FRANK Kopel’s modesty would almost certainly have made him uncomfortable with the label of “pioneer”, but the former Dundee United player’s contribution to his club undoubtedly fits that description.
The iconic full-back, who died yesterday at the age of 65 after a battle with dementia, helped the Tannadice side plant a foot into unknown territory – competing for Scottish football’s silverware – and opened up the way for those later tangerine generations to taste even greater success. I was fortunate to be there to see Kopel and his colleagues take the first giant step for United, 40 years ago. On 9 April, 1974, the club reached their first-ever Scottish Cup final by defeating Hearts 4-2 in a semi- final replay, in extra time, at Hampden Park.
While Doug Smith, Graeme Payne, Andy Gray and Archie Knox secured a bit of history with their goals, it was the thick dark hair of the United left-back which caught the attention of this then-shoolboy from the South Stand enclosure.
I had been brought by my father, who was immersed in all things football, two Glaswegian neutrals who swelled the crowd to just 12,960 with only a tiny band of “Arabs” going wild.
Fast forward 40 years, and Dundee United were able to bring 12,000 of their own supporters to Glasgow to another Scottish Cup semi-final. The raucous United fans at Ibrox last Saturday all owed a debt to Kopel and his contemporaries, who raised the Tannadice profile – and self-belief – to create a side that became Scottish champions and reached a European final. “Frank was a brilliant servant of this football club,” said United director, Derek Robertson yesterday. “It’s remarkable to think that Frank was a part of the side that made it to our first-ever Scottish Cup final – now we sit on the verge of taking part in our tenth.”
The first, of course, did not go well. United lost 3-0 to Celtic, the game over as a contest after half an hour. Jim McLean’s side became haunted by the Scottish Cup final, and the manager and Kopel had long left Tannadice before the hoodoo was overcome in 1994.
However, during Frank’s ten years at United, between 1972 and 1982, the skilful left-back savoured the achievement of the club’s first two trophies. He lifted the League Cup in December 1979, in a replayed final against Aberdeen at Dens Park, and the following season United retained the trophy against Dundee, again at Dens.
Kopel made 407 appearances in a United shirt and was inducted into yhr club’s hall of fame in 2011. He was so close to the ultimate prize, but left Tannadice the summer before McLean’s side won the Premier League title, to join Arbroath.
Yet, if McLean’s second United side was the one that received the greatest rewards – a title, a European Cup semi-final in 1984 against Roma and Uefa Cup final in 1987 against Gothenburg – it was the first wave which passed the baton and good habits. As John Holt, one of the ’83 league winners, admitted recently: “Being a young player in the same dressing room as Frank was a privilege. I trained each day with players like Frank, Walter Smith, Doug Smith, George Fleming and Jackie Copland. There was a lot of great young talent there, too, but whatever we achieved in the 1980s, these guys played a big part by helping our development. Frank was a very good full-back and always kept us young lads on our toes with his banter.”
Kopel only scored six times in the league for United, but his one European goal is still spoken of today by Tannadice fans. A stunning volley in the Uefa Cup that clinched victory against Anderlecht on away goals in a first-round tie in October 1979. “I had a knee injury and stayed behind in Dundee,” recalls Holt. “I saw Frank’s goal on television and it was a cracker. He wasn’t actually a full-back who got forward all the time. He did that night, though, and what a result he got us.”
It was no surprise that European football lifted Kopel to great heights. He had actually at Manchester United era, as a young player, when the Old Trafford club lifted the European Cup for the first time. Sir Matt Busby had signed the Scottish schoolboy international – who came from Falkirk – in 1964. Kopel was one of the Busby Babes and made 12 appearances for United, including a European debut in November 1968 – against Anderlecht – as the European Cup holders defended their crown.
Kopel was sold to Blackburn Rovers in 1969 and made 25 appearances at Ewood Park before being released in December 1971 and was signed by McLean on New Year’s Day 1972, as the Tannadice manager’s first signing. Kopel had been recommended by Ian Mitchell, the former United striker (who died at the age of 49) who also hailed from Falkirk. Although a defender, Kopel made his debut in midfield against Morton in the league on 29 January 1972. Kopel’s 407 games for United is 11th in the club’s all-time list. He helped to turn United from an outsider for big occasions, into a prize-winner. Perhaps his greatest legacy to United’s progress was being in the Tannadice side that held on to its top-flight place in the very difficult first-ever Premier League season in 1975-76. Frank returned for three short spells, to help out with the reserves and turned out alongside his son, Scott, who was a United player. The United fans will certainly recognise their debt to Frank Kopel.
lUnited fans were able to give an emotional welcome to Kopel at Tannadice in February when, accompanied by his wife Amanda, he made an appearance on the pitch at half-time as part of the Frank Kopel Alzheimer’s Awareness Campaign. Kopel had been diagnosed with a mixture of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in 2009.
1948: Born 28 March in Falkirk.
1964: Begins career as a schoolboy with Manchester United
1966: Turns professional
1967: Makes his debut in a 2-2 draw with Burnley. United fight back from two goals down in final five minutes.
1968: Makes European debut in a 3-1 defeat in Anderlecht
1969: Signs for Blackburn Rovers for a fee of £25,000 after only 12 appearances in two seasons at Old Trafford.
1972: He is the first Dundee United signing made by legendary manager Jim McLean after the player’s release from Blackburn where he featured 25 times in three seasons.
1973: Plays all but a couple of games at the left-back spot as United finish seventh in Division One (now the Premiership). He will be a permanent fixture for the next ten years.
1974: Helps United reach their first-ever Scottish Cup final in which they are defeated 3-0 by Celtic.
1975: United continue to climb the table, finishing in fourth as eight top-flight clubs are relegated due to league reconstruction.
1976: The club avoid relegation on the season’s last day on goal difference. However, they would be back among European contention by the end of the decade.
1979, October: United knock Belgian giants Anderlecht out of the Uefa Cup on goal difference after Kopel scores a stunning 20-yard volley.
December: Kopel is a member of the team that wins the 1979/80 Scottish League Cup, beating Aberdeen in the final after a replay.
1980: Picks up his second career winner’s medal as United defeat their local rivals Dundee 3-0 in the League Cup final, but misses out on the Scottish Cup at the end of the season by losing to Rangers 4-1 in the final after a replay.
1982: Leaves Dundee United after ten years to become a player-coach with Arbroath.
1984: Retires from professional football.
1991: Returns to become assistant manager at Forfar Athletic, working under former team-mate Paul Hegarty.
1992: Leaves the club along with Paul Hegarty.
2009: Is diagnosed with vascular dementia, the second most common form of the affliction.
2011: Inducted into the Dundee United Hall of Fame.
2014: Dies at his home in Kirriemuir