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Swindon Town boss Mark Cooper reflects on his career so far
FROM playing truant with his England international dad to being locked in a tumble dryer by a future Premier League manager, Mark Cooper’s first 45 years have been eventful to say the least.
Swindon Town’s boss, who celebrates his birthday today, sits down with the Advertiser on a cold and blustery Thursday afternoon to recount a life spent learning from triumph and disaster.
His story is about success born out of frustration - his meanderings as a player, great non-league moments and memories he has tried very hard to forget, without success.
I’ve come to know by now that Cooper is not averse to voicing an opinion, and on this occasion he doesn’t disappoint as he offers anecdote after anecdote illuminating the side of football minus the glamour but with third helpings of pure, unadulterated character thrown on the side.
We start at the beginning. The son of one of the best full-backs England has ever produced, Cooper grew up in Wakefield and Middlesbrough before moving to Bristol aged eight when his dad Terry took the manager’s job at Ashton Gate.
Cooper developed a deep love for football from a young age, inspired by his dad.
“I knew my dad was a little different and he was famous because we lived where he grew up as a boy. He was a bit of a celebrity,” he said.
“We moved to Middlesbrough and I watched him play a little bit and I started to play football myself under the stand after games with other players’ sons. We didn’t have a ball. We used to have newspaper and my mum used to fold it up and make a ball.
“Jack Charlton’s son played and people like that. It was good fun.”
Life as a footballer’s son is a constant game of musical chairs. Soon Ayresome Park was swapped for Ashton Gate, with Cooper senior taking charge of Bristol City.
Cooper junior, already the analyst, skipped school without his mum’s knowledge to go scouting with his father on midweek evenings and at weekends.
On a Sunday, the fledgling midfielder would play for various representative and local teams in the Bristol area.
He turned out for Backwell Athletic and Boca Juniors (not those Boca Juniors), with his dad running the touchline.
Cooper speaks passionately, almost intimately, about his relationship with his family. Perhaps that played a major role in his decision to turn down the offer of a scholarship with Watford aged 15.
Instead, a young Mark Cooper wanted a place on the Bristol City production line.
“We had a very close family and stayed at home and pestered the life out of my dad to give me a scholarship, which I should never have done,” he said, with honest regret.
“It’s not a great thing with your dad in as manager. It’s not easy for a dad, always having the accusation that your son’s only here because you’re here. With my son now it would be hard for me to manager.
“You always have to be the best player and if anyone’s going to get stick off your dad it’s going to be you.
“I should have never signed. I pestered him that much he went ‘oh, go on then’.”
Though Cooper says he should never have signed for City, he rates his time in the YTS programme in Bristol as the best of his life.
He became close friends with Rob Cousins, now manager of Paulton Rovers, former Wales international Paul Mardon, Chris Honor - who played for Airdrie in a Scottish Cup final and Nigel Hawkins. All four remain tight with the Town manager today.
“They’re still my mates now, they’re the ones I still call my real mates,” he said. “When I go back to Bristol I see one or two of them. The lads I grew up with in Bristol are the ones I call my closest friends.”
Cooper and his YTS colleagues were tasked with keeping the first-team kit clean and, perhaps more importantly given his next story, dry.
“For three months I was in charge of first-team kits and that meant I’d have to wash it and dry 20 sets for the next morning. It had to be clean, dry and ready,” he said.
“I can remember one morning one of the players’ T-shirts was wet and they weren’t happy with it. I was in the kit room, that was my office, with two industrial washers and an industrial dryer.
“The two players came in - I can’t tell you who but one of them has just been on the telly - and they put me in the industrial tumble dryer and switched it on and sat there for five minutes as I was going round in this red hot tumble dryer.
“I came out and my head was like beetroot and they said ‘the kit won’t be wet tomorrow, will it?’ It was never wet again.”
I try to get Cooper to spill the beans on his two tumble dryer assailants, he’ll do nothing more than hint that one has gone on to manager in the Premier League. Reluctantly, I move the conversation on.
Cooper spent two years making his name at Ashton Gate and learning how the physical side of the game the hard way.
“We played in the Western League - so we’d be playing Saltash, Liskeard, Minehead, Mangotsfield and were 16-year-old kids,” he said.
“But we’d go to Bideford and Barnstaple and get absolutely kicked to s***. We ended up being really tough because we had to look after ourselves.”
Cooper got a professional contract as rewards for toughening up but eventually got the urge to move in search of regular football - it was a character trait which plagued his playing career as he bounced between Bristol City, Exeter, Huddersfield, Hartlepool, Fulham, Wycombe, Rushden & Diamonds, Hednesford and Forest Green before falling into management.
“I was probably pretty hard to manage,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been easy. I always had an opinion, some of it I look back on and think ‘I was out of order there’. I’d have something to say rather than saying it was my fault.
“I was an average player, I made a living out of it, scored a few goals and luckily enough bounced into coaching.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cooper credits his father as the biggest influence on his managerial make-up.
“My dad was obviously the best because he was a player’s manager,” he said. “He’d have a laugh and a joke with them but they’d know where the line was and if they crossed it they were in trouble.
“Joe Jordan was tough, hard and absolutely a fitness fanatic. He was the fittest man on the planet, even when he was getting towards 40.
“Don Mackay was there when I went to Fulham and I used to have some right old arguments with him. He was a goalkeeper and I could never understand why he’d never coach the goalies.
“He’d be wanting to join in the five-a-side and the goalies would be standing there in the cold planting potatoes.
“I enjoyed playing but I enjoy coaching and managing more.”
Cooper’s first job came at Tamworth, proper non-league minnows, in 2004. He stabilised a club on a tiny budget and reached the third round of the FA Cup twice. It is evident that those cup runs still fill him with immense pride.
“We had nothing, no money and it was a real eye-opener with people coming to training after working all day,” he said. “You have to figure out how you’re going to get a result, you’re always battling against the odds and figuring out how you’re going to win a game you shouldn’t.
“That’s probably why I’ve had so many decent cup runs.
“It was impossible in the end to keep on getting results when you’re paying next to nothing and I ended up at Kettering.”
Success at The Lamb led Cooper to Kettering and more cup glory. He also took the club to the top of the Conference and, with a 60 per cent win ratio to his name, clubs came calling.
Cooper claims six Football League sides made approaches for him before he was sold to Peterborough.
“Peterborough ended up being the wrong club for me,” he said.
“I needed to go to an Oxford, Bristol Rovers, Lincoln, Grimsby - that would have been the most logical step for me.
“Peterborough came in and I had no choice and I was gone.
“I think I knew within the first week it was never going to work. I went into a changing room that Darren (Ferguson, his predecessor at London Road) had had for a long time and they’d been very successful. I walked into a changing room that was very tight with Darren and looking back I was never ever going to be able to get into that inner sanctum.
“That’s not Darren’s fault, I just didn’t think I was given as much help as a young manager as I could have been.”
His 13-game stint with Posh is the only topic that seems to bring the zipper across Cooper’s mouth.
He won’t be drawn to comment on chairman Darragh MacAnthony, or go any deeper into why his stay was so doomed from the start.
“He’s very passionate about football and with that comes opinion,” Cooper said of MacAnthony. “I just thought it was totally false to expect Peterborough to stay in that league with the wages they were playing.
“The majority of them had come from Conference backgrounds and he had a plan to sign these players and bring them up and I came under that - a promising manager from non-league and I could do it. And I couldn’t.
“Whatever I tried didn’t work. I have to hold my hands up to say I wasn’t good enough. Whether that was because the players didn’t want to buy into it, I don’t know, but I’ve learnt an awful lot from it.”
MacAnthony isn’t the only ‘eccentric’ chairman Cooper has had to negotiate with during his relatively brief time in management.
“My dad always says to me ‘you can’t half pick them’,” he said, half sniggering. “The Tamworth chairman was great, if you read up on the guy at Kettering the chairman (Imraan Ladak) was a nutcase.
“He employed Gazza and I went in after him. It was crazy. Gazza was my hero as a player as well.
“The chairman there wanted to interfere. I used to catch him outside the physio’s room when I was picking the team. He’d have his ear to the door and I’d open it and he’d fall out the other way.
“He’d say ‘I just dropped something on the floor’.
“He tried to change the teamsheet after I’d handed it into the referee. I learnt a lot with that chairman and then I went to Peterborough and that was tough, and then I ended up at Darlington.”
At Darlo, Cooper won the FA Trophy in his first season, but things turned sour.
“In the first season we went to Wembley, won a trophy, I had the highest win ratio of any manager in 25 years and overnight it imploded.
“Then, the chairman pulled the money out.
“I thought I got on really well with him and then bang, he pulled the money out.
“I was owed an awful lot of money and spent 16 months out of work. I’d just been to Wembley, won the first trophy they’d ever won, sold Dan Burn to Fulham for 300 grand, sold Michael Smith to Charlton for 150 and they’d made over a million quid.
“All of a sudden he said he was pulling his money out and a lot of players ended up with nothing. That was disappointing and I was out of work.”
Cooper tried to keep in touch with an evolving football world, and spent time watching training at Everton - where his former Bristol City teammates David Moyes was manager.
He returned to regular work in March as assistant to Kevin MacDonald at Swindon Town during a time of rapid transition at the County Ground.
With players coming and going, Cooper could see the stress taking an effect on MacDonald.
“I didn’t feel it too much because I was the assistant whereas Kev was on the phone to the owners,” he said.
“I think it would have been impossible not to be stressed. There were that many things being thrown at him - do this, do that and it was just the way the club had to be.”
MacDonald told Cooper he was quitting the club on the afternoon of July 12, just hours before a pre-season friendly at Forest Green.
“He just said ‘it’s not for me’. It was out of the blue. I think he just realised he didn’t want to do it,” said Cooper, who didn’t think he had a hope in hell of landing the position full-time.
“If I was the owner I wouldn’t have given it to me,” he said. “You have the fans and supporters to think about and if they appoint me then they’ll be like ‘who’s this? Why have you appointed him? Blah, blah, blah’.
“I just tried to do the best job I could for the next guy coming in. I just carried on the best I could. I had two or three weeks on my own with 20-odd players but you learn.”
Five months later and Cooper is starting to really enjoy life in Swindon, and he’s been particularly impressed by the fans.
“I’ve been really impressed how quickly they’ve taken to the style of play,” he said. “They’ve had it before and they’ve been educated by Glenn (Hoddle) and Ossie (Ardiles) so the older ones are maybe saying to the younger ones ‘this is how we were playing 20 years ago’.
“That’s how Swindon will get known as a brand or get more recognition as a club.”
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