Why many Pompey fans will always applaud Paul Cook

Former Pompey boss Paul Cook with young Blues fan Sam Ford
Former Pompey boss Paul Cook with young Blues fan Sam Ford
Ben Close. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey midfielder hungry to maintain unbroken run

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As a city rejoiced, the grateful were presented with a cherished chance to gush gratification.

Yet amid a flurry of thrusting hands pleading to be shook and appeals for photographic preservation, somebody had captured the man-of-the-moment’s undivided attention.

Clutching two bottles of Peroni, Paul Cook politely declined the well wishing to slice a pathway through the euphoric Victory Lounge into the May evening air.

Sam Ford was struggling to raise his conversation above the disco din generated by the end-of-season staff party turned impromptu title celebration – and Pompey’s boss agreed to head outside to talk.

Cook struck up a touching friendship with the 11-year-old with Down’s Syndrome within months of his Fratton Park tenancy.

A North Stand season-ticket holder, the youngster subsequently twice received golden-ticket invites to visit the training ground as the boss’ guest.

At the July 2016 friendly at Sutton United, he was even offered the chance to meet the players in the dressing room before kick-off.

Cook, of course, wasn’t alone in delivering acts of Pompey kindness to the Farlington youngster.

Following promotion at Meadow Lane, Gary Roberts agreed to dad Andy’s request to ring Sam while waiting for the team bus to depart.

It was only upon Kyle Bennett joining the phone conversation that the Springfield School pupil was convinced this was no hoax.

Then, in the aftermath of that 6-1 final-day victory over Cheltenham to claim the League Two crown, Cook stood chatting football for five minutes underneath the Fratton End.

Other Blues followers waited patiently for their turn. But Sam stood at the front of the queue.

Within 26 days, the manager with a 48.59 win percentage had quit Pompey in contentious circumstances.

On Monday, he is back. Albeit with Wigan – the League One high-fliers and FA Cup quarter-finalists this season.

And Sam, like others, maintains an appreciation for the charismatic boss who set Pompey on their way.

Cook was rightly criticised over the manner of his exit, a departure implemented by himself and sadly tainting his standing among the Fratton faithful.

Nonetheless, the 51-year-old is one of six managers in the club’s Football League history to have won promotion – and introduced Notts County and Cheltenham into Blues folklore.

Yet Cook had his critics long before he gave many just cause by walking out. Privately it nagged at him, the noisy minority often within earshot.

He received one letter declaring him ‘the most negative manager in the club’s history’, advising to ‘go back north, you are a disgrace’. The club also earned correspondence, often threatening not to renew season tickets unless he was dismissed.

His young son once returned from his Warsash school in tears after class-mates’ comments about his dad.

Then there was the time Cook had to leave the Shepherd’s Crook after two fans became aggressive.

That occurred following the 1-1 draw with Plymouth – and 72 hours later there was promotion.

Incidentally, that point enabled Pompey to finish ahead of the Pilgrims at the summit.

A Cook moment sticks in my mind during the impromptu Victory Lounge party when players and supporters embraced in drink-fuelled triumph after Meadow Lane.

After a while, Cook shrunk to the back of the room, situating himself near the exit alongside his wife and watched proceedings with a smile.

In reflective mood, he turned to me and uttered: ‘Neil, some fans at this club have never really taken to me’.

Poignant words from a man who, beneath the Scouse bravado and quick wit, was pricked by the barbs of criticism like any human being.

Indeed, Cook’s outgoing personality, passion and willingness to mix with supporters were surely a perfect Pompey hit. Not with all fans.

Irrespective of his short and often spiky post-match interviews, the vast majority of the local media enjoyed an excellent relationship with him.

Pre-match duties normally consisted of chatting 30 minutes off the record, on occasions talking tactics through video footage and coasters.

I was allowed a whistle-stop, 24-hour presence on his maiden pre-season trip, a bonding and training stay in Portugal.

Upon arrival with the club’s multimedia journalist Dan Smith, Cook offered his room to change and shower in as ours was not yet ready.

We also accompanied the team in their week-long pre-season 2017 stay in Dublin. It was a remarkable insight into his ability to create team spirit – and instil outstanding fitness levels. The epitome of work hard, play hard.

Cook, though, repeatedly declined to hand out his mobile number to us. His motto: ‘Just come to the training ground whenever you want a chat’.

Instead, he’d use the phones of Leam Richardson or Mark Catlin should he wish to contact us on rare instances.

During one of those visits, he was informed a lad with a foreign accent had turned up wanting a trial. Cook met the random stranger and agreed.

‘Everyone deserves the chance to play football,’ he later explained to me.

Another of his quirks was restlessness before matches, often eager to chat off the record to familiar press faces as kick-off loomed, particularly if it involved avoiding John Coleman.

One such moment arrived at Swansea’s Landore training ground, before Pompey reserves’ Premier League Cup semi-final clash.

‘We’ll win the title,’ he told me with startling conviction. ‘It’s fated, I think it’s written in the stars’.

Four days later at Fratton Park, he was right.

Sadly, Sam Ford may not be well enough for another Cook chat beneath the Fratton end on Monday.

Now aged 12, he came out of hospital a week today following major spinal surgery.

He harbours no ill-feeling towards the manager who quit his club for Wigan.

After all, Paul Cook has given him the best days of his life.