Alex Cochrane HERO

Sussex Born & Bred: Alex Cochrane

The Hearts full-back talks finding his feet at Brighton, the loans that shaped him and making Scotland his home.

In our latest Sussex Born & Bred interview, we spoke with former Brighton & Hove Albion, and current Heart of Midlothian full-back, Alex Cochrane.

Growing up playing football with two older brothers, it could be said that it was almost inevitable that Alex Cochrane would end up a defender.

“Whenever we played together in the garden, it seemed like I was always the one being told to stay where I was and do the defending,” remembers Cochrane, “I think my dad still has videos on his old tape recorder of those games to this day!”

Born in Brighton, Alex's footballing journey started at just six-years-old, when he joined his brothers Ben and James at Chailey & Newick Colts, under the tutelage of our very own stadium manager, Adrian Howell.

“It was great fun playing there at that age,” said Cochrane, “I used to love going down there and playing with my mates.

“Despite being the age I was, at the time, Adrian was quick to try and get me to use my weaker foot more, because I could hit the ball really hard, but Adrian wasn’t having that, and was always on me to practise, which is a memory that certainly still sticks out!

“Looking back though, my time with the Colts really did have a big impact on me growing up and getting into football, because Adrian was just great with me and all the lads there.”

It wasn’t long though before Cochrane was attracting the eye of other clubs in the area, most notably Brighton & Hove Albion.

“Every Thursday I remember we’d go along to a little tournament that was held in Brighton, and because I just wanted to play as much football as possible, I didn’t think anything of it at the time,” he said.

“Anyway, it turned out that Barry Cooper, one of the youth coaches from Brighton was there, and he was looking to start an Under-8s team, and he spoke to my parents about bringing me down for a trial.

“So, we went down, and I trained there, and next thing I knew I was starting in a game against Gillingham, and I used to be a striker at that point, so I just wanted to score as many goals as I could. So, when he put me at left-back I remember not being too happy about it.

“Then next up, we had a game against Millwall, and my dad had warned me they’d be a tough team, and sure enough after I played my first pass, I got stamped on. But, I must have played well, because after the game Brighton wanted to sign me.

“I was a bit oblivious to everything at the time, so my parents just had to sit me down and tell me that I wasn’t going to be playing for Chailey & Newick Colts anymore, I was going to be playing for Brighton.”

Yet despite now training each week at the Brighton Centre of Excellence, little had changed in terms of his standing with his brothers.

“Going out to play football with them, there was no chance that they wouldn’t still be calling the shots, such is the way with older brothers, these things never change!” he said.

So, Alex’s Brighton career was off and running, and all before his 8th birthday.

Training sessions soon became a regular part of family life, to the extent that the trip in the car to the ground was the norm.

“Training at that point was very much focused on learning how to improve your technical ability,” said Cochrane, “and the things you learn at that age do stay with you, because it’s the fundamentals of the game you’re taking in.

“As you got older and moved up the age groups, the sessions naturally got more demanding, and sometimes that would be too much for some of the boys unfortunately, and they wouldn’t move up with you.

“That was always tough, especially when I got to 13 or 14, and I started to see boys leave who’d been in the team with me since Under-9s. Whenever that happened, it always hit home and reminded me how serious a business this was.

“But my parents were brilliant, because they were always there to help keep my feet on the ground, and even today they’re still like that if I have a great game. They’re there to remind me that once that game is done, it's all about working hard to do it again next weekend.”

Alex Cochrane

Alex Cochrane in Brighton & Hove Albion's victory over Worthing in the Semi-Final of the Sussex Transport Senior Challenge Cup in 2020

Of course, Cochrane wasn’t alone in rising through the Brighton ranks.

“We had a great group coming through at that time,” he said, “you had the likes of Tom McGill, who’s still at Brighton as their third-choice keeper.

“Then there was Hamish Morrison, who just had a great season with Whitehawk, so there are still a good few of the boys that are still playing at a good level.

“You create a bond when you grow up in an academy together, so it’s been great seeing where everyone’s career has taken them, be that inside the game or out of it.”

At Brighton, things were progressing well for Cochrane, as he continued on a steep upward trajectory.

But something of a reality check was just around the corner, in the form of an emergency one game loan to East Grinstead Town in 2018.

“My coach at the time, Mark Beard, sent me a message one day asking if I’d be able to turn out for the club, as they needed one extra player to be able to field a squad that weekend.

“So, I went along there and played in what turned out to be one of the hardest games I’d ever had!

“I remember absolutely blowing after only 20 minutes, because I was up against a winger who was about 28 and he was just constantly causing me problems.

“But it was a real eye opener and taught me a lot about the game, outside of the walls of academy football.

“We also won, so I’m happy to have kept that 100% win rate for the club intact!”

Experiences outside of Brighton also came in the form of a call-up to the England Under-16s squad, and then later, the Under-20s.

“The camp with the Under-16s was unbelievable,” said Cochrane, “suddenly I was training with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Ryan Sessegnon, to name just a few.

“Then to get the call up to represent my country in a game against the USA was such a special moment for me and my family, and to top it off, I think I even managed to get an assist.

“With the Under-20s call-up though, that was a real surprise because there were lads there playing Championship or even Premier League football at that time.

“So, to be among such a high quality of player was incredible, let alone just being around the England set up.”

However, whilst Cochrane did get the nod to feature in a match against Iceland, the game doesn’t conjure up the best memories for him.

“I’d picked up a virus on the way to the game, so when it came to the match, I was in probably the worst condition I’d ever been in.

“I didn’t get any sleep the night before, I had hot and cold sweats, and my voice was completely gone, so the fact I managed to last 75 minutes is ridiculous.

“But despite that, the whole camp is something I look back on with real pride and as a great experience.”

With international experience now under his belt, Cochrane was able to get back to progressing through the Albion’s academy, and now with his eyes firmly set on making it into that first team.

“I’d been progressing well at Brighton, and then as I was coming to the end of my time with the Under-18s, I was offered my first professional contract, and was getting ready to start training with the Under-23s.

“My first pre-season though, I got called into the coach Simon Rusk’s office, because he wanted to know what I’d been doing all summer, because I’d come back not fit enough to keep up with them.

“Because the truth was, even though I had been training over the summer, I’d been doing too much, and I’d overdone it, so by the time pre-season came around, I had nothing left in the tank.

“So, we’d be doing laps around the pitch, and I’d be lagging behind even the goalkeepers, and just thinking ‘get me out of this right now’.

“So that was a tough start to that season, and again, a real eye opener for me, but it made me determined to work hard and force myself into the managers plans, and thankfully, that turned out to be a great season for us, and we went onto finish second in the PL2.”

Alex Cochrane

Alex Cochrane representing the England Under-20s side in a friendly against Iceland in 2021

The fruits of Alex’s labour were starting to pay off, as requests to join up with training with the first-team started to arrive.

“The first thing I noticed when training with those guys was that they all did the basics perfectly,” said Cochrane. “So, I knew that I had to try and match that level, because if you made a mistake you knew you’d get a grilling from one of the players, or you’re going to get sent back to the Under-23s and not asked back.

“It took a long time for training at that level to feel like normality, and even just walking in and seeing all those big names was enough to get the nerves going.

“But the boys there were great, and some of them would come over and talk to you and give you advice if you asked for it.

“That’s something that really stayed with me, and so now when we have a young lad training with us, I always give them the time of day and try to make them feel welcome.”

The next step in Cochrane’s Brighton journey was his debut for the club, which was handed to him by Graham Potter in September of 2019, in a League Cup Third Round tie against Aston Villa.

“To be able to make my debut for the club I’d been with since the age of seven was something truly special,” he said, “I think there might have been nine of us academy boys who made our debuts that night, and we were coming up the likes of Jack Grealish.

“It wasn’t my best game, but then your debut never is, but to play in front of 20,000 people was incredible, and something I’ll always be grateful to Graham for giving me the opportunity to do.”

More opportunities to train with Potter’s first team arose, along with spots on the bench, but all that was brought to a grounding halt with the arrival of COVID-19.

But once the first lockdown was over, and project re-start in the Premier League began, Cochrane was back and once again training with the first-team.

“Looking back, I think my favourite time at Brighton might have been those months of project restart,” said Cochrane, “I was training everyday with the first-team, and even managed to get named on the bench for a Premier League game against Newcastle.

“I didn’t get on unfortunately, but my name was mentioned on Sky Sports, which was enough of a thrill for me at that point!”

Once the 2019-20 season had been wrapped up, it was clear to Cochrane and those around him that the next season needed to be one where he would be able to play regular football.

With that in mind, the decision was taken to send him out on loan to Belgium, to play for Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.

“That was a massive step for me, and probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my career to this day,” said Cochrane.

“There’d been interest from League One clubs, but in the end, it was thought that it would be best for me to go out there, where I was told I’d be playing week-in-week-out as the first choice left-back.”

However, soon after arriving, it became clear that his time on the continent would be anything but straightforward.

“I remember my first day turning up to training, and the coach admitted that he didn’t even know I’d signed for the club,” he said.

“But I started training, and the standard was good, but not too high that I couldn’t keep up, and while that was going on I’d moved in with my girlfriend at the time, and we were enjoying living together, so things were starting to look good out there.

“Two weeks later though, and the country went into lockdown, and suddenly we had nothing to do, and I had nothing to occupy myself with, outside of football for the next eight months.

“Then in training I roll my ankle, which rules me out for a few weeks, which isn’t the best start, but when I’m back fit, I’m still being given the assurance that I’ll be back in the team.

“But then the games kept coming and I still wasn’t getting a look in, with the low point being when I wasn’t even named in the squad for a game against Club Brugge Reserves.

Alex Cochrane

Alex Cochrane for Hearts last season after joining the club permanently in the summer

“That was the lowest moment of my career, and my head was just completely gone. I remember being at training the next day and just staying behind to kick balls as hard as I could into the goal, just to take my anger and frustration out.

“But then after speaking to the coach and fighting my case to him, I got a look in and went on a nice little run of nine games on the bounce.

“It wasn’t to be though, because next thing I know, my ankle is giving me grief and I found out I was going to need surgery, so it was back home to Brighton.”

Reflecting on such an eventful season, how does Cochrane view that time now?

“That whole season as a package is one I wouldn’t change at all,” he said, “because those experiences taught me so much and really helped open my eyes.

“Before that point, in my career things had been pretty much plain sailing, so that season really helped shape me into the man and the player I am today.”

The next season brought with it fresh possibilities for Cochrane, as he looked to rediscover his form following his operation.

“I’d just come back from my rehab, and I remember telling my agent that whatever moves come up, I want to get it done straight away,” he said.

“A few weeks later I’m hearing that Hearts are interested in bringing me in on loan.

“Scottish football wasn’t something I was particularly familiar with, so I was a bit hesitant at first, but after going up to Edinburgh, speaking with then manager, Robbie Neilson, and being given a tour of the stadium and the training ground, I knew this was the right place for me to be.”

The decision has been one that’s proved to have paid off for both parties, with Cochrane racking up over 60 appearances in all competitions across the two seasons he’s been there.

“I’ve loved my time up here,” said Alex, “it’s a very tough league, and you get to play in some unbelievable games in some unbelievable stadiums.

“The fitness levels you need are right up there though, because the tempo is so quick and sharp, every time you get the ball you hardly get two seconds on it before someone is onto you.

“I remember my first league game, the speed of it was so quick that I was so tired by half-time that I really had to savour that break! But it was an incredible moment, and one I’ll never forget.

“That first season coming in on loan was such a great one for myself, that when the chance came up to come back here, it really was a no-brainer.”

Cochrane signed permanently with Hearts in June 2022, off the back of a season that culminated in a Scottish Cup Final against Rangers at Hampden Park, which Hearts only lost after conceding in extra-time.

Last season was just as eventful, with the club fighting to secure European football, whilst balancing games abroad in the UEFA Conference League.

“Those European nights really helped make last season a special one for me,” said Cochrane, “of course a lot of pressure comes with them, but as a player you relish playing in those kinds of matches and crowds.

“Of course, last season wasn’t as straightforward as my first, and I did have to work hard to come through a tough run of form, but as a group we came together and finished the season strong.

“Now it’s all about putting in the work and making sure we give these fans more of those European games, because that would be massive for the club.

“Just walking around the city, you see how massive this club is, and how passionate the fans are, so it’s a real privilege to be able to play for them.”

Relatively speaking, Alex could still be considered to be at the start of his career, and yet so much experience has been packed into such a short space of time.

With that in mind, what would his advice be for the next generation of grassroots players in Sussex looking to follow in his footsteps?

“The number one mantra I always come back to, is that hard work always beats talent.

“If you’re always giving 100%, with whatever it is you’re doing, whether you’re having a good or bad day, if you keep up the work, you’re on the right path.”

To find out more about playing opportunities in Sussex please contact:

T: 01903 766855

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