Colm Cooper talks exclusively to Roy Curtis ahead of GAA Championship
IT is his first day at school.
Or a childhood Christmas Eve yearning for that symphony of sleigh bells.
His heart is drumming against his rib-cage, his mind a crucible of hopes and fears.
He is giddy, apprehensive, impatient, wide-eyed.
A fortnight shy of his 32nd birthday, Colm Cooper is again a kid.
He watched Lionel Messi walk with the gods 11 days ago and the adrenaline surge almost shot Gooch out of his seat.
Drooling at the Argentine’s magical dismantling of Munich, he experienced an acute heightening of the senses: He could smell the fresh-cut summer grass in his nostrils, feel the hard, pulverised earth beneath his feet, the sun glistening on his green and gold uniform, hear again the throbbing pulse of the coliseum.
The escape-hatch from limbo at last ajar, sleigh-bells ringing in his ears, nearly there…
Cooper’s excruciating voyage — if not quite the equivalent of fellow Kerryman Tom Crean’s 35-mile solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf — back toward who he once was is nearing landfall. He feels whole again.
Ireland’s most beloved footballer has closed the door on the hardest year of his life. There was the unbearable heartache of burying his mother, Maureen, last August. His father, Mike, passed away in 2006.
Gooch is a single man and was exceptionally close to both parents. Even from 180 miles away, down a crackling phone line, the tenderness of the wound remains palpable.
“It is going to be a very, very strange summer, very strange not having either parent about. The routine you have for 12 years is completely gone.
Sometimes it really dawns on you. Luckily I’m from a big family and that’s very valuable. You can only crack on, hope they are looking down from above and helping you along.”
Nothing would have numbed the awful anguish, but never did he yearn more for his preferred sedative.
But the pharmacy was closed. Injury meant the intravenous morphine-drip of football was – for the first time in his life – not there to soothe him. There was just darkness and a long road.
After his knee buckled 15 months ago, he could not walk, even his dreams were on crutches. There were days when he was terrified it might all be over; endless afternoons of mind-numbing daytime TV, the walls closing in, a dark depressive cloud threatening to smother him.
Football is more than Cooper’s painkiller, it is his oxygen. He looks back now upon the trek along that highway from hell and wonders how he was able to breathe.
“I have to say I struggled on the sidelines with my emotions. I really missed the buzz, the pressure. Ask any injured player. There are seriously tough days. Setbacks.
"The thing you love doing is taken from you. Mentally that’s hard. You doubt yourself. I’m not going to lie, you worry, really worry. I saw my career flash in front of me.
“Some people don’t ever get back. It can be a lonely place.”
Cooper is a superstar without conceit: engaging, thoughtful, enduringly ambitious, inherently decent. His deep-set eyes sparkle when he speaks. Though his natural habitat is the summer meadow, he retains the pasty pallor of the snooker-hall.
Twice last summer we met and talked at length and it was clear that beneath the coversheet of that unmistakable flurry of ginger and freckles resides an open book.
Though this time we have just a few minutes on the phone, he makes no attempt to bat away the searchlight being shone on his innermost anxieties.
When he left us, amid a broiling, epic duel with Dublin on September 1, 2013, he was at the very peak of his powers.
Cooper had just given a career-defining display — conducting the orchestra from the centre-forward pit.
How fearful is he of not being able to locate his old transcendent self, of finding his skills have left the building, returning as Gooch Lite, a dull Madame Tussaud waxwork bearing little resemblance to the vibrant, multi-coloured original, just another cog, one not even certain of inclusion in Eamon Fitzmaurice’s machine?
“Of course I’m a small bit worried. I feel strong. I got 10 minutes in the league against Tyrone, which was great, and I’m back with the club. But I’m not there yet by any means. As they say in the Premier League, I’m building up my minutes.
“But I have absolutely no divine right to be in the team. None. I can’t just waltz back in.
“I’m absolutely facing a fight to prove I can add something. The team won an All-Ireland last year. There is no guarantee that Paul Galvin, Tommy Walsh or myself can improve the starting XV. How can I say I can improve things when I have only played 10 minutes of league football?
“I understand completely that there will be a lot of questions, but I am the only person that can answer them. I have to show I can come back and make a difference. But I have tunnel vision about getting back. This is a second chance. I am very excited.
“I suppose I am like a kid starting off again.”
But if he was setting out now, it would be toward a grim vista.
So much of the game is about suffocation, the big brother of blanket defence is everywhere. The days of hanging the masterpieces from the wall and allowing them brighten up the day are gone.
Now, it is all about throwing a sheet over the picture frame. Derry’s March evening in Croker was the day the music died.
Imagine a teenage Cooper, the manchild who would become the most instinctive, artistic harvester of beauty the game has known, born into such overpowering claustrophobia.
If the championship jungle was populated then with so many sharp-teethed predators as it is now, if they had hunted in such fearsome packs back in 2002, could he have survived and prospered all these years or would he long ago have been reduced to a skeletal wildebeest rotting on the plains?
“Possibly. I played corner forward for 11 or 12 years. And that is an increasingly difficult place to play. For the majority of my career you marked your man and tried to win that battle.
"Now there is so much double-teaming, so many men behind the ball, so much analysis and structure, would I have been successful? Possibly not.
“I’d like to go out tomorrow, shake hands with my opponent and go at it for 60 minutes. But you cannot be naive. That is not going to happen. It is such hard work.
“You can understand a team trying to close up shop against Dublin at Croke Park. If you go toe-to-toe you could lose by 20 and how do you come back from that?
“But what I would say is that structure will only get you so far. When you get to the really big games, to August, you need a little extra. A bit of class in midfield, a forward who can get you over the line, who can change a game.”
Christmas has come early for football lovers. The big bearded man in the red-suit has just sent us back to the future, gift-wrapped and delivered a human PS4, a restored Colm Cooper. Silver bells…
Opel Ireland ambassador Colm Cooper was speaking exclusively to the Sunday World ahead of the 2015 Championship season. As Official Car of the GAA/GPA and sponsors of the All-Star Awards, Opel is proud to support Gaelic games in Ireland. For more information on how you can Experience Opel, check out www.opel.ie.