Words: Jason Henderson (@jay_mfc)
No matter what age you are when you begin to support Motherwell Football Club, there are a series of firsts that often take on an iconic role in your life as a Steelman – your first game; the first goal you witnessed; for some of us lucky ones, the first (and, in my case, only) trophy you saw lifted; and, of course, your first ever claret and amber hero.
I’ve had a number of favourite players over the years – Dougie Arnott, Martyn Corrigan, James McFadden, and Louis Moult all spring to mind – but one name overshadows them all: my first ever childhood hero, a Motherwell legend, one of Scottish football’s finest ever players – Davie Cooper.
My first recollection of Coop isn’t actually on the field of play. I still have vivid memories of meeting him at a fundraising event at Knowetop Primary, where my mum was a teacher, in 1990. I was barely school age, not yet old enough to really appreciate the ins and outs of football, shy and quiet in the presence of such a well-known ‘Well star. I still remember being awestruck by this legendary figure, and then being chuffed to bits at just how friendly and genuine he was. He seemed to have all the time in the world to talk to me and my folks, as well as signing autographs and flogging my mum and dad a ball signed by the 1990 Scotland World Cup squad – for charity of course!
Perhaps it was that meeting that would cement Davie’s place as something of a superhero to me. It is with great regret that I wasn’t yet old enough at the time to really appreciate and take in just how good Davie Cooper was as a player. As a kid, I was aware of just how big a name he was and that he was a really, really good footballer, but my hero worship was probably just as much to do with how we had, in my mind at least, became best pals in Knowetop at the start of the 90s, as his contribution to Motherwell and Scottish football. But what a contribution it was…
The story of Davie Cooper had kicked off back in 1956 – born in Hamilton to a football supporting family, he would go on to captain the Udston Primary school team before turning out for local side Udston Utd in his youth. In the 1970s, Cooper would progress through the youth ranks of amateur side Hamilton Avondale, earning a Scottish Amateur League cap in the process.
By 1974, a number of clubs across both Scotland and England had been alerted to the development of the talented young winger, and it was Clydebank who would be first to snap him up. Coop would spend three years at the Bankies, netting his first hat-trick and finishing as the side’s top goalscorer in 1975/76 in the process, before Jock Wallace’s Rangers came calling.
The Ibrox side would pay £100,000 for the 21 year old, and he would immediately justify the fee by becoming an integral part of the side, winning the domestic treble in his first season. The following year, Coop would continue to enjoy club success, winning both cup competitions in Scotland, as well as scoring the now legendary solo goal against Celtic in the 1979 Drybrough Cup final, which can be found on YouTube for anyone yet to familiarise themselves with the genius of Davie Cooper.
The winger would go on to cement his place as both a Rangers and Scotland star during twelve years at Ibrox. At club level, he would win the Premier Division title on three occasions, collect ten domestic cup winning medals, score in European competition, and play a pivotal role in the success of Rangers at the time. Internationally, Coop would also bring his magic to the navy blue of Scotland – picking up 20 caps in the process, two of which came at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, a tournament the Scots qualified for thanks, in part, to a memorable equalising penalty from Cooper against Wales at Ninian Park in front of a stand crammed with Scotland fans. That result would set up a play-off for qualification against Australia, which the Scots would go on to win 2-0 with Cooper netting one of the goals. Sadly, the Wales match would also end in tragic circumstances, with manager Jock Stein suffering a heart attack and passing away in the stadium shortly after the final whistle.
By the summer of 1989, at the age of 33 and with his Rangers career over, the general assumption throughout Scottish football was that Cooper was past his best, the genius of the wing-wizard now thought to be a thing of the past. The £50,000 paid by Motherwell gaffer Tommy McLean was even considered to be something of a gamble by some. The doubters were soon shown to be very much incorrect.
Davie Cooper would excel in the famous claret and amber, making up for any loss of pace or stamina with top class technique, vision, and understanding of the game, amazing the Fir Park faithful with his performances. In his first season at the Dossers, Coop would play a hugely important role in the side that would finish 6th in the Scottish top flight, just one point behind Dundee United and a European spot in 4th. His dazzling displays would also see him return to the international fold after a two year absence, earning the last of his caps as a Motherwell player – penultimately in a 1-1 draw with Norway in the World Cup qualifiers, and finally at Pittodrie in a 3-1 friendly win over Egypt. When my folks bought that signed Italia ’90 football at Knowetop, it adorned Cooper’s autograph – the ‘Well winger set to go to the World Cup finals. However, injury would sadly scupper his chances and his international career would be over.
Despite the setback of missing the 1990 World Cup, Cooper would pick up domestically where he left off the following season, continuing to mesmerise and marvel Motherwell fans, and Scottish football in general, throughout the 1990/91 campaign. In the league, the Steelmen would finish 6th for the second time in a row but, as we all know, it was in Scottish Cup action that glory was secured. And there’s no question that Davie Cooper played his part.
The ’91 cup run would begin with a fantastic 1-0 victory at Pittodrie, the influential Cooper laying off a free-kick to Stevie Kirk who hammered home the winner. The following round, Falkirk would be defeated 4-2 at Fir Park with Cooper again playing provider, setting up the first goal of the day from Nick Cusack. Following a 0-0 draw at Fir Park, the quarter-final with Morton would go to a replay and, with the sides all square at 1-1 after extra time, Cooper would be called upon to settle the nerves in the resulting penalty shootout, slamming home the opening spot kick with his trademark calmness and style. The Steelmen would, of course, go on to win 5-4 on penalties, setting up a semi-final with Celtic.
The 0-0 from the original semi, in which Celtic dominated and Motherwell’s chance was thought to be gone, would set the scene for one of the most memorable games in the club’s history – both matches that Cooper missed through suspension! Thankfully though, the likes of Arnott, Kirk, and O’Neill were able to see off Celtic without the winger’s presence, ensuring that Coop could take to the Hampden turf in May 1991 looking for a fourth Scottish Cup winner’s medal.
No Motherwell fan needs a reminder of what happened against Dundee United that day! For those that were there, it remains perhaps the pinnacle of supporting the club (although I wish I could remember more of it!) and the match itself would provide so many iconic moments and images that are now engrained in Scottish football history – Iain Ferguson opening the scoring; John Clark clattering Ally Maxwell and the keeper’s subsequent heroics through agonising pain; “brave as a lion” Phil O’Donnell heading home; Ian Angus burying the third from distance; Darren Jackson’s injury time equaliser just when the claret and amber ribbons were being tied to the trophy; super-sub Stevie Kirk’s winner; and all the subsequent celebrations on and off the park.
And Davie Cooper was, again, a vital part of it all. He would start the game in his usual left-wing position, showing the same talent, guile, and experience that made him so integral to the Motherwell sides of the early-90s. Coop’s wonderfully floated free-kick into the box would lead to O’Donnell’s fantastic header, and it would be the winger’s dangerous delivery from a corner in extra-time that would see Alan Main flapping and Kirk nipping in at the back post to bullet home the winner. In the aftermath of the final, both on the day and during the open top bus parade, it would become clear that Cooper was genuinely overjoyed to have won a trophy in claret and amber, and wasn’t merely adding another piece of silverware to the collection late on his career.
Davie Cooper would go on to enjoy a further season and a half at Fir Park – continuing to play regularly, assisting with the coaching of the reserve and youth sides, and playing in both legs of the club’s historic first ever appearances in Europe against Katowice. In December of 1993, Cooper’s successful stint at Fir Park would come to an end, with the 37 year old returning to his first club Clydebank as a player-coach.
He would again become an integral part of the side, continuing to show off his genius into his late-30s. He would even return to Fir Park for a League Cup clash, with the home side running out 3-1 winners and Coop receiving a fantastic reception from those in claret and amber. His last match for Clydebank would be at Tynecastle, with the Bankies exiting the Scottish Cup in a third round replay.
For a man who brought so much to Scottish football, both in terms of his genius on the park and his character off it, it seems so cruel and unjust to have lost Cooper in the manner that we did. On the 22nd of March 1995, while filming a coaching video for young footballers at Broadwood Stadium, Davie Cooper suffered a brain haemorrhage and died the following day in hospital at the age of 39. There was an understandable outpouring of grief across Scotland – myself included: I still remember, then approaching my tenth birthday, watching the news in disbelief and dismay that my hero had passed away so suddenly and unexpectedly.
It was a tragic end to a truly fantastic career. Not only did Davie Cooper boast an impressive collection of silverware, played for his country at the World Cup, scored and setup some truly stunning goals, and blew away football fans with his remarkable footballing ability, but he was also arguably one of those incredibly rare things – a Scottish footballer who, at the top of his game, could be genuinely considered world class.
When it came to voting for who I believed were the greatest Motherwell footballers since the Second World War, I faced some difficulty and deliberation for 2nd down to 10th. But, for me, the question of who to choose for the number one position had a clear and instantaneous response, and I was delighted to find that the majority of the ‘Well support have held that same view.
Davie Cooper is not just the greatest footballer to have played in claret and amber, but he is one of the greatest footballers our country has ever produced. A man of supreme talent, he left football fans and opposition players in awe – he could jink past defenders with ease, slam home free-kicks, coolly slot away penalties, and pick out teammates with superb crosses and long-range passes. Although his life ended in such tragic circumstances, his mark on our game will live on forever. His name adorns the old North Stand at Fir Park, his statue casts an eye over the Hamilton Palace Sports Grounds, children continue to grow up named after a legend, and there are countless other references and tributes to the winger across Scotland.
I feel honoured to have chatted away to my hero as a youngster and I feel honoured to have witnessed him make the feat of being an absolutely outstanding footballer look so damn easy. As a Motherwell fan, I feel honoured that such a top class player chose not just to join our club in the twilight of his career, but to contribute as much as he did while he was wearing claret and amber.
And now, I feel honoured to confirm that the greatest post-war Motherwell player, as voted for by the ‘Well faithful, is a hero of the ’91 cup winning side, a Scottish football icon, and a bona fide legend…