Return in confidence has helped put Dublin’s Jonny Cooper in the corner

Last summer the defender was almost lost to Dublin football

The last thing any player should be revealing before an All-Ireland final is a sudden and crippling loss of confidence. Now is not the time for even the slightest doubt or weakness, especially not a player standing in the corner of the last line of defence.

The difference with Johnny Cooper is that these faults are firmly in his past, or at least sufficiently cemented over to ensure he now gets the number four shirt every time Jim Gavin sits down to pick his Dublin team. If anything Cooper's previous lack of confidence has helped turn him into steel.

It's just over a year since he dropped almost completely out of Dublin's football orbit: having delivered several promising performances in the 2012 league, including starts against the likes of Donegal, Mayo and Cork, Cooper, then only 22, and carrying the burden, perhaps, of captaining the Dublin team that won the 2010 All-Ireland under-21 title, effectively disappeared.

Mixed emotions
He did come on for the last 12 minutes of Dublin's opening championship match last summer, against Louth, around the same time that his confidence suffered that sudden and crippling loss. Cooper has since put in down to a number of factors, but most of all the fact he was trying to fit into a team of senior All-Ireland winners. Indeed he still recalls with somewhat mixed emotions the memory of watching Dublin win that All-Ireland in 2011.


“I just remember being about 10 rows back, in the Hogan Stand, sitting on my own,” says Cooper, “and seeing all the boys celebrating and wishing I was out there with them. But I didn’t feel aggrieved. In reality, I wasn’t good enough. That’s fair enough. But looking out at the guys – and I would have known a handful of them – would have been a motivating factor for me from then on.”

Cooper also admits that he didn’t have the heart to join them on their All-Ireland celebrations: “I didn’t go out at all that night. I stayed at home, myself and my mother. It was their party, it wasn’t my party. They deserved all the success and everything that went with it.”

Cue the exit of Pat Gilroy, after Dublin surrendered their All-Ireland title with a semi-final loss to Mayo, and the arrival of Gavin – the man who'd first built Cooper's confidence when in charge of that All-Ireland winning under-21 team. Yet Gavin taking the senior ropes certainly isn't the only reason why Cooper regained his confidence, and indeed earned his place on the Dublin: he also proved his worth and versatility by reinventing himself as a corner back, having played for much of earlier career at wing back

Now, the confidence oozes – so much so that even when Kerry hit Dublin with three first half goals in their All-Ireland semi-final, Cooper – nor any of his fellow defenders – never lost any composure.

“We were very aware of the time left,” he says, “and there was no panic button pressed. It was our mental strength that has been driving us on. That was a nightmare start, in terms of the goals going in, but as clichéd as it is, you were always just concentrating on the next play and the next ball coming in or ball going out.

'High and lows'
"With the calibre of player that we have in all sectors of the pitch, it didn't matter whether they got five or six goals. It was still always the same train tracks for us. In any game, there's highs and lows, and ebbs and flows, and it just happened that they got three goals off whatever they got them off."

Not that Cooper – and presumably Gavin, too – was happy at conceding three goals so early on.

“Absolutely not. And we always analyse ourselves very critically after any game - win, lose or draw. Even though we won, we wouldn’t brush anything under the carpet. When we look at the match, there will be a lot of people putting their hand up and saying, ‘I should have been there, I should have done that.’

“But Jim has placed that trust in us, whereby if it is a high ball coming in, you’re not just breaking it down aimlessly, or punching it aimlessly. I think the guys inside welcome that challenge. 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.

Cooper does admit to have been “a little annoyed” by the first yellow card picked up in that semi-final against Kerry, but that he never once thought about picking up a second. “It didn’t even come into my head, that I might be sent off.”

Now that is confidence for you.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics