Wednesday 19 June 2019

From number 33 to the first defender: How Jonny Cooper bounced back from 2012 snub to become a Dublin legend

Jonny Cooper has won five All-Ireland titles with Dublin since 2013. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Jonny Cooper has won five All-Ireland titles with Dublin since 2013. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Frank Roche

A LEINSTER quarter-final against Louth. Back where it all started for Jonny Cooper in 2012.

Tomorrow’s trip to Portlaoise represents the start of an era-defining summer for football’s flagship champions.

Yet the first pit-stop in the Drive for Five has generated zero expectation of a shock. For that you can blame Dublin’s provincial vice-grip; Louth are but the latest placed in the ‘whipping boys’ pigeon hole that faced all six previous first-day-out opponents of Jim Gavin.

Westmeath lost by 16 points in 2013; Laois by 11 in ’14; Longford by 27 in ’15; Laois again by 11 in ’16; Carlow by 12 in ’17; and finally Wicklow by 23 last year. Double-digit pain awaits.

Mind you, it was like that too in 2012: in Pat Gilroy’s swansong summer as Dublin football boss, the then reigning All-Ireland champions opened with a 16-point cakewalk win over Louth.

Dublin were out of sight by the time Cooper, an All-Ireland-winning U21 captain in 2010, came on for his SFC debut: 58 minutes on the clock, the timer set for a glorious odyssey in Blue ...

From a 2019 perspective, it may seem hard to fathom what exactly happened as he tumbled down the pecking order after that shortlived cameo.

Today, he is arguably the first defender on Gavin’s '15', one of the pillars of a team on the cusp of immortality. He has started all six All-Ireland finals on the manager’s watch, comprising five victories and day-one deadlock with Mayo in 2016. He won his second All Star in 2018 after a standout season.

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Aged 29, the Na Fianna man is fast, feisty and competitive to a fault. A slick footballer who doubles as a man-marking pest; the type of player publicly decried by rival supporters who privately wish he was one of their own.

But it wasn’t always thus, even if his initial Allianz League auditions in 2012 seemed to go quite well. Sprung from the Croke Park bench after 62 minutes of a March stroll past Armagh, 'John' Cooper (as the match programme name-checked him) clipped 0-2 from play in a brief yet enterprising cameo.

He would start the next two outings, against Down and Donegal. He didn’t feature for a deflating massacre in Mayo (surely no bad thing) but started the last round of a curiously erratic league campaign as the Dubs lost in Cork.

Next came his 12 minutes plus injury-time against Louth. Then nothing.

He was originally listed at No 17 against Wexford, only for his place on the bench to be taken by a young Jack McCaffrey. For Dublin’s remaining three summer fixtures, he didn’t make the 26.

The following spring, with Gavin now installed, Cooper told the media what he felt was amiss. “I was doing well and the confidence was probably up,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, the league was over and there was a five- or six-week gap and I probably just lost my confidence. When I did regain it, the team was already set.”

He also admitted that, on joining this squad of All-Ireland winners, he was probably “in awe” of the team.

Several years later, Cooper offered an even more revealing insight. In an interview with The Herald before the 2017 final, he revealed that he still had the number 33 jersey given to him by Gilroy in 2012. This was “kind of a penny dropping. I was like, ‘You don’t want to be a number 33.”

In the same interview, he recounted seeking feedback from the departing Dublin boss. “He just told me straight out I wasn’t good enough,” Cooper recalled. “I knew that anyway.

“He mentioned some areas, some technical skills. He mentioned awareness of space and marking things around me. And look, I was very grateful for that feedback at the time.”

He had already failed to win a squad place in 2011, Dublin’s breakout year. “Mixed emotions,” he said in 2017. “It’s definitely a big part of my drive, my motivation.” That motivation is apparent to all who have soldiered with Cooper. Writing in The Herald this month, Alan Brogan ruminated on whether those Dublin veterans chasing a seventh medal would have the same motivation and energy that was there in 2011.

Then Brogan added: “A fella like Jonny Cooper, for instance, will be wearing compression pants and handing out recovery shakes to everyone in the dressing-room before they’ve even had time to sit down after training. That’s how dedicated he is.”

That won’t change, even as an unheralded Louth loom into view.

“I guess it’s a challenge,” said Cooper last week, “in the sense of you might know other county players that you’ve played against more regularly or more recently. Other than that, the process is the same ... it’s up to us to do our due diligence and pay as much respect as we possibly can to them.”

Diligence. Respect. Two words that capture why he’s no longer No 33.

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