The genius of Davie Cooper: Exhibit A

No-one could question his supreme talent. But is Cooper Scottish football’s last genius? One moment in particular makes it hard to argue otherwise.

By Rob Smyth

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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In just seven touches – chest, flick, flick, flick, flick, chest, finish - Cooper beat four players and the goalkeeper. It’s hard enough doing that when the ball is rolling perfectly along the floor, never mind when it’s in the air.

Video killed more than just the radio star. Blanket coverage, streaming and YouTube have done permanent damage to the mythology of football. Old folk will have no need to tell their grandkids about Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; their entire careers will be instantly available in High Definition.

Reality rarely matches up to the fertility of the imagination however, and there is something magical about a great moment that is not easily accessible on video. In 1977, Rivelino played an 80-yard pass against England that is seared into Kevin Keegan’s memory. “I was about three yards away from Rivelino and I felt the wind as the ball passed me at shoulder height,” said Keegan. “The astonishing thing is that it stayed at the same height all the way. I watched wide-eyed as it flew on and on; that’s one of the rare times when I’ve felt outclassed.” How could that possibly be as good on screen as it is in the mind’s eye?

Davie Cooper’s legendary solo effort for Rangers against Celtic in 1979 – voted Rangers’ greatest ever goal in a fans’ poll – has retained a similar mythical quality despite being all over YouTube. There are two reasons for that. The shaky, grainy footage, taken from an unusual angle behind the goal with a hand-held camera, gives it a bootleg quality. And not even Walter Mitty could have imagined a goal of such unique brilliance. It is Exhibit A in the case for Cooper being Scottish football’s last genius.

“He was a Brazilian trapped in a Scotsman’s body,” said Ray Wilkins, who played with Cooper at Rangers. It’s a lovely quote but not entirely correct: while Cooper had the balance and skill of a Brazilian, he had a very Scottish chutzpah. He was a modest man, who sometimes seemed almost embarrassed by his talent, but he became a swaggering superhero when he put on his costume of a Clydebank, Rangers or Motherwell kit.

The same was not necessarily true of the Scotland shirt. Cooper won only 22 caps, a frustratingly low total, and never started a World Cup match. But if he did not leave an impression on the world game, he certainly did so on one of the world greats. In 1984, Rangers played a mid-season friendly – called the KLM Challenge Cup – against a Feyenoord side that included Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit. “Davie Cooper,” said Gullit years later, “was one of the best football players I have ever seen.” He included him in his all-time XI of those he had played with and against. Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane were on the bench.

Although Cooper was inconsistent, his boyish enthusiasm for the game was such that his genius could assert itself in any setting – from the Scottish Cup final to the KLM Challenge Cup or even the Drybrough Cup final, which Cooper illuminated with his goal against Celtic in 1979.

The Drybrough Cup was played between 1971-74 and then for the last time in 1979 and 1980. It was generally held as a warm-up to the new season, and involved the four highest-scoring teams from Division 1 as well as the same four from Division 2. It was not just the qualification criteria that was designed to promote attacking football: the SFA changed the rules in an attempt to create more space in midfield. For a couple of years, in the League Cup and Drybrough Cup, players could only be offside if they were past the line of the 18-yard box.

That initiative had died by the time the competition was revived in 1979. Rangers reached the final for the only time in the Drybrough Cup’s short history, where they would meet Celtic. They tore into Celtic from the start, with the 18-year-old John MacDonald giving them the lead after a one-two with Cooper. It was all too much for MacDonald. “The enormity of what I’d just achieved hit me full on,” he said. “I ran to the Rangers End to celebrate and ended up throwing up all over the place. By the time the rest of the lads came over to congratulate me I was on my hands and knees being as sick as a dog.”

MacDonald’s unusual contribution would be overshadowed, as would Sandy Jardine’s glorious second, when he ran the length of the field before battering the ball past Peter Latchford. “I scored one of my best goals that day,” said Jardine, “and it hardly got a mention.”

That was because of an even better solo goal with 12 minutes remaining. Cooper received a pass from the wing inside the Celtic area, facing away from goal and with Roddie MacDonald attached to his back. He controlled it on his chest and volleyed it up in the air, allowing it to bounce as he jockeyed for position with MacDonald. When it did so he flipped it infield away from MacDonald, at which point Murdo MacLeod and Tom McAdam converged. Cooper lobbed the ball first time away from both and towards goal. As the ball dropped again onto his left foot, with Alan Sneddon haring across to cover, Cooper stretched his left leg to calmly cushion a volley over Sneddon’s head. That put him clear on Latchford, and after chesting the ball down he tucked it precisely into the net.

In just seven touches – chest, flick, flick, flick, flick, chest, finish – Cooper beat four players and the goalkeeper. It’s hard enough doing that when the ball is rolling perfectly along the floor, never mind when it’s in the air. “It was a goal born of utter self-belief and complete cheek,” said the great Celtic defender Danny McGrain, who was one of the few on the pitch not to be left behind as Cooper scored. “The moment seems to last for ever. You could be ultra-critical and say that if you beat that many defenders in their penalty area they are the ones who are ultimately at fault. But it was as if they were transfixed as the ball was lobbed over one head after another in a surreal sequence of events. I kept thinking to myself, ‘He’ll get him’ or ‘He’ll surely get him this time’ or ‘We must get it out of the box this time’. It never happened.”

Celtic pulled a late goal back but Rangers were emphatic 3-1 winners. “We were so much on top that we could have netted six and that score will still have flattered Celtic,” said Cooper. “Obviously I was pleased with the goal I scored, too, because you don’t score goals like that very often. More’s the pity!”

Later, the former Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh produced a video of Cooper’s highlights with a soundtrack of It’s A Kind of Magic by Queen. “Football is not about robots or boring tactics,” he said. “It’s about excitement, emotion and individual flair and imagination as shown by Davie Cooper.”

The goal demonstrated all those qualities. He was, as the former Hearts striker John Robertson put it, “one of the original tanner ba’ players”, and on this day he turned Hampden Park into the school playground. For a man who once said he supported only two teams – “Rangers, and whoever is playing Celtic” – this goal was the ultimate.

When someone has such rare talent as Cooper, and especially when they die so young, it is very difficult not to romanticise their career. But it would be wrong to say Cooper’s was one happy story. He had some lost years at Rangers in the early 1980s, when he was often left out by John Greig, and the only time he was a Scotland regular was in a brief spell in 1984-85.

Unusually for a player of his type, Cooper’s best years were in his thirties. He was superb for Rangers under Graeme Souness, something that Walter Smith attributes to being alongside better players; then, when he went to Motherwell at 33 because he wanted regular first-team football, he had such a profound influence in a midfield role that there is a stand named in his honour at Fir Park.

“It wasn’t until he went to Motherwell that I realised he wasn’t a winger,” said his former Rangers team-mate Gordon Smith. “Just because he was skilful and couldn’t tackle, he was put out on the wing. But in any other European country, he would have been a midfield playmaker – as he was at Motherwell – and I think he would have been an even greater player for Rangers there.”

Gullit wishes that Cooper had tried his luck in Europe. “He had incredible skill and a command of the ball. There was something about his play that made him stand out. When I saw him play I was flabbergasted. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who is this guy?’ I fell completely in love with his play. It surprised me a lot he didn’t become a big international name. It’s incredible that a player with his skills did not make it to the international top flight. I don’t know if it was because he stayed in Scotland but he had the talent to be one of the greats. He was a unique player, not comparable to any other. No, Davie Cooper was one of a kind.”

Gullit still talks about Cooper now, often bringing him into a conversation without prompting. If you asked him what cars they used in The Italian Job, he’d probably say “Davie Coopers”.

On the face of it, Cooper did not have much going for him as a player. He was short and slight, an obvious target at a time when GBH was a yellow-card offence at worst. He had no real pace and no right foot. He could be inconsistent. But he had a left-foot that was Harvard educated, sleight of hip that allowed him to beat defenders without touching the ball, a full range of passes and crosses – and, as he showed in the Drybrough Cup, a football IQ in the high 160s. “He was the quickest thinker I’ve ever seen,” said Tommy McLean, who played with Cooper at Rangers and managed him at Motherwell.

Although Cooper had some of his best years at Motherwell, he will always be associated with Rangers. Cooper was a fan on the pitch, whose simple comment – “I played for the club I loved” – has become his epitaph. At his funeral in 1995, Walter Smith delivered a eulogy. “God gave Davie Cooper a talent,” he said. “He would not be disappointed with how it was used.” Especially not on one magical day at Hampden in 1979. 

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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