Cooper steers Hartlepool to unheralded heights

North East minnows aim to equal their best run in FA Cup by overcoming glamorous neighbours Sunderland
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The Independent Football

"The edge of the world," Brian Clough called it, looking out from the terraces of Hartlepool United where you can see, feel and taste the expanse of cold grey ocean.

Hartlepool, the club and the town, is not so forbidding now as it was when Clough - "chips burning on both my shoulders" - walked into Victoria Park in 1965.

It is easy to sneer at the marina or the array of waterfront retail outlets known as Jackson's Landing as being so much cosmetic dressing, but Hartlepool feels better than it did the last time their club reached the third round of the FA Cup.

In January 1993, on a pitch which was more mud than turf, Hartlepool United overcame a Crystal Palace side who were then in the Premiership.

Their reward was typically Hartlepudlian; they did not score so much as a goal in the next 13 league and cup ties, another record to go alongside the most-quoted statistic about Hartlepool, the club which has applied for re-election to the Football League more times than any other.

Now, as they prepare for another shot at giant-slaying, in a beautifully-romantic FA Cup third round tie at Sunderland, who for so many years patronised them like a slightly backward child, the resilience of a club which might be playing their league fixtures at the Stadium of Light next season should be celebrated.

In 1960 Hartlepool finished last in the old Fourth Division, conceding a record 109 goals, and yet they have survived while many who have finished above them, including Bradford Park Avenue, Aldershot, Barrow, Gateshead, Workington and Southport have perished.

They are now 10th in the Second Division and if they hold that position under their new manager, Neale Cooper, it will represent their highest ever league finish.

Cooper's pedigree is exceptional. He was 19 when he played for the Aberdeen side which Alex Ferguson led to victory in the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup final over Real Madrid. Of that starting line-up, six, including Mark McGhee, Gordon Strachan and Willie Miller went into management and the other five have all coached in some capacity.

"All of us followed him in some way," Cooper said. "Alex Ferguson had so much influence on the people around him; he was full of ideas that then seemed different and fresh.

"I would say he has mellowed since those days: he could be very scary. But he could also shower you with compliments which was as much a part of his style as the bollockings.

"I sometimes use similar methods myself but I don't know whether those techniques of fear work any more; if you have a go at some young players today, they switch off or look aside."

The Aberdeen connection helped in steering perhaps Hartlepool's best player this season, Gavin Strachan, to Victoria Park. Out of contract at Coventry, he was due to go to Hillsborough until his father phoned Cooper to advertise his son, although Gordon was not gushing. "He just said: 'He'll do all right for you'," Cooper said. "But he is a footballer with a great attitude, someone who has been properly brought up."

In the dressing-room he is nothing like his father, whose quips drove Ferguson to acts of sometimes comical rage. "Oh no, Gavin is a very modest boy," said Cooper.

Most managers take over a club which has lurched into crisis; Cooper arrived at one that had just won promotion and responded by sacking its manager. On the surface, Mike Newell was treated brutally but the spadework for promotion was done by Chris Turner who resigned to join Sheffield Wednesday, a team he had both supported and played for. Hartlepool should have won the Third Division title, which would have been the first substantial piece of silverware in their history, but they stumbled up in second place with no away wins from January onwards.

Newell had difficulty in disguising his irritation with the club's fans, lost sections of the dressing-room and when Hartlepool's promotion was confirmed, the team was booed off. They had just lost 4-0 at Scunthorpe but other results meant they were up. The attraction of having Alan Shearer, a friend since their Blackburn days, as an occasional visitor to Victoria Park was not enough to keep Newell his job.

"I knew no one when I came to Hartlepool, I didn't even have much idea where it was," Cooper admitted. "Everyone had us as favourites to go straight back down; it was in every paper you opened. I remember one article by Chris Kamara which made me so angry I just pinned it up on the dressing room wall."

Cooper paid tribute to the quality of the youngsters he inherited, nurtured by Martin Scott, an elegant left-back in Peter Reid's Sunderland sides, but is wary of overheating expectations. Even in Hartlepool, even in remote Dingwall, hidden in the Highlands, they can be dangerous.

Having taken Ross County from the Scottish Third to the First Division, Cooper resigned after a derby defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle; the demand for ever-increasing success on limited resources had grown too great and it was affecting his health. Ferguson invited him to spend a week with Manchester United. After Dingwall, Cooper joked that it felt like walking on to a film set.

"Fans have got to have a reality check," he said. "We are going to Queen's Park Rangers and playing in front of 16,500 and sometimes we play with eight teenagers; Alex Ferguson gave me my debut at 16 and there's nothing wrong with that but you have got to be realistic."

When Hartlepool last made the FA Cup third round, realism had long departed Victoria Park. Under their chairman, Garry Gibson, who ran the club from a suite of rooms in Bamburgh Castle, Hartlepool could hold a testimonial for their late manager, Cyril Knowles, and see their cheque to his widow bounce three times.

Brian Honour, the club's best-loved player, would lead his team into the clubhouse after games for the fruit machines to be emptied, which would represent the only wage the players could take back to their families.

Then, in footballing terms, Hartlepool probably was the edge of the world. These days it is a club which has come in from the cold.