It’s better for Cooper and Swansea to part ways now than go through the motions
The only surprise about Steve Cooper leaving Swansea City is that his last game in the dugout was on a Tuesday night in a pre-season friendly at Plymouth Argyle, rather than the Championship play-off final at Wembley back in May.
Almost two months have passed since that sobering loss to Brentford, when Swansea were well beaten and Cooper sounded afterwards like a man who knew that his journey at the club had run its course. It felt like a question of when, not if, Cooper would move on. Few imagined it would take this long.
Crystal Palace were keen on him but not keen enough and instead chose Patrick Vieira. Fulham also gave serious consideration to appointing the Welshman before deciding to go for Marco Silva. West Bromwich Albion turned to Valerien Ismael, Scott Parker switched to Bournemouth and suddenly all the horses on the managerial merry-go-round were taken.
Cooper could have opted to stay on and see out the final 12 months of the three-year contract he signed when he replaced Graham Potter in the summer of 2019, but that always seemed an unlikely option and, in the circumstances, would not have suited either party.
There were signs of tension behind the scenes with the club’s US owners and little in the way of a working relationship with the chief executive Julian Winter, who was appointed as Trevor Birch’s replacement at the start of September last year. Cooper had been particularly close to Birch.
In many ways, it would have worked out better for Swansea — as well as for Cooper — if Palace or Fulham had offered him the job and a compensation package had been agreed. Nothing materialised, though, and that left both manager and club in a quandary as the new season started to come into view. Did they muddle through the next nine or 10 months like a couple who know their marriage is coming to an end, or agree to go their separate ways now?
In the end, it was the latter and although the timing of that decision raises major questions, it is arguably better this way than going through the motions and, potentially, making a change two or three months into the season when another club is pursuing Cooper or things have badly unravelled.
It would also be naive in the extreme to think that Swansea have just found out Cooper is not going to be their head coach any longer. It is understood the club have been exploring options for some time and that an appointment will be made swiftly.
As for Cooper, he is expected to take a break from management rather than jump straight into another job.
On the face of it, Cooper had more to lose than gain by continuing at Swansea. After leading the club to the play-offs in successive seasons and accumulating 150 points in the process — quite an achievement for anyone, let alone somebody who is managing at senior level for the first time — his stock is high. This season promises to be much more challenging for the Welsh club, though, and Cooper knew it.
The Premier League parachute payments have come to an end after three seasons in the Championship and the message inside the club is that Swansea will once again need to trade at a profit in this transfer window. In other words, sell their best players.
Cooper fought hard to keep his captain Matt Grimes at the Liberty Stadium last year, but it would be futile for anybody to try to do the same again. Swansea need the money and the time has come for the midfielder to move on. Grimes will leave this summer and there is every chance that Connor Roberts will follow him, despite currently being injured.
Andre Ayew, Swansea’s top scorer last season, has already departed as a free agent, saving the club the best part of £80,000 a week but leaving a sizeable hole in a goals column that was already light.
Freddie Woodman has returned to Newcastle United after back-to-back season-long loans and Marc Guehi, who spent 18 months on loan at Swansea, went back to Chelsea earlier this summer before being sold to Palace for £18 million. That’s the spine of last season’s team gone.
Did Cooper have the motivation to build another side? Did he have the energy? There was a sense within the club that successive play-off campaigns with little in the way of a break between the two seasons — Swansea played 64 matches in under 12 months — had taken their toll on a coach who put his heart and soul into the role.
“I couldn’t have given any more in the last two years because that’s what the job demands and that’s how I personally live my life,” Cooper said after the Plymouth friendly, when he chose his words carefully about his future. “There’s nobody that could have worked any harder than me because I’ve been so proud to be a part of this brilliant football club.”
Perhaps the most curious thing about Cooper and Swansea is that he leaves with a hugely impressive results record — a 45 per cent win percentage and two top-six finishes — yet with supporters conflicted and divided about his time in charge because of a style of play that was hard to define at times.
Swansea were efficient and disciplined defensively under Cooper but rarely expansive and free-scoring. They regularly found a way to win matches despite averaging the fourth-lowest number of shots per game in the Championship last season and rarely dominating the ball.
It was a formula that worked for a long time but it was also hard to see how the run of results that had Swansea on course for automatic promotion with 11 games of last season remaining was sustainable, and so it proved as four consecutive defeats followed in the space of 20 days. Swansea ended up finishing fourth and although they navigated a way past Barnsley in the play-off semi-finals, Brentford were simply too good for them.
Not that missing out on promotion can be seen as any sort of failure for Cooper. Swansea’s owners made such a mess of things during their two years in charge in the Premier League that the club have sold anyone with any value since being relegated and reinvested very little in the squad. They were certainly not geared up for an automatic promotion challenge under Cooper, put it that way.
Cooper had to beg and borrow to get players in and he used his contacts excellently in that respect. His close relationship with talented youngsters and top Premier League clubs through his work at the Football Association — with whom he led England Under-17s to win their World Cup in 2017 — enabled Swansea to sign some exceptional players on loan.
Chelsea were happy to let Swansea borrow Guehi and Conor Gallagher. Rhian Brewster joined from Liverpool on loan — and was sold to Sheffield United for £25 million six months later. Morgan Gibbs-White signed on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Woodman arrived from Newcastle. In short, clubs trusted Cooper not only to give those players game time but also to develop them, and Swansea reaped the rewards.
Although the return of Ayew ended up being an unexpected bonus for Cooper (that was by accident rather than design since the club couldn’t find a buyer for their record signing after he had spent the 2018-19 season on loan at Fenerbahce in Turkey), the Ghanaian forward was never an out-and-out striker and that position became a problem for Swansea last season.
Cooper hoped it would be addressed in January, when he wanted to bring in Cauley Woodrow from Barnsley, but Swansea’s owners were not willing to sanction a deal that, in truth, was never close to getting done.
Leaving aside the question of whether Woodrow was the right fit, there was a school of thought at the club that Swansea’s owners missed an opportunity to capitalise on their league position by failing to bring in a No 9 of any description, and it is easy to imagine what sort of message that sent to Cooper, his staff and the players.
Although there was a feeling among some that Cooper’s relationship with the owners deteriorated over time, it is understood that the last few weeks have been amicable. He oversaw the return to pre-season training at Pennyhill Park in Surrey and there was no indication whatsoever that his commitment had waned, even if the end was in sight.
All the while, Swansea have continued to pursue signings and that process will accelerate under the new coach, with a striker seen as a priority. The club plan to make use of the loan market again, although it remains to be seen what impact Cooper’s departure will have on the calibre of players they can attract. Talks have been held with several top Premier League clubs and those conversations will need to be revisited when his successor is appointed.
The transfer window is not closing until the end of next month — time is still on Swansea’s side in that respect.
The same cannot be said for the start of the season, however, which is only 17 days away and leaves very little time for a new coach to become acquainted with the players.