After Roy Hodgson confirmed he would leave Crystal Palace at the end of the 2020-21 season, there has been much speculation over who will succeed him.
Hodgson joined the club in September 2017, taking over from Frank De Boer who was sacked after just four league games in charge. Hodgson, now 73-years-old, announced last month that he would be stepping away from his role, leaving many to wonder who would take his place in the dugout.
Frank Lampard was said to be the first choice, but he chose to distance himself from the speculation. Nuno Espírito Santo was also deemed to be close to signing, but he too has withdrawn from talks over financial concerns. Other names, such as Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche and Chris Wilder have been mentioned, but the current favourite for the post is Swansea City boss, Steve Cooper.
Cooper has performed excellently in his two seasons with the Welsh club, but what would he bring to Crystal Palace if he were to leave the Swans? Let us take a look at five reasons why Cooper could be the number one choice to take over at Selhurst Park.
Cooper took over at Swansea following Graham Potter’s move to Brighton. In Potter’s only season at the Liberty, the Swans finished in tenth place in the Championship. This was seen as an achievement, after the club sold the majority of its first team, relying on under-23 players and a smattering of cheap signings.
In Cooper’s first season in charge, the Swans gained an additional five points compared to their previous season, finishing in the play-offs on the final day of the season in extraordinary fashion. They needed to beat Reading away and hope that sixth-place Nottingham Forest lost at home to Stoke City, who sat in sixteenth going into the game. On top of that, Swansea also needed a five-goal swing to finish above Forest on goal difference. After a series of late goals saw 4-1 wins for Swansea and Stoke, Steve Cooper’s men achieved a sixth-place finish against all odds. They went on to lose to third-place Brentford 3-2 on aggregate, but it was still an excellent achievement for a side who lost several key players in the summer.
Swansea went one better in the 2020-21 season, finishing in fourth place and reaching the play-off final. They also picked up ten more points than in the previous season, with 80 points in the 46-game season. This, coincidentally, was the same tally Swansea achieved under Brendan Rodgers in 2010-11, when they achieved promotion via the play-offs. Unfortunately for the Swans, they were not able to fully replicate the events of a decade ago, losing 2-0 to Brentford in the play-off final.
Under Cooper, Swansea have shown consistent improvement. While the style of play is not quite as free-flowing as it was when Potter was in charge, Cooper has made Swansea a tougher side to beat, as the results show.
Expanding on my previous point, Swansea City have been forced to resort to defensive, route-one football at times under Cooper, however they have demonstrated an excellent ability to adapt to their opponents. This has seen them grind out many valuable points in tough games, where a previous Swansea City side likely would have failed.
When he arrived, Swansea operated in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation. He maintained this for the majority of his first season in charge. However, after a series of poor results towards the end of the 2019-20 season, Cooper switched to a 5-3-2 formation, or a 3-5-2 when attacking. This saw them operate with three centre backs, with playing Jake Bidwell and Connor Roberts as wing-backs. After a shaky start, the team adapted well to the change of formation. It was this tactical switch that saw them achieve a play-off place.
Swansea continued to operate with the 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation for much of the 2020-21 season, but reverted to a back four in the latter months as the team started to lack creativity. This change saw the Swans turn their poor form around to secure a play-off spot, despite their limited budget and squad depth.
Working with young players
Throughout his time with Swansea, Cooper has demonstrated the ability to utilise young players effectively. This is something that the Welshman has done throughout his career, as he enjoyed great success as manager of the England under-17 team prior to joining the Swans. He originally joined the England youth set-up in 2014, when he coached the under-16s, but was handed the under-17s job a year later.
In 2017, he managed the side at the UEFA European U17 Championships, winning all three group games. They beat Norway 3-1, thanks to a brace from Rhian Brewster and a strike from Manchester City superstar Phil Foden. Three days later, they won 4-0 against Ukraine, with now-Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho getting on the scoresheet. Sancho scored a brace in their final group game, as they beat the Netherlands 3-0, with Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi bagging the third.
They knocked out Republic of Ireland in the quarterfinals, thanks to another Sancho goal, before beating Turkey 2-1 to reach the final. In the end, they failed to lift the trophy, losing to Spain on penalties after the game finished 2-2. Spain scored an injury time equaliser, before comfortably beating England 4-1 in the shoot-out.
Cooper’s proudest moment came five months later, as his side lifted the FIFA Under 17 World Cup. Much like in the European Championships, they won all three of their group games, defeating Chile 4-0, Mexico 3-2 and Iraq 4-0. Sancho scored three times in the process, while the likes of Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe and Manchester United’s Angel Gomes also found the back of the net.
They scraped past Japan in the Round of 16 on penalties, after drawing 0-0 in regular time. Rhian Brewster scored a hattrick in the quarterfinals, as they dispatched the USA 4-1. Wolves midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White also scored on that day. Four days later, Brewster scored yet another hattrick, as Cooper’s side beat Brazil 3-1.
Then, in what was a repeat of the European Championship final from five months prior, England met Spain once again. This time around, England prevailed comfortably, overturning a 2-0 deficit to win 5-2. Brewster bagged a 44th minute goal to halve Spain’s lead going into half-time. Gibbs-White scored his second of the tournament, before a brace from Foden and a rare goal from Marc Guehi wrapped up the win and the trophy for England.
Cooper remained with England until June 2019, when he was appointed as Swansea City boss. He continued his great relationship with young players in his first season with the Swans, bringing in Ben Wilmot and Freddie Woodman on loan in the summer, and Brewster, Guehi and Conor Gallagher on loan in January. Woodman, who was 22-years-old at the time, represented England at every level of youth football.
Guehi and Woodman remained in Swansea for a second season, while Gibbs-White also joined on loan. However, his spell was cut short by injury. Although partly due to a lack of financial backing, Cooper has consistently given opportunities to young players, with 20-year-olds Ben Cabango and Morgan Whittaker also receiving playing time for the Welsh club this season.
Also, prior to his roles with England and Swansea, Cooper spent many years as a coach for Wrexham’s academy. At 27-years-old, he became one of the youngest coaches in history to achieve his UEFA Pro License. He later became a youth coach at Liverpool. There, he coached the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Raheem Sterling, who have gone on to have glittering careers. The likes of Eberechi Eze, Tyrick Mitchell and Nathan Ferguson would be in great hands if Cooper makes the move to Palace.
Working with a limited budget
Since Cooper joined Swansea City, the club has sold many key players for large transfer fees, with minimal reinvestment on new signings. This has meant that Cooper and his backroom staff have needed to be shrewd with loan signings and free agents.
In his first transfer window, Oli McBurnie left to join Sheffield United for an estimated £17.5 million, while Daniel James moved to Manchester United for £15 million. Jordan Ayew was also sold to Crystal Palace, albeit for a much smaller fee of £2.5 million. Swansea spent just £500,000 on transfer fees that season, bringing in Swedish winger Kristoffer Peterson from Heracles Almelo in the Netherlands. Instead, they brought in Jake Bidwell on a free transfer, and loaned in the aforementioned Woodman, Brewster, Gallagher, Wilmot and Guehi, as well as Sam Surridge from Bournemouth (re-called in January) and Aldo Kalulu from Basel.
It was more of the same in his second season with the Swans. Star centre-back Joe Rodon left to join Tottenham Hotspur for an initial fee of £11 million, while his former centre-back partner Mike van der Hoorn left on a free transfer. Bersant Celina was sold to French outfit Dijon for an estimated £3 million, and Kristoffer Peterson joined Fortuna Düsseldorf one year after arriving in South Wales. Joel Asoro also left for around £630,000, returning to his native Sweden to sign for Djurgårdens.
Despite receiving more than £15 million in transfer fees, the Swans spent very little once again. Their biggest signing was Jamal Lowe, who joined for £800,000 from Wigan Athletic. Republic of Ireland international Ryan Manning was the only other summer signing that required a transfer fee, when he made the switch from Queens Park Rangers for £250,000. Korey Smith, Ryan Bennett and Joel Latibeaudiere joined on free transfers from Bristol City, Wolves and Manchester City respectively. Ben Hamer and Keiron Freeman joined the club in January for undisclosed fees, along with Derby youngster Morgan Whittaker, who signed for an estimated £700,000.
Instead, Cooper once again made a series of loan signings. As mentioned above, Guehi and Woodman returned, while Gibbs-White, Viktor Gyökeres and Kasey Palmer joined. The latter three were recalled by their parent clubs in January and were replaced by three new loan signings. Conor Hourihane came in from Aston Villa, while Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola made their way across the pond from Major League Soccer.
While not every signing delivered, Cooper has demonstrated an ability to work with a limited budget and still achieve good results. With Crystal Palace losing several players in the summer on free transfers, Cooper’s ability to work with loanees and free agents would be a great benefit to the team. It would make sense for Guehi to follow Cooper if he were to take over at Palace, as the young centre-back looks to further his career with a loan to the Premier League.
Lastly, Cooper’s excellent man-management skills will no doubt be a factor as the Crystal Palace board ponder their next manager.
Cooper has succeeded while working with players of all ages. While he has helped to nurture the careers of players as young as the Liverpool Under-12s, he has also demonstrated excellent man-management with veteran players, such as Andre Ayew. When Ayew left to join Fenerbahçe on loan in 2018-19 under Graham Potter, few would have expected to see him wear a Swansea City shirt again. However, after his loan ended, Ayew went on to play two more seasons for the Welsh club, scoring 31 league goals in two seasons.
While this is partly due to potential suitors being put off by his lucrative wages, credit should also be given to Cooper. He developed an excellent relationship with the Ghanaian forward, convincing him to stay with the club to help them push for promotion back to the Premier League. Ayew was named as deputy captain in November 2019 and committed to see out the remainder of his contract with the club. He is set to leave on a free transfer at the end of this month. With his brother, Jordan, still on the books at Crystal Palace, don’t rule out a reunion for the pair.
The Swansea boss’ excellent relationship with his players has often been seen on the field. An example of this being after the 4-1 win over Reading, as Cooper rushed on the pitch to hug his players. There were similar embraces after Swansea’s late penalty over Middlesbrough this season, when the entire Swansea team rushed to celebrate with Cooper and his coaching staff.
If Steve Cooper were to join Crystal Palace, the Swansea board would have their work cut out for them to find a suitable replacement. Cooper has produced back-to-back play-off appearances with the club, but has arguably taken the Swans as far as they can go. With such a limited budget, and with key players Andre Ayew, Woodman and Guehi no longer in South Wales, this may be the right time for Cooper to try his hand elsewhere.