Chaplin is Cook's 'assassin' who was once taught a tough lesson by the Town boss
- Credit: ITFC/PA
Paul Cook has been a man of few public words this summer.
The Town boss has conducted just one interview since he and his players returned for pre-season action, with coaches Ian Craney and Francis Jeffers on post-match duty after Town’s two most-recent friendlies.
And that’s not a problem. The club is communicating with supporters better than it has in a very long time.
But where Cook has been vocal is on club articles announcing new signings, having his say on each with a soundbite on why he’s excited to add a new player to the squad.
All have been positive, of course, but his words on Conor Chaplin could not have been more glowing, both in terms of his new signing’s character and his ability on the pitch.
“I worked with Conor at Portsmouth and he is one of the nicest young men you could meet,” Cook said. “He’s an infectious character, he loves football and he will settle into the dressing room in five minutes.
“He’s a natural finisher too. He’s probably the best finisher I have ever worked with in fact.
- 1 Tankers on their way to Suffolk as the government unveils action plan
- 2 More Suffolk petrol stations closed as PM plans action
- 3 The 72 postcode areas where Covid infection rates are rising
- 4 Lorry drivers being offered up to £60,000 and other bonuses as shortage bites
- 5 Stu says: Five observations following Ipswich's 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday
- 6 Explained: What is causing the long queues at petrol stations?
- 7 Blaze spreads from classic car to bungalow next door
- 8 'Poor' infection control at care home sees used Covid test swab left in pile of clean PPE
- 9 Family of hairdresser, 17, who died in her sleep 'overwhelmed' by tributes
- 10 Church brings a new Hope to former Ipswich Odeon cinema
“With our attacking options now, I feel like we could be in a place where we can score goals at any stage in a game - that’s exciting.”
High praise indeed.
So why does Cook value Chaplin so highly?
The forward came through the youth ranks at Portsmouth and was inherited by Cook when he took over at Fratton Park in 2015.
By this point Chaplin had made nine Pompey appearances as a teenager, scoring once, with his first start for the club coming on the final day of the 2014/15 season at York.
Cook arrived that summer and, with quotes like those above, you might expect Chaplin ultimately became a regular starter under the now Town boss. Well, he never really did.
Still young, Chaplin made 31 appearances in Cook’s first season, with only six starts, but still scored eight goals. In season two, when Cook led Pompey to the League Two title, Chaplin’s start number rose to 13, with another eight goals coming.
An impressive return considering, during this time, he found himself behind Matt Tubbs, Michael Smith, Curtis Main and Noel Hunt at various stages.
Cook regularly praised his young player, who operated largely as a central striker, describing him as ‘special’, as an ‘assassin’ and a player who can ‘fire the ball into the net’.
The Town boss has also regularly admitted he should have given Chaplin more time on the pitch at Portsmouth. Well, he has the chance now.
The fear factor
It’s clear Cook has always enjoyed working with Chaplin, but there was one moment where Chaplin didn’t necessarily enjoy working under Cook.
In August 2016, Chaplin and Kal Naismith had been left out of the Pompey squad for a trip to Morecambe, having already travelled to the game.
Sat in the stands, this is the point where Chaplin began engaging with supporters on social media about the reason for his absence, a move which angered Cook greatly.
Chaplin said: “I went into the office the next time we were training and Cook was screaming at me. It was probably only 40 seconds, but felt like seven minutes straight.
“The club’s media manager came up to me later and said ‘you ought to have seen what he did when you left’.
“Apparently, after he had screamed at me, he turned to Neil and winked saying ‘that will scare him’ and started laughing.
“He did it on purpose to make sure I never did anything like that again.
“I learnt from that lesson, 100 per cent. After that day, never would I have gone on social media during a game. No way.”
But the respect Chaplin still has for Cook is obvious, and vice versa.
“I absolutely love him, I think he is unbelievable,” Chaplin has said. “When we played at Wigan (in 2019/20) it finished goalless and he invited me into his room afterwards. I was in there for 15-20 minutes and he was just talking football, asking how my family was.
“I don't text him or talk on the phone, but whenever we see each other I do really enjoy talking to him. When I see him it feels a bit like I’m a kid still, it takes me back to being 18-19.”
Cook’s exit for Wigan in the summer of 2017 will have disappointed Chaplin, with football again hard to come by under Kenny Jackett, who brought in familiar faces Brett Pitman and Oli Hawkins during his first summer at the club.
Chaplin survived the season but, the following summer, left his boyhood club for Coventry, scoring eight goals (again) in 22 league starts during a season which began with a loan move to the Sky Blues before his switch was made permanent in January.
That deal cost Coventry £500,000 and they were able to double their money just a few months later, as he joined Barnsley for a fee which could have reached £1million.
“Conor came and asked me to leave and that's something he wanted to do,” Coventry boss Mark Robins said.
"And he wasn't necessarily leaving us, it was to go and play in the Championship and when you get an opportunity like that, and it was right for us as well, you can't really knock that back.
"I would have done but it suited me, and still suits me, and suits us as a football club as well for a number of reasons and also gives us the opportunity to do something else.”
The move to Oakwell opened doors for Chaplin as, for the first time in his career, he made more than 20 starts in a season.
He smashed through that number in both his Tykes campaigns, scoring 11 goals in his first and then another four in his second as he started 36 and then 31 matches.
He was signed by Daniel Stendel but it was under Gerhard Struber he truly began to flourish, scoring a hat-trick against QPR which helped him earn the Championship Player of the Month award in December of 2019.
"It probably took me 10 or so games to believe in myself, that I was good enough for this level, to be completely honest,” he said at the time. “You like to think you will be but when you are playing you want to feel as if you are a good player.
"I do feel that now. I do feel that, as soon as I step onto the pitch in the Championship, I know that I've got the quality to score goals and I know that I've got everything it takes to be a good player at this level, which probably wasn't the case at the start of the season, a big reason as to why my form has been better of late."
His first season at Oakwell ended with Struber’s side completing the great escape, scoring in the 91st minute of a game at Brentford to secure survival and relegate Charlton and, heartbreakingly, Cook’s Wigan.
Chaplin’s dance moves (flossing) as Barnsley celebrated on the Griffin Park pitch that night made him an online hit.
Struber departed for New York Red Bulls soon after the new season began, heralding the start of Valerien Ismael’s reign at Oakwell. He was another manager who was good for Chaplin, particularly during a run of nine wins and a draw from 10 games, which ultimately took Barnsley to the Championship play-offs.
“He’s been really good,” Chaplin said of Ismael. “I’ve spoken quite a few times about the gaffer in terms of how big an impact he’s had on individuals and us as a team. I think he’s been brilliant and I honestly don’t believe we would be in the place we are now without him – I think he’s taken us to a new level, completely.
“Probably the biggest thing is that switch in mentality. I always revert back to his first interview – I listened to it as soon as he came and he said it’s not about one, two, three or four wins, it’s about six, seven and eight.”
Sadly, Barnsley lost to Swansea in the promotion lottery and Ismael left for West Brom, with Chaplin admitting his manager’s exit it had left him considering his future.
The Tykes loss looks likely to have been Ipswich’s gain.
So where will he play?
That’s the big question. Chaplin can play wide, as a No.10 and through the middle, meaning he brings real versatility to Cook’s squad.
“I’ve always thought he was a number nine,” Cook said, during their time at Portsmouth. “Some of the coaching stuff think he’s more of a 10.”
“He’s an attacking player. His job on the pitch is to score goals, so you have to build the team around him.”
Things can change, though, with Chaplin adding strings to his bow since he last worked with Cook.
Last season he played the vast majority of his football in wide areas, mainly on the left, with Ismael the man to instigate that change.
There’s not a sense that this Ipswich team will be built around Chaplin, given the wealth of options available to Cook, but, wherever he is ultimately used, it’s clear he brings plenty of the qualities the Town boss wants in his players.
It’s exciting to think a player who played such a big role in a side which beat last season’s Championship play-offs, may not be guaranteed a starting spot for a team which has been stuck in mid-table in League One.