The Scotland manager recalled both his once “curly mop of white curls” and Cooper’s reputation as the “the new Franz Beckenbauer” when turning up for training at Aberdeen for the first time in the late 1970s.
McLeish, in Lima finalising preparations for his side’s match against Peru in the early hours of tomorrow morning, was clearly devastated by the shock news and a pall has been cast over Scotland’s first game in South America since the World Cup finals in 1978.
The former midfielder’s death means the brilliant Aberdeen side which defeated Real Madrid in extra time to lift the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1983 will never again reunite as a team. Cooper was just 54 – the youngest of the Gothenburg heroes.
McLeish last saw Cooper, who also played for Rangers and Aston Villa among other clubs, at the Gothenburg side’s last reunion event just over a fortnight ago in Aberdeen. “It’s horrible, tragic,” he said.
“Neale had a heart attack last year and I didn’t know many details this time other than he had a fall at home. I kept in touch with John Hewitt and Neil Simpson and the guys up there in Aberdeen and I’ll be in touch with Neale’s family. It’s horrific to hear this bad news.”
“Neale was a massive character, a tremendous lad and always was throughout his career,” added McLeish. “He was such an affable guy. I was praying he would pull through.
“He was a battler and we were all together in hoping he would pull through.”
“I saw him last at our Gothenburg night a few weeks ago and he was in such good spirits,” he added. “I spoke to him about his heart attack and he said he was recovering well. I knew that anyway because his family had kept me up to speed.”
“He was such an important player, for Aberdeen in particular, and he had a great career. When I went to Aberdeen he was supposed to be the new Franz Beckenbauer.”
McLeish recalled meeting the confident Cooper, who was already being heavily touted, for the first time.
“I saw him when he was 14 and I arrived on the training ground and he stuck out a mile,” he said. “I remember thinking: ‘Who’s that guy – he’s absolutely brilliant’. Then, because of the partnership Willie [Miller] and I formed he moved in to midfield and he became a very good footballer with a very aggressive style of play, but then he could do everything.
“I’ll never forget seeing that curly mop of white curls walking into the training ground. I thought we had a top, top player in our midst and I wasn’t wrong. I was 17, he was only 14, but he wasn’t overawed.”
Cooper later went on to play against Beckenbauer when Aberdeen faced Hamburg in the third round of the 1981-82 Uefa Cup.
Aberdeen won the first leg at Pittodrie 3-2 but lost the second leg 3-1. Cooper turned 18 the day before the first leg.
“I enjoyed a lot of great days in my career but getting to play against Beckenbauer was one of the most thrilling,” Cooper told the Aberdeen Evening Express in 2011.
“I turned 18 the day before he played against Aberdeen at Pittodrie. To actually be on the same pitch as the man who remains my all-time football hero was the best present I could ever get.”