New Ross County defender Jack Baldwin will forever cherish the role of former Staggies boss Neale Cooper in laying the foundations for his career.
Baldwin joined the Staggies earlier this week after leaving Bristol Rovers, and could make his debut in Sunday’s Premiership trip to Aberdeen.
The move to Scotland triggers memories of Barking-born Baldwin’s first move away from London, when Hartlepool United plucked him from non-league outfit Faversham Town in 2011.
Cooper subsequently became Pools’ manager, with Baldwin revealing the late former Aberdeen midfielder was instrumental in helping him to settle into professional football a long way from home.
Baldwin said: “I was just a young lad when I met him, it was my first club as a professional. It wasn’t Coops who actually signed me, but he came in and had a big effect on the team and individuals such as myself who had moved away from home.
“It was about a four-hour, 250 mile drive from where I was.
“As a teenager I went up there straight in the deep end. It was a new experience for me at the time, it helped me grow as a man off the pitch more than anything.
“With that living away from home experience, he could just sense that if there was ever a day when I might have not been showing I felt great, or in my performances on the training pitch, he would pull me over and get his arm around me to have that guy-to-guy chat.
“He put football and everything aside, it was just a human-to-human chat to make sure I was doing OK. It was always on the money.
“He drove Hartlepool to success. Wherever he went he touched the hearts of many. He was larger than life and just a great man.”
Baldwin’s teenage performances for Hartlepool, where he made 85 appearances, prompted Cooper to liken him to a young Alan Hansen.
Baldwin says the comparison underlined his early willingness to cover all bases as a centre half, adding: “That was a massive statement. I wasn’t at any academies when I was a kid, so I came straight out of non-league and was chucked into league football.
“As well as having that kind of old school centre half style, winning your headers, flying into tackles and chucking your body on the line which was expected as a centre half, there were times when I just wanted to calm the game down a bit and get my foot on the ball to pick a pass.
“I think that was where that came from. It was a bit of a comparison at the time and it was something that stuck all the way through, it gets mentioned whenever I join a new club.
“As a young lad you want to compare yourself to the greats, and to have a manager like that put that out there was a massive boost.”
After leaving Hartlepool in 2014 to join Peterborough United, Baldwin went on to have a two-year spell with Sunderland prior to joining Bristol Rovers last summer.
Having played the entirety of his career in England so far, 28-year-old Baldwin feels he is approaching his peak as he makes the move north.
Baldwin pinpoints the example of his new manager Malky Mackay, who won his first Scotland cap at the age of 32 during his time at Norwich City, as inspiration.
Baldwin added: “Speaking to the manager, it’s something he has highlighted. I’ve got a lot of game experience in England, but ultimately now I’m at an age where I can get my head down and really push on and kick on.
“The manager said he wasn’t playing his best football as a centre half until he was 31 or 32.
“I can picture that and I can see where he’s coming from, because I’ve got the game experience down the road.
“Progressing that on to performances in a brand new league against clubs I’ve never played before, hopefully it will all be a perfect storm and I can get my head down and hit the ground running.”