Memory lane: Taking on Leeds United has stirred up many fond memories for Swindon Town manager Mark Cooper. LEON WOBSCHALL reports.
AFTER missing out on pitting his wits against his boyhood club back in November 2009, Mark Cooper finally gets his belated chance this evening – albeit in the confines of a pre-season friendly.
The Swindon Town manager had good reason to follow the fortunes of Leeds United as a lad in the seventies, being the son of Whites legend Terry, and while four decades have elapsed since his father’s heady Super Leeds days, the Whites remain close to his heart.
Cooper, born in the Whites supporting stronghold of Wakefield, readily admits to United being one of the first results he looks out for, with a dream date against the side he supported as a youngster seemingly falling in his lap when the Kettering Town side he was managing were handed a plum draw with Leeds in the second round of the FA Cup in 2009/10.
But events conspired against him leading the Poppies into battle against United at Rockingham Road, with Cooper instead finding himself in the manager’s seat at Championship strugglers Peterborough United before Leeds came to town.
It was not meant to be in a tie which saw United pushed all the way by Kettering in front of the TV cameras in a 1-1 draw before disposing of the plucky Northamptonshire outfit in an Elland Road replay as they sealed the deal to face Manchester United in round three at Old Trafford.
For Cooper, his time at Peterborough proved instantly forgettable – he was sacked after just 13 games in charge of Posh in February 2010 – but his reputation has remained intact with his current work on a limited budget at Swindon impressing many.
The 45-year-old is now embarking on his second season in charge of the Wiltshire outfit and while tonight’s encounter is primarily about fitness and sources of encouragement ahead of when it really matters at the start of the 2014-15 campaign on August 9, the clash is hardly just a run-of-the-mill friendly game for Cooper.
Cooper told the YEP: “It’s the first time I’ve been able to face Leeds as a manager and I am looking forward to it. Obviously, there was the cup tie with Leeds when I was at Kettering. But I then got the Peterborough job and going from the Conference to a Championship side, I couldn’t turn that down really.
“With the background and history I have, I always look out for Leeds’ results. I am just hoping someone gets them back to where they should be because they are one of the biggest clubs in the world, aren’t they?
“I grew up supporting Leeds without really comprehending how big it was at the time and them being the best team in the country.
“You look back and everywhere you go, people saying how good your dad was and what a team Leeds were and I grew up with all that.
“I was really young when dad was there, but I can remember going into the medical room at Elland Road and Les Cocker and Syd Owen were treating the players and I remember kicking the ball around the pitch and things like that.”
The man who will be standing in the opposing dug-out to Cooper at the County Ground tonight is someone he knows well in United head coach Dave Hockaday, who has his own attachment to the side he is facing in Swindon after playing for the Robins during a golden era in the eighties under Lou Macari.
Hockaday actually linked up with his former club for a spell last term following an invitation from Cooper following his departure from Swindon’s near-neighbours Forest Green in October 2013, but business and not sentiment will be the order of the day for the 56-year-old tonight.
Cooper added: “It’s a great opportunity for Dave at Leeds, although a big challenge.
“As soon as Dave got the job, he wanted to play us.
“I think he had seen how we worked last year and he wanted to come and test his team against us.
“I think his side are going to come and play football and we certainly do that. It’s a great game for us.
“I have known Dave for a few years, obviously being on the management scene. When he lost his job at Forest Green last year, I just rang him because I knew he was local.
“As a manager, I know it’s horrible when you are out of work and I just said to him: ‘Look if you want to come down and watch the training and do a bit, please do.’
“And he came down nearly every day for three or four months and I think he enjoyed it. It’s refreshing that the chairman at Leeds committed to an English person rather than bring another foreign manager in.
“Fair play to him and I hope he does well.”
Much has been made of the set-up at Leeds where Hockaday’s sole concern is on preparing and training the first-team squad with playing recruitment entrusted in the hands of owner Massimo Cellino and sporting director Nicola Salerno.
It’s hardly a common scenario for clubs across the UK, but on the continent, it is the way across a host of leagues, with Cooper of the view that it will become a lot more pervasive in British football in the future.
Cooper said: “I read about the stuff at Leeds every day and I think the structure of what they are trying to do is right. I think that will be the way to go where a director of football brings players in and the manager or head coach looks after the team, which is the way it should be.
“You can then devote your time to working with the players rather than negotiating with agents and things like that, which is probably a good thing.
“In the modern-day, it’s more about coaching and working with players rather than being in the office.”