Paying tribute to the genius of Davie Cooper, 25 years on from his death

‘He could have played a violin with that left foot. He didn’t need a right foot’

Rangers winger Davie Cooper bamboozles Celtic's Roy Aitken during an Old Firm clash in 1989. Picture: Brian Stewart

Davie Cooper scratched the back of his head as a vexed maths teacher might. The ball rested inside the penalty area arc, cradled and oblivious to the assault it was shortly to endure, a meadow flower beneath an approaching scythe. Two Rangers team-mates, Jimmy Nicholl and Graham Roberts, loitered close to him, completing a blue triangle. The pair seemed to offer instructions but in moments like this, genius speaks another language altogether. It does not comprehend the humdrum mutterings of mere mortals. Cooper may not even have heard the bunched Hampden crowd, cacophonous and shrill.

In moments such as this, sportsmen like him are isolated in focus and intent; they ascend to someplace else and feel as though they could pull the clouds from the sky.

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Aberdeen were leading the 1987 League Cup final 1-0. They crammed the penalty area with players, each man jousting, jostling and planning the resistance. On the goal line, Jim Leighton crouched and sidled in the manner of a cornered crab. Trying to judge where Cooper might land his kick was like asking a leaf to do algebra. Referee Bob Valentine blasted his whistle and the Rangers man erupted into motion as if in chemical reaction. He seemed to combust towards the ball, a runaway train. In half-a-second he was there. What happened next was a cataclysm of sorcery, industry and science. Cooper did not strike the ball, he pummelled it. His foot met leather in the vicious manner of a steam hammer clobbering copper. This was not a shot, it was a declaration of war. And yet it was the very opposite of an uncouth blast or an act of feral hit-and-hope. It was meticulous, measured, masterly. It possessed the accuracy of a railway station clock and the precision of a circus knife-thrower’s aim.

The defensive wall stood no chance. Any Dons player who glanced at the ball for more than a split second risked becoming nauseous, or temporarily blind as if they had looked at the sun through binoculars. It roared past Leighton, whose dive seemed only to begin as the net rippled and winced. Not that the goalkeeper should swallow any blame. Jesus Christ could not have saved Cooper’s free-kick. Half of Hampden bellowed and leapt, celebrations heightened and loopier as they always are for a particularly stupendous goal. Cooper dashed away, arms aloft, jubilation personified.

Oh that left foot. There should be streets named in its honour. “He could have played a violin with it,” says Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager. “He didn’t need a right foot. He was so perfectly balanced, so technically gifted on his left, that he could do anything. There were no limitations. He could beat people any way; right, left, double back and beat them again.”

Cooper was deft, balletic and elegant, yet he was strong and combative. He revelled in the friction of a winger’s duel with the full-back and in leaving his opponents cross-eyed. “He could just glide past players, drop a shoulder and go,” says Mark Walters, the man nominally bought by Rangers to replace Cooper. “He used to manipulate the ball. Watching him made me a better player.”

Cooper’s brilliance was a paradox – his right foot was nothing more than a prop, he was not blessed with pace and yet he could slip by any opponent that came near him, in any direction.

It was almost as if he were some novelty act at a travelling fair, the blind man who hits bullseye every time. Yet his was a serious and garlanded career. There is no freakishness about a footballer Graeme Souness considered Kenny Dalglish’s equal, Ruud Gullit glowingly acclaimed and Billy McNeill called “One of the best.”

Davie Cooper is part of the lexicon of Scottish football, his name one of those that renders grown men weak at the knees.

“He was from an era of players who were not manufactured,” continues Roxburgh. “They were not part of organised development programmes. They were organic footballers. He was a Dalglish, a Baxter, a Johnstone.”

Like those venerable three, Cooper sprinkled joy across the terraces and delighted in doing so.

Roxburgh was there at the very start of Cooper’s career. Assistant manager to Bill Munro at Clydebank, in 1974 he helped persuade the apprentice printer to join the club. His signing-on fee was £200, money liberated, goes the legend, from fruit machines in Kilbowie Park’s club bar. Cooper was a Hamilton man, proudly and loyally so. Roxburgh recalls floating with him the idea of late evening training: “He said: ‘Oh no, I can’t play, I’ve got to go home and take my dog out for a walk.’ That was just him. He was anything but difficult to deal with. He was just very laid back and casual. But he was the opposite when he played. He focused and he really delivered.”

Cooper mesmerised from the start. In the 1975-76 season, the left-winger scored 22 goals in 49 games as the Bankies won promotion to the second tier. Most were courtesy of his regal left boot. Munro and Roxburgh did attempt to improve his other foot by playing him on the right-wing. “Coops would get the ball, cut in, beat three men and stick it in the back of the net. He never went down the line. Great coaching that was!”

In June 1977, Rangers and Jock Wallace called. For £100,000 Cooper joined the team he had watched as a boy from the Ibrox terraces. Supporters occupying those terraces now were quickly besotted. The treble was snared, and though there followed a period of only faint team success, they revelled in the goals and moments he gave them. Cooper’s individual brilliance could override the collective and create parcels of memory that never left fans; his goal against Celtic in the 1979 Drybrough Cup final is imprinted inside the eyelids of thousands. The Scottish press pack did not share this infatuation, mistaking Cooper’s shyness and reluctance to be considered famous for surly truculence.

The left-winger’s Scotland career stuttered at first, with a four-year hiatus between his first two caps and his third. It was suggested that the regimentation of international football did not suit Cooper, though his take was characteristically philosophical: “If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, there’s no point in losing sleep.” Regardless, his presence in the dark blue mattered increasingly from the mid-1980s. Cooper scored the penalty at Ninian Park that urged Scotland towards qualification for Mexico ’86 World Cup on the harrowing night that Jock Stein died.

“It was dreadful,” he later said, “nothing, least of all a football match, seemed to have any significance.”

Cooper played twice in Mexico and was reunited with Roxburgh upon the latter’s appointment as Scotland manager shortly afterwards. He scored a brace in Roxburgh’s first victory, against Luxembourg, plundering one of the goals, miraculously, with his right foot. “I said to him ‘that one was mine, for all the effort I put in with you at Clydebank.’ He said ‘I miss-kicked it, boss’,” remembers Roxburgh.

In 1987, Mark Walters arrived at Ibrox from Aston Villa, the long-term replacement for his fellow flanker. He knew of the left-boot he would eventually fill: “I admired him before I moved to Rangers. I remember seeing that goal against Celtic. Bloody hell. But I knew that you couldn’t replace the irreplaceable. I was just grateful to play in the same side as him and to train with him.”

The two were occasionally accommodated. It was the Brummie, of course, that switched to the right. “It was just incredible being around him. His whole attitude to training and to playing the game was fantastic. I learnt so much from him.”

Cooper’s time with Rangers creaked to an end. He signed for Motherwell in the summer of 1989. The move did not represent a fading of the light. Supporters knew that they had inherited a pearl. Season ticket sales swelled. Young Well players learned and improved, inhaling the magic dust that seemed to hover over Cooper. Only injury prevented his inclusion, at 34 years old, in Roxburgh’s squad for Italia ’90 (“What would have happened if he had gone? Maybe he could have made a difference,” says Roxburgh). In 1991, he inspired the capture of the Scottish Cup, Motherwell’s first trophy in 39 years. “Everything happened at Motherwell when Davie arrived,” said chairman John Chapman. “He was tremendous.”

Aged 37, Cooper returned to Clydebank. He played 39 times in his first season, and regularly through the next two. Here was a player as phenomenally fit edging towards 40 as he had been phenomenally brilliant in his twenties. On 21 February 1995, he played for Clydebank Reserves in a game against Hamilton Academical. A month later, Davie Cooper was dead.

On the morning of Wednesday 22 March, Cooper was, as ever, on a football pitch, this time that of Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld. He was there to continue filming a coaching series for STV alongside Charlie Nicholas and Tommy Craig. By now, Cooper’s reserved media presence had been jettisoned, freeing a silver tongue ripe for a post-playing television career. As the clapper board heralded a new scene, he plummeted to the turf at the feet of 20 watching teenagers.

“The memory of him lying there and the feeling of helplessness will live with me forever,” said Nicholas. Cooper had suffered a brain haemorrhage.

At 9.45am on Thursday 23 March in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, Cooper’s family said their distraught goodbyes. His life support machine was turned off. He was 39 years old.

Death had visited at random, stealing him from his beloved and those hundreds of thousands who had worshipped him.

That day, Alex Ferguson received his CBE at Buckingham Palace. Reporters barked news of Cooper’s death as he held his medal up for photographs. He was too stunned to comment. “I have lost a brother,” said Ally McCoist. “I just couldn’t understand it,” says Walters now. We, though, should remember Cooper in poetic motion and salute his genius, as Andy Roxburgh does: “He had a gift. That’s all you can call it. It was a kind of magic.”