backs in the country on a nightly basis.
Around the virtually empty stadium as Kerry honed their summer look, every privileged observer hushed up for a moment. Everyone knew. From the aficionados in the stand, to the stadium caretaker leaning on his brush down at the far end of the field, to the management on the sideline, to the rest of the players on the pitch (mere bystanders at this stage), everyone knew what that meant.
That the defender was toast.
When Cooper confirmed his retirement from the inter-county game in April 2017, the GAA pundit Joe Brolly argued the Kerry sorcerer was overrated. Brolly didn’t use that precise phrase, but he mentioned the missing elements of his game, that Gooch wasn’t a “warrior” and that the sadness that had greeted his end with Kerry was excessive and over-cooked.
Brolly isn’t entirely wrong. Cooper was genius. But he wasn’t a gladiatorial presence on the field of play like his Kerry colleagues Galvin and Declan O’Sullivan.
He was never going to be the giant shoulder against the wall, preventing the dam-burst. He wasn’t shifting the piano, he was playing it.
In his acclaimed novel Solar Bones, the author Mike McCormack spoke of the temporal rhythms of the afternoon after the 12 o’clock Angelus. Cooper had a similar sense of timing during his peak years, the top-shelf stuff always kept for the autumn.
“I don’t plan specifically for Croke Park in August and September if that’s what you’re asking,” he protested once to me. “But I know when I need to be razor sharp.”
It is a choice phrase of Cooper’s — ‘razor sharp’.
Define it, please?
“Like, something breaks and you’ve the pass made in your head before you actually make it. You’re a step ahead, you can see things really quickly, and then it comes down to just following that
instinct… not even following it. Trusting it, letting it take over.”
After the capitulation of his knee in 2014, Cooper lost that razor sharpness. Physically, at any rate. His football brain still moved at a pace few could live with. Hence, came the final phase of Cooper’s evolution as a player, which climaxed in his role as a gate-keeper with Dr Crokes as they claimed their long-awaited All-Ireland club success in March 2017. He became the complete decision-maker. More than that, he became the best processor of decisions in the game.
Any educated person can process a decision in isolation. But build a layer of pressure and intensity on top of that and place yourself in a pressure microwave in Croke Park, 80,000 frenzied supporters pleading with you to make the play or praying loudly that you won’t. It’s less a moment than an eye of a needle and you have to anticipate the defender coming at you and connect with your target when that half-second of angle and intersection collides. Only if you’ve been in that moment can you properly understand the occult anticipation and ability of greatness.
Pat O’Shea knows that better than anyone. But he’s the Crokes manager whose ruthless edge has had to over-ride whatever sentimental attachment he has for Cooper’s talents and keep him in reserve all the way to last Sunday’s All-Ireland final. People outside Crokes must have been surprised.
Gooch’s reaction? Keep the head down. He knows Pat O’Shea and his father before him, Murt. It’s about the team and Gooch recognised that, until last Sunday, the starting 15 had done nothing to warrant exclusion. Even for an all-time legend.
O’Shea tried once to explain to me the inspirational magic of Gooch (the capital letters are mine, the emphasis his):
“IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to explain, and I don’t care how many people say they can from available evidence, how skilful he is. You have to see this every night in training he goes out. His control of the ball is enormous. People will tell me ‘yeah, I see that’, but they don’t. His control of the ball is like a golfer, fading and drawing it into the green, towards the pin. His technical ability is phenomenal.”
He will probably tip away with Crokes’ second team, which overachieves to the extent they are now in Division 2 of the Co League in Kerry.
It’s what Gooch the street footballer does.
Pat O’Shea may be persuaded to hang on with the Crokes’ seniors, but I doubt it. He won’t be gone far though. Try 9.30am on a Saturday morning with the nippers on Lewis Road.