BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
Of all the tributes on social media dedicated to Neale Cooper yesterday, the one that got me the most was from a fellow Hartlepool supporter. ‘He just got the place,’ it read simply. Which was true.
Cooper was the high profile manager who stole a small town’s heart. In his first spell certainly. Hartlepool would produce probably the best football in their history under the ex-Aberdeen star. To watch him on the sidelines was a joy to behold. Passionate. Impudent. Confrontational. All the things a football fan wants from a manager. Cooper instinctively understood those on the terraces.
There was a duality to that relationship at Hartlepool. He got the results too. There was a sense of fierce pride going to Victoria Park under his reign. Crowds of well over five thousand. His energy and optimism was infectious.
It’s to his credit that he was like that away from the ground too. Cooper was a people person in an industry where that relationship can be difficult. Every supporter has an opinion on their football club; some good, some bad, some alcohol infused. Yet Cooper never hid from answering anyone’s enquiry. He was honest. Maybe a little bit too honest for his own good sometimes, but he’d been like that as a player. A bloody good one actually. He’d won everything to win in Scottish football and been one of Aberdeen’s heroes in Gothenburg. People had respect for him. He was a football man in the purest sense. The game was just in his DNA, his everyday make up.
That’s not to say he was a saint, of course. He liked to cause a bit of interference did Neale. There were difficulties in his first spell at Hartlepool. Rumours of off the field activities and clashes with ownership that wanted good PR but, at times, got a Tasmanian devil. Eventually he would be relieved of his duties in mysterious circumstances. It only added to his allure with Hartlepool fans.
Although the club’s slide was still a few years away, he would be a massive miss. It felt like all the energy had left the place once he’d gone. The players seemed half a yard slower, the voices on terraces a decibel lower. It was as if when he’d departed he’d taken something magical with him.
Even a second spell at the club couldn’t spoil that memory. Cooper shouldn’t have come back and he probably knew it. The club was in a slow decline and even his enthusiasm couldn’t arrest it. It never felt like a football decision anyway. His affinity with the town meant he couldn’t quite resist it, but that was him all over.
Even in the following years, when he’d have been forgiven for letting the dust settle on his time at Hartlepool United, he kept in touch with those many friends he’d made in the town. Constantly encouraging, constantly wisecracking. Constantly being, well, Neale Cooper really.
With his tragic passing in Aberdeen on Monday, that charismatic life force is unfortunately with us no more. It will never quite be forgotten though, especially by those of us that stand on the terraces as Hartlepool United fans and remember the great man. After all, Cooper was our Clough, our Ferguson and our top man all rolled into one, and we’ll always remember the good times we had with him.
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