IT'S fair to say that John Dennis is a student of the game, and the 25-year-old Austin Stacks players has absorbed the lessons well. He concedes that Colm Cooper taught him "a bit of a lesson" when he marked the Gooch in the 2010 county final. We remind Dennis that Cooper has schooled the very best defenders in the land, so there is no shame in that.
As a Construction Management student in CIT for the last four years Dennis has probably learned as much with Sigerson Cup teams as he has in the lecture hall. He cites the former Cork defender Ray Carey as a particular inspiration, while playing and training alongside Colm O'Neill, Paul Kerrigan and Daniel Goulding has helped Dennis hone his own defensive skills. Always learning, always improving.
Dennis has been training with the Stacks seniors since he was 17, but admits he hasn't enjoyed too much success with the club. He points to a photo of the team that won an U-21 club championship a few years back as the highlight of his Stacks career, and help but show the pride he has in that medal and that team. Shane Carroll, Fiachra Mangan and Barry Shanahan are team mates he has soldiered with at underage level, and now that tight group of friends are helping to backbone the senior team.
He played at wing back in that 2010 final defeat, but now he has established himself as a tenacious corner back. He says that previous manager Wayne Quillinan helped him with his tackling, and not to be so rash in jumping in. The new manager, Stephen Stack, has, Dennis feels, taken the team on another level, instiling more coolness and confidence into the collective unit.
"Stephen will get the best out of a player. He will ring you before a game and fill you with confidence. It's a open forum (at training) he will listen to every player and take everything on board. Every player on the panel is important to him. He has really worked on team bonding and he has brought us together even tighter. His big word since the start of the year was 'tightness' and getting the group tighter, and from that there is a real honesty in the group. That honesty has spilled into training and preparation. In the past fellas might have been afraid to give a team mate a bollocking and tell him to up it, but now I think we're all confident enough to do that," Dennis says.
"I feel we have improved, yeah. You look at players like Greg Horan who has come in, Ronan Shanahan, Ferghal McNamara, Darragh O'Brien, David Mannix, these are all great young players, very talented and very level-headed. The discipline side of our game has improved too. Stephen has really worked a lot on that this year. Keeping a level, cool head on the pitch is kind of half the battle.
"We were growing as a team over the last few years and we didn't really know each other as a team. Back in 2010 you have Barry Shanahan's age group coming together with William Kirby, whereas now we have all played together for a period and we know each other much better now. The last couple of years were a transitional period. When Crokes finally won their first county title they were probably at the stage where we are at now. They had got used to each other. Gooch knew how Jamie Doolan played, for example."
He can reflect on that 2010 final against Crokes now with a bit more clarity. He enjoyed the experience of preparing and playing in a county final, and at 22 the disappointment of losing it probably didn't fully sink in for a while. Now Stacks are back in the final three years on - against Crokes again - and Dennis appreciates more what it's all about.
"A few of us were a bit green. It was our first time there. Crokes had gone the hard way about it, having lost a few (finals) before that. I was marking Gooch and I got a bit of a lesson. It was a great occasion, and it's great to have something like that to be looking forward to in October. You'd enjoy the run up to it, but you're still just waiting for the day to arrive. You're not nervous but you just want the game to happen.
"Both teams know each other very well. We have played each other in the championship every year since that final. It was tough to take, losing in any county final is tough, but you have to try and learn from it."
And learn from it he will, as John Dennis has been doing all his football career. If absorbing the lessons of past success and defeat counted for anything Dennis would already be a county champion.