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Davie Cooper: He Played For The Club I Love

Today is my birthday. I am 42. I sometimes wonder where the time has gone. My life now seems to be a repeating cycle of work, school runs and ferrying my kids to various activities. It was all so different 20 years ago when I was still young, relatively responsibility free and with my full life in front of me – not to mention having a lot more hair and a loss less girth around my waist.

But 20 years ago today any thoughts of being in a celebratory frame of mind were put firmly on the shelf by the news that Davie Cooper, my boyhood Rangers hero, had died suddenly at the age of 39. To add an extra eeriness to proceedings, Cooper had not only died on my birthday, but he had died in the hospital I was born in – Glasgow's Southern General.

What made Cooper's passing so symbolic for me, and thousands of other Rangers supporters of a similar age, was that for a long period through my childhood in the 80s he was all I had in the bragging rights category. He was the only thing I could bring up in the playground from a Rangers perspective that I KNEW my detractors would have no come back from. He was also the only thing I really looked forward to on a visit to Ibrox on match-day.

If truth be known, he wasn't really my first Rangers idol. When my dad had started taking me to the games John Greig was the manager and Cooper was a peripheral figure, frequently stuck on the side-lines looking sulky and more than a tad overweight. So the honour of my first Rangers player infatuation went to Andrew Kennedy. I saw him score once against Dundee United on Football Focus and he was young and trendy enough looking to be considered – in my eyes anyway – Rangers' version of Charlie Nicholas. So whilst Celtic fans at school played out scenarios where they were Charlie Nicholas – I countered that by pretending to be Andy Kennedy. If anyone asked who he was, I just retorted stubbornly: “He scored against Dundee Utd!”  

What became of Kennedy I am not quite sure, but what became of Cooper was largely down to the disastrous start to the 1983/84 campaign that let to John Greig being relieved of his duties as Rangers manager and being replaced by Jock Wallace. Wallace reinstalled Cooper as an integral part of his side and my childhood would never be the same again. From that point in late 1983 until he left Rangers in 1989, he represented everything I felt a Ranger should be.

Wallace's return initially reinvigorated Rangers, but unfortunately the success Big Jock enjoyed in his first-term as manager would not return. However, there were moments of joy to savour from Cooper and it became an accepted notion that he was the only player at Ibrox at the time worthy of the jersey.

In this period, Saturday nights watching Sportscene when Rangers were on was basically a 30 minute Cooper-watch for me and anytime my dad managed to get me to Ibrox it was the same. I would actually spend long periods looking at Cooper when the action was elsewhere. Every game you waited to see a wee glimpse of magic from him – and he would more often than not provide you with something.

In one game against Dundee Utd in January 1985, I was sat in the Govan front, frozen and bored out my nut as a drab 0-0 draw unfolded. The only thing that got my bum off my seat that day was Cooper's performance. He ran riot. In one piece of outrageous skill on the touchline right in front of me, he approached Eamonn Bannon and Maurice Malpas. At one point Bannon looked to Malpas as if to say “we have him”, then out of nothing Cooper popped the ball through one of their legs with the outside of his left foot, ran between the smallest of gaps between the two of them and ran on to put a cross onto the box. It is a moment that I will remember if I live to see another 42 years and the kind of moment that childhood heroes are built upon. He made me remember the day despite it being an instantly forgettable game.

One of my all-time favourite moments from Cooper, despite not being at the game, was when Rangers managed to come away from Celtic Park with a more than credible 1-1 draw in December 1984. As was the custom for games we weren't attending, my dad and I listened to it on the radio. Rangers, huge underdogs at the time, performed magnificently but trailed for most of the game through an 11th minute Brian McClair goal. A perfectly good goal by John MacDonald was disallowed, Cammy Fraser managed to miss a penalty that Cooper had won and, yet again, it seemed that Rangers were set to lose to their Old Firm rivals. Then Cooper stepped up.

With four minutes left, Ted McMinn floated in a cross. Pat Bonner came off his line when he shouldn't have and his weak punch landed at Cooper who chested it, set himself and then struck it past Bonner and two despairing defenders on the line. My dad and I jumped about the kitchen as if we'd won the lottery. Yet again, Cooper had contributed to my Rangers supporting life. Watching the highlights on the telly that night was a joy. As Cooper ran away to celebrate, he was hoisted up by a teenage Derek Ferguson as Archie Macpherson hollered: “Davie Cooper gets the goal for Rangers, which they so thoroughly deserve at this stage!” Archie's words resonated with me. Not only had we not been turned over, but we had outperformed them on their own midden. And it was one of our own who had saved the day.

When Jock Wallace was eventually removed as Rangers manager in the spring of 1986 and replaced by Graeme Souness, it invigorated Cooper further still, to the extent of him giving arguably his best year in a Rangers jersey. The arrival of Terry Butcher and the likes gave Cooper the breathing space he had not enjoyed in previous years, as the responsibility and burden was shared more evenly throughout the squad. He revelled in it and was a pivotal part of the first championship winning side in nine years. Whether it was setting up Ian Durrant with a sublime reverse pass in a famous Old Firm victory, scoring an outrageous goal at Tynecastle, scoring the winner in the Skol Cup Final against Celtic or running amok against Boavista – Davie Cooper demonstrated again in that 1986/87 season just how great a player he was. He rose to the occasion and accepted the challenge set down by Souness' arrival. Souness still refers to him today as one of the most skilful players he has come across – high praise indeed.

The following season gave the first signs that age was catching up with him. Rangers signed Trevor Francis and Mark Walters, and Cooper gradually found himself sitting on the bench more and more. But even then he still produced a moment that will be in the memory forever with his free-kick in the Skol Cup Final in 1987.

That was the first final I attended. I was stood in the traditional Rangers end when he let fly with a shot of such power that it had hit the net and come back out before Jim Leighton reacted. It was another moment of pure Cooper magic, but it was his last real significant act as a Rangers player. He struggled to get in the team was moved on to Motherwell in 1989 – ending a 12 year association with the club.

The arrival of Souness and his expensive players meant that Cooper went with little fuss or publicity. If he'd left four or five years earlier there would have been wakes held in every Rangers supporting house in the land. As it was, he left quietly, almost unnoticed. I was guilty of shrugging my shoulders when he left. I was disappointed, but not gutted. When I look back, it was not how it should have been. I should have at least been more mindful to what he had offered to Rangers in the dark days of the early to mid-eighties.

Those dark days are back again and my own son, who is nine, seems to “enjoying” something similar to my childhood experience of supporting Rangers. We both sat on the couch to watch the victory against Hibs on Sunday, dancing about the living-room on going 2-0 up in a way very similar to the way my dad and I danced about the kitchen that day Cooper saved us at Celtic Park.

But I look at my boy’s experience of supporting his club and feel he is so unlucky compared to me. We were both served dismal Rangers sides as kids, but he doesn't have a Cooper to turn to for moments of sheer joy when the rest are serving up the usual mediocrity. He doesn't really have a hero who'll provide him with moments he'll remember well into adult life.

I did – and I will always be thankful to Davie Cooper for that.