Wednesday 23 October 2019

His tough start in blue, the stabbing that changed his life and final red card - Inside Jonny Cooper

Jonny Cooper has rarely done things the easy way. The lessons he learns, however, are always absorbed to conquer the next challenge

Dublin defender Jonny Cooper won his sixth All-Ireland medal this year. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Dublin defender Jonny Cooper won his sixth All-Ireland medal this year. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Even though you've arrived early, he is earlier still, seated alone and reading.

The book in front of him is an account of a season with the Richmond Tigers in the Australian Football League. It is hard to know with Jonny Cooper whether the read is for business or pleasure. But today he is looking relaxed and unburdened.

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An introvert, by his own admission, he will provide interesting and engaging company for the next couple of hours. 

"Sometimes you're sitting in the circle," he remarks about the Dublin squad at one point, "and you're wondering, 'Jeez, how did I get in here?'"

Who knows how he got there better than him, yet he will always ask himself that question because it in his nature to be forever delving.

"Sometimes you feel like a bit of an impostor," he tries to explain. "I am very lucky, the area I am from and the club I am from, Na Fianna; they give you so many good values and groundings over the years. So you can take stock of where you are now and show a bit of gratitude."

Jonny Cooper with the All-Ireland U21 (Clarke) Cup alongside manager Jim Gavin
Jonny Cooper with the All-Ireland U21 (Clarke) Cup alongside manager Jim Gavin

And he speaks of the quirky nature of that transition from fan to player and, invariably, back to fan again. He has just won his sixth All-Ireland senior medal, and been spared the role of villain of the piece by dint of a replay - which offered the chance of exonerating himself after the drawn match dismissal.

He talks, in a karmic fashion, about things happening for a reason. Even the darkest episodes of his life.

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And even the bleakest of those, when the victim of a knife attack in Dublin in September, 2014, still sees him relate it back to football in some cosmic way. He will certainly admit that it changed his life. Fundamentally changed him. "Ah, 100%," he says. "100%."

That incident was a pivotal moment and the other influence which pervades much of this conversation is his mother, Loyola, he being the youngest of four to her and Brendan.

An emotional Cooper embraces Declan Darcy after Dublin’s victory against Kerry which secured the All-Ireland SFC five-in-a-row. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
An emotional Cooper embraces Declan Darcy after Dublin’s victory against Kerry which secured the All-Ireland SFC five-in-a-row. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

His mother's father was a founding member of Na Fianna in 1955 and Cooper's granduncle, Simon Deignan, played for Cavan in the Polo Grounds. On that side of the family there existed a strong work ethic and a passion for football, both of which rubbed off on Jonny Cooper.

"I remember after the game (All-Ireland final replay) Dec Darcy running up to me. I was in front of the Hill and I saw a picture of the two of us after and the Hill was behind us and over my right shoulder as you're looking at the picture that's where me and Mam used to always stand," he said.

"The same spot every time. And when you're looking at the photo, I am in the foreground here, but in the background is that memory of being up there, singing along and all that sort of stuff. Maybe I'll go back there one day."

The earliest memories of following the Dubs are a haze of influences: Meath, Kildare, Ollie Murphy. He and his mother would travel with a ritualistic devotion, like regular Mass-goers.

Jonny Cooper receiving a red card from referee David Gough in the All-Ireland final. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonny Cooper receiving a red card from referee David Gough in the All-Ireland final. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"We would have gone to the same spot - as you're looking, to the right. It is different now, there's barriers now, but it was a wall at the time. I used to fall asleep a lot of the times at games. I'd be sitting on the wall and Mam would be behind me, holding me, so I didn't fall over," said Cooper.

"So obviously I wasn't that interested if I was falling asleep! It's funny. I sometimes think of that: you were asleep on the Hill in front of a really packed house and a really noisy atmosphere.

"Even though (brothers) Niall and Mark and my sister (Jules) were mad into it, a lot of time it used to be me and Mam.

"That's the bond we would have had on the football side of it, we'd go to Dublin games together, she'd have taken me, and she'd have taken others as well at different times, but it used to be us two a lot of the time.

"We'd be there at 12 o'clock. The first ones in the door. The turnstiles would open. Egg sandwiches in the bag. Same routine. Watch the minor match. Same spot. All the latecomers come in. Get in your way. That's why I used to sit on the wall, so I'd be able to have a clear vantage point."

Jonny Cooper was a talented dual player who won an All-Ireland 'A' hurling medal in 2006 with Dublin Colleges and a minor hurling provincial medal the following year. But football, once the county came knocking, swept him in one direction.

In 2010, he was captain of the Dublin under-21 team under Jim Gavin and Declan Darcy but trying to get on to the senior squad became a difficult learning curve. Going into early 2011 he continued playing with a shoulder that needed an operation to see if he would get a call from Pat Gilroy.

In March, he quit waiting and had the operation. The rehabbing that followed kept him busy and his mind occupied.

He is capable of saying that he was not good enough then. The marking system was ruthless with Dublin trying to find the steel and smarts needed to win an All-Ireland.

"Football-wise I wasn't good enough at the time but I would have thought that I had a good work ethic and that I could have added to the mix in some way," he says.

"Did I think I'd play (for Dublin)? I always wanted to. I always had the passion and the drive and the discipline to do some extra things in the background that hopefully one day it would be worth it.

"And then slowly but surely I began to get a couple of games here and there in 2012 under Pat (Gilroy). That sort of fizzled out. In 2013, Jim comes in.

"I knew Jim for a couple of underage years so that gave me a little extra bit of confidence but like anything with Jim it has to be earned. And you have to go through the whole process."

Being quiet and private left him feeling additionally peripheral when he wasn't getting game-time. His confidence sank. But he says there was a positive element.

"I was really sure when I wasn't playing in 2012 that this was what I wanted to do. So it kind of tested me a little bit. Because I was pushed away a little bit, it tested me to see whether I had that real anchor inside me; is this what you want, is this what you are willing to sacrifice it all for? Thankfully, the answer was yes," he said.

When it wasn't happening for him in 2011, he spoke with Gavin and Darcy.

"I think Dec called me actually, I was sitting up in the library in DCU and I remember seeing the name flash up and I hadn't talked to him in about a year I'd say, since the previous year, 2010, with the under-21s.

"He said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He was trying to get at why aren't you playing, what's the story? And I said, 'Look, I'm trying, doing some stuff in the background, but I'm not what's required I guess'.

"And I was bouncing stuff off Jim around the time, what do you think I could do, I know you are not involved, but what do you think Pat might like, or be interested in? They were very good.

"I think they came to me first. And then after going down to watch them in Croke Park (winning the 2011 All-Ireland final) I think I ended up going out training the next morning because I knew the 30-odd guys that were my direct competitors weren't going to be training and I was trying to get the edge there, in my own small way."

* * * * *

The cataclysmic 2011 final was where it would all change for Dublin and football in general. In the days beforehand Jonny Cooper was in a dither. Would he stay or would he go? He was more inclined to stay. His mother put him right.

"I remember saying, 'I am not going Mam'. She said, 'You have to go. You have to support the team'. But I said, 'I can't do it', in a very selfish way, 'I can't do it because I wanted to be there'. In a different way."

You felt you could be out there?

"I didn't deserve to be out there but I wanted to be out there. Ah look, I have massive respect for all those people that played but I just would have felt that, God I knew a few of them like Maccer (James McCarthy) and Rory (O'Carroll) personally, I would have felt like I wanted it to be me so bad that being that close to it I don't know was that the best thing for me at the time. Should I just stay at home?

"I can't remember the exact words (what she said) but it was something like, 'You're not not going', you are going as a supporter like everyone else."

He went. "When they won it, Stephen (Cluxton) at the end, who I would have known from school, with him having been our teacher, and he kicked that and, I don't know, it was a mixed bag of emotions.

"I was extremely happy. But while surrounded by thousands you might as well have been standing there on your own. I didn't really embrace any other person."

In 2012, he made the squad, had a run of league games and then played just 15 minutes of the championship, in the Leinster quarter-final against Louth. He remembers the 2012 Leinster final and being handed a jersey with 33 on its back ("a token jersey") which he would keep with the others and use at times as a provocation.

"But he says he "deserved" to be in that position because he "didn't have enough in me, footballing-wise I didn't have enough in me".

The environment wasn't equivocal that way. "When it comes to playing against another inter-county team you can't be putting stock on a guy who's good at communication or a guy that's good at reading a game. He has to do the business and the job," he said.

"But Pat (Gilroy) was very open with me in terms of learning and when he left that was a bit of a transition because I felt I was only getting to know him, and he was getting to know me, even though I knew Jim very well and it worked out well. I met Pat when he left, again to try to get some feedback. And he was very good to me with his time."

What he heard didn't come as news to him either. His physique wasn't powerful enough and there was an issue around his "game intelligence" or game awareness.

"When you are in the trenches the last couple of years you build up that stock of knowledge, what to do, what not to do, obviously that comes with experience but at the same time Rory O'Carroll went straight in. James McCarthy went straight in. Guys do it and have done it. I unfortunately wasn't one of them people that had that ability to make that transition as quick as they would have."

He can remember the first ever training session, or trial, under Gavin around a dozen years ago on the all-weather pitch at St Brigid's.

"I built up that understanding I guess with him. At the same time I'd like to think there was no leg-up given to me at the start. I'd like to think I was at the same level as everyone else. I have to earn every jersey. Still do."

* * * * *

Having made the team in 2013 and won an All-Ireland medal, Cooper was part of the only championship defeat under Gavin, when Donegal found inviting channels in their backline the following year in the semi-final. In September, weeks later, the knife attack as he walked home on Dublin's Dorset Street after a night out, turned his life upside down.

"It's funny, to take it back to the football side of things, on reflection, I didn't do enough work or preparation going into Donegal and the position I played, six, was a decent reason why they got so much success on the day.

"And then you lost and you go out the week after maybe or the week of the All-Ireland, I'm not sure exactly what weekend it fell on, and the reason why you're there is because you didn't do enough work.

"And then at the same time your ego is quite big at this stage, you think you're invincible, you're not doing much around the club, you're not giving back too much. And then something like that happens. It's probably not right to say you deserved it but at the same time I do believe some things happen for a reason. I got pulled back down a good few pegs when that happened."

He struggled with the attention it created, being inclined to shy away from public scrutiny as much as possible. "I remember a guy in a car following me with a camera. Just random things. You are going, 'Holy God if I just had a few drinks. I don't know, if I had done a bit more preparation I could have been in the final as opposed to be out celebrating or out drinking that night'.

"Guys following me in a car. Guys knocking on the door. And even back to Mam; I think that was the first holiday she took, she works her holidays around Dublin games. Don't know why but she does.

"She went on the Thursday. That happened on Friday. And you are ringing her. Your sister is ringing her going, 'Something is after happening, everything is grand, but stay where you are'. 'Cos you're thinking she hasn't gone away in 10 or 15 years and then she has to come back."

After the attack, he was taken to the Mater Hospital and kept overnight. Gavin and Mick Bohan, formerly part of Gavin's backroom team, came in to see him, When he woke up there were family members all around the bed. The story made national headlines. He left the hospital through a back door, went home and hid for a few days.

"Mam has to come home from holidays. It's on Prime Time. The family are getting it from all angles. And it's your fault I guess."

Do you still think it was your fault?

"I think so . . . if you are not doing enough preparation or enough around the community or just having an ego, I guess, having an inflated ego because you play for Dublin, or you think you are invincible."

That's a hard way of looking at it?

"Probably."

He pauses and goes again. "I don't know, I view it differently. I feel extremely grateful that you could come out of it going, 'God it's only a couple of scratches', but it could have been very different. That's why I thought I'd used all of my lives in that incident.

"And then in a strange way you link it back to the first game (All-Ireland final drawn match 2019) and you think, 'God I've no lives left. We'll definitely lose and you'll now get what you deserve'."

He doesn't remember much of the incident itself, but it was followed by professional counselling and massive support from within his club, the county panel, and his circle of family and friends. But, naturally, it took time to overcome the effects.

"I remember saying to Niall, my brother, at the time, 'God, I am scared sitting here', two days later. When it got dark, even those things were getting to me, (or) walking down the road, looking over my shoulder for a little while.

"Glasnevin, my home, is a very safe place. Even when it was bright out, if a noise went off or a bang or whatever, that took a while, that took probably 18 months to two years to sort of get over."

You wouldn't recommend it of course as a method of learning. But there was a lesson to be learned.

"I have learned a lot about myself and the priorities you should have and the gratitude and the respect and just being a little bit more grounded as opposed to being a little bit more ego-driven and selfish which is easy in a way when you're doing well, and playing with Dublin."

His mother's plight trumped his own and what he felt he had put her through.

"I remember we collected her from the airport. And that in itself was tough. You are the reason she is coming home. The holiday thing, I know how hard she worked and worked without any holidays, and you pulled her away from it.

"And I can still do a lot more, I am still not perfect, I have made a lot of mistakes since as well. I am still trying to understand myself and how I fit into the grander scheme of things."

* * * * *

Of the new wave of precocious Kerry footballers, David Clifford is the standard-bearer. The choice of player to mark him in this year's All-Ireland final was not a light matter for Jim Gavin and his colleagues to consider. Cooper is a tenacious marker and one of Dublin's most experienced. But he unravelled over the course of three separate interactions, the first leading to a penalty and the third leading to a second yellow and him being sent off.

"I was probably over-anxious or over-eager. And probably my ego came into it a little bit: I need to win this (ball) for me as opposed to I need to do something else for the betterment of the team. You do one of them things and you say, 'ok, I won't do that again'. But when you have three on the bounce you are saying, 'Where is my head at, where is my focus at?'"

It happening on the brink of half-time helped for a while. "You're thinking: make sure you go in, as you're walking in the tunnel make sure your body language is good, your eyes are up, you confidence is up, make sure that everything is normal as it would be although you're not there which is difficult because you're thinking I am after making a b***** of this for the rest of the lads."

How much of the end was relief? "Yeah, it's probably one of the emotions. You're relieved. You're angry. You're sitting in the dressing room for maybe 20-30 minutes after, just staring, trying to be logical about it. Ok, fine margins and if you have another opportunity here's what you do but at the same time you're after extending the year pretty much for everybody and messing up not necessarily their plans but the way it could have been."

Some who know him, or perhaps have an impression of him, see the more abrasive part of his game as one he acquired. He disputes this.

"No, it's probably always been there somewhere. It's probably gone up and down over the years.

"Some years I have probably got more yellow cards than other years; some years very few, if any. Probably a lot of it in some ways came from not being involved.

"And knowing that if you ever got the opportunities, not that everything had to be 100 miles an hour but, certainly, if there was something there, a ball to be won or something, that always in the back of your mind you're thinking: so what if you get a kick in the head, you were in the stands two years ago, or you were rehabbing your shoulder another year. You remember those moments.

"I don't buy a lot of it to be honest. I get an awful lot of stick on social media, people slating me and stuff, which is funny because they actually question a lot more your character and you as a person than they do you as a footballer. Which I know is how the world works but . . ."

* * * * *

His mother's father, Brendan, having left Cavan, started a clothes wholesale business in Ranelagh. Jonny, along with his siblings and cousins, and other family members, worked there from time to time. He talks about this as another influence that gave him an appreciation and respect for hard work.

"Tough work. On your feet. Lifting boxes and moving things and so on. I would have worked there from maybe 10 years of age all the way through each summer. And you build up that work ethic, that discipline. It's maybe not the same anymore.

"But getting up and crossing the city at 7am and getting back at maybe 5.30 or later depending on traffic."

He thinks how much his late grandfather would have enjoyed what is happening now for Dublin but he died before any of that took place. The club he helped found has also become a more integral part of Jonny Cooper's life. He serves, when he can, on the club executive. He knows there were years when he was not seen there often enough. He forgot that for a while. He values it now.

"I definitely fell away from the club through my own selfishness and probably ignorance. And I shouldn't have. They are the reason I'm playing, I guess. And involved with Dublin and getting all these wonderful opportunities and yet - turned my back is probably too strong - but probably some days I did.

"I think when you come back off the end of a season with Dublin and you are 'matched out' - everything has gone into that, emotionally, physically, mentally - and then the club window is the couple of weeks after and you go back into the club a couple of days later but you're not there, you're not contributing and then you lose the game and are knocked out of the championship and there's an odd league game but there's nothing really to be around for. And then on the volunteer side of it, you are not even going down, you are not being at the nursery, you are not even showing a face."

He chose not to go out of his way to help out with the nurseries for a while, to not give something back.

Perhaps having a slightly introverted nature contributed to that decision to remain away. He's through that phase now.

"I remember all the people who looked after me in the nurseries. Sometimes you fall away from things and then get back into things.

"It is only sometimes when you have personal experiences later you learn to show more gratitude, that you are where you are because of the club and other people - you are not where you are on your own. So you try to give positive experiences back to other young people who look up to you. Like I had with Geezer (Kieran McGeeney) and Dessie (Farrell) and Senan (Connell) and J (Jason Sherlock)."

He has his anchor now, any amount of them in fact.

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