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It's a dog eat dog world

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Dublin's Jonny Cooper with Robert Hennelly, Mayo; Karl Lacey, Donegal and James O'Donoghue, Kerry. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Dublin's Jonny Cooper with Robert Hennelly, Mayo; Karl Lacey, Donegal and James O'Donoghue, Kerry. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Dublin's Jonny Cooper with Robert Hennelly, Mayo; Karl Lacey, Donegal and James O'Donoghue, Kerry. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

ALL GAA managers talk up the primacy of the group ... but no one does it better than Jim Gavin.

"It's not about the start or the finish," he stressed, repeating a familiar mantra before the Leinster final. "If we had our way, we'd name the team alphabetically. We don't place any emphasis on the number on a player's back."

Inter-county players invariably follow the managerial lead when publicly discussing the issue of match-day selection. Not alone is there no 'I' in team, it's not even about the team but rather the squad, from No 1 right down to humble No 30-plus.

Still, deep down, you know that every player worth his salt is busting a gut to claim a jersey lower than No 16. He might even bust the colleague next to him in pursuit of same.

That's how it should be and that's precisely how Gavin would want it on the training ground. Jonny Cooper has a vivid description of what exactly it's like: "Dog eat dog".

Cooper knows the score. In 2010, he skippered a Jim Gavin-managed Dublin to the All-Ireland U21 summit. In 2011, he was sitting in the Hogan Stand as Pat Gilroy's crew ended 16 years of waiting for Sam.

Then for a while, during Gilroy's swansong season, he was the young graduate trying to make that difficult senior leap, operating on the fringes of the Dublin team.

For the past 18 months or so, he's been a starting mainstay of Gavin's defence. But now, having suffered a quad injury that sidelined him for the Leinster final demolition of Meath, he is again left waiting for the nod and wondering if he'll get it for Saturday's All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan in Croke Park.

Mick Fitzsimons, an All-Ireland winner and regular starter under Gilroy, took his place against Meath and had the proverbial stormer on Stephen Bray.

Jersey

"The reality is he has the jersey now and deservedly so," says Cooper, "and it's up to me and the other full-back line contenders to try and get one."

The Na Fianna man goes on to repeat the familiar line that "it's all about the collective, and once they are winning it doesn't really matter" ... but later, in the same interview, he offers a revealing nugget into how players really feel. And, by extension, what makes this Dublin squad with its wealth of riches tick.

Cooper has just been asked how Dublin have avoided any black cards during their successful league and Leinster campaigns - a notable achievement, notwithstanding several other red mist moments last spring.

"A lot of emphasis would be placed on discipline, on and off the pitch, and aspects of game play," he replies.

"Jim makes that very clear and it is not within his psyche to have disciplinary issues.

"I think, as a player, nobody can afford to get a black card and sit on the line for too long - because invariably somebody will take your place."

Cooper than expands: "It's dog eat dog in there and I think that although we are all feeding into the one channel of a collective Dublin performance, we are all trying to get a starting 15 jersey.

"The hunger is massive because the competition is massive ... the next guy could step up just as well, or maybe better than you can in some cases."

When you have such internal competition - when players who would walk onto other county teams are struggling even for game-time off the bench - bigger philosophical questions such as "the state of Leinster football" don't cost you a moment's thought.

Problem

Dublin have won nine of the last ten Leinster titles. When people say this is not good for the province, what does a Dublin footballer say?

"That's definitely somebody else's problem," Cooper asserts.

"We are hungry, we are a player group that wants to get a starting 15 jersey," he expands.

"And if the consequence is winning - or, as the media might put it, winning too much - well that's just the way it is. But it's certainly not something that comes into our group."

Besides, the vast majority of the current squad have only been around for part of this decade of dominance. They are consumed by the 
here-and-now, not talk of a golden era.

"Some of the older guys have probably managed to be in that bracket - the likes of Stephen (Cluxton), Alan (Brogan), they are the guys who have laid down the marker for the guys coming in," Cooper reflects.

"For the guys in the middle of their careers now it is about following that; for the guys just starting to follow that too.

"I think they have laid down a fantastic tradition, as have previous Dublin players, of getting the privilege to wear that jersey."

Dublin only learned the identity of their quarter-final rivals last Saturday night, and even later than scheduled as Monaghan eventually squeezed past Kildare in extra-time.

Cooper doesn't see this as a disadvantage, reiterating another Gavin mantra: "We focus on ourselves quite a lot anyway." He expects Monaghan to bring "a lot of momentum" to the table and refuses to get caught up in all the recent speculative talk of a potential semi-final 'culture clash' between the Dubs and Donegal - a repeat of 2011 and the most notorious game of blanket defence in GAA history.

Different

"They (Donegal) have brought a total different perspective to the game, the last couple of years, and I think it's very interesting for the neutral to be looking on and seeing how different styles of play will feed into each other and what will happen," says Cooper.

"If that eventuality comes up, you'll have to address it. But 'til that might arise, it's certainly not something we're looking at."

For now, it's all about Saturday and the no-second-chance reality of the All-Ireland series.

"The safety net's gone now, it's knockout football," Cooper remarks. "And if you weren't acutely aware of it, we certainly are now.

"You can be sitting at home now in four weeks, or on a holiday in four weeks, or you could be still in the championship. That's how black and white it is for us."


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