BY GLENN BILLINGHAM
Throughout the eighties, football was raw in every sense. Shorts were short, terraces were fervent, and most playing styles were primitive. The majority of defenders were big, strong, and uncompromising. In Scotland, where various constraints on the national game lent it a persistently primordial quality, the vast majority of heroes were rugged defenders, combative midfielders, or robust attackers. Then there was Davie Cooper.
Cooper, a diminutive winger with a magic wand where his left leg should have been, made his name with Rangers. He won three league titles and three Scottish FA Cups with the Ibrox club, yet it was the Scottish League Cup that was particularly kind to Cooper. He won it a record seven times, and had a delightful knack of coming up with beautifully crafted and well-timed goals in the final.
It was, however, another final which gave Cooper his career-crowning moment. The Dryborough Cup was little more than a pre-season tournament, yet Old Firm fixtures tended to be anything but friendly. Rangers won the 1979 final 3-1, with Cooper’s 78th minute goal the definite highlight. Cutting in from the right flank, and while maintaining his scenic route to goal, Cooper twisted, turned, and juggled the ball over fou hapless Celtic defenders before poking it past Peter Latchford.
If one goal has ever encapsulated everything about a footballer, this was it.
His slight stature and laissez-faire body language communicated to defenders and observers that he was going nowhere fast, and he wasn’t too fussed by it. Like many wing-wizards, Cooper flitted between inexplicably vacant and methodically lethal, yet always had the absurdly sublime up his sleeve. The harmonious marriage of confidence and artistic physiological control enabled Cooper to maintain his balance, redirect his path, and decipher the changing geometrics of any given defence.
Watching him in full flow is akin to watching Lionel Messi. The two have much in common; a favouring of their left side, deliciously low centre of gravity, a seeming ability to absorb tackles, and that aesthetic ability to make the jaw-dropping look effortless. One striking difference, and one not simply down to era, is their fame. Of course, Messi is known the world over, yet for all Cooper’s ability and magic, he never quite received what felt like worthy recognition; not even after his tragically premature death.
After playing junior football for various teams in his native Hamilton, Cooper signed his first professional contract with Clydebank; a move which the 18-year-old had to be heavily persuaded into.
It was a contented Cooper who at 16 served as an apprentice printer for Avondale, and played amateur football for family-owned Hamilton Avondale. Having represented Scotland at the under 18 Home Nations tournament, the youngster’s talent wasn’t without a merry line-up of suitors. Alongside Coventry City and Crystal Palace, interest closer to home came from Rangers, Motherwell, Clyde and Clydebank. However, Cooper was initially put off the idea of professional football by extensive travelling and multiple training sessions.
Tempted on a whim – one that included a generous signing-on fee wafted under his nose in the Avondale car-park – Cooper made his Clydebank debut in August 1974. Having taken a season to acclimatise to the higher standards and increased demands of Division 2 football, the following season saw Cooper truly announce himself.
Clydebank won promotion to the top flight at the end of the 1975/1976 campaign, and Cooper was an ever-present driving force. He registered 22 goals in 49 games, not bad at all for a winger.
With Rangers maintaining their earlier interest, Cooper played his last game in Clydebank colours in April 1977. He officially signed for Jock Wallace’s Rangers, the team he’d supported growing up, in June, and rebuffed further interest from English clubs in doing so: £100,00 was the fee, excluding a £10,000 signing-on bonus, and a weekly wage of £150.
Cooper’s arrival at Ibrox coincided with a remarkable treble winning season. Success continued into the 1978/1979 season as Rangers followed a treble with a cup double. Cooper was directly involved in everything good about Rangers, and missed just a handful of games in his first years at the club.
Just weeks after his astonishing goal in the Dryborough Cup final, Cooper made his international debut under the late, great Jock Stein. Cooper registered successive caps in a friendly against Peru, and then a Euro 1980 qualifier against Austria a month later, yet wouldn’t feature in the Scotland squad for a further four years.
Domestically, and by now under the stewardship of John Greig, 1979/1980 witnessed a trophyless season for Rangers and Cooper, one of just three in Cooper’s 12 years at Ibrox. Suffering the pressures of being at a big club and lacking silverware, and enduring something of a blip in personal form, Cooper was subject to a new nickname. Coined by the Scottish press, ‘the moody blue’ moniker referenced Cooper’s apparent habitual distance and reticence to place himself firmly in the limelight.
At a time in which footballers were beginning to flirt with the riches of marketing, personal sponsorship deals, and selling themselves for interviews, Cooper shied away from it all. A conscious choice that maligned Cooper and saw he was often misunderstood by outsiders.
Cooper was in and out the team as more admirers attempted to lure him south of the border. This time it was Brighton & Hove Albion. Having placed a combined transfer bid for Gordon Smith and Cooper in 1980, Rangers bid farewell to Smith and retained Cooper.
After four years in the international wilderness, Cooper was a fixture in the Scotland team who qualified for the 1986 World Cup. Success, however, came at a tragic price.
Needing a point from their final qualification match, Scotland were 1-0 down against Wales in Cardiff. As Scotland were awarded a penalty with just nine minutes remaining, Cooper was the only cool, calm and collected person in the stadium. His relaxed effort squeezed past Neville Southall and sent Scotland into delirious celebration. Tragically, manager Jock Stein suffered a heart attack in the aftermath, and died shortly afterwards.
Given the way in which Cooper often placed himself in the background, and considering the shockingly sad end to his own career, it’s almost sadistically apt that Cooper’s international highlight was immediately overshadowed by tragedy.
Stein’s assistant, a young Alex Ferguson was placed in charge, and Cooper was again instrumental in the qualification play-off victory against Australia. In Mexico, though, Cooper registered just two substitute appearances as Scotland were defeated by Denmark, eventual runners-up West Germany, and claimed a goalless draw with ten-man Uruguay, who had a player sent off after just a single minute of a bad tempered encounter.
The summer of 1986 also heralded significant changes at club level. Graeme Souness became Rangers’ player/manager, switching from Sampdoria in Serie A. The league title returned to Ibrox in Souness’ debut season, as did Rangers’ lucky charm, the League Cup. Cooper netted the winning penalty in the Cup final, securing the double, and his 11th goal of the season.
Souness’ appointment heralded some big money signings, mostly from English football. Looking to shine on the European stage following the Heysel ban, the likes of Terry Butcher, Chris Woods, Ray Wilkins and Mark Walters raised the bar at Ibrox.
For Cooper, by now the wrong side of 30, increased competition for places signalled the start of the end. Though it was clear Souness valued and appreciated Cooper, his impact was diminishing.
The next two seasons saw Cooper miss just a handful of games. However, by design or coincidence, Cooper appeared to retain his clinically sublime impact especially for Old Firm matches, European fixtures, and cup finals. Regular league games saw him offer only a handful of goals, and fleeting glimpses of his usual magic and creativity. Following a third place finish and another League Cup win in 1988, Cooper would bow out in style a year later.
Starting with a testimonial against Bordeaux, the 1988/1989 season proved to be Cooper’s last in Rangers’ colours. Souness often preferred Walters as his first choice winger, and it became obvious Cooper’s Ibrox days were numbered. Fittingly, he finished on a high as Rangers claimed another league title and League Cup double.
Cooper was expectedly dignified and understanding at leaving his boyhood club. Despite some public opinion to the contrary, and the lingering nicknames of ‘the lone ranger’ and ‘the moody blue’, Cooper just wanted to play football. Ex-team mate and then Motherwell boss, Tommy McLean, delighted in taking Cooper to Fir Park.
Naturally, his signature captured the imagination. Remarkably, Cooper played for Motherwell for four full seasons, and recorded just shy of 160 appearances. In winning the 1991 Scottish Cup, he was instrumental in ending the club’s 39 year wait for a major trophy.
In what is becoming a decreasingly attractive option at the end of a footballer’s playing career, Cooper returned to Clydebank, his first club, for one final season in 1994. Appointed as player/coach, Cooper was enjoying his work with the reserve and youth teams, and was even an ever-present in the first team up till his final appearance in February 1995.
On March 22nd 1995, Cooper was recording a coaching video together with Charlie Nicholas for STV. The two men, Old Firm adversaries and international teammates were in good spirits, and good health. Inexplicably and tragically, 39-year-old Cooper suffered a brain haemorrhage whilst filming. He died in hospital the next day.
Scottish football was thrown into mourning. Naturally, praise and tributes were forthcoming. Davie Cooper, both the man and the footballer, was admired and appreciated.
Months after his passing, Motherwell named their newly completed north stand ‘The Davie Cooper Stand’. In Cooper’s hometown of Hamilton, a statue of the winger in full flow was unveiled in 1999 by Ally McCoist. The 2005 Scottish CIS Cup final between Rangers and Motherwell was renamed ‘The Davie Cooper Final’, and Cooper was admitted to the Scottish football hall of fame a year later.
Though his consistency never quite matched his excellence, there can be no doubting Davie Cooper was one of the British Isles’ most gifted footballers. A global fan base, and perhaps a whole new generation of fans had their eyes opened to the quality of Cooper in a 2007 edition of the magazine Four Four Two. In picking the best eleven he’s played with or against, Dutchman Ruud Gullit named Cooper in his midfield. The man from Hamilton on a team sheet alongside Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Maradona, Frank Rijkaard, Kaka, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten.
Having played against Cooper in a pre-season friendly, Gullit commented in an earlier interview; “that it’s a great shame I never got to meet him on the continent”. Indeed, Cooper’s skill set would have been highly suited to the slower continental game.
Ray Wilkins, another well-traveled veteran of Serie A, and ex-teammate of Cooper lavished praise in the theme of foreign flair; “I could give you a million examples of moments when Davie Cooper took my breath away. After years of playing in Serie A with AC Milan, I can still confidently say that Dave is one of the best players I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. He was a Brazilian trapped in a Scotsman’s body.”
That said, fantasising about how Cooper might have showcased his ‘samba-esque’ skills for top European clubs can detract from his admirably grounded nature. Cooper was a mercurially gifted man who was initially put off the professional game due to its regular training and traveling. We should be eternally grateful he was tempted to Clydebank, and reached the heights he did with Rangers. In his own words, he “played for the club he loved”.
Walter Smith, who played against and coached Cooper, sums it up rather fittingly: “God gave Davie Cooper a talent, and he wouldn’t be disappointed with how it was used.”