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Dublin: 12°C Saturday 26 September 2020

The greatest, a leader, intelligence - the Dr Crokes insight after Cooper's Kerry retirement

The Kerry great brought the curtain down on his inter-county career this week.

pjimage (3) Kerry and Dr Crokes Colm Cooper

FOR EOIN BROSNAN, it started back in Waterville on a summer’s evening in 2000.

That was the first time he entered a senior championship arena with the slight, red-haired teenager in attack.

Colm Cooper is three years his junior but his prodigious talent saw him jump up to Brosnan’s Dr Crokes team in underage grades.

17 years ago they played their first senior championship game together for the club.

It was the start of overlapping careers that would see them line out seven times on All-Ireland final days for Kerry in Croke Park and on St Patrick’s Day last they finally landed the Holy Grail at club level.

“You were really coming to the end of the 1992 All-Ireland winning team that time,” says Brosnan.

“That day in 2000 we actually started with five Coopers on the field. We played a star-studded South Kerry side. You’d have had Maurice Fitz at the peak of his powers, Denis O’Dwyer, Stephen O’Sullivan – who was on the Kerry team at the time.

“It was down on their own patch but we came away with a fantastic win. That was the start for Colm and it propelled us on.

“In the final that year we beat a star-studded Gaeltacht team, they’d the Ó Sé’s, (Dara) Ó Cinnéide, JJ Corduff, Cathal Dowd all brilliant club players.

“I’ll never forget, we beat them 1-4 to 0-6. Gooch got a point, I got a goal late on, actually laid on by Gooch.

“He was in the full-forward line with Connie Murphy (1989 All-Star) and Pat O’Shea. The boys were both 35 years of age at the time and Colm was 17.

“He fitted right in and was able to feed off them. The boys legs mightn’t have had the pace but their brains were still quick, Colm wasn’t as strong as he became but his football brain was there from that stage.”

Harry O’Neill trained Dr Crokes to win that Kerry senior title, as the teenager Cooper began senior club football combat.

He remembered the child who had been the Dr Crokes mascot in 1992 but after returning to Killarney in 1996 after a stint based in Cork with the Army, O’Neill had a front-row seat to watch the football talent develop.

“You were being told about this guy that he was special. He was such a little whippet that you weren’t quite sure.

“But each year you were looking at him, you could see what a genius he was. I know when he was with the Kerry minors, a lot of the football experts in the county were saying he wouldn’t make it, that he doesn’t score enough, he doesn’t do this or that.

“I was thinking just look at the package here. He was special.”

O’Neill’s forecast would be realised in the abundance of riches that Cooper’s time with Kerry would yield. He called time on a celebrated inter-county career last Tuesday, an announcement that those at the coalface of Dr Crokes saw coming.

“It was on the cards,” says Brosnan.

“A few of inside in the club knew it was going to come. I think it’s the end of an era as regards Kerry. It’s going back to 2002 since he was first involved and you’d had a good few retirements over the winter with Marc (Ó Sé) and Aidan (O’Mahony).

“A couple of years ago, you had Tomás (Ó Sé), myself and Paul Galvin. There’s a good batch of players there gone.”

“It was no surprise,” admits O’Neill.

“If he’d come out and said he was going in with Kerry again, I wouldn’t have seen that one coming.”

It’s just over three weeks since he signed off on potentially his last outing in Croke Park, finally landing the prize that he desperately craved the most.

Dr Crokes had learned in the school of hard knocks before that breakthrough. An All-Ireland final replay loss in 2007 was the precursor to three semi-final losses on the bounce between 2012 and 2014.

“For this team it was fitting that we did win the All-Ireland, obviously for the club, but for Colm as well,” says Dr Crokes forward Kieran O’Leary.

“There’s a lot of medals there that we can thank him for over the years. He deserved it more than any fella. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

O’Leary has throughout his football days looked up to Cooper, seeking to wring every drop of football knowledge he can out of him.

In 2006, he was first drafted into the Kerry senior squad and as he walked into a dressing-room populated with stars, he leaned on Cooper as a familiar figure.

Eoin Brosnan, Colm Cooper, Kieran O'Leary and Kieran Cremin Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

“You’d Galvin, Declan, Donaghy, Mike Frank Russell, they were just stacked with absolutely excellent forwards that will go down as greats of the game.

“Gooch was a savage help to me, always giving advice. If you need to get a touch, he was the right man to give it to you as well if you were doing a bit of arseing around.

“I learned a lot of him in terms of attitude, what’s required, the practice he puts in before and after training, always with a ball in the hand.”

By that stage Cooper was an All-Star and an All-Ireland winner. Brosnan was there to watch his metamorphosis from youngster to leader.

“From day one, what stood out was his skill. But he came on board in Kerry in 2002 and within two years became a leader.

“You were going into a very mature dressing-room, the Hassetts, Darragh Ó Sé, Seamus Moynihan. They’d all been there and done that. But he soon commanded all their respect.”

Different qualities shine through in their assessment of Cooper. Along with his Dr Crokes involvement, O’Neill’s role as Kerry masseur afford him an insight into the Kerry world.

“It wasn’t just the points he kicked or the goals he scored, it was the passes he made. The way he brought other players into the game.

“Sometimes it was small things, I loved the goal he scored against Mayo in the All-Ireland final (2004). It was my first time involved with Kerry. He fielded that ball, took them on, took a couple out of it and stroked the ball to the net.

“That to me epitomises Colm. If you look at the goals he got in Croke Park, most were just passed into the back of the net. That’s the skill he has.”

O’Leary turns to more recent evidence of football class, February’s battle with Galway’s Corofin in the Gaelic Grounds.

“He’s just a wizard on the ball. If you run, he’ll find you. It’s very simple.

“He gave me a couple of balls there against Corofin, that no one else would see the pass. He’s unbelievable vision and savage handling. He’s a joy to play alongside because he’ll make you look like the man.”

Brosnan swerves onto a different path, pointing to the will to win.

“There was two fellas throughout my career that took losses harder than anyone else. One was Seamus Moynihan, the other was the Gooch.

“You’d be disappointed but outwardly you wouldn’t show it as clearly as them two. They really took it hard and showed their emotions.”

Cooper was hit with setbacks that he had to recover from. O’Leary was first on the scene in Portlaoise three years ago, when injury struck down Dr Crokes most prized asset.

Kieran O'Leary checks on the injured Colm Cooper

“I knew he was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was his knee. The way he was clutching at the leg, I thought it was the ankle.

"I never thought it was the dreaded cruciate and it was a lot more than that, he’d a fracture in the knee, he did a lot of damage.

"It was a desperate blow for us on the day, being such a leader on the group. He did some savage rehab to get back to where he was."

They see no coincidence in Dr Crokes slipping from the summit in Kerry in 2014 and 2015, the seasons where Cooper was sidelined or fighting his way back to fitness. Last year he came back to hit full speed and a marathon campaign culminated last month with the perfect ending.

“I remember when St Brigid’s won their club All-Ireland a few years ago," recalls Brosnan.

"They’d been knocking on the door and they got over the line. I was saying, ‘Jesus will we ever do it?’.

“Thankfully we did and the emotion on Colm’s face, the famous photographs of him after, just shows that it was a box that he like of all of us, really wanted to tick.

“We’re both coming to the end of our careers. Colm possibly had his mind made up coming into that All-Ireland that he wouldn’t be going back with Kerry and this would possibly be his last big chance with Crokes because it’s such a long road to get there. It was just relief really.”

Cooper brought the curtain down on his Kerry career on Tuesday but he was back out on Lewis Road yesterday evening in county league action.

“I know personally from being dropped off the inter-county scene, I really enjoyed the summer last year," says O'Leary.

"It’s the time to enjoy your football, play your league games, just enjoy training. You’re not going to be running yourself into the ground, it's enjoyable.

“He owes nothing to no one for what he’s done for the GAA, for Kerry and especially for our own club. He's simply the greatest of all time, and you can quote me on that!”

Brosnan sings from the same hymn sheet with his view on the next football chapter of the Gooch.

"I know myself when I retired, that you enjoy your football. You’re still playing at a pretty high level but there’s not the intensity or bubble of inter-county football.

"I think that’s something Colm is looking forward to. Even the last six months with the club, he’s socialised with fellas, going for games of golf with club mates, he’s re-integrating himself back as a club player.”

And whenever Cooper does hang up his boots, O'Neill can foresee another role for the eight-time All-Star winner.

“What makes him stand out for me is his intelligence on the football field. There is no player in my book that can see things in a move quicker than Colm Cooper.

"What he’s done on the field and the way he’s conducted himself off the field, he was just a pure hero to everyone. On the field of play, he always tried to entertain and he was class to look at.

"He’s an incredible, intelligent thinker of Gaelic football. Hopefully we’ll knock a good few years out of him as a player. After that, I would certainly hope he will go on and get into the coaching end of things because he has so much to offer."

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Fintan O'Toole

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