It’s been a difficult start to the season for Colchester United, who after seven games remain one of three winless teams in League 1 and find themselves sitting 22nd in the division ahead of this weekend’s road trip to fellow strugglers Scunthorpe.
But one of the bright spots of the new season has been the emergence of long-serving goalkeeper Mark Cousins, who at the age of 25 is enjoying his first opportunity to seize for himself the job of first-choice goalkeeper at the club.
After several seasons of patiently waiting behind Manchester United youth product Ben Williams, who bolted for Hibernian as a free agent in the summer, Cousins made the most of his golden chance early on, with a stellar performance earning the team a point away at Preston North End. Despite the U’s poor run of form so far in the new campaign, supporters will agree that many of the side’s draws or narrow defeats would have been worse had it not been for Cousins’ heroics.
We were naturally thrilled, then, when the stopper agreed to stop off at the Weston Homes Community Stadium after training on Thursday and speak exclusively with The Armchair Pundits. Here’s what he had to say…
The Armchair Pundits: Hi Mark, thanks for talking to us today. How are you finding the season so far?
Mark Cousins: The season hasn’t started the way we wanted it to, we’ve had a couple of positive draws – against Preston away, and Sheffield United – but we’re just looking for that first win now. Hopefully it’ll come against Scunthorpe on Saturday.
TAP: Are the squad feeling any pressure to get the first win?
MC: There’s always pressure in football, for a manager or a player. To win, you have to be able to deal with that pressure – that’s what we get paid for, our performances on the pitch. Hopefully we can get a win soon.
TAP: On a personal level, how are you finding being the established number one for the club you started out with?
MC: Oh it’s great, I’ve been here nine and a half years now, and I’ve always wanted to be the number one ‘keeper, but I’ve had good goalies ahead of me - Ben Williams, Dean Gerken – who’ve then gone on to big clubs. Hopefully I can take the chance and see the season through.
TAP: Has the consistency of the back four, and the regular presence of the likes of Magnus Okuonghae, Brian Wilson and Michael Rose, been of any help to you as you settle back into regular football?
MC: I think so, yeah. You always like to see consistency, and when we basically have the same back four week in, week out, that’s what good defences are made of. When you like at the great Arsenal sides in the 1990s, they had that with Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn – that was always the back four. If you get that consistency you can develop a stronger relationship and that shows on the pitch. Hopefully we’ll develop that over the course of the season.
TAP: There have been times before, of course, when you’ve had runs in the first team. What is it like in the interim to have to bide your time and wait for chances?
MC: It’s been a bit frustrating, obviously. The last couple of seasons, I played the first ten games, and did well in them, but knew that Ben was coming back from injury and that he was number one. Having to step aside again was frustrating, but as a goalkeeper you know there’s only one position on offer. You’ve got to be patient.
A lot of goalkeepers don’t really peak until their early 30s, too – you can see that in the Premier League, with Brad Friedel and Mark Schwarzer, who are both over 40 and still playing at the top level. I’m sure there was a point where they had to bide their time too, when they were in their early 20s. I can understand it, it’s just difficult sometimes!
TAP: Was there ever a point when you felt like you might have to move away to further your career?
MC: You always think that when you’re sitting on the bench a lot, yeah. It’s always been a catch-22 situation, because until the last couple of years we’ve only had two goalkeepers. When I was coming up, at 21, 22 years old, there were only two ‘keepers in the squad, so there was no chance of going out on loan and getting some games – managers always wanted to keep me here just in case. Again, it was frustrating but at the same time I understood that I couldn’t really leave.
TAP: As part of the club’s growth this summer, the team moved into a new training ground, Florence Park. How are the players finding that experience?
MC: It’s a great, great venue to be training at every day. We used to have to train at the Garrison [at the Colchester military barracks], different places… we used to be here, there and everywhere in Colchester. Now we have a solid base, it means we can come in early in the mornings to do extra gym work or extra work with the coaching staff, which is fantastic. We can get there ourselves, whereas before we were meeting at the ground and had to get a bus to training, which meant of course that you couldn’t stay around after to do extra work on your own. So it’s given us much more flexibility.
TAP: You train there alongside the academy and youth players. How important is it for those younger players to see the likes of yourself and Anthony Wordsworth making the progression into the first team?
MC: Very importantly, definitely. With everyone in the same place, even if the kids are just watching us, they can learn from seeing all the pros in training. It’s fantastic to have all the youth groups in the same place, the kids from local schools too, and it gives them all something to aim for. One day, that could be them training every day and playing in this wonderful new stadium - what motivation.
TAP: We were going to mention the stadium, actually. You’ve been here since the Layer Road days. What has it meant to the team to be playing in a brand new stadium?
MC: Layer Road was great for atmosphere – very compact, the fans were very close to the pitch and there was a great atmosphere - but it was rather behind the times. The changing rooms were small, the stands were largely still terraced. So to come to a new venue like this is unbelievable. It’s a shame we don’t have more fans to fill it, but you can’t get 10,000 fans in every week! It’s a great facility, and the club will be here for a long time, I’m sure.
TAP: What does it do for Colchester United in terms of attracting new players to the club?
MC: Having a new stadium and a new training ground is massive. Before, I think players were probably a little put off by the idea of not having a fixed training ground, especially, so obviously these two facilities are a big step forward in that respect. The fact that we’ve been able to attract Clinton Morrison, who has 500 club appearances, has scored Premiership goals, proves that, and he’s a great striker to have in our team. I’m sure that in the near future we’d like to be attracting some bigger names.
TAP: Back to this season… as you said, it hasn’t started too well, but do the club have a target you’ll be aiming at over the course of the year?
MC: The last couple of seasons, we’ve been comfortably mid-table; last season obviously we weren’t too far away from the playoffs. Realistically, a mid-table finish would be a good result for a club of Colchester’s size this season. You see so many good teams struggle in this division – Preston, a huge club at this level, finished in the bottom half of the table last year – it’s clearly a league where anyone can beat each other. If you look back at the history of the club, a mid-table finish is the usual target, I think. We’re just focusing on having a solid season and staying away from relegation.
TAP: And back to you personally, are you still thinking of Colchester as your long-term home?
MC: Yeah, I love Colchester. I’ve been here nearly a decade now, and I just want to play as many games for this club as I can.
TAP: Is there anything in your game that you’re working on to improve?
MC: Every aspect of my game needs improvement, really – there’s nobody who can say they’re the finished article at 25. Nowadays, distribution is a huge part of a goalkeeper’s game – in times gone by you’d just be lumping it up the pitch but now there are players going wide, some offering short options and so on, and you have to be more accurate. We work on that a lot in training.
TAP: We’re going to finish up with some favourite moments. You’re obviously pretty renowned for your shot-stopping – do you have a favourite save?
MC: Yes, I think it would have been last season against Brentford away, actually against Beany [Marcus Bean, now Cousins' teammate at Colchester]. A shot came in and hit the bar, and he followed up with a first-time volley but I managed to get to it and tip it over the bar. That’s probably my best save.
TAP: Have you reminded him of it since?
MC: Yeah, and he does actually remember it too!
TAP: Have you got a favourite game you’ve played in?
MC: I think that would be Millwall, we played away there and won 1-0. My best friend is a Millwall fan, and we always used to go down there – it was a lot cheaper than the Premiership – and there was always a great atmosphere, so to actually be on the pitch was special. And I kept a clean sheet too, which makes it even better!
TAP: What about a favourite ground you’ve played at?
MC: [pause] That’s a tough one… probably Layer Road was my favourite place. The pitch was fantastic, and the atmosphere on a night game was amazing. I was on the bench when we beat Ipswich Town down there one year, and the whole place was rocking. Great memories from that ground.
TAP: And finally… a favourite football video game?
MC: [without hesitation] Premier Manager 97. It was on the PC, and I was totally addicted to it. It was a very simple game, but you could build your own stadium, upgrade your training facilities and so on. It beats all this Football Manager stuff hands-down! I used to be Rochdale and take them into the Premiership and into Europe…
TAP: Seems like a great memory to end on! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Mark, and good luck for the rest of the season.
MC: Thanks, appreciate it.
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