Following Liam Watson was never going to be easy but Paul Cook took his first steps into management with Southport at the start of the 2006-2007 season, with the club’s directors having taken the decision to go full time after the previous season’s dramatic escape from relegation from the Conference National Division.
It turned out to be a disastrous appointment and Southport were soon sitting firmly in the relegation zone. With pressure mounting and following a horrendous New Years Day defeat at Northwich Victoria the Sandgrounders were propping up the table. Within two days Southport had terminated Cook’s contract. A phone call at 9am on 3rd January 2007 from Chairman Charlie Clapham confirmed what had been expected for weeks. Time had run out for Paul Cook.
A mass overhaul of the playing squad in pre-season saw many fan favorites released, goalkeeper Steve Dickinson who had been at the club for seven years amongst them. With the team starting poorly and offering little sign of improvement supporters were unhappy as early as October.
With much fan-fare at the start of the season Cook had appointed former Liverpool players John Durnin and Mike Marsh as assistants, and in front of the Sky Sports News cameras he confirmed his ambitions of building a squad capable of competing in the Conference National.
Nothing went to plan. Signings failed to materialise and he clashed with supporters over his confrontational management style and poor results. Famously quoted as saying “I ain’t seen nothing from this lad” in reference to Southport’s stand-out player Carl Baker during a meet the manager session at the start of the season, supporters also seriously questioned his judgment.
With no previous management experience it had been a brave appointment by the board with comparisons being drawn to the appointment of Mark Wright eight years earlier. Cook had been a successful player and more importantly a successful coach, involved with Conference title winning Accrington Stanley the year before and the board was confident that the success Accrington had achieved would rub off at Haig Avenue. What transpired couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cook began his playing career at ‘Port’s great non-league Crosby rivals Marine, before being signed by Southport’s football league replacements Wigan Athletic in 1984. He spent four years at Robin Park featuring in nearly 100 games before moving to the midlands with Wolverhampton Wanderers, via an unsuccessful 6 game stint in East Anglia with Norwich.
It was whilst at Wolves that he really made his name. With an accurate and powerful left foot he dominated the midfield through nearly 200 games.
After 5 years he moved to Coventry City before returning to the North West with Tranmere Rovers. Over the next ten years Cook moved around the North West playing also for Stockport & Burnley. At the end of the 2002/2003 season Cook announced his retirement from professional football.
Accrington Stanley manager John Coleman persuaded Cook to change his mind however and help with Accrington’s bid for the football league. Coleman saw him as the ideal man to take on the role of first team coach and Cook finally hung up his boots when promotion had been achieved.
The summer following promotion Cook left Accrington to pursue his management career and was the surprise choice to take the Haig Avenue hotseat.
After leaving Haig Avenue, Cook moved to Ireland and became manager of Sligo Rovers on 27th April, taking over from Rob McDonald. At the end of his first season in charge Sligo finished in 6th place in the Eircom Irish Premier League.
Ironically, Paul gave an interview that was due to appear in the match programme on 6 January 2007. The interview was carried out the day after a very unlucky home defeat to Morecambe on Boxing Day 2006 but he only had two more games in charge before he was dismissed. The interview (written as spoken) never made the programme, it is reproduced in full here for the first time ever:-
Q What about that game against Morecambe?
After a couple of days now, I still don’t believe we got beat to be honest, I always said when I came to the club that I wanted to put together a team that plays football honestly and is competitive. I certainly think that if I was a fan of a football team, that first 45 minutes against Morecambe was how I would want my team to play. I think it’s a credit to the lads who played that we can compete with a team like Morecambe who in my opinion are a very good side and possibly as good a side as there is in the Conference including Oxford and Dagenham, Morecambe have got threats all over the pitch. I can’t say I was too pleased because at the end of the day we got beat. Would you rather us get battered and we win 1-0? Yeah and we are still in the bottom four as we speak. Managers keep asking me how are we in the bottom 4? But we are. The biggest thing that disappoints me is that we play for three points and got none. I’ve watched the video numerous times and we didn’t half play well. (I can vouch for this, Paul knew exactly what happens at every minute of that video!)
Q Half way through the season, your summary so far?
PC It’s been rough, a lot harder than I thought. Certainly the problems I’ve had with the supporters over previous players has been a lot more difficult than I imagined. Not so much that I didn’t know the depth of feeling towards previous players, I do, I know how well thought of these players were. But what people say to you in a room like this and what they go out and tell people can be two different things. Especially early on I was getting made out to be a villain and taskmaster when people around me will tell you I am far from that. Any Southport fan can ask me anything, they only have to knock on the door here and they will be welcomed in. I will answer the questions, they might not get the answers the want but I will answer them. The door is always open whilst I am manager of this club.
Q There is a feeling that you did treat some of the ex players badly, how would you respond to that?
I wish that you could do a fly on the wall interview and take it back to the people we are speaking about and they would never speak bad about me again at this football club. Without getting drawn into previous things, Haydn will tell you what went on, Haydn is the first person I look to for criticism, he is passionate about this club and I look to him for a feel of what the fans are thinking. If Haydn was disappointed with me over something, and he has been over one or two things, don’t get me wrong then I take that on board as if I am hurting Southport fans. Each separate incident I try to deal with as best I can.
From day one certain players, Dickinson, I did not want Dicko to leave, I had no agenda, as we speak now, have we replaced Dicko, the answers no, so the people that think I wanted Dicko out, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Gary Brabin, we’ve been searching since the start of the season for a strong leader, we had one. Did I want Gary Brabin out, the answer to that is no, Gary has hardly kicked a ball since leaving but unfortunately he didn’t want to stay at this Football Club. No longer and as a a manger when people tell me they don’t want to stay at this club I have to represent you and do what’s right for the club and let them move on and get lads in like Lee Hoolickin who would die for this club, Kevin Lee who had his head restiched again against Morecambe, they want to play for you, they don’t ever let you down.
Lads like Earl Davis, Steve Daly, them lads got offered contracts to stay but we couldn’t agree terms and they decided to leave. If I had offered them the money they were asking for and they hadn’t been good enough I would have been bound to have them lads at the club. I am continually getting sent lists of players that other teams don’t want (he had a long list of players from a fellow Conference team on his desk). Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that those lads weren’t good enough, I just wasn’t sure.
Q Do you think in retrospect it would have been better for you to have a look at those players before releasing them?
I was criticised for offering the lads 3 month contracts and then I was criticised because how could they give up work for that. By offering them 3 months I wanted them to do well so that if they had done well I could give them longer. The money they were talking about would still make them Southport’s top paid players. I couldn’t be sure they would do it for me. I don’t hold them any malice and I wished them well. If they hadn’t been good enough I would then have to go to the Chairman and ask for more money because the lads weren’t good enough. I couldn’t win.
Q It’s been a very difficult start to your managerial career!
It’s been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. (Telephone rings, it’s Sammy McIlroy. I will delete the expletives but Paul decides against answering it and tells Sammy to go away, that’s all I need!)
Again you go back to the coaching staff, to bring the people I want to bring in to the club on the money we pay, it just wasn’t possible so that’s been a problem because every manager you see surrounds himself with people that they want. Unfortunately I’ve had to put up with stories about my brother doing this and people doing that and I have to read these things to say they are horrendous and off the mark is ridiculous.
Q Why do you think these stories got put round?
I don’t know, the stories about my pub annoy me to death, I’ve spent more time in Morecambe’s boardroom than I do in my pub but you’d have it believed that I’m pulling pints in my pub and I have to put up with it, people who know me know what I’m like, people who don’t know me seem to want to make up stories about me that I just find mind blowing at times because they just don’t know the type of person I am.
Q You do seem to be winning people over though Paul, does it matter to you that the fans are split?
NO! It doesn’t funnily enough. I think fans want a football team to win games and like I’ve said all along I am here to win football games for Southport Football Club. I know some manager’s court peoples favour, that doesn’t matter to me, I want to win games to get them up the league. I’e been on borrowed time since I started here! With all due respect to fans I don’t think they realise sometimes how hard my job has been. I don’t think they realise that whatever I seem to say gets taken out of context. I’m not asking you to be my mate but tell me what you are hurting about and I’ll answer it. Tell me why we are playing one up front and I’ll answer it and I’ll answer you the truth. I don’t want to tell people lies. I don’t make it up so they like me. I won’t answer questions about money, if we are paying lads certain money that should remain private. There are certain things that go on at the club that we need to improve i.e. budgets and money to compete with the likes of Morecambe because we are way behind them on those fronts but we are wanting to move forward and what I want to say to the fans is we are all going the same way just because you might not like Paul Cook, we all support them. You have to put up with people saying some people are your favourites. I’ve had a heated argument this morning with Mark Boyd and people tell me he’s my favourite. I don’t profess to be a tactical genius, I get criticised for my subs. Against Morecambe I should have taken Carl Baker off, I look back and he was knackered because he had played that well. I kick myself at the time for taking Hooly off and not Carl but Hooly was knackered also.
Comment. If you had taken Carl off and we had lost you would have got even more stick!! A wry smile from PC!
Unfortunately for Southport we don’t have a manager who thinks he knows everything, sometimes I put subs on and keep my fingers crossed but I’m human and I’d like to say that everything I do is for the good of our club that’s why I want everyone to get on side and say we are trying to get out of a relegation spot and anyone who has watched us can see an improvement and can see how hard them lads work for the club it’s results.
If you watched us in the first half against Aldershot or at home to St Albans you would not be happy and I would like to say to those fans I wish you could be in our dressing room at half time because I am sure I would reflect your mood.
It’s human nature that fans will always have a different idea about the team we’ll never pick the same team but we know our lads will certainly try their best and they won’t lack for effort and passion.
Q Taking about passion, Lee Hoolickin in the last few games, what have you done to him?
Again it’s funny how it works and it’s another thing that upsets me about fans these lads came on trial and from day one we’ve been judged on the lads we brought here, they forget that these lads were trialists in the summer. These weren’t hand picked players that I went and got. That team has been put together from players that were given away by other clubs in the summer. Our fans had this perception that this is a full time team. Our team is a team that has been put together it isn’t a bought team and it’s a team that we need to make better. So we stay up and over a period of time we keep the ones that we think do well and unfortunately we lose a couple of others and we go along we bring in a better standard of player who in a couple of years time will see us in a position were we know will do well rather than hope we do well.
Q Initially, I think it’s fair to say that Carl Baker didn’t seem to be your favourite player but latterly he seems to have improved, what do you put the transformation down to?
I put it down to Carl Baker, simple as that. We had a lad who when I came to the club I got told about him being an England International, I got told all the good things about him. From the first day I walked through the door, he wasn’t a nightmare because he’s a nice lad but he was always late, he always had some kind of problem which all culminated in the now famous getting fined. People will tell you I don’t like fining players, players are not on enough money at this club to be fined, they have families to keep. I’d fined Carl over his drink driving and I’d got the fine washed away so when he turned up in the state he was in it was my decision to fine him two weeks wages and to have him dislike me a lot was the only way I felt could jump start Carl’s career. Carl could either go away and leave the club or take a good look at himself. From that day the lad has looked at himself and he is now first in to training every morning and the result is what we are seeing on the pitch now. If people want to know were Carl Baker’s success has come from, it’s come from Carl Baker himself and we are all reaping the benefit.
Q Has that been a real test of your man management?
Along with the other 26 things that have come along, yes! I was at Accrington and everything was great, same team every week, no player problems but Jeeze I walked into here, into something that wasn’t real. I look back and think it was unfair and there are times when I have genuinely thought, do I need this hassle? I’ve seen the disappointment in peoples faces when we lose but I want to get us into that mid table heaven and then move on to challenge for play offs because I think we can because I think the club is run properly and if we do spend more money on the budget which is what we have to do but then also we have to get better crowds and to do that we have to see results and then the fans might see that this guy isn’t quite as clueless as they thought he was. The team is taking shape. Contrary to what people think we’ve spent no money yet, the Hoolickin’s Fowler’s etc have come here because they were released from other clubs and it’s up to us to turn them in to players.
Q Have you had the money available?
Yes but unfortunately there is a dire shortage of players, fans must think I lie and say boring stuff but I don’t there’s no one more than me who wants to bring players in and that will be better for you and Saturdays will be better for us all. My biggest problem is identifying players that will be right, that is a big worry for me because what we seem to look for is what Accrington, Morecambe are also looking for and of course we are next to bottom of the table.
I got criticism against Weymouth away, a Southport fan abused me coming off the pitch at Weymouth but I got on the coach coming back and we had the youngest Conference side ever and I’m not being funny but the wage bill for my lads probably wouldn’t have paid a couple of the Weymouth players wages. We had no forwards, we finished the game with Blakeman and Fowler up front and I get a fan abusing me. I was looking at him thinking, what do you want me to do? We are playing Weymouth with a strong home record with a load of kids and you are abusing me, what can I do about it?
We’d just gone bottom. What annoys me is that fans think I think I thought we were good enough, that team would have us in the Unibond never mind the Conference North but what I’m asking for is the fans to appreciate this isn’t our team yet and we need to bring players in
Q A lot of loan players in at the moment, the worry is do they all want to stay?
They all want to stay, they all love playing here and we are in a position to keep them. We have had a loan too many and Pato has been the one to miss out particularly with Carl’s improved form there’s not been any place for Pato. We can only have 5 players on loan, we don’t want loan players at the club but needs must.
Q Chris Lane?
A day will come with Chris Lane soon where he will have to decide whether he goes full time or he will have to leave the club because on a day to day basis there’s nothing better than having all your players here to train. I think the world of Chris Lane, he is a fantastic lad, great trainer but if you don’t have him Monday to Saturday it causes me a problem.
I’d like Laney to go full time but the unfortunate thing again is money. Laney has a good job and is on good money part time and rather than fans pillory me they should feel sorry for me as neither Laney or I want the problem. I need to work with the lads on a Monday to Friday so that when we go out on a Saturday we all know what we are doing.
I want to put a team together that sees us challenge for the play offs so we must have a full time team. The hope is that Laney can sort something out in the summer, I don’t want the fans to think I want to get rid of everyone, I don’t but unfortunately for Laney the better we get, something may have to give on that front.
Q The Future?
I spoke to the Chairman at length yesterday, it’s hard to foresee problems, at the minute we need to survive in the Conference, it’s not an option to go down, I don’t want to be remembered as that manager who took us down, we have to plan and again it’s only me being open but certainly at Forest Green and Dagenham we played well and I ask how many players do we need? If I bring two players in, would they get in our team against Kiddy on Saturday? Who would you leave out? Can I say to a player after that performance I want to bring you in but you will be sub? A little bit of a conundrum. I would have to say if the lads can play as we did against Morecambe, we can’t go down.
OK we had a hiccup against Burscough, I don’t think our players understood what that game was about because a lot of them are new. For Liam, Leadbetter etc, it was a massive game but to us, and I wasn’t being funny, the game at Forest Green was far more important and as much as I was hurt that we got beat by Burscough, if we had have beaten them and then lost at Forest Green, our fans would have been up in arms. On reflection I should not have played our first team against Burscough, I got it wrong, I should have played our fringe players.
I think Southport has a lot of potential, from the moment I walked in, it felt like a real football club, our attendances need to improve, I don’t have a magic wand but I am working hard and the signs are we are getting better. I feel we are all starting to pull together. When I walked out at Forest Green and saw the fans stood behind the dug out I thought here we go (He was right wasn’t he!) I am in for an uncomfortable afternoon here, why can’t they put them in a corner as far away as possible!! But at the end of that 97 minutes I felt, for the first time, the support of the fans was with me. It was terrific that day and I hope for more like it.
Paul gave up over an hour of his very busy schedule to take part in this interview and we came away with a fascinating insight into the day to day workings of the club and his way of doing things. We finished at 11.15 and decided to drive round to watch the last minutes of the players training and Paul was already there. It was clear that the mood in the camp is good, Laney was as enthusiastic in training as he is in a match and almost took Boydy’s legs off at one point!
Brighter times ahead? Let’s hope so. I know it won’t be for the lack of trying on the part of Paul Cook.
Famous last words, five days later he was sacked!