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Declan Bogue: Gifted Kerry star Gooch scored goals just for fun of it

By Declan Bogue

The perfect tribute to Colm Cooper's career in the green and gold of Kerry are the highlight reels of his outrageous gifts. Most especially, you will remember him for his goals.

There wasn't a player in the game that would decorate games with goals as decadent as Cooper, who departed the inter-county world yesterday. His first inter-county Championship goal and the last one for his club in the All-Ireland final were against Ulster opposition.

Fermanagh had the misfortune of meeting a Kerry side hurting from a Munster Championship defeat in 2002. They travelled down to Portlaoise the night before and, as part of their preparations, former Dublin manager Tommy Carr was brought in to deliver a talk.

There had been a bit of a stir about this ginger kid called Cooper and Fermanagh goalkeeper Ronan Gallagher was intrigued.

"He's only a kid," said Carr. "Don't give him a second thought."

After six minutes, a defensive mix-up in the Fermanagh backline. Cooper with the ball. Gallagher advances, intending to smash the youngster. A cheeky lob, the ball resting in the net, 'The Gooch' is born.

Mickey Lilly, the Fermanagh defender usually earmarked for meetings with Peter Canavan, only lasted another eight minutes on Cooper and the pitch.

Living in London, I read the Irish Independent match report and studied the image of Cooper, marvelling at how this bag of bones was playing inter-county when everyone else was bringing sleeping bags to the gym.

From then on, he couldn't be stopped. 1-1 against Kildare. I arrived home in time to take my place in the Hogan Stand to see Cooper and Mike Frank Russell produce a dizzying array of criss-cross runs to torture All-Ireland champions Galway in the quarter-final. He finished with 0-4, that languid kicking action a joy to see in real time as Kerry landed 2-17.

They murdered Cork in the semi-final, running up 3-19. Cooper coolly side-footed a goal five minutes before the break to make it 1-3 of a tally, adding two points after the break.

Around that time, he earned the label from one journalist as being the 'poster-boy of the famine'. Two years later when he was winning his first All-Ireland (another fetch, sidestep, dummy and side-footed goal into the Mayo net) he revealed to reporters he had put a stone on his rickety frame.

Throughout the middle of his career, he would be defined by Tyrone. Quite apart from the All-Ireland finals of 2005 (0-5) and 2008 (0-6), there was a magical league game in Omagh in February 2009 when Kerry raced 11 points clear of the All-Ireland champions by half time. Cooper already had 2-3 in the bank, the first a cool - yes, side-footed - finish, the second snapping on a knock-down like a predator.

Like many others, sometimes Tyrone had to resort to deeply unsporting behaviour to stop Cooper, such as the time he had a finger in his eye in the 2005 final, or the claims he was bitten in the 2003 semi-final.

Ryan McMenamin was accused of both incidents, but denied involvement in a subsequent Laochra Gael programme, stating: "Peter (Canavan) came to me and he says, 'The Gooch is saying it's coming out that he got bit'. I've done bad stuff on the field but I don't think I've ever bit a man."

Whoever did will just have to live with it.

It is perhaps overlooked how Cooper re-invented himself.

It was telling that in Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice's statement yesterday, he revealed: "When I first took over Kerry one of the main things I wanted to do for the 2013 season was to release Colm from the confines of the inside line and allow him to express himself from centre forward. It was a fresh challenge for him and he set about learning the intricacies of his new position with gusto.

"On a training camp to Portugal one evening in April that year we played flat out football.

"I can still vividly recall his performance on that beautiful sunny evening as he put on a clinic of how a playmaker should run the game from 11."

Later that summer, he was exceptional in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin that has become a modern classic. For one pass, he took a step back in possession to open his angle out, bamboozling two defenders, before executing a delivery to Donncha Walsh that ended in a goal for James O'Donoghue.

It remains one of those moments where a grinding, thumping brutal sport becomes balletic.

The end began in the 2015 final when his marker Philly McMahon galloped upfield to kick a point. Royalty was never meant to empty the ashtrays.

Further signs of deterioration came in last month's All-Ireland club final. Despite a series of balls heading in his direction, his direct opponent, Slaughtneil's Brendan Rogers, beat him for pace every time.

Like a grizzled boxer where the punch is the last thing to go, that iciness in front of goal never deserted Cooper as he made the game's decisive play, finishing a drive from Daithí Casey with, naturally, a side-footed slot home.

Could he have remained as an impact substitute, there for the last 15 minutes or so, when decision-making becomes paramount? Would it have tarnished his legacy to fulfil the role? No.

But has he made the right decision? Unfortunately.

Thank God for YouTube.

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