There is an old adage that says ‘feel the quality, don’t feel the length’, and that will certainly be my stance when reflecting back on Lee Cooper’s short but highly eventful time as Chief Executive Officer at Somerset County Cricket Club.
I met Mr Cooper last September just as he was starting out on his journey to transform Somerset’s fortunes and found him highly impressive. He showed immaculate business acumen, just as you would expect from a man who had formed his own company in his late twenties and, still a couple of years short of his 40th birthday, had developed it into a hugely successful concern.
He combined his business qualities with a passion for Somerset, for whom he had played at various age levels, before he ventured into the world of financial management. He knew business. He knew cricket. He knew what it was to be Somerset. Somerset appeared to have the right man for the job.
His targets were crystal clear and that was for his beloved Somerset to win trophies. Nothing else. He insisted that this would be his only job in cricket and was not using his position at Taunton as a springboard to lofty positions at the MCC or the ECB, or to move to perceived bigger, more powerful or glamorous clubs.
So I was as shocked as I was disappointed when I received a press release from Somerset to say Lee Cooper would be stepping down as the club’s next CEO when a suitable replacement was identified. Although his tenure is most likely to end in under twelve months it has been a period of some drama where big decisions have been made and plans executed that I believe will benefit Somerset in the short and longer terms.
Firstly I am 100% certain that Somerset would be preparing for a season in the second tier of the County Championship in 2018 if a lesser man than Cooper was at the helm. Somerset fans will remember the frustration watching while Middlesex publicly moaned and groaned following their deserved relegation in 2017 and the game’s authorities seemed hell bent on looking for any excuse to relegate Somerset instead. But Cooper put a team together and squared up to the game’s authorities like a heavyweight boxer determined not to lose his title, making it clear that Somerset would not accept any decision without a fight. You know what happened next.
And bringing back Andy Hurry as director of cricket is also a huge development. Hurry should never have been allowed to leave Taunton in the first place and his return has seen a dramatic change in attitude from the playing staff and off field support teams. Somerset will be a far more disciplined and cohesive unit in 2018 than that have been since – well – Andy Hurry left. Ask the players who played for Hurry who the best man manager is that they have worked with and his name will appear high on any list. If not at the top of it.
Of course the biggest debate was the change in membership. I have to insist that something had to change in the club’s membership packages. For several years Somerset has boasted sell-out crowds in their T20 campaigns as though that in itself was some kind of trophy or award. But the reality is that hundreds, maybe thousands, of seats remained empty come matchday. You can place a value of anything between £30 and £50 on every one of those unoccupied seats in attendance fee and money spent on food and drink in the ground. You do the maths; 1,000 empty seats is a potential £30-50k loss of income for our club for EVERY home game and no county side can ignore that, least of all Somerset. And let’s not forget that more people equals more noise cheering the team on and new generations of supporters becoming acquainted to the magic of Taunton on a balmy summer evening.
As to whether the packages Cooper installed where appropriate and correct then the proof will most definitely be in the eating. If we play our home games to a packed out stadium then Mr Cooper has got it bang on, however much he may have upset some people in the process. If there are still empty seats during the campaign then his market research has fallen short and there will be decisions for his replacement to make. The people will decide.
But the biggest decision he has made was the one to vacate the CEO role so early. He could have stuck around, if only to save face, especially aware that the hyenas would be gathering in the background upon hearing news of his departure.
He has upset some people, as he told me he inevitably would back in September last year. But whatever he has done it was with Somerset’s best interests at heart. I notice that Matt Maynard and Jim Allenby both had rather predictable sly digs at Cooper on Twitter upon hearing of his impending departure. That is their right, and you wouldn’t expect anyone to talk favourably about a man who effectively terminated their lucrative contracts prematurely. But they are now former employees of Somerset while Lee Cooper will still be a part of the scene at Taunton. He will still plough his money into the club via sponsorship while cheering on the team from the side-lines.
But his parting gift, of course, will be to ensure the next CEO is 100% the right person for the job.
Not everyone will agree with me here. Some will talk of failure and some will use emotional phrases like bailing out, but I think Somerset is in a better place because of Lee Copper’s tenure and we are certainly stronger on and off the field than last September. And for that we will ultimately, I am sure, be most grateful.