Scott Cooper's long and winding road to the Azkals
MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines' new gaffer is earnest, cordial, but businesslike as he sits down in the VIP area of Rizal Memorial football stadium.
Dressed in all-black with a pair of immaculate black-and-white Alphabounces on his feet, Scott Cooper is minutes away from seeing Davao Aguilas stun Ceres 3-1 in the Paulino Alcantara Cup. He is friendly and approachable, but focused on the work ahead. His English accent is somewhat blunted by all years spent abroad.
The English-born coach, who also has Irish citizenship through his mother, has taken an unorthodox route to arrive where he is today: at the helm of the 115th-ranked men's football team in the world, the Philippines.
An Englishman in Florida
Cooper, now 48 years old, was born in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield, traditionally a steel-producing town. The local derby is contested by two fabled clubs, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United.
Cooper played right back and right wing for Wednesday's affiliated youth team, The Owls, until he was in his mid teens.He then accepted a soccer scholarship at the University of Southern Florida, starring for their varsity side while earning a degree in Physical Education. He says USF was a "good nationally ranked team" in the US NCAA.
"For a kid from a cold northern city in England to Florida, it wasn't a bad thing," he said.
In Florida he coached two teams in the old Indoor Soccer leagues in the states, The Daytona SpeedKings and the Huntsville Fire.
"It was huge back in the 80s and 90s," says the gaffer.
Indoor soccer in North America is played on artificial turf within a hockey rink-sized playing field. There are no throw-ins because you can bounce the ball off the walls.
Cooper feels his exposure to a different code of football helps him as an 11-a-side coach.
"It's funny because when you have played something different, like futsal or indoor soccer, you get some things there that you can apply them to other things (forms of football.)"
The coach's experience in a varsity environment might also be helpful in his job in the Philippines.
"There really is nothing quite like being a student-athlete and I am sure the people in the Philippines can see that," says the coach.
His familiarity with university sports could be handy in the Philippines, where previous national team coaches have at times had to deal with players still in school teams. One former Azkals coach even asked one of his players if he could transfer schools so he could attend training sessions more easily. He likely didn't know that players who transfer lose a year of football to serve residency.
The Thai Adventure
In 1999, Cooper went home to work at the Chester City coaching staff, which was in the third tier of English football. By then hip and knee problems had long since ruled out a playing career. After two years in Chester came a decade in the Caribbean, managing the Aguillan national team for two spells, with a year in charge at Montserrat in between.
In 2011, Cooper began working in the Leicester City FC youth academy while also serving as the Independent Schools Football Association England U15 national team. It was there where he was put in charge of a cohort of 15 visiting Thai youth players. Leicester was already owned then by Thai Duty Free shop magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
The Thai connection allowed Cooper to meet officials of Buriram United, one of the kingdom's top teams. Buriram asked him to help structure their youth academy. But in 2013, he took over from the revered Thai mentor Attaphol Buspakom, nicknamed Coach Tak at the Buriram first team.
"I learned a lot from Coach Tak and am always grateful that he welcomed me," says Cooper of the now-deceased coach.
And thus began one of the most remarkable periods in Thai club football history for the Thunder Castle squad.
In that magical season, Cooper's Buriram won 23 of 29 games, losing only once. They won away games against the other top four clubs that season. They were undefeated in the Thai Premier League, AFC Champions League, Thai FA Cup, and Thai League Cup.
But the very next year, after almost moving to Tokyo Verdy in the Japanese J-League, Cooper instead went to Muangthong United. The reason for departing from Buriram? His two young children needed an international school and Muangthong was nearer to one.
After a year in Muangthong and another in Indonesian club Mitra Kukar, Cooper raised eyebrows by taking on the challenge of third-tier Ubon MT. When he took the reins at MT they were mid-table in the third tier. Thanks to a 12-game win streak that included 9 consecutive away wins, Udon won promotion to the second tier.
Many thought Ubon would go straight back down upon promotion. But they defied their doubters by clinching a second straight promotion into the top tier, cementing Cooper's legacy as a top coach in Thai football.
The Englishman also had an eye for talent. While at Udon he spotted a strapping young striker named Siroch Chattong at BCC Tero FC in the fourth tier. Udon bought him for 800,000 baht, or about US$24,442 in today's money. After 40 appearances for Udon, the club offloaded him to Muangthong for a sweet 14 million baht transfer fee (US$427,742.) Chattong, who bears a striking resemblance to Ceres attacker OJ Porteria, has 24 caps and 3 goals for Thailand.
Cooper then bid adieu to Udon, saying, "I had taken them as far as I could."
After another near-transfer to Japan, Cooper coached Police Tero FC. The young side struggled and Cooper and the team parted ways. That was when the Azkals opportunity popped up.
The next chapter with the Azkals
"My agent asked me about the Philippines. I knew they had some good players. They have got some potential."
"I thought to myself, I have coached the two biggest teams in Thailand. I have taken a club from nothing to something. The Philippines is like a new challenge for me."
Cooper was meant to be the consultant to coach Terry Butcher. But when the ex-England captain surprisingly backed out, Cooper was thrust into the hot seat.
This week the side is in Bahrain for a game against the Bahraini national team on September 6, and likely another practice match against a club side. As of press time there is still no word on a telecast or stream of the match.
Cooper speaks about "brave football" and "forcing the issue," and we will see how that translates with a squad in flux. The only player he knows well in the team is Javi Patino, whom he coached in Buriram. Some key players, like James Younghusband, are out with injuries. James, for one, is dealing with an ankle issue at the moment.
After this camp there will be a small tournament in Bangladesh in October against the hosts and Laos. Then in November, the AFF Suzuki Cup, where the Philippines is in a tough group with Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and either Brunei or Timor Leste.
In January, the AFC Asian Cup looms. By then the AFC will have required its national men's senior team coaches to have "Pro" licenses, the highest badge above "A." Cooper is working on his Pro badge.
The meandering course of Scott Cooper's career trajectory has many interesting stops on the way. Let's see if his Azkals stint becomes one of the highlights of the story of a coach from Sheffield who dared to dream.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH – Rappler.com