Monday, July 02, 2007

They Got Game

Isn't Killarney lovely? All the mountains and lakes you could want. Hotels, B & Bs and diddly-aye pubs as far as the eye can see. Enough Arran sweaters to clothe the entire North American continent. Lovely.

Fitzgerald Stadium? Just lovely too. It looks like a scene from one of the miniature snowshakers sold in the souvenir shops on Main Street. Like someone hand-painted a preposterously picturesque mountainy-lakey background onto a picture of a tidy provincial GAA ground in order to flog it to gullible Yanks.

And lovely football too! Of course, with such a setting, it's no wonder Kerry pride themselves on the aesthetically pleasing nature of their football. Perhaps, during a particularly free-flowing attacking move, the players are being subliminally inspired to create something as breathtaking as the MacGillycuddyreeks that occupy their peripheral vision. Certainly you can understand why the ugliness of blanket defence never truly found a home in the Kingdom; it would have been like putting a MacDonald's franchise in the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel.

If Kerry do feel a certain noblesse oblige to demonstrate the finer aspects of a game of which they are the masters, it's a responsibility that sits easily with their players. The purity of Gaelic football as played by Kerrymen emerges through the innateness of their skills. They are a testament to an uncomfortable truth for sporting ecumenists like me: that true mastery of a sport can only result from complete focus on it, without distraction from others.

Not that Kerrymen don't kick a soccer ball now again. And, of course, Kieran Donaghy has achieved the highest honours in Gaelic football only after initially excelling at basketball (and indeed as brought many of the skills of the latter to the former).

But your archetypal Kerry footballer seems to be spiritually in tune with the game in a way that suggests that call-up to the senior team requires one firstly to spend seven years in a Himalayan monastery with an order of Gaelic footballing Shaolin monks.

Colm 'Gooch' Cooper is, of course, the golden child in this particularly exclusive order. Yesterday was another addition to the long list of Gooch masterclasses. His goal was a classic demonstration of this higher level of understanding of the game that someone like Gooch possesses. His execution is almost always perfect, but the key to a piece of Gooch virtuosity comes in the milliseconds before the magic. The guy is quick with his hands and feet, yes, but also, more importantly, with his mind.

Gooch's footballing brain operates at a speed that goes beyond simple, quantifiable thought or decision-making processes. What he does is instinctive, like the way great songwriters often say that they feel as if they are simply plucking melodies from the air around them, so in tune with their muse are they.

Perhaps Gooch is an exemplar of what Malcolm Gladwell (the journalist and author of The Tipping Point) called "rapid cognition" in his follow-up book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, basically the idea that one's initial, instinctive judgement of a situation is generally the correct one. Gladwell believes that those who are successful can make snap judgements based on the correct evidence, discarding useless or irrelevant factors.

It was there in the pirouette for his goal; in the slide-rule foot-pass along the ground to Mike Frank Russell in the second half; in that moment in the first half when the massed Cork defence froze in front of his serene presence, and he unlocked them with a simple handpass that had been hithero invisible to any normal observer.

Gooch is only the finest exponent of this instinctive 'feel' for the game, but it's everywhere in the best Kerry footballers; in the way on Mark and Tomás ó Sé solo the ball as if it was just a normal part of running, or the way Darragh ó Sé fields, or Mike Frank shapes to shoot.

Lovely stuff.

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