It’s Boxing Day 2012 and Argyle are trailing Torquay United by a single goal to nil at Home Park. With ten minutes to go manager Carl Fletcher makes a change, substituting the experienced striker Nick Chadwick for Rhys Griffiths. To much surprise, he keeps fellow striker Tyler Harvey on the pitch, who at just 17 years of age is making his first start for the club, in what would be his full first-team debut.
As the minutes dwindle, the result looks ominous. Argyle haven’t been particularly impressive. A common theme in a largely disappointing season. Argyle would eventually finish in 21st, preserving their Football League status by just a single point. The season before they’d survived by just two points.
With the game entering its final minutes, Argyle win a freekick on the edge of the Torquay box and up steps Tyler Harvey. As the cliche goes – the rest is history. The 17-year-old scored. A stoppage-time equaliser against local rivals in front of the Devonport End. Pandemonium.
Tyler Harvey would make just nine more starts for the club, scoring just four more goals.
When Tyler Harvey scored his goal against Torquay United many Argyle fans thought he’d be the future of the club. Whilst he’d go on to score a very good free-kick against rivals Exeter City his career at Argyle never materialised and it’s a story Argyle fans have become accustomed to.
In recent years only full back Ben Purrington has gone on to start regular games for the club having been developed at Argyle, with Joe Mason and Luke Young the most recent before him. Striker Alex Fletcher has been around the current first team for some time, but to date he’s only made three league starts and 19 league appearances in total.
This has frustrated many supporters with sections of the fanbase believing that young players are seldom given a chance at Argyle. Most recently this has come to the fore with young goalkeeper Michael Cooper.
Cooper made his professional debut in the 2017/18 season. He came on as a substitute for the injured Kyle Letheren against Blackburn Rovers at half time, with the score at 1-1. A little like Harvey’s full debut against Torquay United, Cooper’s debut has been given great significance by a number of Argyle fans.
Argyle were playing one of the better teams in the division, with Blackburn promoted at the end of the campaign, only missing out on the title by three points. They were largely expected to win the match, and comfortably at that. No-one had expected Argyle to call upon a 17-year-old goalkeeper either..
The game would finish 1-1. Cooper on his debut for the club would not concede, with many praising the young keeper for an impressive performance. With the club’s senior goalkeepers out with injury, many fans suggested playing Cooper on the back of his debut performance. However, the club thought otherwise, and with all senior goalkeepers injured, they opted for the loan market instead.
Since that season, Cooper has only featured for the Argyle senior squad on two other occasions. He would start a Football League Trophy match against Chelsea Under 21s and he’d come on as a substitute for the injured Matt Macey against Scunthorpe United, both in the season just gone.
After what many fans have suggested were poor seasons for the two senior keepers at the club, Kyle Letheren and Matt Macey, and with the club relegated to League Two, many supporters have now called for Cooper to be made the number one at Home Park.
Club favourite and former Argyle goalkeeper Luke McCormick has been lavish in his praise, saying that Cooper “is without doubt the best 17/18-year-old I have ever worked with or ever seen probably” adding more weight to the argument that Cooper should be given greater opportunity in the forthcoming season.
There is however another similarity that Cooper shares with former player Harvey – expectation. Similar to that of Harvey before him and buoyed by impressive youth team appearances, Cooper has been hailed as the future of the club. And this is a problem among the Green Army whenever a youth prospect shows a glimmer of promise.
In the match against Blackburn Rovers, Michael Cooper faced just two shots on target. One was routine and tipped over the bar from a corner, whilst the other was cleared off the line by Taylor-Sinclair behind him. This isn’t to take anything away from Cooper. Making your debut at 17 in any position is impressive. To do so as a goalkeeper, against superior opposition, and without conceding a goal, is highly commendable.
Nonetheless, the performance wasn’t quite as spectacular as some would like to recall and since then, Cooper has seen little first-team action. When playing against Chelsea Under 21s Cooper conceded five goals, and whilst not every goal was his fault, two certainly were.
Now, this isn’t to say that Cooper doesn’t have a bright future at the club, or a successful career ahead of him. Many that have coached him, played with him or watched him play at youth and reserve team level agree that he has many of the attributes required to be a professional goalkeeper.
Cooper is a very good shot stopper. He comes for crosses well and tends to catch high balls. He communicates with his defenders brilliantly and can distribute the ball effectively. However, this hasn’t been at a level many are now touting him for.
The step up to professional football is a big one. Not only is the quality of opposition that much better, but the associated pressures are far greater too. For starters, there’s a crowd, which can influence not only your own performance but also the performance of other players and officials. The results matter and fans will remind you of that win, lose or draw. If you put in a bad performance, the fans will tell you. String a couple of bad performances together and you don’t get an arm around the shoulder, but people calling for your position, both in the stands and online.
The pressures of the professional game are that much greater than any level of football Cooper has experienced before. Whilst that isn’t to say Copper couldn’t handle it, plenty before him have, it is to say it’s something fans shouldn’t ignore. For all the positives and the progress, Cooper is yet to make a Football League start. Let’s not forget that Alex Fletcher who has been around the first team a lot longer than Cooper, and made many more substitute appearances, has only made three starts.
So where does this leave young players at Home Park? What about the old adage of ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’?
Well, one thing is clear – Cooper needs minutes on the pitch. He appears to have hit something of a glass ceiling in terms of reserve team football, with frequent reports of good performances. The new manager could therefore opt to play him as the first team goalkeeper. As suggested throughout though, perhaps in reality he isn’t quite ready for that step up, as much as many Argyle fans would love to see it. Even the most ardent believer in youth would have to concede it would be a gamble.
He could loan Cooper to another team, but Argyle have had very questionable results when it comes to the development of young players when out on loan. Given Argyle’s own stature, clubs further down the football pyramid are playing at a much lower standard and whether loan deals improve Argyle players remains to be seen.
The best option is likely to be the middle ground. Install Cooper as Argyle’s number two behind a more experienced keeper, give him cup matches regardless of opposition or competition and if the first team keeper gets injured or suspended, trust in his potential. In other words, give him greater responsibility than he had last term, with a tangible opportunity of more. Allow him to progress naturally, and prove his ability in improved competition. Make the difficult choice to ignore passionate calls to play him immediately and be patient.
For if one thing’s sure, despite many false dawns, Michael Cooper may actually be the future of Plymouth Argyle.