Main Menu
What's New
Gone but not forgotten:
Lee Cook
Position: Left winger
From: Aylesbury United - free transfer - March 2000
Record: Played: 33(31) Scored: 7
To: Queens Park Rangers - fee not yet agreed - July 2004
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: The problem and the solution

It certainly wasn't dull, anyway.

In fact, it seems remarkable to think that it lasted only a year, really. It's hard to believe that just twelve months ago, Lee Cook had made a mere eleven first team starts and even fewer substitute appearances, that he had not yet proved anything much. He had, of course, enjoyed a successful loan spell at Loftus Road, gaining competitive experience under Kenny Jackett's wing as well as considerable popularity...but even so, he was such a long, long way from becoming the player who's just been lured back to West London.

It was a long, eventful journey...and it seemed as if it lasted more than a year. At times, it seemed as if it'd last forever. It may still, I suppose, but that's no longer our concern.

There's never been the slightest doubt about his talent. The type of player who's always destined to become a crowd favourite, especially at Vicarage Road, Lee Cook was capable of the truly breathtaking, of providing moments that lifted Division One matches far above their mundane natural level. More importantly, perhaps, he could do a few ordinary, regularly repeatable things too - his crossing might not have been entirely reliable, but he nonetheless showed a willingness to attack defenders, to whip the ball in when the opportunity presented itself, and to be a bloody nuisance.

Even when he couldn't quite make it work, there was always the potential for it to work, spectacularly and at any moment. There was that edge-of-seat expectation about his play that you just don't get from, say, Gavin Mahon, and that supporters love for its raw, basic excitement. When the ball fell at his feet, stuff happened, more often than not. He came alive, the game came alive, we came alive...and for that, he could be forgiven much. And he was.

Because for much of that single year of first team action, the Lee Cook of Folk Legend simply and plainly didn't exist. Those who chose to use him as a weapon in their battle to prove Ray Lewington's "tactical naivety" did so unwisely, for only someone who followed the ball around the pitch to the exclusion of all else and never even thought about tactics could seriously claim that Lee Cook was the answer to our problems. He came alive when the ball reached his feet, sure...but there's so much more to the game than that, especially for a modern wide midfielder. So much more that the manager, in all his naivety, could see, and that his sophisticated and astute critics managed to miss.

In several ways, he was the problem, for it was precisely his lack of concentration and positional awareness that made it impossible for us to play 4-4-2 for most of the campaign. Much of the time, we didn't actually have a left-sided midfielder, for Lee Cook repeatedly showed himself to be unable to fill the role...and, even though many of his admirers criticised the system, he was very much more at home in a 4-3-3 formation that allowed his defensive contributions to be a bonus rather than a necessity. Even then, his tendency to switch off when the ball was elsewhere meant that his attacking impact was diluted, that he was involved in the game too rarely at both ends. All of this, apparently, escaped the fleeting attentions of many in the stands.

Indeed, it seemed inconceivable to many that our brightest starlet could possibly be left out of the starting line-up for footballing reasons. It must've been an attitude problem, a clash of personalities, a dressing room row. Perhaps Ray Lewington simply didn't like him, or didn't like wingers, or was too defensively-minded (at the same time as playing 4-3-3 and being tactically naive, natch). Anything except the obvious, apparently. There have already - and there'll be more, no doubt - been suggestions that Lee Cook wouldn't have left if he'd been valued more highly, as if we must protect our heroes' egos from criticism lest they throw tantrums and stomp off into the distance. Pah, frankly.

The argument is settled beyond any doubt by the last couple of months of that one year. Then, having been left out of the side for one last time, the penny seemed to drop for Lee Cook. He seemed to understand at last, and he appeared to gain some mental energy from somewhere that enabled him to translate theory into practice. He just got it....

He was ten times the player as a consequence, and, despite all that I've said, he was quite good in the first place. But now, suddenly, he did so much more than supply incidental diversions if the ball happened to end up in his part of the pitch. His whole game seemed to become sharper, more alert, more significant...and he began to exert a potent, exuberant influence on proceedings, repeatedly hunting down possession rather than waiting for it to arrive and then absolutely savaging defences. If there'd been any concern that forcing him to work on the defensive aspects of his game might make him a less effective attacking weapon, it simply went out of the window - his contribution was enhanced, amplified, magnified in every respect. He was, to put it bluntly, absolutely bloody brilliant.

There were still lapses, of course. At Millwall, he spent the first half looking like a lost child at a fairground, which was both disastrous defensively and completely useless offensively. But, unlike before, he seemed to understand, to react. The second half of the same game was just inspirational...decorated by an exquisite solo goal, sure, but so much more than that, for he was right at the very heart of one of the finest team performances that we've seen in recent years. And he was right at the heart of a desperately crucial run of results that saw us to safety with a little time to spare too.

But it ends there, after a summer-long tug-of-war with Queens Park Rangers...who, as we're repeatedly told, are his family's team and, presumably, are offering higher wages too. (Realism, not cynicism.) Predictably, there are those who've said that we should've pushed the boat out still further in order to keep if three contract offers, including a fifty percent pay rise, was a little miserly from a club that was attempting to slash its wage bill by a quarter at the same time. That's simplistic nonsense, of course - we couldn't, and shouldn't, have done any more to hold onto one individual. It's a team game.

For me...well, I just wonder whether it's such a wise decision. Between the Lee Cook of last August and the Lee Cook of now, there's just a massive, massive gulf. The same player, but so much brighter, in every sense. He's made such progress in the last year, and it's more than merely a consequence of regular first team football. Lee Cook has been coached, cajoled, criticised and encouraged into becoming an infinitely better footballer.

It's not finished yet, but the work-in-progress is a tribute to the people who've been working with him, as well as his own efforts. It seems strange to leave that behind, really.