When, as they sometimes do if the football fare before them is less than riveting, Scotland’s football writers pass the time by picking their all-time Scotland teams, if the remit is: “Best players never to have been capped”, then Neale Cooper, who has died after a fall down a flight of stairs in Aberdeen, is always one of the first names on the imaginary team sheet.
It is amazing that the golden-haired child prodigy of the legendary Aberdeen Gothenburg Giants never won a full Scotland cap. Certainly he won 13 Under-21 honours under Andy Roxburgh, but his career was largely bedevilled by injury and for all his two Premier League winner’s medals, his four Scottish Cup winner’s ones, his Scottish League Cup-Winner’s medal, not forgetting the European Cup-Winner Cup one he collected on that never-to-be-forgotten Swedish night, and the European Super Cup winner’s medal which followed later that year of 1983, perhaps Cooper’s huge talent deserved more – such as that missing Scotland cap.
Neale Cooper was born in Darjeeling, India, where his father, Douglas, who would die while Neale was still at school, was managing a tea plantation. The Coopers returned to Aberdeen, where, at Airyhill Primary and later at Hazelhead Academy, Neale’s football prowess was soon evident.
A central defender, he won four Under-15 schoolboy caps in 1979, turning down offers from English clubs to join Aberdeen, the team he supported, straight from school. He made his first-team debut, as a 16-year-old, against Kilmarnock, and by the time he was 18 he was a first-team regular. He was also captain of that great Scotland Under-19 team which reached the World Youth Cup quarter-finals in Mexico in 1983, being named in the Team of the Tournament, alongside Paul McStay – before going-on to win those Under-21 honours.
However, with Alex McLeish and Willie Miller already established as the Dons’ central defensive fulcrum, Alex Ferguson switched Cooper to a “holding” midfield role, just in front of his two main defenders – it was a role he filled wonderfully. He could still, at times, break forward and the “empty net” goal he scored in Aberdeen’s 4-1 win over Rangers in the 1982 Scottish Cup Final is often cited as the moment when “Fergie’s Furies” started to believe they were a special team, leading to the following season’s European heroics, capped by that great night when Real Madrid were beaten, and the follow-up win over European Cup-winners Hamburg to lift the European Super Cup.
The relationship between Ferguson and Cooper was at times a difficult one. Once established in the first team, Cooper moved out of the family home into a flat in the city. However, reports reached the gaffer of the youngster perhaps enjoying his freedom too much and, after the “hair dryer” treatment was brought into play, Cooper was “persuaded” to move back in with his mother, Anne.
He used to try to hide at the bus stop in the mornings, on his way to training, since Fergie would pass the stop, pick him up and take him to the ground, where the other players would refer to him as “Teacher’s Pet”. Cooper survived, however, and in later life he would say that, perhaps, Fergie over-played him and some other young Aberdeen stars.
In 1986 he joined the talent drain to England, joining Aston Villa. Sadly, the injury problems which would blight the latter part of his playing career had started to affect him and he played only 20 league games for the club during a two-year spell in Birmingham. It was, however, at Villa that he met his wife Sally, with whom he had three children, one of whom, Alex, would follow his father into professional football. The marriage later ended. Sally and the children survive him.
Graeme Souness then brought Cooper to Rangers, where he made his debut in the notorious game in which Ian Durrant and Cooper’s erstwhile midfield colleague Neil Simpson clashed. Cooper himself always felt it was the fact he, one of the Gothenburg Giants, was turning out against the Dons which in a way contributed to the poisonous atmosphere that day.
Continuing injury woes saw him depart for a short spell at Reading, before he returned to Scotland and something like his old form and fitness with Dunfermline Athletic. He enjoyed five good years, culminating in promotion to the Premier Division in 1996, at East End Park, before moving to Ross County and into coaching.
At Dingwall, first as player-manager, then as manager, he oversaw back-to-back promotions, before moving to Hartlepool United, a team notorious for the number of times they had had to re-apply for Football League membership in the days when automatic relegation to non-league status wasn’t mandatory for the team finishing bottom of the then Fourth Division.
He had two spells at Hartlepool, where he is still highly regarded by the fans. He won 44 per cent of the games in which he managed the club, and he has only Brian Clough, who began his managerial career at the club, as opposition in any vote for “United’s greatest manager.”
Here, particularly during his second spell, he established a good reputation as a developer of young talent.
He also managed Gillingham, and Peterhead, where he initially worked under Steve Paterson, before finishing his active involvement in football as assistant to Derek Adams, back at Ross County.
Since leaving Victoria Park he had returned to Aberdeen, where he was working with Saltire Energy, and forging a reputation as a funny and gregarious recruit on the after-dinner speaking circuit.
Even when acting as a midfield “enforcer”, looking after the likes of Gordon Strachan, Cooper played with a smile on his face. He enjoyed life, liked a party, so the after-dinner circuit was tailor-made for him.
He had some good stories, too, such as his reaction to the great Franz Beckenbauer saying – after the Dons had beaten Bayern Munich in Europe: “The young Neale Cooper is the closest thing I have seen to me at that age.”
“That shows, even the very best can talk sh***,” was the Cooper response.
He was, of course, inducted into the Aberdeen FC Hall of Fame, he will be widely mourned in football, beyond Pittodrie.