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The Steve Cooper Football Story : A 20 year coaching journey
Thursday, 27th May 2021 14:13 by Keith Haynes
Today we look at the second phase of Steve Cooper’s journey to professional management at Swansea City. We start now in September 2008 when Cooper left Wrexham to take up a coaching post at Liverpool academy. And of course on to his England journey.
Steve Cooper has always maintained there are three areas to development.
1. Barriers to talent pathways and how to overcome them.
So is this now paying off with the swans in the play off final ?
This clear mantra, and the ability to implement it and recognise how players develop has stayed with Cooper for years. A key aspect of talent development, according to Steve Cooper, is to give young players first team opportunities. At the same time, it is important to be patient with mistakes. ‘This is the only way for players to step forward. You cannot replicate the crowd and consequences of winning and losing.’ It is also essential to recognise where a player is on his career journey. ‘Talent development is a long-time project. If you help a player make the right decisions, he will end up being in the right place.’
On the 3rd September 2008, Cooper was appointed as a youth coach at Liverpool, initially taking charge of the under-12s. That was a three year development for him as well as the players. Cooper’s focus remained on learning and development and implementing a clear perspective in to the youth game. On the 18th July 2011, he was named manager of Liverpool's academy. The management at Liverpool had recognised very clearly Cooper’s ability to identify clear learning paths in young people, an essential skill at this level. He said at the time, “It's a great honour to be promoted at a club like this and the boss ( Dalglish ) has a great knowledge of the youth scheme as he was very much part of it before he became first-team manager. With the position comes a higher responsibility, but I will relish the challenge. When you are at a club like Liverpool, you cannot forget the principles it has been built on; the history and morals which have made the club what it is. We have to work to them but at the same time embrace new methods of modern-day football” How true that turned out to be.
Given a very difficult task at Liverpool wasn’t a problem
Coopers knowledge and respect of the Liverpool academy structure had been embraced by him, the attention to minutia details in preparation and recognising each individuals learning styles was displaying a real progress for the academy. “The good thing about having Kenny Dalglish in charge is that he spent 18 months training with the Academy before becoming first team manager. He is aware of the work that is going on here and to have him at the helm is very positive. It does put pressure on you to produce good young players but that is the main objective, to provide players good enough for the boss to put them in the first team. You are always held accountable.”
Again another very true statement. He now found himself under the Anfield microscope, and to some he had taken on a poison chalice at the new Liverpool academy which had seen a rebirth in ethos and application over the previous three years. The club wanted a fifty percent return on invest,net, that is they aspired to see a future Liverpool team made up of fifty per cent of academy graduates. A tall order. The press concentrated on the reserve sides and their development as much as the first team, and Cooper was the manager, the buck stops here, and he relished it.
It’s fair to say Steve Cooper has had a difficult start as Liverpool U18s manager. Given a side packed with first year scholars – mostly his U16 team from the previous season – he was always facing an uphill challenge to form a competitive team. Liverpool have been shipping goals at U18 level but this was always expected with a back four whose average age is far younger than 17 and have never played U18 football before.
Cooper has started with some interesting ideas; the core 4231 formation remains unchanged – a feature of the entire Academy – but his commitment to a tiki-taka style is perhaps not as clear cut as that of Borrell or even Marsh and certainly not Rodgers. However, that is not to say the style won’t emerge overtime and it is early into his tenure as manager so perhaps it is too difficult to judge yet.
What Cooper is excellent at is player development. Already this season we have seen several players switch positions or be asked to do jobs they are not usually comfortable with. For example; Connor Randall, usually thought of as a defensive player, has been used up front and Yalany Baio has been given more of a license to push forwards. While this may well mean that results at U18 level suffer, and they have, it is much better for the young players all round development to leave their comfort zone. All in all it’s a promising start for Cooper with room for improvement.
Brendan Rodgers, a very clear football strategy
This was July 2011 and at the age of 31 Cooper was now gaining the trust and respect of his peers and being recognised very clearly as a distinctive coaching & management professional. Cooper coached the under-18s for the 2012–13 season, leading them to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup, where they lost to Chelsea. While at Liverpool, Cooper oversaw the development of such players as Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Ben Woodburn. In 2013, Cooper joined the FA as a youth coach educator and also taught on the FA Wales A Licence course. Cooper also had the ear of ex swans manager Brendan Rodgers who had revitalised a floundering career at the Liberty, recognised for his own clear methodology in learning and development, implementing the pass and move game, Steve Cooper couldn’t have been in better hands. Not only as manager of the academy but having in Rodgers a mentor and confidant.
Sterling scores for Cooper’s Liverpool in the FA Youth Cup
Steve Cooper was never going to be satisfied with his achievements to date, an incredible CV was being built, his peers were trailblazers in the youth and adult game, capable of education as well practical application. The old school buy me new players attitude was just that, old. His reward was significant, England were calling.
We will continue Steve Cooper’s football journey as the close season progresses, however, has he got enough to bring Premier league football back to Swansea ?
Photographs licensed from Reuters
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