Davie Cooper – A Kind of Magic

SPORT and death always make for an uncomfortable juxtaposition. There’s something about life being snatched away from an athlete which casts an incredulous veil of tristesse over the stage which they used to inhabit.

At other times, words such as “tragedy” and “disaster” are bandied about too often to describe a missed penalty or a dropped catch. But when somebody whose exploits have sparked joy on a pitch, in the pool or wherever players lock horns, is suddenly no longer with us, it leaves a void and the futile question “Why”?

Davie Cooper would have celebrated his 60th birthday this week, but, alas, fate had other plans for one of the most gifted Scottish footballers who ever pulled on his country’s jersey.

Instead, he was snatched away far too soon at just 39 – the victim of a brain haemorrhage – yet people in football circles are still marvelling at the mesmerising talents of the former Scotland, Rangers and Motherwell star. When the news first broke, it was the catalyst for a flood of tears from those who relished him lighting up the most mundane of games with the full repertoire of feints, shimmies, nutmegs and derring-do.

Cooper wasn’t some pampered prima donna, nor money-grabbing mercenary. On the contrary, he never strayed from his roots, resisted the blandishments of a myriad of suitors from English clubs, and, despite some shoddy treatment at Ibrox, remained in thrall to the Glasgow institution he had grown up supporting. Away from the pitch, he did his best to avoid the limelight and was never one for flash cars or the trappings of fame.

Graeme Souness’ arrival at Rangers ushered in a gaudy procession of controversies, grand ambitions, and a seemingly bottomless cheque-book mentality. Davie was only interested in football, so he moved on for just £50,000 to Motherwell and that piece of transfer business still represents one of the sales of the century.

It typified his approach to football that Cooper finished back where he had started at Clydebank, flinging himself around wholeheartedly in his late 30s as he had done two decades earlier. There was no grandstanding or theatrics; just a grin and a wee wink to the youngsters who sought his autograph, and a mutual respect between him and his team-mates.

In recent times, some people have questioned if his decision not to fly the nest stifled his international aspirations – he only gathered 22 caps – and whether it wouldn’t have been better if he had exited a struggling Rangers organisation in the early 1980s. But the man himself had no regrets about his career progression. Why would he, when he conjured some of the greatest moments in his country’s football history, including a magnificent, barely believable goal at Hampden Park against Celtic in 1979, which required such glorious precision that it might as well have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley?

Sir Alex Ferguson was among those who had sufficient knowledge of  his compatriot’s qualities to appreciate he was special. “Davie was a beautifully cultured footballer, a pure footballer, somebody who, with his wonderful left foot, usually looked a bit silkier than anybody else around him,” Ferguson told me.

“He never wanted to up sticks and move clubs every two or three years and I have a lot of respect for people such as Davie who just wanted to get out and kick a football. Perhaps, he could have played somewhere else than on the wing – though he was excellent there.

“I think he could have been used just behind the strikers because he scored some fantastic goals. But he was one of those very down-to-earth boys who was obviously in love with football and threw himself into it.”

Ally McCoist was another who felt privileged to witness Davie at close quarters, albeit for a brief period on either side of the Souness revolution.

And, regardless of McCoist’s reputation as a Jack-the-lad with a snappy soundbite for every occasion, Cooper’s memory evokes a plethora of contrasting emotions.

“Davie asked for little when he came in through the door at Ibrox every morning. Money, fashion accessories, media interviews, these weren’t important. Essentially, he was one of the old school, a modest lad who was happiest on his home turf, a real local hero of his generation. And the fans loved him for it,” said McCoist.

“When you watch somebody with his ability, performing his tricks and exciting the crowds, you tend to develop the impression they are immortal. But then you see what happened to Coop and you are reminded that we are all too human.

“I feel blessed to have known him and I’ll never forget him.

“And I am also blessed, because my sons have the opportunity to enjoy Davie when he was at the height of his powers, thanks to the wonders of technology.

“The great goals, the mesmerising artistry, the outrageous pieces of trickery: they are there on YouTube or on DVD and I would advise any youngster with an interest in football to go and check them out.”

Hopefully, there will always be those prepared to practice incessantly and hone their skills in the manner which was second nature to Cooper.

The former Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh, who now works with UEFA, pulled together a compilation of Davie’s finest vignettes and set it to the Queen hit “A Kind Of Magic”.

That says it all, really.

He might not have blown his own trumpet too loudly. But here was one Scot who orchestrated his own score through the scale of his genius.

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