Alan Pattullo: Higdon evokes memories of the ‘Cobra’

Higdon became the first Motherwell player to top the Scottish top-flights scoring charts since Tommy Coyne. Picture: PAHigdon became the first Motherwell player to top the Scottish top-flights scoring charts since Tommy Coyne. Picture: PA
Higdon became the first Motherwell player to top the Scottish top-flights scoring charts since Tommy Coyne. Picture: PA
IT was a real pleasure to meet with Keith Wright last week on a pre-Scottish Cup final promotional tour. After the main business of the day had been concluded, there was time for some self-indulgence, as I tapped Keith for stories about his partnership with Tommy Coyne at Dundee, when the Cobra and the Mongoose, as they were then termed, combined to terrorise Premier Division defences for an-all-too brief period in the late Eighties.

Coyne was a special player, Wright stressed. Clever, sly and sleek, as his Cobra nickname might suggest. He would need to be all these things to have scored 33 league goals for Dundee in season 1987-88. Again, the achievement is made more remarkable when you consider that he was playing in a team that eventually finished as low down as seventh in the league.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Coyne had plundered 24 of these goals by Christmas. Some wondered whether he could reprise such form after he and Wright, who had proved such a perfect foil for him in dark blue, were separated, after Coyne was signed by Celtic manager Billy McNeill to fill the gap left by Frank McAvennie.

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No-one can claim that he found it easy at Celtic and yet he prevailed, and won the fans over eventually, scoring 18 times for the struggling Parkhead side in season 1990-91, which meant he was again the top scorer in the league. And then, following a difficult spell with Tranmere Rovers, he returned to yet again claim the top scorer billing for another non-Old Firm club, topping the charts with Motherwell in season 1994-95, though this time with only 16 goals.

By now in his early 30s, many thought they’d already seen the best of the striker when he returned to Scotland, but he responded by starring in the World Cup finals in America, playing the lone-striker role to perfection in the brutal heat of New York, as the Republic of Ireland – overlooked by Scotland, Coyne chose to play his international football for Jack Charlton’s band of brothers – defeated Italy 1-0. Coyne ran himself into the ground, in what was this writer’s introduction to the concept of playing with “just one up top”.

Of course, his name has become relevant again thanks to the goal-scoring exploits of Michael Higdon, who has reprised Coyne’s achievement of topping the league scoring charts with Motherwell, picking up the PFA Scotland player of the year award in the process (perhaps surprisingly, Coyne won neither the football writers’ or the Scottish player of the year titles). In a rather novel departure to the norm, joining Higdon at the top of the list are players from Hibernian, Inverness and Aberdeen. Gary Hooper failed to add to his total of 19 goals against Dundee United yesterday, meaning that no Celtic player is in the top four. Higdon, though, is out on his own, with 26 league goals.

Higdon is the first non-Old Firm player since Coyne to top the list of highest goalscorers. While underlining just how impressive Higdon’s feat is, it also reminds you of the worth of Coyne’s achievement, particularly since he managed to do it twice with what we are seemingly bound to refer to as ‘provincial sides’, and in seasons that were separated by seven years. No one could accuse him of being a flash in the pan. You ask Wright whether he still sees his old partner-in-crime, having harboured the fanciful notion that they might still converse on a regular basis, picking up the phone to one another in the same telepathic way that they once picked up each other’s passes. “Ah, Tommy, I was just thinking about you.” But sadly, no.

Nevertheless, Wright explained that they had seen each other fairly recently at a book launch in Dundee and that Coyne, who now owns a property development company, still looks as though he could play (as does Wright, incidentally). They have vague plans to see each other at a Linlithgow Rose game, where Tommy’s son, also Tommy, now plays.

So the league season has now drawn to a close, and it has been refreshing in a number of ways, not least because some new heroes have emerged at the top of the Premier League scoring charts, wearing different coloured shirts to the ones that we have become used to.