The Sacking of Mark Cooper: Lee Power’s Perfect Fall Guy

Alex Cooke looks back at the Swindon career of a manager who was set up to be the man in-between…

Mark Cooper was the perfect fall guy. From the moment he was appointed, right up to his departure, he was considered, by his boss and many Swindon fans, as utterly expendable.

For Lee Power, his chairman, Cooper was the middle man – the guy who dealt with the short term. He was the man who lived in the moment, who lived for the result. With Power identifying the future assets and Luke Williams turning raw assets into saleable players, Cooper was the one who created the environment in which the other parts took place. Like so many modern managers operating in this system, he was vital, but at the same time largely insignificant.

For many fans, Cooper was expendable because he wasn’t an alpha male. Thanks to his low-key arrival as a last-minute replacement for his old boss, Kevin MacDonald, Cooper needed to claim the position of manager – and to claim a bit of legitimacy – for himself, but he never did.

It meant that despite his relatively longevity as a Town manager, I feel no closer to knowing what he is like as a man or as a manager than I did almost two-and-a-half-years ago. And, that even when he came close to leaving other the summer, few felt too concerned.

His post-match interviews, which started as nervous and guarded, never moved beyond sounding defensive or spiky. Presented with a microphone, he seemed too timid to show his real personality or explain his philosophy of the game, whatever it truly was. Perhaps it was a product of his position, or just his personality, but for a fanbase who had become hooked on bombast and bluster, it felt limp.

And so the rumours began, and continue to this day. Cooper’s authority was constantly questioned, often as a way of questioning his legitimacy. He was forever treated as the usurper, not the heir. During every BBC ‘phone in’ the question was asked about who signed the player and who ran the coaching. The point behind each question was always the same – Cooper was only standing in.

What doesn’t seem to have mattered to so many fans than it was precisely thanks to Cooper’s understanding of his position which got him the job and allowed him to do it well. Not just that he allowed Power control, but also that he knew he couldn’t rule with a rod of iron. Cooper repeatedly commented that he needed to support his young charges, not shout at them. And it brought him some success, time and again bonding teams who were thrown together by circumstances.

Even during his most glorious moments, Cooper continued to be doubted. When Town played some utterly sublime football, passing through teams in triangles taken straight from the training ground, credit was given to Williams, or the players. And when it went wrong, with an embarrassing Wembley defeat, the cause was frequently said to be Cooper being undermined by his own assistant, or over-ruled by his own boss. His detractors couldn’t even bare to make his own failure his responsibility.

When Cooper’s end finally came, it seems to have been due to him departing from Power’s plan. Cruelly, the thing that should have please the fans caused his departure. As Lee Power told the BBC,  “We’ve spent the last two years building a brand of passing the football and, you can get injuries and results can go against you, but the fundamental part is that we’ve got no identity at the moment”.

So by not doing his job, Cooper, the perfect fall guy, did his job one last time. Just as the next man will have to do.

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