Few fans outside of Swansea will be familiar with Steve Cooper. After all, until taking the reins in south Wales this season he'd been quietly going about his business in the background; first at Liverpool, where he served as academy manager for five years, before moving on to England duty with the U16s and 17s.
Gareth Southgate is expected to man the Three Lions hot seat for years and major tournaments to come, but regardless: what do the FA do when the current England manager’s tenure ends?
Rangers boss Steven Gerrard and current Chelsea head coach Frank Lampard are obvious candidates; both are Three Lions legends from their playing days, and now young coaches with bright ideas who are doing well with their respective clubs. Each knows what's required at international level, even if they were never able to fulfil their own promise with the so-called Golden Generation.
Cooper doesn’t have the experience of international stardom as a player, or much at all beyond a short career in the Welsh league for that matter. But he started early: though now 39, Cooper was overseeing Wrexham's academy by his mid-20s and was a UEFA Pro Licence holder at 27.
Now you could argue that his case to succeed Southgate is no worse than most of his contemporaries, regardless of when the current man in charge decides to hang up his waistcoat.
Cooper’s main advantage is that he has worked with the vast majority of future England stars already. In his role at Liverpool, Cooper helped Trent Alexander-Arnold and Raheem Sterling in their development as young footballers, and both are now prominent members of Southgate’s side.
With England, the Welshman took his U17s to European Championship and World Cup finals in the space of five months, winning the latter. That side included the likes of Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Phil Foden and Rhian Brewster, who are all in the senior squad or lie ready in waiting to pounce at the first opportunity.
Cooper’s familiarity with the England footballers of tomorrow puts him ahead of the game compared to other candidates for Three Lions consideration. Indeed, it’s a tactic that has worked in the past at international level – Southgate himself knew Sterling, Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and John Stones through his tenure as England Under-21 manager, and these players acted as the core of his side that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018.
Cooper’s ability to blood young players through to first-team level can also be seen in his current role at Swansea, who are in the Championship promotion hunt after a terrific start to the season.
Academy defenders Joe Roden and Connor Roberts have been ever-present for the Swans, who sit fourth and just one point from the summit of England’s second tier, while fellow youngsters Bersant Celina, George Byers, Sam Surridge and Yannick Dhanda have contributed to a youthful attack which has fired them up the table.
The Swansea side which defeated Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds at Elland Road last month averaged at just 24.7 years, which is roughly the age of captain Matt Grimes; trusted with the armband over more experienced members of the squad including Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer.
Cooper’s trust in younger players, alongside his ability to identify talent, correlates well with this England set-up – but he's also managed to get the best out of established players who looked otherwise finished at Swansea. Their financial constraints meant transfers were limited to "loans and free transfers" last summer, while a plethora of senior players – including Wilfried Bony, Daniel James, Oli McBurnie, Martin Olsson and Leroy Fer – were all moved on.
Andre Ayew returned from a loan spell at Fenerbache against expectations, however, while Spanish striker Borja Baston – who joined the club in 2016 for a then-club record £15.5m – did the same following stints at Malaga and Alaves in 2017/18 and 2018/19 respectively. It looked like curtains for him following a torrid opening season at the Liberty Stadium where he scored one Premier League goal in 18 appearances, but Baston is now among the Championship's top scorers with six goals in his opening 11 matches of the season.
Ayew has also played a key role in the Swans’ Championship promotion push so far, scoring two goals and adding three more assists. In a mid-September interview with BBC Sport he hailed his new manager, saying: "I wake up in the morning and I feel good, I come to training and I feel happy – there's no reason to change that.
"He's had a big impact on the club, a big impact on me staying and I love the work that we're doing. He's a tough person, he knows what he wants and he's a very good manager. People don't really know him yet, but people are starting to get to know him."
Should Swansea continue their fine form, it won't be long before Cooper's fan base starts broadening beyond Wales. But perhaps it's over the border where he could yet make his biggest impression yet.
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