Jonny's just mad to play
Dublin's defensive mainstay is taking nothing for granted
LAST July, a few days after Dublin had retained the Delaney Cup for the umpteenth time, Jonny Cooper sat in the Mansion House and told reporters: "The reality is he (Michael Fitzsimons) has the jersey now and deservedly so, and it's up to me and the other full-back line contenders to try and get one."
It was a revealing peek into the mind of a player who, up until the previous Sunday, had been Dublin's most consistent defender of 2014.
But he had watched the Leinster final in the Hogan Stand because of a quad injury and Fitzsimons - his 11th hour deputy - had come in from the inter-county cold to produce a superb man-marking job on Meath's Stephen Bray.
Now Cooper was openly conceding that past performances (pre-injury) or reputation counted for nothing in 'Team Dublin' that he had to prove himself all over again.
And, of course, he duly did, winning his place back for the All-Ireland quarter-final against Monaghan (at the expense of another defender, not Fitzsimons) and the semi-final against Donegal too.
The latter proved a chastening day for every Dublin player - including Cooper, who had been tasked with guarding the centre of their defence. A different type of trauma awaited a few weeks later when he was the victim of an unprovoked, random knife attack in the city.
Thankfully, the Na Fianna man recovered to become - yet again - a mainstay of Jim Gavin's defence. But, as that quote from last July underlined, there would be no resting on laurels. Come January, he was already putting his hand up for selection.
Cooper made his Sky Blue reappearance in Portarlington, for Dublin's third outing in the O'Byrne Cup. He started in Meath a week later, and came off the bench early against Kildare in the final.
And since then? Ten starts on the spin - nine on the road to retaining the Allianz League, then Longford at the end of last month. Next up Kildare on Sunday with Cooper's name, surely, one of the first on the list.
"I really love it this year," he enthuses. "I played a lot of games, touch wood.
"Some lads use January to get themselves right and in better physical condition, but I asked Jim for some games and he gave me a bit of game-time during the O'Byrne Cup. From there it gave me a platform to get into the league squad/team.
"Jim doesn't put you into the squad on a given week or campaign. I think that maybe more since Jim's taken over, you have to earn the jersey," he adds.
"For some people, they're getting league time and that's translating to championship time. I think that is important and it's in our own psyche that the competitiveness is there and that, from early on, you earn the jersey."
Michael Darragh Macauley - Footballer of the Year in 2013, now battling to try and regain his starting place with the Dubs - has made a similar point in the lead-up to Sunday's Leinster SFC semi-final.
"Absolutely," Cooper agrees. "There's nobody guaranteed, in my experience with Jim, any sort of game-time unless you're putting in the required level and implementing exactly what Jim and the rest of us as players would expect.
"It doesn't really go on names but performances, and how you're doing in training and performing in games in between."
This willingness to play every game may partly stem from Cooper's own initial struggle to establish his senior credentials in Sky Blue. He burst onto Pat Gilroy's league team in 2012 and then seemed to vanish after making his championship debut off the bench, against Louth that June.
Loss of confidence, he later admitted, was the root cause as he grappled with the realisation that he was sharing a dressing-room with a group that had brought Sam back to the capital in 2011.
The player had previously skippered Gavin's Dublin U21 team to All-Ireland success in 2010 and, once Gavin took command, his senior career took off.
"I wasn't good enough when I wasn't there and that's quite clear for me," he says, modestly. "I had a lot of things to work on - as I do now. But I would have two or three years of Jim before he came into the senior set-up ... so I was used to his operation and how he worked. You're given the opportunity when and if it's earned. It's the same with all guys."
But what happens when you lose your place in Gavin's pecking order, be it through injury or loss of form?
"There would be an effort to look out for guys who are on the sidelines, maybe going through difficult periods, be it an injury or bad form, etc etc.
"So it's not just 'I'm going after my jersey and, you know, f*** everyone else'. You know, it is a collective at the end of the day, it's not an individual sport.
"So what happens within our squad is that people do look out for each other and try and pull them with them, if they can."
This Sunday's encounter inevitably calls to mind the last SFC collision between the counties, in 2013. It was just his second championship start and while the match finished in a Dublin landslide, it began ominously for Cooper who slipped twice, in the opening minutes, to allow Paddy Brophy in for 1-1.
"Yeah, naturally enough I would have been hard on myself," he recalls. "But I suppose when you reflect and step away from it, I just slipped for a goal and one or two other points ... it didn't affect me too much.
"I just had to try and prove to Jim that was I was worthy of a spot the next day. That was the challenge."
And it still is today.