Interview: Charlie Cooke on hard-drinking regrets

CHARLIE Cooke, retired wing wizard, has what sounds like an urgent inquiry. “Hey tell me,” he asks, straight off, “is Bobby Brown still alive?” He’s thinking back to 1971 when everything went – and there’s no other way of putting this – a little bit Scotland. A key match for the national team in Liege, Belgium, ended in a sound spanking and our much-revered under-achievers from that era slouched away to drown their sorrows in the red-light district.

CHARLIE Cooke, retired wing wizard, has what sounds like an urgent inquiry. “Hey tell me,” he asks, straight off, “is Bobby Brown still alive?” He’s thinking back to 1971 when everything went – and there’s no other way of putting this – a little bit Scotland. A key match for the national team in Liege, Belgium, ended in a sound spanking and our much-revered under-achievers from that era slouched away to drown their sorrows in the red-light district.

“Fifteen years later or thereabouts I pick up a newspaper and read the headline ‘Charlie’s night on the bars’,” Cooke continues. “Bobby [the team’s manager] was having his story serialised and it began with me. But I wasn’t the only one! Listen, I was a heavy drinker back then and I was plastered that night –but so were all the Old Firm guys who were out with me. I didn’t play for Scotland for a while after that – what was it, four years? I presumed they must have thought I’d lost form but actually I’d been banned, only I was never told.”

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Cooke isn’t really bitter. In fact, he’s laughing as he tells his picaresque tale, one of many in his life. And today, at 73, enjoying good health and all his own hair, there is no need for any sourness. “I’m looking up at the sky and it’s big and blue and beautiful,” he says. “I can see little planes flying over from John Wayne Airport but there isn’t a single cloud. It’s skies like this which got me dreaming about America and brought me here.”

Cooke’s biography is full of crazy symmetries. As a boy in Greenock he loved western movies – oaters, shoot-’em-ups, the kind where the bad guy who’d moseyed into town in the opening scene was eating dust and lead within the hour, one boot spur glinting on its final revolution. Now, home for him is Orange County, California, which is served by a terminal named after the greatest cowboy hero of them all, although it takes me a few seconds to establish exactly where Cooke is based while coaching soccer to kids. The way he pronounces “Irvine” sounds nothing like the Scottish town of that name, but then it was all of 39 years ago that he first crossed the Atlantic in search of VistaVision skies.

Here’s some more Cooke symmetry: keepy-uppy was such a serious pursuit for him as a laddie that he kept a tally of personal bests for foot, knee and head. When his parents, Charlie Snr and Agnes, eventually bought a television he scanned the variety shows in the hope of spotting ball-jugglers. Later, as a cool and good-looking Chelsea star, he became that TV juggler, performing for Mike and Bernie Winters and on Blue Peter. Then, a few years ago, after his sister Myra had investigated the family tree, he learned of his true circus progeny.

“I come from a long line of hairy-chested women, Romanian acrobats and wee stunted blokes who were only ever going to be fired out of canons,” he chuckles. “My umpteen-great-grandfather was the first to take a big top to the States and another Cooke used to ride around on a horse removing the costumes of different Shakespearean characters.” This will seem perfectly logical if you were fortunate enough to witness Cooke’s trickery with a ball and his desire to entertain; meanwhile he wonders if being aware of his heritage earlier might even have improved his game. “Just imagine: you walk out onto the park knowing one of your ancestors was the world’s strongest man – what would that do to your confidence?” I say I never thought of him as lacking any. “Well, blowhards and big-mouths are usually hiding something.”

Before we get to Chelsea, Swingin’ London and Raquel Welch (honest, she figures), I take Cooke back to Scotland and those early stop-offs for his own personal circus, one of which was Dens Park which today hosts the Dundee derby. Having apologised in advance for any cloudiness over places and names from the past, the blue-sky thinker says he can’t remember playing in a Tannadice Street skirmish. “Were United in the Second Division?” Actually, there were no less than five derbies including two in the Summer Cup during his 16-month stint, all won by the Arabs. Only 16 months and yet Dundee named a lounge after him. Everyone loved Charlie, you see. “My parents were blitzed out of Greenock during the war and I was born in St Monans, which I remember nothing about, although I visited on a roots trip and loved all of what’s it called again? … The East Nook.” Greenock, when the family returned there, was more difficult to love. “That bloody rain! Is it not the wettest place in Britain? I have to say my abiding memory is of all these guys from the shipyards standing at bus stops getting soaked. There were a lot of them because the town used to have yards as far as the eye could see. My dad was one but I was determined that wasn’t going to be my life.”

He fished for perch at the Cowdenknowes Dam, thrilled to those westerns in favourite flea-pit the La Scala (not to be confused with the one in Milan), imagined he was living the cowboy life while cooking beans on an open fire in Shielhill Glen, imagined he was riding next to Alan Ladd in Shane when hitching a lift on a milkcart, imagined the Tate & Lyle building was Castle Frankenstein – but mostly he played football.

“Greenock was a gritty kind of town and the Catholic/Protestant thing was big, but I was a Morton fan.” Still checking their results after all those years, he remembers Cappielow’s groans when an over-ambitious piece of play foundered, although his father would always say: “Aye, but the idea was there.” Cooke Snr could have been talking about Cooke Jr, the future dribble fiend, who would frequently excite but sometimes exasperate.

Greenock may have been the common ground at the beginning of a notable friendship, the one between Cooke and Alan Sharp, the Hollywood screenwriter from the tail o’ the bank, although you fancy these two were always going to get along famously. My TV producer father, partial to a Cooke swerve himself, was also a friend of Sharp’s, made a programme about him, and reckoned that, while the writer could hang out with the macho actors in his films like Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and George C. Scott, it was Charlie with whom he really wanted to trade places. Dad told me: “Alan used to wear a No 11 Scotland shirt under his jacket for internationals, just in case the call came over the Tannoy: ‘Our outside-left is indisposed – can anyone play that position?’”

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Cooke – a schoolboy starlet at first club Aberdeen, where he was nicknamed the Bonnie Prince – laughs at this as he recalls his 1970 World Cup wingding with Sharp. “Alan borrowed a stupendous car from one of the Hollywood studios and we had a gas. Mexico’s skies are pretty amazing, too, and we stopped off in all these crazy little villages where, in the early-evening sun, everyone promenaded up and down the square. The rest of the trip was a bit of a blur, to be honest, because we were often drunk as monkeys, but I do remember the England-Brazil game in Guadalajara, Gordon Banks’ incredible save and Bobby Moore’s tackle on Pele.”

This would be the same Moore who, launching season 1966-67 in England’s old First Division, enjoyed a lap of honour with Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters as West Ham’s World Cup winners 
prior to the London derby against Chelsea. An hour and a half later, Moore was being mugged by the Blues’ new £72,000 signing from Dundee for a scorching, 25-yard winner, with the plummy chap from Pathe News declaring him a “sound investment indeed”.

As his cult status grew, just one shimmy from Cooke with his mean-critter moustache would cause Stamford Bridge’s Shed to swoon. Even the skinheads sighed and Sharp would pen A Dream of Perfection, his fantastic essay on Scottishness and in particular the fatally flawed fantasies of the man on the terracing, which namechecked John Knox, Robert the Bruce and John Calvin, a redoubtable midfield three. It ends with Sharp in his Scotland strip driving away from his home in Los Angeles with Cooke, just as a big Texan called Hal goes inside to sleep with the wordsmith’s wife.

Cooke remembers the essay as “a very introspective and cool little piece”. He gets the most mentions, I say – six in all. “You’re kidding. That was a weird time in Alan’s life, for sure, but I don’t know about him idolising me. He just liked being around footballers. He liked the ambience, all the bullshit. I don’t suppose he was used to that kind of moronic patter and I’m sure he would have thought I was a real headbanger. He was a sensitive, tender, complicated guy who could have many different feelings about the same thing, whereas I would always have just the one, working class and completely bloody obvious.”

He does himself a disservice. This headbanger has just used the word “aficionado”. But then he’s always been hugely self-critical. You don’t have to tell Charlie Cooke he should have achieved greater glory with his talent; he knows this.

The Chelsea of Peter Osgood, Peter Bonetti, Ron “Chopper” Harris, Ian Hutchison, David Webb and Cooke won the 1970 FA Cup after a replay, our man finding an incredible – and incredibly modern – angle in the middle of the bare brown pitch to lift the ball over Leeds’ Jack Charlton for Ossie’s diving header. The following season they lifted the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in Athens under another of Cooke’s spectacular skies and again after a replay. The trophy was almost theirs in the first game – Cooke watched it being brought to a table at the side of the pitch – but Real Madrid equalised in the last minute. With 48 hours to kill, what did Cooke and his best drinking buddy, Tommy “The Sponge” Baldwin do? “Get hammered.” Thankfully the “diabolical” hangover had subsided sufficiently for Charlie to be crucial to the victory.

Cooke as a football pin-up was up there on bedroom walls next to George Best during the Summer of Love and those no-less sexy years which followed – and the Shed sang “Oh, Charlie Charlie … ” to the tune of Chicory Tip’s chart-topper Son of my Father. But the most glamorous team in the most exciting city in the world at that time flattered to deceive.

He’s bored with those oft-told stories about La Welch and Steve McQueen turning up at the Bridge. Welch’s rumoured romance with Osgood was, according to Cooke, “just a publicity stunt for her” – although he still laughs at the memory of The Great Escape star taking out a cigarette in the Chelsea dressing-room and fellow Scot Eddie McCreadie “jumping up to light it for him like he was a flippin’ butler”. And you have to prize details of the team’s rock ’n’ roll lifestyle out of him because these days, having not touched alcohol for many years, they just embarrass him.

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His Scotland days, too, were of promise unfulfilled. Although unbeaten against Brazil and England and having been part of a team scoring 13 goals in two games against Cyprus and nine in two against Wales, he was involved in five qualifying campaigns, all ending in failure. “Looking back, I see how dilettantish I was,” he says. “There was a crazy social scene at Chelsea: it was stupid, uncontrolled childishness. And I know folk like to remember Jimmy Johnstone getting stranded in his wee sailing boat but to me all these colourful stories are a bit pathetic.

“Don’t get me wrong, I was part of that rubbish. And I know that in my career I didn’t achieve one iota of what I should have done.” Again, he’s being too hard on himself, but does he think that as a footballer he’s been over-romanticised? “Yes I do. I played some trash, I know that. But no matter what I did off the field I never cut corners as regards my fitness. I don’t think I got enough respect for my graft and I was over-praised for the fanciness.

“Don’t laugh, but I wanted to be a [Alfredo] Di Stefano who could do it all ways. If the team needed someone to go over the top and break a leg, this guy would do it. If they needed craft he’d do it and if they needed goals, he’s score them. But here’s the really inane thing about me: I thought goalscorers were morons. There was one season at Aberdeen where I scored a lot, but after that hardly any. I got carried away with being called the playmaker, the midfield general. Scoring goals was easy, I thought – the real art was in making them. What utter horseshit…”

Charlie Cooke – the unsung grafter. Maybe he has more in common with those shipyard workers huddled under a glowering Greenock sky than he first thought. He finally hung up his boots at 40 with the splendidly-named California Surf then helped form Coerver Coaching, being based for a long time in Cincinnati. The move to his second wife Diane’s native California happened last year and now he plays squash, hangs out with son Chas and grandson Charlie Jack – and on the junior pitches cautions America’s soccer proteges not to neglect goalscoring.

But, with his drookit homeland concerned about Scottish football losing its identity, Cooke for all his flaws is a reminder of how bold it used to be – and on special days, beautiful too. Sometimes Charlie wasn’t so much symmetrical as circular, with a dribble ending right back where it began. But the journey could often be spectacular. And, as his dear old dad used to say: “Aye, but the idea was there.”

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