Paul Cook: how the hunted became the hunter

Paul Cook, left, and chairman Iain McInnes celebrate Pompey's promotion at Meadow Lane Picture: Joe Pepler
Paul Cook, left, and chairman Iain McInnes celebrate Pompey's promotion at Meadow Lane Picture: Joe Pepler
Conor Chaplin could start againsyt Plymouth. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey v Plymouth: pre-match talking points

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The fragility of modern-day management had long bewildered Paul Cook.

Yet, ultimately, the departure of the Football League’s 22nd longest-serving boss was initiated upon his own nod.

Granted, Cook will testify to circumstances dictating such an outcome, destabilising factors which left him shifting restlessly in his seat.

There was the takeover limbo and impending arrival of owners unfamiliar to him, the absence of a long-term contract to meet his satisfaction and a nagging feeling of under appreciation.

The LMA’s League Two Manager of the Year had been squinting to glimpse his future.

It remains, however, his choice to quit Fratton Park barely three weeks since claiming that remarkable final-day title.

In doing so, he dodges the game’s fitful managerial existence which he loathes. Cook leaves on his own terms rather than at the whim of an over-zealous hierarchy.

Had Pompey failed to win promotion during the 2016-17 campaign, surely his ongoing Fratton Park presence was untenable, particularly among a supporter base to have bared their teeth at various stages.

As it was, a magnificent end to the season ensured the 50-year-old’s stock price rocketed – and how he capitalised from that prized position of strength.

Hardly a pre-match press conference passed without Cook lamenting over the managerial endangered species, head bowed in empathy upon the demise of his ever-changing band of brothers.

He had a point, unquestionably. But during his latter days at Fratton Park, the hunted became the hunter.

Cook held the upper hand through his pursuit of greater financial reward – this was a battle in which he was never going to succumb to defeat. A home banker if ever there was one.

The Blues boss craved improved terms, while his achievements certainly warranted that.

He led Pompey to the League Two crown, it would be churlish to disparage such an accomplishment.

Only six managers in the Blues’ post-Second World War history have earned promotion, of which Cook became the fourth to lift a title in the process.

Rarely do clubs stumble across a successful manager, some owners spending their entire tenancy unable to locate the fabled golden egg.

As Pompey followers can testify following Harry Redknapp’s first departure, such quality is not easily replicated, irrespective of whispering winds championing sure-fire alternatives.

Cook had to be kept at Fratton Park – yet, crucially, not at all costs.

While rumours swirled of Wigan interest, he was on holiday in Portugal.

Having initially travelled to the Algarve with his wife, his coaching staff traded places to join Cook on the golf course and in the bar.

The Blues’ manager was contacted by The News, yet declined to go on the record.

There was no desire to publicly destroy such claims, preferring to maintain a tactical silence during the unsettling chatter.

Cook did, however, passionately stress his desire to remain at Fratton Park, albeit on the promise of an improved deal for both himself and assistant Leam Richardson.

His tone was unmistakably honest and from the heart.

He sought long-term security, while Richardson’s family were seeking a Warsash school for their son to start in September. Leaving was an absolute last resort – stability the driving force.

There were other concerns, of course.

The loss of Iain McInnes as chairman had already inflicted a blow to dampen the promotion party for Cook after the Meadow Lane triumph. A boardroom friend, confidante and ally was about to depart.

Arriving in his place was Michael Eisner, a man the Liverpudlian knew little about, who had mooted the possibility of a director of football in the indeterminable future. How that nagged.

Then there was the £3m playing budget, unveiled within days of promotion. The rise from £2.4m had disappointed Cook, particularly in light of the continuing excellent home receipts.

Finally, he perceived there was an absence of enthusiasm from the Pompey board to deliver a new deal in recognition of his performance.

In his finest hour, the he felt undervalued within the club rather than lauded.

Crucially, though, there was a safety net supplied from the DW Stadium.

Ultimately, Cook received the improved Blues deal he demanded.

Incidentally, he’d already automatically collected a pay rise and substantial bonus having won promotion.

However, it could not match the lure of the Wigan pay packet and the opportunity to be accompanied by a trusted Pompey backroom.

In what would prove his final interview with The News as the Fratton Park boss, conducted in Kevin McCormack’s laundry room following the title success, Cook uttered words which will forever haunt his south-coast reputation.

‘I love the club, I love managing the club, it’s a fantastic club,’ he said.

‘For my future, I want to be here. If I’m not here then it will be only because Pompey don’t want me here.

‘It won’t be because any other club in the country had come in for me – except Liverpool.’

Cook has proven himself a footballing winner, while triumphed in the chase for greater financial rewards and a future he considered more stable.

Sadly, in the process, he has lost the respect of the Fratton faithful.