COLIN Cooper believes you only have to look at the Middlesbrough squad to see why the club has gone from relegation candidates to promotion challengers in less than a year.

Cooper returned to the club a month ago to become part of Tony Mowbray's coaching staff after the Boro boss offered him the position of Under-18s coach.

For the former Boro defender, it was a welcome return to a club he spent the majority of his playing career at after a short stint as Peter Jackson's number two at Bradford City came to an end.

The 44-year-old was part of Gareth Southgate's backroom staff at the Riverside but the arrival of Gordon Strachan saw the Durham-born defender relieved of his duties with the Scotsman bringing in his own team.

Since returning to the club, Cooper admits the atmosphere around the club's Rockliffe training ground has been transformed and he believes the reason behind the side's turnaround in fortunes is down to one thing - the change of manager.

"The biggest difference is the atmosphere. Plain and simple," Cooper said.

"There was a negative atmosphere when I left, and a positive atmosphere when I came back. It was a great appointment when Tony came in. Everyone agrees with that. The previous season had been nothing short of a nightmare for the club.

"Tony managed to pick it up and finish the season on a high and it gave everyone a lift. The club has a great positive atmosphere to it at the moment and long may that continue.

"His way of approaching things is to make people feel good and to give them confidence. There hasn't been a massive turnaround in players, I see an awful lot of faces that were here two years ago when I left.

"So you tell me. What is the difference between a team that wasn't doing well to a team that is now doing well? There has to be a common denominator and that has to be the manager.

"I was very open about leaving. I wasn't disappointed, because of the situation I found myself in here under the previous regime. I just knew coming back would be a good experience. The coach's office is vibrant, people are always bouncing ideas and questions off each other.

"It's good to be back amongst people I know and respect and it's nice to be back at a club where I have respect. It's a great learning environment for a coach to be in."

When Jackson resigned from his post at Valley Parade, Cooper had hoped to be offered the job on a full-time basis after winning two games as caretaker, but instead the board opted to bring in Phil Parkinson.

Despite the setback, Cooper admits management is still his number one ambition, but until the right offer comes along he is extremely happy to be back at Boro as part of Mowbray's team.

Last week brought speculation the former Millwall and Nottingham Forest defender was being lined up by Darlington chairman Raj Singh to replace Mark Cooper, but he insists the phone is yet to ring with any offers.

He said: "When I wasn't offered the job at Bradford luckily in the same week I got a phone call from Dave (Parnaby) saying there was an opportunity to come back, which was great for me. I severed links with Bradford City and came back in to help with the youth set-up.

"You put yourself in a position where there may or may not be an opportunity. I still want to have a bash at management. I thought an opportunity might arise when Peter Jackson left, it didn't happen and you move on and get on with it.

"I was hugely disappointed not to be offered the job. It wasn't the conversation I wanted to hear.

"Everybody knows management is ultimately what I want to do and the real positive at this time is that I shut the Bradford thing out, but I get the opportunity to come back here.

"You either wait for the opportunity or someone comes and pursues you so I'll just wait and see.

"It's nice that people mention you but as it stands the phone hasn't rang so I'll crack on with Middlesbrough and I'm very happy to do that."

*Jason Steele made his long-awaited return from injury as a Boro development side beat Blackburn Rovers 5-2 yesterday.

Steele is yet to play a game this season after fracturing the scaphoid bone in his wrist but the goalkeeper stepped up his comeback playing 75 minutes at Rovers' training ground.

Malaury Martin and Merouane Zemmama both got on the scoresheet, while Ritchie Smallwood and Andy Halliday also featured.