HE is the most unassuming of super-heroes.
He doesn’t make big, bold statements in the Croke Park media room after matches because he has already delivered his quota of big, bold statements on the pitch itself
He is also one of those rare Irish |personalities who is known throughout the diaspora by either his first name or, in this case, the ubiquitous nickname. Think Micko, Bertie, Bono, DJ, Henry, Páidí ... each one of a kind in his own mysterious way.
All of the above, bar a certain |ex-Taoiseach who has lost his Teflon facade, have performed wonders in |Croker. And so has this particular |super-hero, time and again.
There is only one Gooch.
The sobriquet seems to fit the player like a glove. Gooch does not suggest brashness or arrogance but it does |convey a certain uniqueness. It does not evoke images of some caped crusader, saving the Kingdom from the |grip of an evil oppressor, although this didn’t stop one clever headline writer from rebranding him ‘Cooperman’ in the wake of his latest |1-7 masterclass against Mayo.
Pat Spillane, fellow Kerry legend, was straight out of the blocks after that |All-Ireland semi-final, declaring live on the Sunday Game that Colm Cooper was the greatest player he has ever seen.
In conversation with the Evening Herald yesterday, Cork selector Ger O’Sullivan made the very same statement.
Needless to say, the recipient of such glowing accolades would bat them away with a modest shrug.
But at the same time, as Cooper prepares for his eighth All-Ireland final appearance in his tenth season as a |senior footballer, you sense that he’s fully aware of his pivotal importance to the Kerry collective.
Speaking at their All-Ireland press day in his native Killarney, Kerry’s 28-year-old skipper accepted that he is judged by higher standards. Maybe this explains why some pundits were talking of a Cooper ‘slump’ before the semi-final, predicated on the grounds of two less than stellar displays against Cork and Limerick, when his combined |tally was a relatively frugal five points, two from play.
Doubtless, the same pundits had already forgotten the seven points – six from play – that he’d amassed during Kerry’s previous SFC outing, the Munster semi-final against Limerick in June.
“When you go out and kick 1-5 or 1-7, and do it with any regularity, then that’s what you’re going to be expected to do in every game,” Cooper reflects.
“I have set the bar pretty high over the last couple of years, and if you don’t reach those standards then people start asking questions. That’s the nature of the human being, especially in a county like Kerry where you are only as good as your last game.”
By the same token, coming into the Mayo game, the Dr Crokes clubman was not weighed down by worries over form. “Definitely I felt that there was more in me, but I didn’t at any stage feel that my performance was bad,” he insists.
“The first day against Tipperary was fine, a solid enough performance. Solid against Limerick the following day. Cork, a quieter game and probably didn’t get on enough ball as I would have wanted. The Limerick game then was the kind |of a game where it was over a long |way out.
“I never felt that my form was poor but cer
tainly against Mayo, and in August and September, you really need to be razor sharp. You feel your game coming together, and I just hope now that there is another one in there.”
That is perhaps the biggest worry for Dublin’s defence: in good times and even bad, Cooper never flunks it in September. Of his seven All-Ireland finals, he has won four and lost three – in all seven his personal contribution has ranged from rock-solid to downright spectacular.
As the Mayo game also underlined, the minute you start doubting the Gooch is when his next opponent should worry.
This was exactly the scenario that faced Dublin ahead of their 2009 quarter-final: Kerry had stumbled through the qualifiers and the impression of a team in crisis had been fanned by Jack O’Connor’s decision to drop Cooper and Tomás Ó Sé for their previous outing with Antrim, following an alleged breach of discipline.
Suffice to say, this star duo were restored from the start against the Dubs. And within 38 seconds, Cooper had pilfered the goal that set the agenda for the massacre to come.
If you look closely at the replay of that goal, as Darragh Ó Sé arrows an incisive foot pass into Darran O’Sullivan, you’ll spy Cooper (in the very corner of the screen) clearly pushing David Henry, taking his marker temporarily but fatally out of the game. He may be the GAA’s answer to Lionel Messi (as Cork selector O’Sullivan suggests) but like all deadly assassins (the description of Limerick boss Maurice Horan) he can visualise his chance to strike before most others have even read the danger signs.
This same sixth sense was evident against Mayo last month: when a high delivery broke off goalkeeper Robert Hennelly, Cooper was there to pick up the pieces, his back to goal in a congested goalmouth. “I wonder how many others would have gone for goal, or would have considered it?” wonders Mayo selector James Nallen.
Ger O’Sullivan suggests that, one-to-one, Cooper is “impossible to mark”. It’s conceivable that Dublin may double up but this, too, would constitute a |gamble because Kerry’s attack includes myriad potential match-winners, not just one.
Either way, their captain protests that he’s “not too bothered by it. I don’t see it as double-teaming and triple-teaming. I don’t think it’s going to be that way.
“Dublin seem to get a lot of men back alright, but I don’t think that two men are going to come in on me at the start of the game and mark me.
“It’s my eighth All-Ireland final so I am expecting to be targeted. I’ve had to deal with that before,” he points out.