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Cook: I'd rather be at Accrington Stanley than playing in Europe
NEXT Thursday, a Sligo Rovers side built by Paul Cook will travel to Slovakia to take part in the Europa League for the third time in the last four seasons.
A year ago, Cook was guiding them to an unexpected draw in the Ukraine. European football is some way beyond the reach of Accrington Stanley, and one might expect it to perhaps be the one element of the 45-year-old’s time in Ireland that he might miss.
But not a bit of it. Even at this time of year, when Stanley will be playing only pre-season games, Cook is just glad to be at the Crown Ground after arriving as Reds boss in February following John Coleman’s departure.
“I don’t miss anything about Sligo,” said the Liverpudlian.
“I’ve got loads of friends in Sligo, I love Sligo Rovers, they’ll be my team in Ireland forever and I wish them great success.
“But I wanted to come home. It was that simple. I wanted to give league management a go.”
That does not mean that he will not cherish those European memories, though.
“It was great,” he said. “We played a team called Vllaznia from Albania and Vorskla Poltava, a Ukrainian team.
“That was probably the best result we ever had in my time as Sligo manager. We drew 0-0 in Ukraine, it was a big stadium and we should have won over there.
“The mentality in Sligo then was that we were going to go through.
“It wasn’t my mentality!
“At the press conference I said, ‘It’s great for our fans to see this team and I think once they watch the game for 10 or 15 minutes they can make up their own mind’. That was a way of saying, ‘Wait until you see these play!’. Well, we were two down after 10 minutes!”
Cook returned to Stanley six years after his time as player-coach at the club came to an end, when he took his first job in management at Southport.
He joined the Reds from Burnley in 2003 and, together with boss John Coleman and assistant Jimmy Bell, played his part in an era of remarkable success.
His contacts throughout the game also proved important – Phil Edwards was one who arrived at the club through Cook’s friendship with then Wigan boss Paul Jewell.
In Cook’s first season, Stanley’s first in the Conference, they beat Huddersfield and Bournemouth to reach the FA Cup third round.
Two years later they would romp to the Conference title to seal their long-awaited return to the Football League.
“I probably could have stayed in league football quite comfortably but it was just a challenge that I thought, ‘Why not?’,” Cook recalls.
“To help my friends achieve success was great. I’ve known John and Jimmy since I can remember being on the Earth – playing football with them, growing up with them, socialising with them.
“We went to Bournemouth and drew and then beat them back here on penalties live on Sky.
“I was taking a penalty but unfortunately Rory Prendergast got a little bit upset and wanted to take one, so I let Rory take mine!
“But Rory put his away and we were all grateful for that.
“And of course the highlight was getting promotion.
“We were always going to do it from late on in the season, we were that far ahead, although John was panicking at times.
“I think we were 15 points ahead and he thought it was mathematically still possible that someone could catch us!
“There was a great team spirit but people forget you’ve got to have good players. We’ve had some great players at this club.”
But Cook admits that Stanley’s runaway success ultimately could not prepare him for his time at Southport, when he was sacked after only seven months.
“John and Jimmy giving me the opportunity to become first team coach here was great for my own development,” he said.
“It was great for me because we only had success.
“But I think sometimes you can only learn in adversity.
“Going to Southport, I wanted to manage too quickly. I thought I could just manage anyone.
“It was a really difficult time. The playing budget was nowhere near good enough. I knew on a Saturday before we were playing that my team wasn’t good enough.
“It’s not nice as a manager when sending people out there to play, know they’re doing their best for you, but they’re out of their depth.
“Looking back Southport should have given that job to someone with experience, and it’s a job I shouldn’t have taken. But I respect Southport’s chairman a lot.”
But Cook would go on to enjoy remarkable success with Sligo, winning the FAI Cup twice and the League of Ireland Cup once.
“We were second from bottom when I took over and they asked me to keep them up,” he said.
“Five years later Sligo are now top of the league. There’s no-one more proud than me.”