IF you happened to be outside Wembley at 6.30am last Sunday morning, you may have bumped into Forest Green Rovers manager Mark Cooper.
The boss was on the hunt for a coffee while on a morning stroll from the team’s Hilton Hotel, which sits in the shadow of the arch.
Almost 12 hours later a bottle of beer was put in front of him as he talked the assembled press in the bowels of the famous stadium through his immediate emotions of leading Rovers into the Football League for the first time in their 128-year history.
How, he wondered, would clubs like Coventry City enjoy trekking up to the ‘little club on the hill’? It was quite a different feeling from the one felt by the club from the hamlet of Forest Green in tiny Nailsworth this time 12 months ago.
Then, with Cooper in an advisory role to caretaker boss Scott Bartlett, they were coming to terms with a play-off final defeat to Grimsby Town.
Like this year, they stayed in the Hilton after the game before travelling back to Gloucestershire where Cooper began plotting the season that would end up with a 3-1 win against Tranmere Rovers.
“You’re trying to put a squad together that’s capable of getting promoted,” Cooper says, a few days later. “Obviously they’d been in the play-offs twice and not gone up. So we had to try and put a bit more quality in there that could give us the opportunity to go up.
“One of the remits was to change the style of play. We had to look at the players who could do that and the ones who couldn’t. We had to recruit players who could handle the ball a bit more. Training had to change so it was all about the ball. If we were going to try and dominate the football we had to be used to it. That’s what we did.”
And so it proved on the large open spaces of Wembley. Kaiyne Woolery’s electric pace caused the Tranmere back-line big problems all day, and his left-foot arrow flashed past Scott Davies from distance to put them ahead.
Injuries have decimated Tranmere this season, but even then they managed to finish second with 95 points. Connor Jennings fired in a wonderful equaliser from outside the box to send the 11,000 Tranmere fans crazy.
But theories of Forest Green’s soft underbelly have grown old. Cooper took the decision to undertake “major surgery” part-way through the season and made big changes to his squad.
“The balance in the changing room wasn’t, I felt, right,” he says. “I said to the chairman, ‘We need to change this now or there’s a risk of not getting where we want to be’. He said, ‘Yeah, fine. Get on with it’. He’s a brilliant chairman. I am so pleased for him. He lets you get on with things. We speak three or four times a week. If there’s a sensible argument to something he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I see that’. So we did it.”
The only gamble, Cooper says, was the healing time. But sometimes in football you’ve got to know when to push the chips into the middle of the table, and Cooper had some aces in his hand.
Christian Doidge cut inside and hammered in his 27th goal of the season – 19 of which have come since Christmas – as the quality goals kept coming, before Woolery coolly tucked in a quickfire third.
In truth, the expected Tranmere onslaught in the second half never arrived. A brilliant Sam Russell save, before the keeper almost got caught out with the ball at his feet aside, Cooper’s young players stepped up.
The experience of Mark Ellis at the back helped, but fellow defenders Manny Monthe and England C international Ethan Pinnock grew in the spotlight.
“Manny was relegated with Havant & Waterlooville last season,” Cooper says. “He was playing for Bath, we paid a small transfer fee for him and small wages. He just wants to be a player.
“Ethan, nobody was prepared to take a gamble on him, Kaiyne Woolery, Charlie Cooper, 19, we’ve got some good young players. We’ve got good athleticism in the team and that was the difference on the day, I thought.”
Preparation for the play-offs actually began before the end of the season. When they knew the title was out of reach, focus turned to how they could give themselves the best chance to win three more games.
The club leant on their GPS data to look at workloads, distances covered, who needed a rest and who was at risk of injury, to strike a balance in their remaining games.
“I’ve been part of a couple of play-off campaigns and you see things that work and things that don’t,” Cooper says.
“People get a bit panicky and think you’ve got to play all your players every game going into the play-offs or you should be resting every player. It was just trying to put a plan together to come through.”
Indeed, planning ahead of the promotion final was to the minute. They trained at Bisham Abbey on Saturday afternoon, relaxed in the evening and had a quick look around Wembley on Sunday morning when the kitman prepared the changing room.
A final meeting at 12.30pm on Sunday gave an opportunity for a reminder of Tranmere’s strengths and weaknesses with video clips, before they were shown highlights of their own season.
Ahead of Dagenham in the semi-finals, Cooper called in former Royal Marine, Andy Grant for a motivational talk. Subject of a recent ITV documentary, Grant lost a leg in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Now he holds claim to being the fastest man to run 10k with one leg.
“He spoke to the players about working together,” Cooper says. “He was telling us this story about when he was a soldier in Afghan. There were eight of them on a roof, surrounded by Taliban. He said, ‘If one of us didn’t work as part of the team, we’d have all been dead. We had to fire, shoot and wait for the cavalry to arrive’.
“He showed us how his leg was blown off, how he had the decision to amputate his leg. It hit home to them. He was straight on the phone after the game to the players on loudspeaker, it was brilliant. It really helped the group unite.”
On Monday, fans turned up at The New Lawn to have pictures with the trophy, while Sky Sports took a trip to the Football League’s first green club.
Cooper’s work for next season has already begun and he plans to watch the celebrations at the final whistle again.
“There was eight minutes to go, you know there’s going to be injury time, and you’re thinking one goal and the atmosphere changes,” Cooper says.
“I’m wanting to get to a minute to go without conceding so it’s impossible for them to score two. The only time I felt safe was when the fourth official whispered to us that there was 15 seconds left. I knew then that we’d done it. It was like, ‘Wow’. This is some achievement.”