When you consider that Colin Cooper's first act after becoming Hartlepool United manager in May was to go and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, it is too tempting a question to ignore: which is more difficult, scaling the highest peak in Africa or reviving a club freshly relegated to League Two? "Oh, Mount Kilimanjaro is a breeze compared to doing this every day," he jokes. But, in truth, Cooper is enjoying every minute of it.
For Cooper, formerly assistant to Gareth Southgate at Middlesbrough and Peter Jackson at Bradford City, this is his first opportunity as a No 1. He was coaching Boro's Under-18s when the call came to become Hartlepool's sixth permanent manager in four and a half years. "It is something that's been burning inside of me for a while, something I want to try desperately hard to be successful at," the 46-year-old tells The Independent.
Cooper took over a team with the worst home record in League One last term and initially results did not go to plan. They did not score for the first five games, taking two points from the first 18 available, yet his footballing philosophy gradually took hold, with October's League Two Manager of the Month award heading to Victoria Park as Hartlepool climbed to mid-table. "All we said to the players was keep believing," says Cooper, who has brought in as his No 2 and "good cop" Craig Hignett, another Boro old boy. "I was brought up with a philosophy of trying to play good football. As a kid at Middlesbrough my youth-team manager was Willie Maddren. My first manager was Bruce Rioch, who was a hard man but a very good football man."
And he sees no reason why a philosophy shaped in his days as a defender at Boro, Millwall, Nottingham Forest and even England – he won two caps under Terry Venables – cannot succeed in League Two. "We have to compete with teams who want to get it further forward quickly. Sometimes it is not always ideal. But when we get the opportunity to get the ball down and try to play, that's the way we believe in – a bit of pace and guile and a bit of thought rather than just playing percentages.
"So far the players have bought into it and I think they are enjoying it," he adds. The supporters too, to judge by the fact attendances are up on last season.
A quarter of a century ago, Cooper was part of an exciting young Middlesbrough team including Gary Pallister and Stuart Ripley who won back-to-back promotions, and one striking thing about his Hartlepool side is their youthfulness – his most recent league line-up featured six players aged 23 or under. "If you want to teach and want players to learn and you want to bring energy and enthusiasm, there is room for younger players," says Cooper, who cites the impact of 21-year-old centre-back Michael Duckworth, a summer signing from non-league Bradford Park Avenue, and 19-year-old top scorer Luke James, on 10 goals. "Our scout list when we play a home game has grown to 10 to 15 clubs." He expects the phone to ring in January and adds: "The idea is we all grow together, but if we don't then it is wrong to hold people back."
This is not to be mistaken for a lack of ambition – Cooper would like to manage higher up the pyramid and has shown he can put a plan into action. The Finlay Cooper Fund, which he set up after his two-year-old son Finlay's death in 2002, has already raised "over £350,000", much of it donated to North-east children's charities. That was why he led a group including Hignett and the Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling up Mount Kilimanjaro. Now he wants to climb mountains as a manager. "I can help Hartlepool be a better team and a better club but I also firmly believe I have the ability to work at a higher level," says Cooper, surely the first Hartlepool manager ever to have needed altitude tablets.
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