Jonny Cooper says Dublin are their own harshest critics
GIVEN the ultra-protective way that players are shielded from the spotlight these days, it was significant that Dublin produced Jonny Cooper at their pre-All-Ireland media day recently.
The Na Fianna corner-back was part of the Dublin defence that conceded three goals to Kerry inside the opening 20 minutes of that spectacular semi-final slug-fest.
Dublin had previously conceded only one goal this summer, which happened particularly early against Kildare when Cooper himself had a shaky start, but recovered impressively.
Yet despite that, questions have been asked about their full-back line, which occasionally gets exposed by their team's ultra-attacking ethos.
Kevin O'Brien got the crooked stick against Kerry after James O'Donoghue gave him the run-around, but it was Cooper who was replaced against Cork and he was also involved a minor controversy last time out when he took down the Gooch and was lucky not to get a second yellow card.
In those circumstances, giving the press a swerve might have been timely and understandable.
Yet Cooper and seasoned veteran Bryan Cullen were the only two Dublin players in attendance, a telling reflection on a confident 23-year-old who seems to take scrutiny and criticism remarkably well and has a sharp, dry humour.
No one, he says, was more upset about their start against Kerry than the players themselves.
"Even though we won, we wouldn't brush anything under the carpet, we analyse ourselves very critically after any game – win, lose or draw," Cooper says.
Dublin's post-match analysis, he stresses, always involves "a lot of people putting their hand up and saying: 'I should have been there, I should have done that.' That's what we've bought into.
"We have to take responsibility, and we know that giving up 3-11 isn't going to be good enough.
"But the game is over 70 minutes," he reasons. "I don't know what was gone (at the time), but you still knew there were 50 minutes left.
"That was a nightmare start in terms of the goals going in, but, as cliched as it is, you were always just concentrating on the next play and the next ball coming in.
"We were very aware of the time left and there was no panic button pressed. It's our mental strength that has been driving us on."
Dublin boss Jim Gavin has a defensive selection conundrum this week – particularly about centre-back – but Cooper has been ever-present since making his championship debut against Westmeath in June.
He captained Dublin's U-21s to an All-Ireland in 2010, but, unlike his underage team-mates Rory O'Carroll and James McCarthy, didn't immediately break into the seniors.
Pat Gilroy called him up last year, but cut him lose and it wasn't until the arrival of Jim Gavin, who managed that U-21 team, that he nailed down a starting spot.
Cooper admits that watching the 2011 All-Ireland final "about 10 rows back in the Hogan Stand, sitting on my own," sharpened his ambition and motivation.
"I didn't feel aggrieved. For whatever reason, I wasn't good enough to make it then, but it was motivating for me from then on, looking out at the guys I would have known."
Gavin's particularly expansive ethos brings added challenges for anyone in the full-back line.
"There isn't a safety net there, there's not a wing-forward or full-forward coming back to sit in front of you and cover an extra run.
"You have to cover it yourself, there's not room for a slip-up or a little bit of an error.
"I suppose it puts that bit more pressure on you, but I like to think that sharpens you that bit more.
"We're defenders after all and it's an art. A forward's job is to kick the ball over the bar and our job is to defend," he says pragmatically.
That same pragmatism guided his borderline challenge on Colm Cooper.
"It didn't even come into my head that I might be sent off. I had my eyes on the ball and I just saw Colm coming in pretty late and he just managed to tip the ball as I was going for it. It was a genuine, honest effort to get the ball."
As the biggest day in his sporting career approaches, football is absorbing his mind in more ways than one and he's grateful for the diversion.
A Masters student in exercise physiology in DCU he has to submit a 15,000-word thesis – "it's looking at agility in gaelic football" – by the end of this month.
"Obviously the football final is massive as well, but I have to try and get a job at the end of this, so that's the bigger picture."