When Steve Cooper pulls on his runners and lets the fresh morning air of the Welsh coast declutter his mind, his thoughts regularly drift back to the thrill of his first derby as Swansea’s head coach.
‘I often find myself thinking about that,’ admits Cooper as he recalls beating Cardiff at Liberty Stadium. ‘I like to go running in the mornings and I’m thinking about why we’re doing this and messages for the players.
‘We played well that day and we won in our way. It was bloody great. The atmosphere was different. We’ve been to Leeds and Hillsborough but nothing compared to that feeling. The emotion and togetherness on that day was unique.’
Swansea boss Steve Cooper’s thoughts regularly drift back to the thrill of his first derby clash
Cooper is a South Walian who was born in Pontypridd and made the journey 45 miles west from the Valleys to Swansea via Wrexham, Liverpool and the top of the world with England.
He has worked in professional football since leaving school and this season, as he turned 40, he stepped from the ranks of youth development to begin life at the front of a club which has proved a successful staging post for some acclaimed modern coaches.
Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, Graeme Jones and most recently Graham Potter have all flourished at Swansea. ‘It’s something I wanted to do for a long time,’ says Cooper. ‘I’ve been a professional coach for 20 years so I’m not new to it. I wouldn’t put myself in this position if I didn’t know I could do it. I just wanted to make sure I was ready.
‘It’s not for everyone. Some people love working with the academies. I found as I worked with the older age groups and got into tactics, playing philosophies, coaching methodology and leadership that it gave me an ambition to work at senior level. So I’m giving it a go. I’ve done thousands of sessions and thousands of games and I feel very comfortable in the job but I see myself at the start.’
Cooper worked in football since leaving school and has begun life at helm of the Swans well
Cooper left South Wales at 16 to join Wrexham as a trainee and spent two years as a young pro before stepping into coaching.
‘I failed as a footballer and Wrexham saw something in my character to give me a full-time coaching role in the academy,’ he explains. ‘I was coaching full-time and playing part-time in the League of Wales for Bangor City but only for about 12 months.
‘The two things clashed and when it came to the choice I wanted to coach because I found myself looking forward to that more than playing. I fell in love with coaching.’
Cooper finished his playing career in his mid-20s and stayed at Wrexham until 2008, when they were relegated from the Football League, and an opportunity arose at the Liverpool academy. ‘I spent time there with some brilliant people,’ he says. ‘Sir Kenny Dalglish was one who taught me about being a good human being, showing humility and having no ego.
Cooper says: ‘Kenny Dalglish was one who taught me about being a good human being’
‘And we had a Spanish influence with Pep Segura (Barcelona’s sporting director until July) and Rodolfo Borrell, who is now at Manchester City with Pep Guardiola, and they showed me a new way of working.’
After Liverpool came five years at St George’s Park with the Football Association and he led England’s Under 17s to World Cup glory in India in 2017. ‘A brilliant experience,’ says Cooper. ‘I’m a real advocate of the modern young player. I’ve worked in youth development for 20 years and they’ve never been more professional or more committed to their trade.
‘There’s a lot of stigma about “too much too soon” which I completely disagree with. People say everything’s on a plate when football has gone with the times, caught up with other sports in terms of facilities, coaching and support for its players. The players have grabbed hold of that and this British generation is thriving. It is right to be excited and proud of them.’
His World Cup winners included Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi plus Rhian Brewster who has just joined Swansea on loan from Liverpool, and Marc Guehi who has joined on loan from Chelsea.
The 40-year-old also experienced World Cup glory with England’s U17s in India in 2017
‘The Championship is a brilliant league for opportunities,’ says Cooper. ‘And when you give kids an opportunity they often take them. It’s starting to turn. We have Ben Cabango, who has come through the ranks and recently started games. Let’s hope this swell in opportunity continues. I know it’s difficult and I’m feeling it now myself: do we put this kid in when we’ve got a more experienced player? I want to be true to myself and we are a club who have to develop our own players.’
Potter’s exit for Brighton after a year at Swansea supplied the opening for Cooper to return to Wales, where he enjoyed his childhood as a son of former Premier League referee Keith Cooper.
‘Maybe when he gave a decision about Manchester United or Liverpool you’d get a bit of stick in school,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t a bad time, and I look back fondly on my dad being a ref because he was at the top. He reffed a few times at the old Wembley, in the play-offs and I used to go to the big ones. I was there in the League Cup final in 1994 when he sent off Andrei Kanchelskis and Dean Saunders scored the penalty.
‘It’s amazing how many people ask after him, it’s a nice reminder of how well-liked he was.’
Keith has followed Swansea this season and was picked out by the TV cameras as he celebrated during the win against Cardiff. ‘He’s enjoying the ride and feels the emotions like any dad would,’ says Cooper.
Swansea, relegated from the Premier League in 2018, were unbeaten in their first eight games of the season before a sequence of no wins in six and they suffered a crushing FA Cup defeat at QPR. But they are sixth in the Championship and firmly in the pack with sights on promotion but not about to get carried away as they prepare to face Cardiff again on Sunday.
The Championship club currently sit in sixth spot with their focus on achieving promotion
‘The good start did raise expectations,’ says Cooper. ‘Swansea in the white kit, playing the way they played became a familiar sight in the Premier League. People saw that start and thought this was the same Swansea, when in fact we’re a much different club. We’ve got a new coaching and management team. The chairman only came through the door in April a few months before me.
‘Leon Britton is new to his role as sporting director, we’ve got a brand new recruitment team, a new physical performance team. We lost the head of medicine in the summer, so that’s changed, we’ve got a brand new analysis team. On it goes. We brought in millions in the summer, not to be reinvested but because the club needed the money.
‘So we’re a very different club from how we’re sometimes perceived and one of the challenges has been to live up to the status and expectations — to stay connected to our recent history because it’s unique and important — versus where we’re actually at.’