Gooch craves 'drive for five'
Cooper's knee is fine and fire still in the belly
COLM COOPER doesn't know if he'll get a Celtic Cross whenever Kerry hold their end-of-season medal presentation. More to the point, he won't be looking for one.
Some would argue that the most famous No 28 in Gaelic football deserves a medal for how he battled back from that horrific knee injury last February to get his name on the All-Ireland final match programme, seven months later.
Not the Gooch. "I don't feel I deserve one - no, no," he repeated, speaking yesterday at Parnell's GAA Club in Coolock where he was promoting Lucozade Sport's new 'Kit Out Project'.
"There are plenty of other guys who deserve them - I didn't kick a ball all year. While being part of it is great, I wouldn't think I deserve a medal."
In other words, Cooper still sees himself as a winner of four All-Ireland senior medals; a player who won't be remotely sated by 2014 silverware when a new season dawns next January. "The drive for five, exactly," the 31-year-old says with a laugh.
It was no laughing matter for Cooper - or all of Kerry - when the dreaded confirmation came last February. The most gifted Gaelic footballer of his generation had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, while playing for Dr Crokes against Castlebar Mitchels in an All-Ireland club semi-final. As an added painful complication, he had suffered a knee fracture too.
Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice was with his centre-forward talisman when surgeon Ray Moran broke the bad news. When word filtered out, many folk instinctively dismissed Kerry from their list of All-Ireland contenders.
By the end of August, though, Cooper would be taking part in the warm-up for Kerry's All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick, sending a frisson of anxiety through every Mayo person present. In truth, he was never going to feature that day; but maybe his mere reappearance, in green-and-gold, prompted that Donegal 'spy' to climb a tree outside Fitzgerald Stadium on the Tuesday before the All-Ireland final ... and, who knows, to fall from his perch when Cooper took a part in training that evening.
"It wasn't really to keep Donegal guessing because, I suppose, we had someone up in the tree watching us training," he quipped. "I was going from training to training and progressing very well. In the bigger scheme of things it was never going to happen. I was joining in training and some drills. But in terms of full contact, I was never really going at that pitch.
"I'd been feeling really good. It's only when you're kicking ball and joining in drills, you can fool yourself into thinking you're very close ... but I was never going to play."
That Tuesday beforehand was the only time he joined in for one of the internal training matches. "That's the night he was there - the one night of the year I played football, there was a guy up a tree. I played on the reserve team and just joined in. It wasn't full tilt football either. A bit of shadow boxing football, you'd call it. That was good from my point of view, to show that I'd progressed a good bit.
"At the same time, the time frame hasn't changed. It's still going to be next year. I won't play club between here and Christmas," the Dr Crokes man added.
"As much as I'd love to get involved, I've put in too much work. The fact that we're out of the (Kerry) championship makes that easier. It's still February-March time."
Still, he cherished the moment when Fitzmaurice told him he would be wearing No 28 for the semi-final replay at the Gaelic Grounds.
"He told me that morning," Cooper recalled. "It came as a shock to me as much anyone else, but it probably provides a bit more inclusion. While I didn't get a chance to play, I was still extremely happy to get the jersey and feel part of it.
"It was great to get that opportunity. Because, if you asked me last February and I looked at my knee and it was like a rugby ball, I was saying to myself, 'How the hell am I going to come back from this?' ... never mind kicking a ball seven months later."
June was a "very big month" in his post-surgical rehab, as his recovery suddenly took off. Being able to join up with the Kerry squad, as he moved through the comeback stages, was another positive that "drove me on".
"I was seeing the work the lads were putting in and seeing how fast and strong they were getting, and I need to do an awful lot of work to get to this level," he explained.
"Piss-ups in Dublin and stags here and there are no good to me. I need to get a chunk of work done here and, if I want to get back challenging for a place next year, those types of weekends aren't going to be helping."
Being part of the Kerry 'family' also helped him through the grieving process, two months ago, when his mother Maureen passed away. "The six months between doing your knee and losing your mother was a particularly difficult couple of months," he revealed. "You're saying to yourself, 'Where do you go to pick up the pieces here?' and that kind of thing.
"But the fact that Kerry were going well, I was in training and feeling part of the group, that was a massive boost to me that I didn't realise or maybe the players and Eamonn didn't realise ... it gave me a focus that Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, I was training with Kerry and I'd my mind occupied and I was busy at work at the time. In a way that helped, most definitely."
Now, with Sam Maguire nestling safely back in the Kingdom, here is one Kerry footballer who - eight All Stars and four (not five!) All-Irelands later - will be mad for road next season.
"If you're to ask me personally, I'm just itching and raring to go," he confirmed. "It's been a long season watching football, watching things. Even some nights in training in Killarney ... everybody's pushing for a place and you're jogging around cones or jumping on trampolines. It's no fun really. You want to be out in the middle of it. For me, there's a little bit of hunger and fire in the belly to get back. To prove to myself that I can get back."