Thursday 20 June 2019

Home is where the heart is for Cooney as he puts experience to good use

Westmeath manager Jack Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Westmeath manager Jack Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Right through Jack Cooney's meandering path to become Westmeath manager, a friend's counsel stuck with him.

"I got good advice from a friend a couple of years ago who said, 'Make sure you get all your experience on the way up', because when you take that job you can't go back for the experience," he recalls.

He has arrived now, ready to take charge of Westmeath in the championship for the first time when they take on Laois in Tullamore tomorrow. It would be wrong to call it a life's ambition to take charge of Westmeath but if the chance came up to manage his home county, Cooney was determined to be ready.

It was with that in mind that he worked under Luke Dempsey, just after bringing a 12-year largely fruitless career as a player with the county to an end.

He was there, too, with Páidí Ó Sé when the Lake men won their breakthrough Leinster title in 2004. More recently, he picked up more experience at football's deep end. Cooney spent two years in Donegal under Rory Gallagher in the years after they had reached the 2014 All-Ireland final.

"I'm delighted I'm here (with Westmeath) now," Cooney reflects. "The way it would have been with me, if the opportunity came I wanted to be as good as I could be or be ready and have the experience. And when it did come, I felt I had enough experience under my belt at that stage. I'm not going to lie, I was delighted to get the job."

Each experience and each manager taught him something, not least Ó Sé's ability to cajole a little bit more out of players when they thought they had given their all.

"He was a great man, a great motivator. I was definitely listening a lot more than I was talking back then. Just the way he'd work fellas. He'd a great sense of people, he was a very passionate man and great to be around him. It was a great two years."

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And his stint in Donegal taught him that any good set-up is player-led.

"What amazed me up there was the levels of commitment. They were phenomenal. I came in after they got to the All-Ireland final in 2014 and the hunger and drive and commitment was still there to go again.

"It became pretty obvious then, if you don't have those levels of commitment, you are not going to achieve what you realistically set out to achieve. It all comes from that level of drive from the players.

Purpose "That group of (Donegal) players, they had won it in 2012 and were one of the top teams in the country, but there was a real sense of purpose and drive and hunger.

"They are very important ingredients in any team you take over. That became very obvious when I took over Westmeath - that these are important ingredients. Because if you don't have those, everything else can fall down around it."

Tomorrow, Westmeath turn their thoughts to the summer and Laois in a Leinster quarter-final. The year to date has been a resounding success, with promotion from Division 3 secured.

Cooney is the first Westmeath native to take charge of the county since Brian Murtagh in 1992. And while he agrees that native managers seem to have more success, he believes that appointing outsiders worked for them too.

"It can be overstated because Westmeath have had some excellent outside managers if you want to call it that and maybe there wasn't someone there within the county that could step up to the mark or had the experience.

"I don't know the stats about the number of outside managers who have won stuff with other counties, but I think it's small enough. The formula seems to be a manager from within his own county seems to get a good response."

Whoever comes out on top in tomorrow's game takes on the winners of Carlow and Meath, who meet tonight. And Cooney agrees all four sides will have their eye on a Leinster final spot.

"You could certainly say it's a realistic objective to go after for any team on that side of the draw."

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