MORE than a decade on from presiding over Hartlepool United’s most successful period, Neale Cooper still looks back fondly at his first spell in charge at Victoria Park.
The likeable Scot steered Pools to the League One play-offs in his first season in charge, the 2003-04 campaign, and it set a precedent for the following campaign when Pools went one further by reaching the play-off final.
I would have loved Cardiff, of course, but that’s football, that’s lifeNEALE COOPER
Cooper was sacked a few days before the end of the 2004-05 regular season, denying him the chance to lead his side into the top-six and subsequent play-off games against Tranmere Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday.
“I would have loved Cardiff, of course, but that’s football, that’s life,” Cooper said.
“The year before, when we played Bristol City, it was a great achievement because everyone thought we’d be fighting relegation.
“They were two good games and we were unfortunate.
“It was a surprise to reach the play-offs but we had that team spirit and when we lost we said ‘right, let’s do it again’ and we did.”
Team spirit around the Maiden Castle training pitches during Cooper’s first managerial stint at Pools – he returned for an unsuccessful second time in late December 2011 – was well-documented as being one of the the principal reasons behind the team’s unlikely status as one of the league’s best.
In Cooper’s words, he says that “it was a treat managing the players” and they made it his “best and most enjoyable time as a manager, undoubtedly.”
Speaking to SportMail ahead of tonight’s reunion celebration dinner at the Borough Hall to mark 10 years since the play-off final, Cooper added: “I was with Aberdeen in the 1980s when we were winning everything and the dressing room was magic.
“It was very similar to that at Hartlepool. It was the best.
“The boys managed themselves and they were a pleasure to work with.
“They were always together – playing football together, socialising together. It was great banter and they were a wonderful set of lads.
“There were no bad eggs. They were all tremendous. It was an honour to part of the team and the supporters were brilliant.”
He resigned from Pools in October 2012 following a 2-1 loss at Bury that resulted in Pools propping up the third tier after 14 games, a position they would only improve on by one place come the season’s climax.
The memories of those disappointing 11 months still pains the now 51-year-old. “When I came back it wasn’t the same as before and I couldn’t get away with that. It wasn’t my players and that was hard,” he admitted.
“It was tough and I wasn’t enjoying it.
“It wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
“I was never asked to leave. I have a great affection with the people of Hartlepool and I wanted to leave on my own terms to preserve that.
And as proof of his affinity for the Pools folklore, he has agreed to don fancy dress and stand with the fans at the upcoming season’s last away game. “Of course I will!
“Keep me to that and I will be there!” he responded when quizzed if he would partake.