Obituary: Frank Kopel, footballer and coach

Share this article
Have your say

Born: 25 March, 1949, in Falkirk. Died: 16 April, 2014, in Kirriemuir, aged 65

DUNDEE United legend Frank Kopel has lost his very public battle with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. The former Tannadice full-back died at his Kirriemuir home yesterday.

The Falkirk-born player showed his early promise with Stirlingshire Schools, winning a Scotland Under-15 Schools cap in a 2-1 Cardiff win over Wales in 1964. In truth, the 1964 crop of Scottish under-15 talent was not a vintage one. Kopel was the only player capped that season to go on to enjoy anything like a good senior career.

His form in schools football that season earned him a traineeship at Manchester United, which was something of a rarity. For all the impact Scots such as Jimmy Delaney, Denis Law, Paddy Crerand and David Herd made in his Manchester United teams, Sir Matt Busby did not recruit too many young Scots into the finishing school that was the United youth ranks.

Kopel served his apprenticeship, was signed as a full professional on his 17th birthday and duly made his United first team debut, in a 2-2 Old Trafford draw with Burnley, on 9 September, 1967. His first start came the following month, at right back in a 3-1 loss at Nottingham Forest.

This 1967-68 season of course ended with United’s emotional European Cup triumph over Benfica, at Wembley, on 29 May, 1968. Kopel was a member of the official United party for the game, but he only had a watching brief as regular full-backs Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne played.

The following season, 1968-69, was his most successful period with United. He played ten first-team matches in that campaign, including his solitary European outing for the club, against Anderlecht.

With his United career stalling after a mere 12 games, Kopel moved on, to Blackburn Rovers, who paid £25,000 to sign him in March 1969, the year in which he married Amanda.

He managed a mere 25 appearances for Rovers before, on New Year’s Day, 1972, he returned to Scotland and Dundee United. He was the first player signed by United boss Jim McLean, who had by then been in the job less than a month.

It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship as Kopel became one of the stalwarts of the Dundee half of Scottish football’s “New Firm”.

Dundee United under Jim McLean and Aberdeen under Alex Ferguson challenged the Old Firm hegemony at the top of the game in Scotland.

After making his debut against Morton in January 1972 Kopel played 407 games for United. He was in Scottish League Cup-winning teams twice, against Aberdeen in 1979 and against Dundee the following year.

He also twice played in losing Dundee United teams in the Scottish Cup final – against Celtic in 1974, United’s first appearance in the final, and again in their second cup final appearance, against Rangers in 1981.

There were also plenty of games in Europe. Indeed, on reacquainting himself with Anderlecht, in a Uefa Cup, first round, second leg tie in October 1979, a decade after facing them for Manchester United, Kopel burst forward to score one of the iconic Scottish goals in Europe.

His goal, a late equaliser, is justly celebrated, and more-importantly, this away goal was the difference between the club remaining in and going out of Europe.

This was a rare Kopel goal at first team level. Certainly, in his early days with United, there was a hat-trick against Arbroath in the Forfarshire Cup, but he was in many ways an old-fashioned full-back, his defensive duties tending to over-rule upfield sorties too often.

There is also the legendary story of how, in a Scottish Cup tie against Aberdeen, Frank stepped forward to take a penalty, when no other United player was prepared to take the responsibility. Amanda, in the stand, was screaming that they should not to let him take it, since he couldn’t take penalties. She was right; he missed.

In 1982 Kopel left United to join Arbroath as player-coach and with the Red Lichties he played out his career over two seasons, whereupon he moved into coaching full-time.

He was on the coaching staff at both Arbroath and Forfar, and also had three spells back at Tannadice.

In 2008 he was diagnosed with the diseases which claimed his life yesterday. He fought a very hard and public battle against the illnesses, steadfastly supported by the tireless Amanda, the girl from the same Falkirk street, who he grew up with and married.

She has taken all the way to the Scottish Parliament her fight for a better financial deal for people such as Frank who were diagnosed with the illness prior to their 65th birthday and therefore did not qualify for the same benefits as those older sufferers.

The Frank Kopel Alzheimer’s Awareness Campaign has a strong presence on Facebook.

Frank Kopel was not perhaps as good a player as some of those United full-backs who followed him into the team – the likes of future Scotland captains Richard Gough and Maurice Malpas – but he was the sort of player who connected with the ordinary fan on the terraces. He was inducted into the Dundee United Hall of Fame in 2011, an honour his service to the club undoubtedly merited.

One United supporters’ club honoured him by renaming themselves Frank Kopel’s Travelling Shindig and, whenever he attended a game at Tannadice, he was always assured of the warmest of welcomes from a support who loved the whole-hearted endeavour he put into his football.

Frank is survived by Amanda, son Scott, and his two grand-children. Scott followed his father into football with Dundee United. Indeed, while Scott was coming through the ranks at United and his father was on the coaching staff, Frank and Scott occasionally turned out in the same United reserve team.