The son of former Leeds and England defender Terry, Mark Cooper began his playing career at Bristol City in 1987, where his father was manager. Having failed to make an appearance for the Robins, he moved on to Exeter City in October 1989…where his father was manager. This time he managed 50 League appearances in his two seasons at St James Park, helping them to the Fourth Division championship in 1990. He was on the move again in September 1991 to Birmingham City…where his father was manager, and helped Birmingham to promotion from the Third Division. Two promotions in three seasons was a good record, but his stay at St Andrews lasted little more than a year before he signed for Fulham, who for some unknown reason were not managed by his father. He also appeared for Huddersfield and Wycombe before returning to Exeter in 1994…where his father was in his second spell as manager.
At the end of his first season Exeter finished bottom of the Football League, but were spared relegation when Macclesfield’s Moss Rose ground failed an inspection by the League. They struggled away from the bottom the following season before Cooper departed for short spells with 8 clubs in the next 6 years. The seventh of those eight clubs was Forest Green Rovers, where he was voted Player of the Season as his 18 goals from midfield helped keep the club in the Conference in 2001-02. The last of the eight was Tamworth in 2002, where he was appointed player-assistant manager at the end of his first season. At the end of his second season, he was given the manager’s job.
League form was always mediocre at Tamworth as the tiny club struggled to compete at Conference Premier level. The club enjoyed a reprieve from relegation in 2005-06 when Canvey Island resigned from the Conference for financial reasons, but Cooper’s reign came to an end in January 2007 with his side bottom of the table. The highlights came in the FA Cup, as the side reached the third round two seasons running, losing to Stoke on penalties in 2005-06, and 4-1 at home to Norwich the following season. Cooper departed less than three weeks later.
In the summer of 2007 Cooper was appointed manager of Kettering by ambitious chairman Imraan Ladak, and a period of success ensued. Kettering strolled to the Conference North championship in his first season and finished a very comfortable eighth in the Conference Premier the following year. The FA Cup again provided more excitement as the Poppies beat Lincoln, Notts County and Eastwood Town to reach the fourth round before losing 4-2 at home to Fulham. The success continued into his third season, and Kettering sat in second place in the Conference when Cooper resigned to succeed Darren Ferguson at Championship side Peterborough. Unfortunately he won only 1 of his 13 games in all competitions and was sacked just 79 days into his three-and-a-half-year contract.
His next job came in June 2010 at Darlington, who had just been relegated from the Football League. The side recovered well in that first season back in the Conference, finishing seventh and winning the FA Trophy with a 1-0 win over Mansfield. Of interest to Lincoln supporters was the fact that he made the final two for the Sincil Bank hot seat, losing out to Steve Tilson. The next season started poorly, and Cooper was sacked in October; two months later the club was placed into administration for the third time in nine years and was effectively liquidated at the end of the season. A phoenix club called Darlington 1883 rose in its place.
Cooper returned to Kettering in January 2012 but resigned two weeks later due to the club’s financial problems. There followed a year out of the game before joining AFC Telford at the end of January 2013. His stay there lasted just a month before he moved to Swindon Town as assistant manager. At the end of that season he took over as manager following the departure of Kevin MacDonald. At the end of his second season he took Swindon to Wembley for the League One play-off final after an incredible 5-5 draw at home to Sheffield United in the semi-final; unfortunately Swindon were on the wrong end of another high-scoring game, losing 4-0 to Preston. The following season started poorly and Cooper was sacked in October 2015 with Swindon just above the relegation zone. His next job came at Notts County in March 2016, his sole objective being to meet a points target to ensure Football League survival; he succeeded, but departed for Forest Green shortly before the 2016 National League play-off final defeat to Grimsby.
His first season at the New Lawn was always likely to be controversial, given the huge amount of money being spent on players, a £2.47 million annual loss and some bold media statements from chairman Dale Vince. Leading the table by 9 points in mid-November, their 3-2 home defeat by Lincoln after losing a two-goal lead was ultimately to change the destiny of the National League title. The play-off final was reached for the second season running, where they finally won promotion with a 3-1 win over Tranmere, who had finished 9 points ahead. Interestingly, one of his players last season was his son Charlie, on loan from Birmingham; history repeating itself, perhaps.
The similarity between Mark Cooper’s playing and managerial careers is striking in terms of both longevity and brevity. Neither as a player nor manager has he stayed at any club for more than a couple of years, totalling 18 clubs in 20 years as a player, and 9 clubs in 13 years as a manager. On that basis, we might suspect that his five-year contract at Forest Green may not be extended at any point.
So what do we say about the man who has taken a village team to the Football League? Should we spend our summer evenings wondering how he has achieved such a brilliant feat? Do we regurgitate the much-anticipated journalistic claptrap about fairy tales and dreams come true? We could even call it a footballing miracle if we were so disposed.
Had he achieved it on a John Coleman budget, we might have been impressed. One notable aspect of Mark Cooper’s managerial record is the prevalence of bankrolled clubs, and some with notoriously poor financial histories. Nothing wrong with that, unless it contravenes the law, taxation requirements, financial fair play rules, and so on. Kettering, Darlington and Swindon – what a catalogue of financial screw-ups you have there. Regardless of the true financial state of each of his clubs, he does appear to like a good budget.
All of which makes any assessment of Mark Cooper’s record more subjective and problematic than the majority. Where we are considering the management of teams with comparatively large budgets, it is natural to expect the record of that manager to be above average. There must be a reason why he has held a number of relatively high-profile jobs of course, or perhaps several reasons, but his overall record is not up with the best. That is a bit surprising, but last season’s success is only his second promotion. Next season could be very interesting, and will perhaps provide a clearer idea of his true ability on a more level financial playing field.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and play-offs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure.
** Tamworth should have been relegated in 2005-06; they were reprieved when Canvey Island resigned from the Conference.
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— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) June 25, 2017