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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Making the Step Up

Mark Cooper's move from Kettering to Peterborough has largely been met with a mixture of disbelief and worry from Posh supporters.

Plunging a 40-year-old who has no experience of Football League management into the Championship is a dangerous game.

How have previous managers fared when they've chosen to make similar step-ups of two divisions or more though? Nobes takes a look.

Peterborough's search for a new manager to replace Darren Ferguson seemed to involve knocking on the door of every young manager in the lower leagues before one finally said yes.

Bournemouth's Eddie Howe turned down their advances, and Oxford boss Chris Wilder seemed to have no interest in the post at all. However, Mark Cooper found the chance to swap Kettering for Posh a no-brainer. Was it though?

Cooper is making the step-up three divisions, but does it work? The most obvious comparison must be Nigel Clough, who as recently as January made the move from Burton to Derby, the same size leap up the pyramid.

Having managed to keep the Rams away from the drop zone, Clough's side find themselves in a similarly precarious position this term - just three points above the bottom three. Progression?

Perhaps it's too early to judge Clough, but he would be the first to admit he's on a steep learning curve - and with a club with greater resources than Cooper will have to work with at London Road.

He can draw heart from the impact Mark Robins has had at Championship rivals Barnsley though. Having cut his teeth in League Two with Rotherham, he has immediately turned around fortunes at Oakwell since September.

Again, it's early days, but the signs are that he is getting the best out of a group of players that had been underachieving in the last couple of years.

Perhaps two divisions is the maximum jump you can take without being found out? Paul Ince's basement division success with MK Dons, as well as his playing career, earned him a shot in the big time with Blackburn.

A few months later, and with Rovers struggling towards the bottom of the Premier League, he was out on his ears and had to return to the Dons during the summer. Now he's rebuilding a reputation damaged by a jump too far, too soon.

Stepping up to the Mark: Cooper won the Conference North with Kettering in 2008

He's not alone. Paul Sturrock swapped League One Plymouth for Southampton in the Premier League and found his methods being shunned by top flight players.

He lasted a similarly short time as Ince but has since enjoyed promotions with Swindon and Sheffield Wednesday in the lower divisions. However, he's unlikely to ever get the opportunity of managing in the top flight again, so do you have to take the chance when you get it?

In 2004, Barnet were challenging for promotion to the Football League when manager Martin Allen was offered the job at struggling Brentford. He took the gamble, saved the League One club from relegation, and in the next two seasons took the Bees to successive play-off finishes.

Lee Sinnott was probably hoping for something similar when he left Conference Farsley for Port Vale. He was unable to save the Potteries club from dropping into the basement division and a slow start cost him the following campaign.

The common theme between them is that both took their chance when it arrived. Sinnott found employment again with Bradford Park Avenue before recently parting company with the West Yorkshire club.

Allen eventually left Griffin Park and has since turned up at MK Dons, Leicester, and Cheltenham. He may well have been managing in the League with Barnet, but his success at Brentford earned him a reputation and publicity that established him.

It can work the other way. Paul Simpson was one of the hottest young managerial prospects when he left Carlisle for Preston. Successive promotions had catapulted the Cumbrians into League One, but the prospect of bringing top flight football to Deepdale was too good to turn down.

A fine start soon gave way to a bad run that carried over into the next season and saw North End struggling towards the bottom. Simpson was given the push and had to return to League Two with Shrewsbury to start again.

He may well get another chance in the higher divisions, but sometimes a manager can do lasting damage to his reputation by making a move up too early.

Exeter boss Paul Tisdale has worked his way up the pyramid

Or perhaps it's not a case of the number of levels but simply the person involved. Take the League One boss who was coaching in the Southern Premier League in 2006. Paul Tisdale, manager of Exeter, began his managerial career with University side Team Bath.

Helping the club progress from the Western League Division One to eventually, after he left, the Conference South, Tisdale was given his opportunity at St James Park.

His first season ended in a play-off final heartache to Morecambe before going one better the following term. Last season the Grecians made it back-to-back promotions and now find themselves competing with the likes of Leeds and Norwich.

Was he even linked with the vacant seat in Cambridgeshire? No. Is he out of his depth in League One? No. Has he got one of the smallest clubs and smallest budgets and would keeping Exeter up represent one his best achievements? Yes.

The difference between him and every other manager? He worked his way up the divisions by winning promotion, learning about different divisions and leagues, and building up his experience.

Failure with Peterborough, and Cooper will be wishing he did the same.

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