Wednesday 17 January 2018

'He just told me straight out I wasn’t good enough' - How Pat Gilroy helped propel Jonny Cooper to greatness

Pat Gilroy (inset) and Jonny Cooper (right).
Pat Gilroy (inset) and Jonny Cooper (right).
Conor McKeon

Conor McKeon

JONNY Cooper still has the number 33 jersey given to him by Pat Gilroy in 2012.

“I think that was kind of a penny dropping,” he told the Herald just a couple of days shy of his third All-Ireland SFC final.

“I was like, ‘you don’t want to be a number 33, that’s not where I’m setting my stall here’.”

Cooper made his debut for Dublin that spring in Croke Park during a turkey shoot of a league game against Armagh.

He kicked two points, too, but faded from view as the real football started and when Dublin failed to win a second All-Ireland and Gilroy left, Cooper went looking for feedback.

“He just told me straight out I wasn’t good enough,” Cooper recalls. “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 didn’t feel hard done by necessarily but number 33 for a footballer of his quality seemed a bit harsh.

“Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t deserve to be in the top 15 that particular year,” he outlines.

“But it was certainly something that stuck in my mind about the level of work needed but also, to not be in that position again.”

Cooper was no novice though.

In 2010, he captained the Dublin under-21s to All-Ireland glory.

Earlier that spring, he won the first of two Sigerson Cups with DCU.

He was a live contender for the senior squad in 2011 but Gilroy ignored him and Dublin’s breakthrough win was a Jonny Cooper-less event.

“Mixed emotions,” he admits.

“Now, looking back a couple of years later, it’s definitely a big part of my drive, my motivation.

“I know what it’s like to not be involved. To not being able to have any input or impact. That’s probably a large part of what I’m trying to do at the moment.

“To give back to the jersey as much as I can now that I have it.”

It helped that Cooper is highly literate in the technicalities of his sport.

When Gilroy and later, Jim Gavin told him areas to improve upon, he had the understanding of the game’s finer points to do so.

“I love all the detail,” he admits.

“I don’t know if other lads do. In fact, they probably don’t. But it helps me process what I need to do in a chaotic, real-time environment.

“I’m also quite interested how a hand position, one way or another, can give you a slight advantage over somebody’s eyeline or eyesight.

“So I suppose I’m very interested in those small gains.”

Small gains weren’t going to get him into an All-Ireland winning team, though.

Dublin didn’t exactly lack for young defenders when Jim Gavin took over but Cooper was determined.

“I knew it was going to happen because I was going to make it happen,” he says now.

“I didn’t know if that was going to be a year on the Dublin team or five years or ten years.

“But I always knew. I knew I had the drive. And that if I got the opportunity and had the right level of preparation, I would certainly make the most of it.”

Gavin, manager of that under-21 team, saw things in Cooper Gilroy clearly hadn’t.

“That gives you confidence and experience and I picked up other things along with it,” he explains.

“So it all just came in one go. I went from zero to a hundred in the space of a few months.

“Look I’m not as talented as those guys,” he says of the likes of Ciarán Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey, the players who waltzed breezily into the senior team.

“I have to work that bit harder at my game because those guys are extremely talented and have the right attitude and everything else.

“But I have to work harder. So that has definitely fed into the way I try perform and try put into the jersey.”

“At the time, it wasn’t a nice experience,” Cooper adds.

“But now,” he concludes, “that I’m that little bit older. It’s an experience that has stood to me.”

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