Colin Cooper has an alternative way of measuring success in his opening months of his maiden managerial posting at Hartlepool.
“The list of scouts coming to Victoria Park from day one of the season has doubled,” he says, the brilliant Durham sun filtering in through his office window at the Graham Sports Centre at Maiden Castle.
“Some lower league managers might not want to acknowledge with January approaching but I have to accept that as a form of flattery. There’s some really high-profile clubs watching Hartlepool now, which is a real shot in the arm for us and for the players they are watching.”
There are other gauges, of course. Cooper’s manager of the month award for October, for a start – or the League Two table, which now makes acceptable reading after a start that left newly-demoted Pool floundering.
Then there’s the buzz around the canteen as Pool’s mix of young hopefuls and experienced older hands filter through for food. In spite of Friday’s defeat to Newport – only their second in seven league games – the atmosphere seems positive. The noise levels reflect the togetherness of Cooper’s tightly-knit squad.
There’s also the kind words of Victoria Park regulars, who Cooper believes have “bought into” his favoured playing style.
It is the attention of the rest of the football world that is understandably gratifying. Having spent the summer trying to persuade the players that they had the ability to move through the leagues (hopefully with the upwardly mobile Pool), he now has the evidence to prove it. Hopefully it will also be noticed at Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle, all clubs that Cooper and assistant Craig Hignett have tried to engage with in their first few months. Their proposal to be a sort of North East nursery club for fledgling talent has not yet met with the enthusiasm they had hoped with.
Striker Luke James and defender Jack Baldwin are young, local and talented. They form a core that has enthused Cooper. “I haven’t got a problem saying it: we have got players who could comfortably play at Championship level without it being a massive stretch,” he said.
“Now whether that is with Hartlepool or not I don’t know, but we’ve got players who can play at a higher level and that’s a fact.” That ability has enabled Cooper to jump into his first managerial posting and play the sort of football that was a key part of his sell to Hartlepool in the summer. While not afraid to adapt, the Pool manager wants his team to continue to be bold and creative with the ball.
“We won’t go back to lumping it,” he says, confidently.
“We’re giving everyone a football match, which is good. I have very strong beliefs in how I want us to play. I want everyone to be fit, I want our players to be really fit. I want us to express ourselves. I want us to pass, I want us to play fast football, to stretch the opposition and to be clever.
“That takes time. To build that philosophy and ethos takes time, but even in that early period where we weren’t getting the results, people were still being nice to us. They were happy with what they were seeing.”
Cooper firmly believes that Pool can be a match for anyone in the division, and is targeting a minimum top-half place. It is the wider progress of the club, however, that is also beginning to exercise him. He has embraced the extra workload of being a number one.
“It’s everything I wanted. I’ve said from day one Craig has been brilliant and it’s something we both wanted and when it’s something you want you put the hours in to make a difference,” he said.
“Slowly but surely we think we’re putting on stamp on things, but we’re only a short space into what we hope will be a long tenure. Let’s be honest though, you don’t usually get that long in football.
“I would prefer it to be evolution, but people think it has to be revolution – to come in and make an impact. We’ll try to do it bit by bit, we haven’t had a load of finance available to us. We need to use everything we have available to us.”