He is arguably the ‘manager of the moment’ in English football yet he made his name in the SSE Airtricity League during his five year spell in charge of Premier Division side Sligo Rovers. He is the Wigan manager Paul Cook and with his side currently in contention for promotion in League One, through the last eight in the FA Cup where they will be home to Southampton having already beaten Premier League sides Bournemouth, West Ham and of course Manchester City I felt it was time to reminisce on his time in the Showgrounds.
Cook was appointed manager of Rovers on 27th April 2007 to a bit of a muted response it has to be said from supporters. After a distinguished playing career which saw him play in the Premier League and ply his trade with notable clubs such as Wigan, Wolves, Burnley and Coventry, Cook took his first step into coaching when he took a player coach role with Accrington Stanley whom he helped to gain promotion to League Two. Bit of a side note but Accrington at the time where managed by John Coleman who would go on to manage Rovers for a spell in 2014 before being reappointed by Stanley. Cook took his first step into management with then Conference North side Southport at the start of the 06/07 season.
This proved to be a turbulent time for Southport who had made the decision to go full time leading to a near complete turn over in playing staff. Cook had his contract terminated in January 2007 but it wasn’t long until he got the call from Rovers. It was a bit of a turbulent time for the Bit o’Red as well. Manager Sean Connor left the club to take charge of Bohemian FC towards the end of the 2006 season and was replaced by Rob McDonald who only took charge of the club for one competitive game before leaving just before the start of the 2007 season. Caretaker managers Leo Tierney and Dessie Cawley took charge of the club steadying the ship before the appointment of Cook. He inherited a side that was a mix of players who had helped the club win the First Division in 2005, talented youngsters, Eastern European journeymen and a player whose claim to fame was that he had played in the US Indoor 5-a-side League! Among the youngsters was a certain Seamus Coleman who had been brought to the club by Connor. Cook came to Sligo with a point to prove and he joined a club that craved success. Trophies had been sporadic in the history of the club and that was to change.
In his first season he took time to learn about the League, see what the standard was like, he brought in players that he knew from his time with Accrington and Southport such as Mark Boyd, Danny Ventre and Chris Butler. On the whole had a solid showing as the club finished 6th. He was starting to develop his style of football as well but still was missing the players that he needed to implement his vision. The 2008 season was a turbulent one in Irish football history with the fall of the Celtic Tiger era starting to affect clubs and their investors.
Cork City and Derry City were both hit with ten point deductions and eventually both were relegated to the First Division. Rovers on the pitch were starting to take shape as Cook brought in the likes of Keith Foy, Brian Cash, Richie Ryan and Romauld Boco. But off the pitch the club had been hit with a huge bill from Revenue for unpaid tax and huge fundraising efforts were undertaken to raise the €130,000 that was needed. Cook was affected as well as one of his best players Fahrudin Kudozovic was sold to Drogheda United and seven other players had to be let go during the Summer transfer window. Cook though shouldered all this without having a go at the club which further endeared him to supporters along with the attacking style of his side, his honest and forthright post match interviews and his clear passion for the club which was clearly evident on a match night! He also helped organise a friendly for the club between a Rovers Legends side and the Liverpool Legends which raised close to €30,000 as the club raised the necessary amount. 2008 was also the season that Coleman started to attract cross channel attention, Cook had given the Donegal native more licence to roam and soon scouts from a number of clubs were regular attendees at the Showgrounds. Despite all the off the pitch stress on the pitch Rovers were flying and come the last game of the season against Bray Wanderers they knew that a win would ensure that the club finished 4th in the League which would mean qualification for Europe for the first time since 1996 and also for
the Setanta Sports Cup. Rovers won 2-0 and Cook had his first taste of success with the club. Despite this there were ramifications from the clubs financial problems and presented with a reduced budget for the 2009 season Cook returned to England. His absence only lasted for a few weeks as supporters clamored for his return. In the end the club agreed to increase the budget after Coleman had been sold to Everton for the very famous fee of €60,000.
That uncertainty affected the club’s start to the season as the team toiled in the bottom half of the table. As it went on results started to pick up and a few mid-season signings which included most notably Eoin Doyle saw results improve. Eventually the team finished 6th. In Europe the team was beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Albanian side Vllaznia. It was in cup competitions that the club really shone. They reached the semi-finals of the EA Sports Cup going out in extra time against Bohs. They also enjoyed a good run in the FAI Cup which caught the imagination of the Sligo sporting public.
The semi-final saw the club drawn at home to Waterford United and with the Showgrounds packed to the rafters they booked their place in the final thanks a goal from Matthew Blinkhorn. The opposition in the final were Sporting Fingal and the game was played in the Tallaght Stadium. Rovers supporters love the FAI Cup and in the crowd of 9,000 on the day about 7,500 were from the North West. That didn’t affect the result though as despite a goal from Eoin Doyle two goals inside the last five minutes from first Colm James and then Gary O’Neill gave Fingal the win and the cup. That defeat was devastating for Cook and his players as they were the favourites to win the final, the sheer pain of the loss was evident in the days and weeks afterwards but his reaction only endeared him more to supporters who shared his pain. At a low ebb he showed the traits that have seen him become the manager that he is, he used the pain of that defeat to galvanise his players and to drive them to crave the success that they would go onto achieve. He brought in Padraig Amond from Shamrock Rovers and a few weeks into the 2010 season he signed the piece of the jigsaw that he was missing in order to get his side the football he wanted. That player was former Cameroon international Joseph Ndo who formed an instinctive understanding with Ryan in the Rovers midfield and Rovers soon started producing football that saw them proclaimed as the ‘Barcelona of Ireland’.
Rovers were flying and so were the goals and and public reacted as crowds rose in the Showgrounds. Amond was banging in the goals and his form saw him earn a move to Pacos de Ferreira in Portugal. This meant that Doyle was moved from the right win to playing up top. Rovers reached the EA Sports Cup Final which was played in the Showgrounds and they beat Monaghan United 1-0 thanks to a goal from Blinkhorn. That only the second ever time that Rovers won the Irish equivalent of the League Cup.
They were doing well in the League as well and eventually finished 3rd, their highest placing since 1996. But it was the quest for the FAI Cup that drove Cook and his players and they once again booked their place in the final after a 1-0 semi-final win against Bohs in Dalymount Park. Gavin Peers with the goal but it was the display that captivated the public as Rovers dominated one of the country’s top sides and passed them out of the game. In the final it was to be a ‘Clash of the Rovers’ as Sligo took on Shamrock. This was the first final to be played in the Aviva Stadium which was the redeveloped Lansdowne Road. The occasion got the attention of the general sporting public with a crowd of 36,100 on the day, about half of which were estimated to be from Sligo. The final itself was an engaging affair with nothing between the two sides and it went to penalties. Rovers won 2-0 in a game remembered for the heroics of goal-keeper Ciaran Kelly who saved all four of Shamrock’s spot kicks. Cook’s status in Rovers history was now assured and the club was back in Europe. Ryan whose career was revitalised by Cook was named as the PFAI Player of the Season, the first time a player from the club had won the award. He was now very much in demand which led to one of my favourite Cook stories. Ryan was going to leave Sligo to sign for Shamrock. He told Cook who was naturally disappointed and the two had a row.
After a day or so, Cook rang Ryan and said he didn’t want them to fall out and that they should go out for a drink before he left. Ryan agreed and the next thing he remembered was that he had agreed to stay on! Something similar happened with Aaron Greene who came into the Showgrounds one morning told me he was going to be leaving, went in to talk with Cook and ended up signing back. That was Cook’s great strength, players wanted to play for him and they knew he would let them express themselves and help them develop as footballers. His enthusiasm was infectious.
The 2011 season was another great one for Cook and Rovers. The club was competing on all fronts. Europe continued to be a bridge too far as Rovers were beaten 2-0 on aggregate by Ukrainian side Vorksla Poltava. They reached the semi-finals of both the EA Sports Cup and the Setanta Sports Cup and also finished runners-up to Shamrock in the league. Again it was the FAI Cup that drove the season. Cook led Rovers to their third final in a row after again beating Bohs in the semi-final. His achievements and growing reputation for the way he had turned Rovers around were turning heads in England and in the lead up to the final Scottish side St. Johnstone made an approach for his services but were turned down as Cook opted to stay with Rovers. Rovers faced Shelbourne in the final and after the game finished 1-1 again it had to be decided on penalties. Again Kelly was the hearing saving two of Shelbourne’s three kicks as Rovers won 4-1 to retain the cup.
This was the first time in the club’s history that Rovers had ever won back to back FAI Cup’s and also the first time that they ever had two trophy winning seasons in a row. Cook now wanted to cement his legacy by winning the league, he brought Richard Brush back to the club and signed Gary Rogers, Mark Quigley and Danny North amongst others. Rovers would win the league in 2012 but it would be under Ian Baraclough and not Cook. The man from Kirby returned to England after five years in Ireland to take charge of his former club Accrington Stanley. Supporters were gutted but understood that with Cook’s family in Liverpool it was only natural that he wanted to return home. Since then of course his career has gone on from strength to strength and still Rovers supporters pine for him and the reminiscing gets stronger as the club has transitioned from a trophy challenging one to a relegation battling one although Gerard Lyttle is looking to right that. Cook is still loved in Sligo and he still loves Sligo and Rovers and his door is always open to anyone from the North West. Rovers supporters take great pride in his continuing success and it comes as little surprise to them given their experiences of the man. I was fortunate enough to the be working side by side with him in my role as Club Promotions Officer and feel fortunate that I can call him a friend. While Baraclough is Rovers most successful manager I think it can well be argued that Cook was the best. He was, is and always will be the Sligo Scouser!