Mark Cooper has got the Robins of Swindon Town rocking again
IT’S March 2013, and Mark Cooper is wondering why he bothered getting out of bed. The only thing that fills him with dread more than glancing at the league table is the examination of his latest credit card statement.
AFC Telford United are propping up the rest of the Football Conference, and their new manager? Well he’s had that sinking feeling long before he agreed to try and salvage the unsalvagable.
And he’s even paying for the privilege. A wage? Not likely. Not only are the Bucks unable to afford to pay him for his time, he knows his travelling expenses aren’t going to be settled, either.
If a week is a long time in football, then the year-and-a-half which have passed for Swindon Town and their manager will feel like a lifetime.
The County Ground is no longer the asylum it once was. It’s number one patient Paolo Di Canio is long gone after his midnight flit saw him break in during the dead of night taking what he claimed was rightfully his.
They’ve changed the locks and handed the keys to the manager’s office to someone who’s got the Robins rocking for the right reasons.
“I was the cheap option,” said Cooper, the former Kettering and Darlington manager and son of former England left-back Terry, capped 20 times by his country.
“I would say 99 per cent of the supporters wouldn’t have wanted me as their manager when I was given the job – they’d had Paolo Di Canio; they wanted a name – and what they got was me!
“I would have been the same if I was sitting in their seats. I could easily have be managing Telford in the Conference North, but football is littered with stories like my one.
“Telford were bottom of the Conference when I took over last year. I only had five games and we lost four of them. Why did I take the job? I was just desperate to get back involved I suppose. I shouldn’t have done it, I wasn’t getting paid, Shropshire is hardly local and the money situation was that tight I didn’t even get petrol money.
“I just missed football. Telford rang me and asked if I could come and help them out so I thought why not? I had to manage out of my own pocket, but I know how hard it is to find work in the game, so I thought what harm could it do?
“There’s another saying us managers agree on. You’ve got a better chance of getting a job if you’re already in one. I wanted to get my hands dirty at Telford again, I almost didn’t care about pretty much paying to do the job myself.”
Then Cooper took the phone call that changed everything. It was from Kevin MacDonald, the recentlyappointed manager of Swindon he had known from his Non-League days – and he wanted some help. Talk about the right man at the right time.
When, five months later, the 53year-old MacDonald failed to attend a pre-season friendly at Forest Green, Cooper was thrown in at the deep end – and before long the job was his.
And what a job he’s making of it. Swindon were 36-1 with some bookmakers to win the League One title this year, but not any more.
His young players – the eldest in the line up last weekend against Sheffield United, a 5-2 victory, was 24 – are challenging in a league jampacked with big budgeted and historic powerhouses. They are the season’s surprise package.
Cooper preaches expansive football. Where Di Canio was more direct, Coops likes his team to build from the back.
“It was a bit of a culture shock at first with how we played, it is pretty extreme,” said the 45-year-old Cooper. “It’s risk football, it can be slow at times but we’re getting that identity.The supporters now feel part of it. It’s our way of doing it – together.
“It was a madhouse when I first came here, definitely. The players were used to Paolo, he was very full on and when Kevin came in things were a little more relaxed. Paolo had a lot of success – but in the long run the club had to pay for that.
“It was in financial disarray. That’s not me having a go, but if Lee Power, the chairman, hadn’t come in and sorted the mess out, the club wouldn’t have been here.
“The debts were huge and he wrote some big cheques, and probably still has his pen in his hand. Some players were on massive money, and they had to leave, we had to rebuild.
“The playing budget came right down and basically it is all about seeing how we get on. Last year stood them in good stead, but looking back so far this season we could have had even more points. That’s me being a little greedy perhaps, but we’re in that kind of place, a good place.
“I’m determined to make every second count at Swindon. I’ve got to grab this opportunity with both hands. Management slaps you in the face very hard, you’ve got to be prepared to take a whack or two.”
Town have swapped Italian catwalk style for the substance of youth, the exchange of touchline tantrums and over-paying for players for a family, growing up together.
Cooper added: “The spirit around the place is brilliant, the academy is really producing and the staff here are out of this world.
“The players are fantastic, too. They all live close together, they all go out together and they’re all the same age so they socialise – not so much clubbing I hope, but the coffee, cake and FIFA nights they put on!
“In my day the overnight stays were about the management making sure you weren’t sneaking off for a quick pint the night before away matches. Now it’s about going around the rooms making sure their PlayStations and X Boxes are switched off so they go to sleep!
“They would be up till 4am playing them if we didn’t. It’s all changed. I suppose I play the father figure a bit, but I like that. Turn that c
“They are boys that are make careers out of th lower leagues are ofte players that have gone direction, ones that have Premier League, tasted offer and found the League One or Two for a reasons.
“None of our players h pled that part of football want to sample it, that’s th thing. They are so drive want to make somethi themselves. They are cur ly proving to everyone good they are, and co possibly be in the future
Cooper, his club and h players look like they’re just getting started.
OLD AND NEW: Paolo Di Canio kicks out in the Swindon dugout Right: Cooper’s young Swindon team celebrate a goal in last week’s 5-2 win over Sheffield United