Preview: Hartlepool United 2013-14

Chief sports writer Mark Douglas speaks to Colin Cooper and Craig Hignett as they prepare to kick off Hartlepool's new season in League Two

Hartlepool United's Colin Cooper and Craig Hignett
Hartlepool United's Colin Cooper and Craig Hignett

Colin Cooper is talking about “bravery”. More specifically, the steel it will require for his Hartlepool side to stay true to their football principles as they attempt to fashion an escape route from the Football League’s basement division – the starting point for the revival that he is hoping to inspire alongside former Middlesbrough team-mate Craig Hignett, his assistant manager.

But as he talks about his commitment to passing football, the B-word could equally be applied to Cooper’s own decision to step away from the world of youth team football and into the furnace of lower league management.

Victoria Park hasn’t been the safest place to fashion a career in the dug-out of late – just ask John Hughes, dispensed with after failing in the Mission Impossible of saving Hartlepool’s League One status last season.

But Cooper, who admits that hours spent with his young family have dwindled since taking on the job, simply couldn’t be happier.

“I can’t wait to get started. We’ve been working every hour for the last seven weeks watching games, scouting players. I’ve seen more of Craig than I have my wife recently,” he tells The Journal as he sits across from the bubbly former midfielder.

As Cooper knows only too well, life is difficult in the bottom tier.

With little in the way of a budget, and the geography of Hartlepool’s location stacked against them, the pair have found it difficult to clinch deals. They saw Mark Yeates and Jason Kennedy – two of their front-line targets – opt for League One football with Bradford despite advanced negotiations which nearly saw them pull off the double deal.

Yet optimism is high at Victoria Park. The pair’s enthusiasm for the job has gone down well, and there is a feeling that their work ethic and professionalism will give Hartlepool a chance of being in the mix.

Cooper says: “We listen to our fans on social media and they’re saying they’re excited; they’re behind us.

“I think they want signings – without wanting to go into too much detail I will say we’re trying very hard.

“We’re just trying to give the squad something extra and something different. There’s some very good young players here as well and you don’t want to stop them progressing.

“We wouldn’t bring people in for the sake of it. We wouldn’t just accumulate numbers. That probably makes it a little harder, because if you want to get better, you have to search for better. In the last two weeks we’ve been all over the place to get as big as a dossier as we can that we can link into.”

Cooper and Hignett are the self-confessed “odd couple” of League One. Liverpool-reared Hignett was the “joker in the pack” in every dressing room he played in; Cooper was always the more serious, focused type.

They got on well at Middlesbrough but were never “mates” – although Hignett bridles at the suggestion the long hours spent together during pre-season haven’t improved their relationship. But in a funny way, that makes the duo ideal management bed-fellows.

“We’re not seeing much of our families, but this is what we both want to do,” Cooper says.

“We are both coming from different places. We don’t come as mates – we come as two people with a burning desire to do well. We are (mates) now but it’s a fact – we knew each other, we were acquaintances and we’d spent a bit of time together socially but not a lot.”

Hignett will not be afraid to cross swords with “the gaffer”, but feels they have one thing in common which really matters: a similar footballing philosophy.

Pool’s number two says: “Football is a game of opinions. If I think something, I’ll say it. If there are disagreements on things then we’ll have them but as of yet, we haven’t had too many of those conversations.

“I think how we want to play football is the same. We want players to get the ball and look forward, we want to play attractive, passing football,” he says.

“Colin was a defender, so he knows that part of the game inside out, but I’m the other way. I think a bit different – I’m more attacking. I like that side of the game.

“From a personality point of view we’re very different. Colin is very professional – he’s the straight man, if you like. He’s very straight to the point with people, while I mix with people. I like to think I’m very easy to get on with. I’ve been the joker in the pack in dressing rooms which is not where I want to be now, but it helps because I can maybe be on the player’s level a little bit.

“From that point of view we’re different, but from a football point of view we like the same players.”

Cooper knows there will be a measure of compromise about the way they play next year.

“The level of football we’re playing at will probably dictate whether we can play attractive, passing football – if I’m honest, the more we are able to play that kind of football the better we’ll be,” he said.

“The more we go crash, bang wallop in this league, the more we’ll be at a disadvantage because in this league we will be quite young. By the same token, being in possession of the football requires a certain amount of bravery. That’s the message we’re trying to get across to the lads.”

Cooper wants there to be a similar spirit to that which he felt when he started his playing career some 27 years ago.

“We have to have a ‘them against us’ mentality,” he says.

“I said it when I came in but I see similarities with Middlesbrough in 1986. This is the lowest point that Hartlepool have been at for a long while, and you have to use it as a springboard for something else.

“Because we’re playing in League Two, because we’re isolated from everyone else at our level, I think we have to try to have the town thinking of the club as being part of it and vice- versa.

“That was the major thing about Middlesbrough in 1986. The town was behind us and we had a young side of local lads who went on a bit of a roll. Again, here we need the supporters to realise there’s going to be some young boys giving it their all for Hartlepool. My message would be to give them a chance, give us a chance and you just never know.

“The siege mentality is a strong tool – we have to make it us against the world.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer