WITH Swindon playing Olé! football and results coming thick and fast, it’s easy to forget that the last time Mark Cooper managed in the Football League, he was branded a “mistake”.
That was in February 2010 and he had just been sacked as manager of Championship strugglers Peterborough.
“I take full responsibility for the recruitment and departure of Mark,” said Posh owner Darragh MacAnthony at the time.
“Mistakes get made, but it’s not how you make them that matters, it’s how you fix them.”
And that was that. After just three months and 13 games in the job, Cooper was cast aside, an experiment gone awry.
For a man who had only ever managed in Non-League, it was a humiliating blow, and one that might have ruined his reputation forever.
But not Cooper. He picked himself up, dusted himself down and prepared to beat the odds all over again. Which, to be fair, was what he’d been doing his whole life.
Cooper’s dad, Terry, was a Leeds legend who won every domestic trophy plus 20 caps as an attacking full-back for England. It was an almost impossible act to follow.
As a kid, he’d be playing in the school team, listening to parents shout: ‘You’ll never be as good as your dad’. And if that didn’t convince him, then a Christmas present from his old man did – it was Pele’s biography and featured a chapter where the striker said only two Englishmen would have got into the 1970 Brazil side: Bobby Moore and Terry Cooper.
“That was me done,” he said in 2009. “Too much to follow. Cheers, Dad. I was nowhere near as good as him. I knew that was going to be the case at 12 or 13.”
Maybe so, but with typical belligerence he made the best of what he had, playing in the second tier with Birmingham, making more than 100 appearances for Exeter and also spending time at Fulham before becoming one of Non-League football’s finest midfielders.
And it might have been even better but for a heart complaint that was only diagnosed at the age of 30.
Atrial Tachycardia causes the heart to become unregulated, beating up to 300 times per minute rather than the standard 60-80. Though not life-threatening, it causes light-headedness, fatigue and can lead to blood clots.
“It was quite frightening while I was playing,” he said. “I never knew when it was going to happen and I lived in fear of that because I didn’t know what it was.”
Though Cooper says he had a “decent” career, there are regrets. “I didn’t make the most of my ability,” he says. “I feel as though I wasted what I could have achieved.”
And yet from a young age, it was always coaching and management that seemed to suit him better.
“Any chance I had, I used to go to watch training and in school holidays. I’d be there all the time,” says Cooper, whose godfather is Leeds and England legend Norman ‘Bite Yer Legs’ Hunter.
“I’d muck in with the YTS lads, doing jobs and training. And on an evening I’d get the bus down to the ground to watch a reserve or youth team game. I was a scholar of the game from a really young age. I’d make notes on the matches I’d seen at about ten or 12 years old.”
His first job was as player-manager of Tamworth, but it was at Kettering where Cooper made his name, leading the Poppies to promotion to the Conference and the brink of the Football League before replacing Darren Ferguson at Peterborough in November 2010.
For Exodus Geohaghan, who played for Cooper at Kettering, Peterborough and later Darlington, that was the main problem.
“It was hard for Mark because Peterborough was somebody else’s team,” he said. “The players had a high opinion of the manager who left and their loyalty still lay with him. It made a difficult task almost impossible.”
Then came the renaissance – an FA Trophy with Darlington, a stint at Telford, and last year the call to be assistant to Kevin MacDonald at Swindon. And when the Scot departed in July, Cooper was asked to step up.
“It’s great to see him managing at that level,” adds Geohaghan. “At Ketter- ing we had a very good side and a lot of people said we were too direct. But we played to suit our players and in diff- erent circumstances it might have got us into the League. Then at Darlington we played a lot more football and won a trophy. Now he’s got good players he’s keeping it down again. It just goes to show what an adaptable manager he is.”
MARK COOPER FACT FILE
Born: Wakefield, 1968 (Age 44)
Playing career: A midfielder, Cooper started out at Bristol City where he was an apprentice to David Moyes. However, he left to join Exeter in 1989 having failed to make a first-team appearance. A successful two-year spell at St James’s Park sealed a move to second tier Birmingham, where he scored four goals in 39 games during the 1991-92 season.
That prompted Fulham to spend £40,000 on Cooper, but the move turned sour and he left – having played just 14 games in two years – after becoming a target for terrace abuse. A return to Exeter brought 20 goals in 88 games, before the 1996-97 season at Hartlepool saw nine in 31. Having also played for Leyton Orient, Rushden, Hednesford and Forest Green, Cooper finished his career at Tamworth, scoring 31 goals in 104 games.
Managerial career: Appointed player-manager of Conference side Tamworth in 2004, Cooper oversaw consecutive runs to the FA Cup third round but left in 2007 with the Lambs at the foot of the table.
He then joined Kettering Town, winning the Conference North title in his first season, reaching the FA Cup fourth round in his second and launching a play-off push in his third before being lured away by Peterborough.
Sacked after one win in 13 games, he joined Darlington in 2010, leading them to seventh and wining the FA Trophy before leaving with financial problems mounting. After a brief return to Kettering and five games in charge of Telford, he was appointed assistant to Kevin MacDonald at Swindon. And when the Scot left July this year, he was promoted to manager.