GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Joe Brolly's weak Tyrone argument doesn't affect Gooch's legacy

Colm Cooper won four All-Irelands with Kerry, the last of them in 2009. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

DEBATES about the greatest players in any sport are always subject to blindness, bias and belligerence, and we’ve seen plenty of all three this past week over Colm Cooper.

Was he the best forward / corner-forward / footballer ever to play the game? Pick from any three of the debates and it’s still impossible to be definitive.

When you’re talking about the Mikey Sheehys and John Egans and Peter Canavans, the first question you have to ask is whether they would have met the lifestyle demands of the modern game.

Back in 2013 when he joined Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s backroom team, Sheehy himself admitted that despite decades of following Kerry, even he was stunned by the levels of professionalism.

"Back in our day, we wintered well and maybe put on a few pounds but that day is gone. These lads are like professional soccer players, their conditioning is frightening and I think that sometimes supporters and punters forget this.

"I am only talking about the Kerry lads, but I am sure the other counties are the same, training two nights a week, gym work two mornings a week at 7am and game most weekends - the scans, blood tests and so much more.

"They are utterly dedicated. It's a professional set-up and players are well looked after, but, boy, do they deserve it."

And the reverse question also applies. Sheehy played in a hard, often thuggish era, where the games could be brutal and the punishment for star players extreme.

Would Colm Cooper have survived that? Would he have had the ribs to withstand for a lack of protection from referees, which forwards undoubtedly suffered from in those days.

There are too many variables to say he was the greatest or that any of the others were.

And each of the names being bandied about over the last seven days were brilliant in their own way.

Growing up, I absolutely loved watching Steven McDonnell. He was my favourite forward by a distance.

Cooper's performances in the big games have come under scrutiny. Picture by Declan Roughan

Armagh’s diagonal style suited him, allowed him to display the repertoire of ball-winning and two-footed finishing that was just everything you could ever want from an inside forward.

Was he any less than Peter Canavan because he won an All-Ireland less? Would Canavan be held in the esteem he rightly is if he hadn’t gotten his hands on Sam Maguire?

Joe Brolly has spent the week writing Colm Cooper’s career off because Ryan McMenamin shut him out of the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final.

The RTÉ pundit has been conveniently lumping 2005 and 2008 into the same basket but Cooper scored eight points from play across those two games against Tyrone, gave Conor Gormley a torrid time for a while in one of them, and was top scorer in the ’08 final.

If you take Bernard Brogan’s stats from All-Ireland finals excepting the 2-3 he scored in the 2013 win over Mayo, which was Dublin’s handiest of their four since 2011, he’s scored 0-4 from play in four appearances.

You could go into the vault of any player and find bad games or moments when they didn’t do what is expected of them.

Mikey Sheehy was clean through on Paddy Cullen at a crucial stage in the 1976 All-Ireland final, but tried to round the Dublin ‘keeper soccer style and fluffed his lines. Dublin went on to break the hex Kerry had over them.

That doesn’t affect Sheehy’s legacy, which comes from a much less scrupulous era. Nor should it. One afternoon should never cloud a man’s career.

Joe Brolly's claims that Colm Cooper never performed against Tyrone don't stack up. Picture by Mal McCann

Colm Cooper was better against Tyrone than a certain narrative is suggesting and in his eight All-Ireland finals, he was kept scoreless just once. He scored 4-32 on September Sundays, 4-18 of it from play.

That doesn’t make the Dr Crokes man the greatest ever to have the game either, but it does put a red pen through one of the primary criticisms that exists against claims in favour.

Gaelic football, though, ended up marginalising Cooper. His knee injury had an impact but he was already 31 when he suffered the torn cruciate. There’s a very good reason why there aren’t many 30-plusses playing inter-county football these days.

Some said his career was split into before the injury and after it, but really it was split into pre-Donegalitis and post-Donegalitis.

The game at that level simply has no place now for a player that thrived on space, not just for himself but those around him.

He was a master in creating it, as his two assists in the 2013 semi-final against Dublin showed. It was the first of them that Eamonn Fitzmaurice referenced in paying tribute last week, when his half-step away from goal as he received the ball off Tomás Ó Sé allowed the move to develop in front of him.

Was Colm Cooper built for mastering a Philly McMahon? For dealing with that combination of athleticism and ability?

Whatever about the way in which Ryan McMenamin got a handle on him defensively, Cooper struggled even in his mid-20s to cope with the Dromore man’s bursts out of defence.

That wasn’t the type of player he was. To put that against him is to judge the fish on its ability to climb the tree.

What every Kerry manager that had him got was the finishing. The vision. The craft. The ability to go on the left or the right. To conjure something from nothing.

Not all leaders wear the same uniform.

Colm Cooper has earned the right for his name to be carried in any debate about the greatest players of all time.

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