Cooper not afraid to give youth their chance in battle to beat the drop

Mark Cooper and his staff have proved beyond doubt that there exists a clear pathway between the youth Academy and first team at the Gloucestershire club.

Not afraid to promote deserving young cases, the manager has fielded sides liberally sprinkled with bright young things in the Checkatrade Trophy this season.

Yet even regular visitors to the New Lawn were left disbelieving their own eyes when Cooper submitted his team-sheet for last weekend’s home game against League Two leaders Luton Town.

At just 21 years of age, Reece Brown was the senior member of a midfield quartet that also comprised Charlie Cooper and teenage prospects Jordan Stevens and Jordan Simpson, neither of whom had started a League game previously.

Cynics will argue that Cooper’s hand was forced by the injuries that ruled out experienced midfielders Drissa Traore and Isaiah Osbourne, but a number of relatively senior players were left on the bench as Stevens and Simpson were given the nod.

It was without doubt a bold selection against a Luton side packed full of experienced knowhow and, although Rovers slipped to a 2-0 defeat against Nathan Jones’ in-form promotion favourites, the midfield quartet did enough to justify their surprise selection.

Perhaps more importantly, Cooper’s choice of starting eleven sent a clear message to every aspiring young footballer within a 100 mile radius; if you are considered good enough to play in the first team, then you are old enough.

Certainly, the presence on the pitch of Stevens (17) and Simpson (19) at the heart of a baby-faced midfield with an average age of (19) will have pleased the Gloucestershire club’s Academy director, Scott Bartlett, no end.

Glowing in his praise for the manner in which his young guns acquitted themselves, Cooper was pre­pared to survey the bigger picture on a day when Rovers slipped back to the foot of the table.

“If people outside the club can see that there is a genuine pathway between the youth and first teams, it makes it easier for Scott Bartlett and the Academy to recruit players,” said Cooper.

“We have to try and balance things up, because we need to get results as well in order to ensure we stay in the division at the end of the season. At the same time, though, it’s important to demonstrate that we are a club prepared to give young players an opportunity.

“Those young players played and we started really well, were the better team in the first-half and should have been in front. The youngsters did not look out of place in that environment.”

Manager’s son Charlie Cooper epitomises what Rovers stand for. Denied first-team opportunities at Sky Bet Championship club Birmingham, the all-action midfielder took the decision to drop two divisions and is now flourishing in senior football.

The senior midfielder in terms of appearances, the 20-year-old demonstrated a maturity beyond his tender years when taking respon­si­bility for orchestrating the engine room against a Luton outfit that had not tasted defeat on the road since August 12.

His tenacity and athleticism provided those in front of him with the means to dominate before the off-colour Hatters finally rediscovered their rhythm and imposed themselves in the approach to half-time.

“It’s difficult when you are the manager’s son, but he has to just keep on playing well,” said Cooper, snr. “He played well in the week (at Exeter in the FA Cup) and he played well again (against Luton).

“Hopefully, someone will come and buy him and enable him to further his career in the future. For now, he has to go into the team and lead, and I thought he did that.

“It is something we are looking for from all of our young players and those who have a bit of everything become special. It’s great for the likes of Jordan Simpson and Jordan Stevens to get game time and they will be better for it.”

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.