STEVE Harmison has described Geoff Cook as the “Sir Alex Ferguson of county cricket” and claimed Durham will face an all-but-impossible task when their head coach eventually decides to retire.

Cook is preparing to begin his seventh successive season in charge of Durham having replaced the club's previous head coach, Martyn Moxon, in March 2007.

In his time at the helm at Durham Emirates ICG, he has presided over two County Championship triumphs and a Friends Provident Trophy success, and while last season was something of a disappointment, Durham's players will step up their pre-season preparations next month confident of mounting a sustained assault on the title.

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For all that Durham briefly flirted with relegation last summer, Cook's position was never questioned, and Harmison feels the Teessider has become inseparable from the club he leads with such distinction.

“To me, Geoff is up there with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger in terms of being an inspirational leader of a team,” said the Durham paceman, who is celebrating his benefit year as he embarks on what is likely to be the final season of his cricketing career. “What he's done on the coaching side to help take Durham to where they are is nothing short of incredible.

“He loves the club so much that I don't think he will ever leave. That attitude has rubbed off on people like me, Paul (Collingwood) and Neil Killeen, who is also still involved.

“The groundwork is well established now, and it's been led by Geoff. You might not always agree with him or think he's talking the same language we are, but the simple fact is that the way he is rubs off on us.

“I know I'm speaking for everyone else when I say we have the utmost respect for him. Geoff has only one thing in his heart, and that's Durham, and the only way he's going to leave is in a box because he loves the club so much.

“I was with him earlier in the month, and he was there feeding a bowling machine so some young trialists from the sub-continent could do a bit of practice. For a successful first-team coach to be doing that in the middle of winter is remarkable. But that's why he's so good.”

There is no suggestion that Cook has even contemplated retirement, but given that he turned 61 last October, it is safe to assume the former Test batsman is closer to the end of his coaching career than the beginning.

While Durham have plenty of experience in their dressing room in the shape of Harmison, Collingwood and Dale Benkenstein, it is hard to know where they will turn when Cook eventually steps aside.

Like Ferguson at Manchester United, it feels as though Cook could carry on forever, and Harmison admits Durham will be left in an extremely difficult situation when their head coach departs.

“Durham are in a very good place at this moment of time because they're being led by Geoff, but when he does go, he's probably going to leave the biggest hole that any sports team has to fill in the whole of the country,” he said.

“He's given so much to the cricket club, and I'm not sure any other sports club is as reliant on someone as we are on Geoff Cook, and you can't pay any higher compliment than that. To be honest, I dread to think what will happen without him.”