The greatest of all time? We’ll never know. The greatest of his generation. Quite probably.
There’s little point in comparing sportspeople of different eras. For Kerry fans born at a certain time Jack O’Shea will aways be without equal, but for their fathers Mick O’Connell was the only man.
What’s certain is that Colm Cooper, who announced his inter-county retirement on Tuesday, put together a unique Gaelic football body of work of sustained brilliance over 15 seasons.
His was a game based on speed of thought, vision, extraordinary skill and the best left foot that any of us will ever see.
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Turning 34 in June, the Gooch, nicknamed after a small, red-haired doll available in the eighties, made his Championship debut in 2002 as an 18-year-old in a Munster quarter-final win over Limerick, scoring a single point.
He didn’t exactly burst on to the main stage, but there was growing talk about the slight teenager from Killarney around the Kingdom - about his ability to find a bit of space, to pick a pass, his eye for a score and his outrageous skill.
Later that season he played in his first All-Ireland final, weighing barely over ten stone wringing wet, and was on the losing side to Armagh.
It’s a quirk of Cooper’s career that he suffered as much heartache on the big day as he did joy.
He played in nine All-Ireland finals, only won four. He has eight All Stars - Pat Spillane is the only footballer with more - but like his long time team-mate Darragh Ó Sé he was never crowned Footballer of the Year.
He played 85 Championship matches, with only Tomás and Marc Ó Sé ahead of him on the list, and scored 23 goals and 283 points in those games. He was Kerry’s top, or joint-top scorer in seven of the nine All-Irelands he featured in.
But bare stats don’t begin to tell the tale.
Cooper is idolised in Kerry and adored far beyond. He isn’t a footballer who divides opinion - people just love to watch him play.
In his RTÉ Sport column recently, Tyrone legend Philip Jordan proclaimed him as the best footballer he had ever seen - ahead of even Red Hand County great Peter Cavanan. For a former player from a team that shared such a fierce rivalry with Kerry, that’s a hell of an admission.
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Tyrone were the scourge of his career, losing two All-Ireland finals and a semi-final in the 2000s to Mickey Harte’s team. Mayo were the side he loved to face in Croke Park, scoring four goals in four appearances against them and winning two All-Irelands.
He spent most of his time in the number 13 jersey, though Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice used him as a brilliant centre forward later in his tenure. Never a fan of weights, Cooper bulked up slightly as the years passed and he was always an effective ball winner wherever he played.
The day he often remarked that he enjoyed most in Kerry colours was the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final win over Dublin, a joint-record 17 point margin separating the men from the boys that day.
Cooper set the tone for with a goal inside the first minute. There were many reasons it was so satisfying, including the fact that the Kingdom went into the game as underdogs having struggled that summer.
Best wishes Gooch. The best ever. No one that I've seen could lace his boots. And I don't say that lightly. Enjoy retirement my man 🏐👊🏼— Tomás Ó Sé (@tomas5ky) April 4, 2017
Gooch had actually been dropped for the proceeding qualifier game against Antrim along with Tomás Ó Sé after the pair breached team discipline and went drinking following their shaky win over Sligo. The Dublin performance was redemption and they went on to win Sam that September.
Perhaps the goal that best sums up his ability was his green flag in the first half of losing 2011 All-Ireland final to Dublin.
He had taken his gloves off and went down on one knee to tie his bootlaces when he sensed blood in the water. He was straight up, leaving his laces open and his gloves on the ground, calling for the ball.
His speed of thought had caught everyone by surprise and in the pictures taken directly afterwards he’s the only player in shot on a rainy day with no gloves on.
He suffered a horrific knee injury playing for Dr Crokes in the 2014 All-Ireland club semi-final defeat to Castlebar Mitchels and he only returned in time to make it onto the bench in Kerry’s All-Ireland final win over Donegal - the only one of the Kingdom’s Sam Maguire deciders in 15 seasons he didn’t feature in.
That injury seemed to knock the best out of him. He never returned the same player and in many ways modern football, which expects even the most artful of corner-forwards to track back, was a game not suited to his subtlety.
It’s fitting that he paid his last visit to GAA Headquarters as a player with Dr Crokes when they won this year’s All-Ireland club title, beating Derry’s Slaughtneil with a bit to spare, on St Patrick’s Day.
Having watched a team-mate butcher an earlier goal chance, the arch assassin mad no mistake and hit the back of the net to set his side on the right road.
“Around the country people have known him since he was playing for Kerry, but we have known him since he was a small boy - we’ve seen ten more years of him,” explained Peter O’Brien. “He’s an unbelievable footballer, a gentleman.”
Peter O’Brien was the goalkeeper when Dr Crokes won the 1992 club All-Ireland and he held Cooper’s hand when the Gooch was an eight-year-old mascot for his club - the first time he stepped on the famous sod.
The last time he did so with his boots on brought down the curtain on a wonderful career, one that every football fan who saw it should cherish.