Why Mark Cooper is the perfect Swindon boss
Pliable, pragmatic and powerless, Cooper is an ideal head coach for Town’s current structure, says Alex Cooke.
Mark Cooper is the perfect manager for Swindon Town precisely because he has no reputation, no great history and no obvious footballing philosophy. He is a journey-man manager with coaching experience thrust into one of his biggest ever jobs but no cache to call on, and seemingly little ego.
And it seems to be at this moment that is what the hierarchy at Swindon Town want: a technocrat coach not an autocrat manager. They’ve sought a man who won’t challenge, demand expensive changes to the squad or reshape the playing style anew in his image. To evoke the old ghost – they still want the anti Paolo.
Cooper’s middling management career has seen him lead Tamworth, Peterborough, Telford and Kettering, twice. Success has been moderate – including a title with Kettering and a FA Trophy win at tumultuous Darlington – but they were usually tempered by his termination once results turned. As a list of former clubs it may seem less than inspiring but so were the actual post themselves with serious financial problems in at least three of the clubs making his job extremely difficult from the outset. Which partly explains how Cooper has largely remained a middle ground figure, rarely brought into the sharper focus that great success brings nor acid-etched by vitriol.
But he has shown himself a man who bends with the prevailing wind. Here is a man who Peterborough fans remember as an advocate of long-ball football and long throw-ins; that Tamworth supporters found defensive and negative; and yet, at Swindon, Cooper is leading a side attempting to play a delicate passing game, although at the request of his employers.
Yet Cooper seems to be no idealist, no passing purist – if he is, he doesn’t seem to have shared this heartfelt yearning with any of the local journalists from the North East to the midlands. Even now his defence in defeat seems based less in Total Football’s principles and more in de facto pragmatism. “There’s certainly no right way and no wrong way to play football,” he told the Adver this week. “There are no rules to say how you can and can’t play.”
But to impose such a bold style and an elegant system on a team demands stronger direction than mere pragmatism. It needs a template, a master plan, and a director, directing football. Obviously that could be board member Lee Power or it could be former coach Kevin MacDonald, who oversaw much of the team’s evolution from Paolo Di Canio’s expensive side to the current svelte model. After all Cooper has admitted that he has largely built on much of the work which MacDonald began.
In a way who wields the real power is irrelevant. What matter is how it is used. So long as there is clarity (and accountability) about who picks the team, signs the players or makes the substitutions, it makes no difference who do so – as long as it is done, and done well.
His appointment also fits a wider regional trend. Clubs are undoubtedly moving away from the cult of the manager to a more collectivist approach – even including in England where the old managerial role is increasingly split into multiple posts, such as at Exeter, Crawley, Manchester City and Tottenham.
And yet, this relative lack of reputation, history and footballing philosophy which provides gives Cooper his strength is also his great weakness. Football is full of technocrat coaches with plenty of experience but little ego or powerbase: his old boss was one – and his replacement could well be another relative unknown who is equally pliable, pragmatic and powerless.