The end of a long year for Colm Cooper came yesterday in Páirc Uí Rinn.
A muddy arena in November is a long way from the bright lights of the championship — not literally, given those pylons looming on the Boreenmanna Road — but the chill, the yielding turf and the club-sized crowd of 2,851 made for a more familiar environment than Croke Park in September.
A superstar burnishes his reputation on days like yesterday. By the time he arrives on the inter-county stage the apprenticeship includes a highlight reel adorned by muddy socks and stained knees, not grass burnt brown and spectators in shirt- sleeves.
For Cooper, those days belong to the rear-view mirror now. The latter-day feats in green and gold were founded on club displays in black and amber around the hinge of the millennium. Now we’re nearly two decades on and, as befits a legendary figure, the story comes to the conclusion that suits the structure of any number of legends you like: after extraordinary feats far from home, the hero returns to rally his own people to victory. That’s not quite how it turned out yesterday, however.
They used to say a champion boxer lost his punch last, but in some sports, the aura stays intact to the very end. Thus Páirc Uí Rinn. After about three minutes Cooper collected a ball near the Nemo goal and in that heartbeat the crowd’s reaction was instantaneous - a hum of unarticulated dread from the followers in black and green.
Cooper’s light, bouncing stance, ball cradled at waist level, has for so long been the embodiment of danger that it came as an almost physical relief to the Nemo support when Cooper’s pass went awry. A kick that drifted wide four minutes later was a similar ease to the home crowd.
Early on Nemo had much more to cheer than that. They were the more penetrating side, lancing through the Crokes defence for three goal chances in the opening ten minutes alone, causing havoc in the visiting rearguard. They were athletic and direct, making light of the muddy turf to thrust at the heart of the visitors.
The general disarray must have presented Crokes’ management with the perennial dilemma — whether to pull Cooper outfield and involve him in the playmaking, rather than leaving him inside, dependent on supply.
From the 20th minute or so, Cooper was more visible in the middle of the field, offering himself as an outlet, and hitting Kieran O’Leary with a long raking pass that cried out to be credited to a puppetmaster.
Yet as the game wore on Cooper became more peripheral, not less. In the second half he pointed a couple of frees and came up short with another one of those probing deliveries, but the crowd recognised that the threat was not what it was.
True, the constituent parts of the Cooper menace were manifest: the feline stealth, the swivelling vision, hands aloft when his marker turned his head to steal a glance outfield. But when a free drifted wide ten minutes into the second half the Nemo support jeered: they had made Johnny Buckley’s high fielding in the middle of the field the source of their anguish, and Cooper’s efforts to involve himself were no longer their prime concern.
Nemo manager Larry Kavanagh put his finger on the nature of the challenge for Crokes afterwards: the year is so long, he pointed out, that you end up looking for a different type of player at different times of the year. Yesterday Nemo dictated the terms of engagement with a savage work ethic which translated into hard, direct running and support play, and Crokes couldn’t cope.
It’s been a long year for one of the Killarney men in particular, of course: inter-county retirement, then punditry duties, publishing a book, and the most contentious feed of beef or salmon in recent GAA history have filled his diary, though the focus on whether or not Cooper should have held a testimonial in the first place seems misplaced to this viewer.
Surely the (second) most pressing question is how many players will now emulate the Crokes man as October and November become prime dates in the calendar for benefit dinners? Formalwear hire shops all over Ireland can expect plenty of custom from now on.
The most pressing? Was yesterday the last of Colm Cooper? Is disappointment on foreign soil our last glimpse? Doubtful. Another year begins in five weeks.
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