Sport Soccer

Saturday 20 January 2018

Cooke holds head high in face of Everest of indignity as greatest final slips agonisingly through his grasp

Mick Cooke
Mick Cooke
David Kelly

David Kelly

A triumph of dignity caresses the failure amidst the larcenist nature of an astonishing conclusion to the greatest FAI Cup final ever staged.

Mick Cooke, 42 years after appearing on the losing side in Irish football's blue riband occasion, stands bereft before us. A whirl of emotion chews him up inside but composure remains his defiant default setting.

He has had to suffer much, much more than the indignity of a refereeing mishap these past few months.

And still he attempted so bravely to mount an Everest of incredible achievement despite the improbable forces from within that threatened to derail him.

Lesser men would have found the challenge an unconscionable effort; instead, it served to steel him.

Whatever the charges laid against Cooke by those who, this morning, have placed him ignobly in an unemployment queue, a failure to galvanise a squad hardly bristling with searing talent is not one of them.

He was never in danger of losing the dressing-room; his employers' clumsy intervention ensured that much.

His was a team crafted entirely from his own image. Never flash, always hard-working and honest in the endeavour that compensates for whatever qualities they may lack.

A triumph of the collective, denying the cult of individuality. It took them to the brink of a famous victory. Instead, a second-placed league finish in 2012, and three agonising cup final defeats in 2013, is somehow rendered a failure, rather than a defiance of football convention.

The bear hug that both managers exchanged at the final whistle, collapsing exhausted in each other's arms, offered an illustration of the cruel margins that delineate success from failure.

In that intimate moment, mutual respect superseded the respective immediacy of victory and defeat.

"I'm in the game long enough," says Cooke. "I've congratulated Ian Baraclough. There's nothing I can do. I can't change the decision when the final whistle is gone.

"Certainly, I've retained my dignity all season. The pressure I've been under from the club, the way the players have shown their response to me..."

His players responded to the manager's game plan with pin-point precision; for an hour or more they were the more composed team and the more dangerous in front of goal.

Had they not had a perfectly legitimate 63rd-minute goal ruled out, had not Paul O'Connor departed prematurely, had the referee not fatally allowed Joe Ndo to take that free-kick ... regrets billow through the bowels of the stadium.

"I can't be prouder of the players and what they gave. It was a tremendous final. I thought we had the chances to kill them off. We needed the second goal obviously," adds Cooke.

"But the way we bounced back from 2-1 down to nearly get the extra-time showed the character of the lads I've had here for the last couple of years.

"It's just a pity that we've lost three cup finals in the one season. But the big thing is that they were there for the three of them.

"And I'm sure as a team and as individuals, they will have learned from what they've achieved this season. Hopefully they will go on and win medals somewhere."

His team struggled to contain their protests in defeat. The wizened Cooke manfully bites his lip.

"There's a great sense of pride, in terms of the provocation I felt I've been through in terms of the club since May and June. It was they who broke the news in the papers, not me.

"So to concentrate through all that. I was trying to keep it all away from the players, it was my issue with the club, not the players. And the way they've responded to me over the past two years, it shows their spirit is fantastic."

Along the corridor, a breathless, hoarse Baraclough ponders the lurching fortunes of sport. He started the final without a player it transpired they could not do without. And still he gets the bouquets.

The winners get to pen their history.

Now he, too, may soon depart – Notts County have been mentioned in dispatches. For the moment, he demurs. "Who knows? There's much more this club can achieve in the future. If I'm a part of it, great."

For Cooke, if there is any justice in sport – albeit recent events may have disabused him of this notion – employment elsewhere may beckon this week, with other league clubs monitoring his situation.

"Hopefully this week there will be something," he tells us.

"There's a few third-party phone calls, clubs said they'd wait for me to get this cup final out of the way. I need to win a cup somewhere. I want to get all this silver melted down!

What of Drogheda's future?

"That's their decision," Cooke says, not apologising if he speaks through gritted teeth. "I wish the next manager the best of luck if second in the league and four cup finals is not enough! God help him!"

Cooke's character is worth its weight in gold, even if his managerial medals have mostly been of the silver kind.

"It was an us and them situation," he muses mournfully. "I think we came out on top."

Heartening to discover that sometimes even losers can be winners too.

Irish Independent

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