Cooney finds unexpected silver lining in Donegal after Westmeath setback
Jack Cooney will be patrolling the sideline at an inter-county match this weekend but not the one he might have expected in the early days of last October.
Cooney will don the 'maor foirne' bib for Donegal in their Ulster Championship quarter-final against Armagh in the Athletic Grounds, courtesy of Rory Gallagher's invitation to join his backroom team late last year.
But if everything moved in straight lines in the GAA he'd be in Mullingar instead, plotting his native Westmeath's progression to a Leinster semi-final as they take on Wexford.
Last October the Kinnegad man was firm favourite to become the Westmeath football manager.
The optics were right. A former inter-county player for 13 seasons, he had served as a selector for five years under two different managers, Luke Dempsey and Paidi O Se, during the county's most glorious spell and he had assembled a backroom team that had the look of the family silver.
The talented Martin Flanagan and their two-time All-Star defender John Keane, were earmarked for the Cooney ticket.
Instead the committee charged with finding a successor to Paul Bealin saw more merit in Peter Leahy, another local man who claimed to have former Mayo footballer and coach Liam McHale along with him, a claim McHale subsequently disputed.
Leahy was rejected by the Board but Cooney was still overlooked as the Board officials opted for Tom Cribbin instead.
Then, out of the blue, he got a call from Gallagher who had already brought in the former Glenswilly manager Gary McDaid.
The pair had become acquainted through Cooney's regular visits to the scenic south-west Donegal. His wife, Elaine Byrne, is originally from just outside Kilcar where Gallagher had immersed himself in coaching and assisting the local team.
"We'd be up to Donegal quite often and over the years I'd have taken an interest in Kilcar," recalled Cooney.
"I would have bumped into Rory over the last couple of years. When he was training in Kilcar I would have popped down to see them.
"I'd have a massive interest in Donegal too and we would have gone to see a lot of their matches. So it developed from there."
Those five years with Westmeath (two under O Se) took him through the county's greatest period as they landed a Leinster title for the first time and reached two All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2001 and 2004.
"The quality of players was there. In Luke's time we were unlucky to come up against Meath all the time (three times in 2001 including a draw and again in 2003).
"When Paidi came in just he brought a different element, players responded and pushed on. We got a lot of momentum going, Paidi was brilliant.
"It was a special time to be involved in Westmeath football, a golden patch, great to be part of it," he said. "It's a pity that team didn't win earlier because they could have gone on to bigger things."
Cooney says the failure to land the Westmeath job last autumn hasn't soured him to preclude him from seeking the job in the future.
"You never know. It didn't work out. I had what I thought was a good team put together with a few ex-players," he said.
"I suppose what I was trying to do was to get a team together that had respect within the county as regards their achievements and had a bit of coaching experience as well. It didn't work out, the decision went elsewhere. But I'll always be a Westmeath man."
Involvement with Donegal means regular six-hour round trips to the north west.
"The Donegal thing came out of nowhere really, but I'm really enjoying it. They're very committed, football means a lot to them in Donegal. You don't get to two All-Ireland finals in a number of years without that commitment."
Was there a danger that their drive for it may have been diluted by their efforts over the previous four years and that he was linking up with a team that had already given its best?
"There is ambition in every player. They know themselves what they are capable of at any stage of their career," said Cooney, who is also involved with Celbridge in Kildare.