The Big Interview: Shaun Cooper

Shaun Cooper, centre.   Picture Allan Hutchings
Shaun Cooper, centre. Picture Allan Hutchings
Dion Donohue. Picture: Colin Farmery

New boy’s bitter-sweet Pompey experience

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There aren’t many players who have seen the huge changes at Fratton Park at such close quarters, by playing in three separate spells across nearly two decades.

Shaun Cooper was at Pompey under five different first-team managers and started his association with them at the age of just 12, after being spotted by Shaun North playing for Isle of Wight Schools.

He progressed into the first team and was handed his debut under Graham Rix, played a handful of games under Harry Redknapp and was released by Alain Perrin.

Then, after rejoining his first club under Guy Whittingham, Cooper’s last stint was ended by Richie Barker in January of last year when a hamstring injury left him sidelined after a total of 32 appearances and two goals.

Now playing for Sutton United, the 31-year-old has regained full fitness after a luckless run of injuries.

And although he doesn’t expect it to happen, he insists he would be only too happy to sign up for a fourth spell at Fratton.

Cooper said: ‘I know that when I am fit, I could still play in League One and League Two comfortably.

‘Playing 46 games a season has been the issue for the past four years or so but I’ve played 30-odd games this season and it’s good to be fit and enjoying my football.

‘If Pompey were interested, I would be more than happy but I don’t envisage that happening. You never say never in football though.’

Comfortable anywhere across the defence or in midfield and a shrewd reader of the game, Cooper made his first-team debut aged 18 in the final weeks of Rix’s tenure in a 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace.

But while he is critical of his own attitude as a young player, there is also a running theme that luck wasn’t always on his side while he was at Fratton Park.

He said: ‘We went for dinner when the team was announced – but Neil McNab had given me a little heads up beforehand.

‘My heart jumped into my mouth. It was a brilliant feeling.

‘I played right midfield and I remember Nigel Quashie running 20 metres to scream in my face for not passing to him at one point.

‘But I was used to that. It used to happen every day in training!

‘I also remember my first touch was a nice little ball round the corner to Crouchie (Peter Crouch).’

Just three weeks later, chairman Milan Mandaric ended Rix’s reign with Redknapp taking charge.

Cooper came on as a substitute for the injured Eddie Howe in the new manager’s first match in charge – a 2-0 defeat at Preston.

But his first-team chances were effectively over when Redknapp then built a whole new title-winning team.

Cooper said: ‘Redknapp pulled me one day and said some good things, which was nice to hear.

‘I came on as sub a few times for him but then the next season, there was a huge clearout and a load of new guys came in.

‘All the youngsters that had done well the season before – bar Gary O’Neil – were no longer involved.

‘Everyone went out on loan or rotted in the reserves.

‘You can’t argue with what he did. He signed well and got them promoted. But as youngsters, we knew our chances were done.

‘To be honest, my attitude wasn’t the best when I was younger.

‘Maybe I didn’t really appreciate the opportunity I had and I didn’t apply myself properly. I didn’t focus enough on my football, let’s put it that way!

‘Redknapp spoke to me about it. It’s not like he didn’t tell me these things. In hindsight, I wish I had done things differently.

‘But all of the youngsters and a few of the senior lads were just bombed out so it was like a separate team from the first team.

‘There were two different camps and you knew you were never going to get a chance. I was a very dejected footballer at the time.’

Cooper went on loan spells to Leyton Orient and Kidderminster but after Redknapp’s controversial departure, Perrin ended his stay.

‘He told me that my chances would be limited in the first team and it would be best to go elsewhere. It was absolutely the correct decision,’ Cooper said.

‘Redknapp has an aura about him and makes players want to play for him. Players know they can’t muck about with him.

‘Perrin was very laid-back and I don’t think he ever earned the respect of the first-team lads.

‘Training was a bit of a shambles at times. He didn’t have the control, from what I could see.

‘It was a bit like when you have a bad supply teacher at school and if a player is given an inch, they will take a mile.’

After finding regular first-team football at Bournemouth in a productive seven-year stay, Cooper was then given the chance to return to Fratton Park after falling out of favour with then-Crawley boss Barker.

Cooper said: ‘Awfs (Andy Awford) rung me and asked if I wanted to come on loan.

‘I didn’t think twice as I didn’t really see eye to eye with Barker.

‘But at Pompey, they had just got rid of a load of players and it seemed like there was always someone coming in.

‘There was no foundation to anything because of the ownership stuff that was going on.

‘In the first part of that season, I think they surprised everyone with how badly they had done because they had some decent players there.

‘Pompey had already under-achieved massively that season and it just continued.

‘Then we were just fielding a team and we were going out there to try our best.

‘Eventually it got a bit more settled and we had a few good results. Then we had the 3-0 win over Sheffield United after the takeover was completed.

‘It was brilliant – probably my fondest day at Pompey.

‘It was a beautiful day, a full house and a great atmosphere. And I scored the first goal playing left wing!’

Cooper then looked set to stay as Whittingham had the task of building a squad from scratch, only for a misunderstanding to end his hopes.

He said: ‘It was a real mess-up but it was just miscommunication and it didn’t happen.’

But he was given the chance in September of the 2013-14 campaign to embark on a third spell, only for another unfortunate turn of events soon afterwards.

He said: ‘Guy got sacked, then I heard the rumours that Barker was coming in. I thought “Oh no, how’s your luck?”

‘I knew it was vital for me to stay fit. Then I did my hamstring in his second game. It was the worst timing possible. To him (Barker), players were expendable.

‘The lads asked me what he was like when he first came in.

‘I told them if things don’t go well, it’s all the players’ fault and if things do go well, it’s all down to him. Someone will always be a scapegoat with him and that proved to be the case.

‘Even after I left, I saw him moaning about the squad he inherited. But he brought in five or six of those players himself.

‘It wasn’t through a lack of effort but I just think he was short-sighted and naive as a manager.’

A bad ankle injury then meant he didn’t kick a ball for Torquay and the dismissal of Gary Waddock ended his hopes of a move to Oxford when it looked set to happen.

Cooper said: ‘After the couple of years I’ve had, it’s just fun to be playing again.

‘But I loved my times at Pompey. They are great memories.’

SHAUN COOPER ON...

...YOUTH OPPORTUNITIES

A lot of young players do get despondent when they think they have no chance of making the step-up.

There is a fine balance between coaches giving up on a young lad saying ‘they don’t want it’ and a youngster being told they have to keep trying as hard as possible, even if it seems like that chance will never come along.

You need decent people to keep young players involved and motivated to give it everything they’ve got.

I see Jed Wallace, Jack Whatmough and Dan Butler working hard and playing first-team games at Pompey and I wish we’d had that chance.

We had Gary O’Neil, me, Rowan Vine and Lewis Buxton, who were in and around it. But a lot of good players left.

...ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

I remember that Sheffield United game just after the takeover. We won 3-0 and it gave everyone a feeling that it was a new start and we would go again from there.

I do believe it’s inevitable that a club like Pompey will get back up the leagues.

It just might not be as quickly as everyone hopes. It can take time.

...MR VERSATILE

I was always a centre midfielder as a schoolboy and I always felt that was my best position but I wasn’t the biggest.

I played right-back for the under-19s, did well and they kept me there. It’s been like that for my whole career but I’m comfortable in a lot of positions. At Bournemouth I played as a sweeper and enjoyed it a lot.