He wasn’t exactly written out of history yet when you think of Westmeath’s solitary Leinster title success 15 years ago, Jack Cooney’s name doesn’t immediately spring to mind.
In truth, it’s not even Denis Glennon, Dessie Dolan, All-Star defender John Keane or any of the players from that era that you first recall but Páidi Ó Sé, their lionheart on the sideline.
Tomás Ó Flatharta was Páidi’s deputy and went on to manage a series of inter-county teams himself, including Westmeath and Laois who met in two Leinster finals in 2004 and renew acquaintances again tomorrow.
Cooney was there in 2004 too, perhaps not as well heralded as the Kerry duo next to him but a key member of that management team all the same.
“I’ve yet to come across a man that can motivate a team as well as Jack,” said Glennon, who struck five points in the drawn final of 2004 and two more in Westmeath’s replay win.
“He’s so passionate and comes across so well, so genuine. He’s an excellent speaker. Páidi and Tomás would have got a lot of the credit for that Leinster win but for players like myself, up and coming young guys, Jack was so approachable and really good to deal with.”
Glennon didn’t retire until the end of 2017 yet remarkably never played for Westmeath under a native manager, with the chain of outside appointments only broken when Cooney was installed for 2019. Just months into the job, the Kinnegad man has already proven what a tidy appointment that was by guiding them to two pieces of silverware; the O’Byrne Cup and the Division 3 title.
“My biggest regret about being retired and age catching up on me is that I never got to play under a local man like Jack,” said ex-captain Glennon.
“I won a couple of club championships with Tyrrellspass under Pat Flanagan, an Offaly man, so when he took over Westmeath that felt like a local man being in charge but generally it was guys coming in from outside the county. It just seems to hit home a lot more when it’s a fella in charge who has soldiered and gone through the same things as you. Jack is hugely passionate about Westmeath and I know the players in there now see that and feed off it.”
Before Cooney, Brian Murtagh from Athlone was the last Westmeath man to hold the reins, way back in the early 1990s.
Ó Flatharta (Kerry), Brendan Hackett (Monaghan), Flanagan (Offaly), Paul Bealin (Dublin), Tom Cribbin (Laois), and Colin Kelly (Louth) all had spells in the hot-seat after Ó Sé.
They had some success along the way, winning a Division 2 league title under Ó Flatharta in 2008, beating Dublin in the final..
More recently, they contested Leinster finals in 2015 and 2016 but slumped to Division 4 in the same period and had a disastrous Championship under Kelly last year, losing both games heavily.
Cooney’s appointment has clearly had a stabilising, morale-boosting effect though the depressing reality is that he’s unlikely to be celebrating an anniversary Leinster title success 15 years on from 2004.
“I don’t think there’s any team in Leinster that is within 15 points of Dublin,” suggested Glennon.
The first year we played them in the Leinster final, I came on in the final. I was fresh and I was facing Jack McCaffrey.
“He went on a run and I stayed with him but then he turned back and ran back to his position at the same speed. I was catching my breath pretty quickly. With their depth, they can just take him off and put on another lad who will do absolutely the same thing. And on that pitch at Croke Park they’re just so strong.”
Unlike 2004 when Westmeath and Laois fought for a Leinster title that any of half a dozen counties could have realistically claimed, it’s a championship within a championship these days as Dublin chase a provincial nine in a row.
Glennon doesn’t necessarily feel Westmeath have fallen back over the 15 years as much as Dublin have pulled away. “I don’t think Westmeath have really gone anywhere, we’ve played in two Leinster finals, won a Division 4 and a Division 3 title, we’re back in Division 2 and we won this year’s O’Byrne Cup,” he said. “Outside of Dublin they’ve been the second best team in Leinster. I think Westmeath are in quite a good place overall.
Dublin just dominate the bigger picture. Coming to the end of my own career you just knew that second place was the best you could wish for.
If silverware is out of reach, qualifying for the Super 8s is an achievable target.
“It is but I genuinely don’t think they’ll be thinking that far ahead,” said Glennon. “Every player wants to get as far as they can but they’ve had a good few battles with Laois recently so everything is going into this one game I’d imagine. I’ve been very impressed with them all year so I’d give them a great shout of winning.”