'We are part-time but have a full-time mentality'
Wily Drogheda manager Mick Cooke is relishing the possibilities of a European clash with Malmo.
AFTER a lifetime in football, Mick Cooke at 61 finally gets the chance to manage a club in European competition on Thursday, when Drogheda United host Malmo at Tallaght Stadium (7.45). The odds are stacked against him – Malmo are rated almost 200 places higher in UEFA's rankings; his team will have only three days' preparation after an EA Sports Cup quarter-final tie tomorrow, and one of those days will be for recovery – yet you won't hear Cooke complaining.
Success as a manager has come late for him, but he always knew that he had what it takes to mould a winning team. "I finished playing at 33," he recalls, "and then managed Ballyfermot United, CYM Terenure and Moyle Park, so I had plenty of experience, and I was assistant to Damien (Richardson) at Shamrock Rovers.
"The main thing for me was to be involved in the game. There are only three trophies to be won and success has come late, but hopefully I'll have many more years in the game.
"What keeps me young is being around a group of players, who are fully committed. There's a famous quote from an American coach – 'we weren't beaten, we just ran out of time' – and that's the effort I get from my players every week."
Late developers tend to retain their enthusiasm longer, and Cooke is an example of that. "My ambition is to do an Alex Ferguson on it. I want to be able to concentrate on football entirely and, if the good Lord keeps me healthy, I want to stay in the game as long as I can. The training ground and the dressing room are the places where I like to be."
Three years ago, Cooke retired from a "very good job in the Prison Service" and went full-time in football. "It's something I would like to have done earlier, and I often wonder how I juggled the hours to do both jobs, because managing at this level is very time-consuming. Our players may be part-time, but we have a full-time mentality. They only have Mondays and Wednesdays off, so it's a full-time ethos."
Two years ago, after leading Monaghan United to the First Division play-off final, he was appointed manager of Drogheda, with one request: avoid relegation. Having achieved that, he set about building his own team with a view to contending for honours. "When I left Monaghan, I promised the chairman that I wouldn't take any of their players. Then, when Roddy (Collins) came in there and finished the job by winning promotion, those players were quite happy to come to me. The Brennan brothers, Alan Byrne, Brian Gannon, Gabriel Sava were all with me in Monaghan and now they have proved to be very capable Premier players."
Success in the Ea Sports Cup, plus qualification for the Europa League, means the Boynesiders are taking a very big step up against Malmo, and Cooke's squad contains only three players – Declan 'Fabio' O'Brien, Gary O'Neill and Peter Hynes – who have played in Europe before.
Drogheda are also forced to play the game in Tallaght as their ground is not deemed fit to host a European tie. "It's tough on the home supporters but they turned out in great numbers there for the League Cup and Setanta Cup finals, and the people of Dublin will also come out to support us because this is a very attractive game," Cooke reasons.
"Malmo are a young side, with seven Swedish under 21 internationals, and they are third in their league at present. Then, of course, there is the carrot of the winners playing Hibernian. It would be nice to lock horns again with Pat Fenlon."
Cooke has had offers from other League of Ireland clubs, from Scotland and the USA, but confesses: "At my age I am very happy in Drogheda. When I was approached to take over, they had had a couple of tough years and were on the verge of going out of business, but they outlined their business plan to me and showed me that the club had a future.
"Once I was assured that the job wasn't only for one year, I was happy to sign. We were more successful last year than I expected and there is a great future for the club, with a new ground coming on stream shortly. We also have Drogheda Boys as our feeder club, and I want to build an Academy for the club."
Managers make mistakes, and Cooke is no exception, so what was his most important learning curve? "To stop worrying about team selection," he responds, "to be strong and stand by your decisions whether you win or lose. To have the courage of your convictions, and to learn from the people around you. That's why I'm so enthusiastic at my age.
"I played under some great managers – John Colrain, Mick Meagan, who was the greatest, Sean Thomas, who was very shrewd, and John Herrick, who was a great character. All of them had different attributes, but all of them were honest and that's what I bring to my job. In return I have got it back from my players in their honesty, integrity and hard work."
Despite having four players suspended for last Friday's game against Shamrock Rovers, Cooke is not worried about his team's discipline. "It was pure coincidence that their bookings tallied at the same time," he explains. "Our record is quite good. Anyway, I never bemoan suspensions or injuries, because they always give someone else the chance to prove they should be in the team."
Three days to prepare for Malmo is surely not enough? Again Cooke is optimistic.
"I will wait until Monday's game is out of the way, and then Robbie Horgan and I will spend the whole night watching DVDs on Malmo to see where we can exploit and stop them. The players will have Tuesday off to do their own recovery and on Wednesday we'll go through everything with them. We'll be well prepared."
Cooke is a wily veteran, who has surprised a lot of people with his success in the Premier Division. On Thursday, Malmo represent a step up in class, but Drogheda will do everything to keep this tie alive for the charter-load of supporters heading to the return leg.