Monday, April 25, 2016

Gary McCallister's Glorious Swan Song

(This article originally appeared on These Football Times)

The opening goal set a hypnotically frantic tone. Captivatingly familiar for a derby game. Quality’s void filled with the excruciating knowledge that something is always about to happen. In clearing a David Unsworth long-ball, and attempting to contain Duncan Ferguson, Jamie Carragher's hand ball went un-noticed. His robust clearance was cushioned by Robbie Fowler, and landed at the feet of Dietmar Hamann. The German's carefully measured half-volley exposed a grossly over-committed Everton defence, and Emile Heskey held off Steve Watson before drilling his finish under Paul Gerrard. Everton 0-1 Liverpool.

On the Easter Monday of 2001, the 164th Merseyside derby had it all. A recklessly pulsating match which swung between sublime, scrappy, and borderline stupid. There were; twelve cautions, a red-card for Igor Bišćan, 2 penalties (1 scored and 1 missed), and 5 goals.

The deciding goal was a moment of sweet ingenuity from veteran Gary McAllister.

There appeared to be little threat on offer from a last minute 45-yard free-kick. However, in those pre-vanishing spray, halcyon days of the Premier League, the cunning McAllister gained a couple of yards. With referee Jeff Winters' back turned, McAllister moved the ball forward with something of a glint in his eye. It was still forty-five yards from goal. Everton's two-man wall was nothing more than a gesture. It signalled the consensus of expectation that a chipped ball into the box would proceed. Instead, McAllister hit a shot which somehow and all at once chipped, dipped, and drilled its way towards the goal. With Paul Gerrard unsighted and wrong-footed, the ball bounced once before nestling in the bottom corner.

“McAllister takes it…. woooaaahhh yes”, foamed an astounded Ian Darke. As the Sky Sports cameras picked out Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, his face was reminiscent of a man who had recovered a jackpot winning lottery ticket with a few hours remaining till the claim deadline.

Liverpool’s 3-2 victory, their first at Goodison Park in little over a decade, proved a catalyst for a remarkable season finale, and cemented Everton in a relegation battle. Following the derby-winning goal and performance, McAllister was a fixture in the Liverpool midfield. The crucial final month of the season belonged to him, and to say he single-handedly won Liverpool the UEFA Cup wouldn’t be a huge overstatement.

His quietly influential application steered Liverpool to third place in the Premier League, Champions League qualification, a UEFA Cup semi final victory over Barcelona, and seemingly unlikely victories in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup finals.

Not bad for a 35 year-old Bosman signing from Coventry City.

McAllister's arrival on Merseyside wasn't greeted with widespread enthusiasm. Fresh from two consecutive relegation battles, and in the fading twilight of his less-than-spectacular playing career, McAllister’s signature prompted more eyebrow raising than wide-eyed anticipation. Despite being a league championship winner with Leeds United in 1992, strength of association made the Scot a bottom of the table warrier, rather than a European great.

Furthermore, Liverpool’s midfield roster was already rather lavishly staffed in July 2000. Twenty year-old Steven Gerrard had recently established himself in the first-team, flitting between the right flank and a central role alongside Dietmar Hamann. Czech duo Patrick Berger and Vladimír Šmicer offered width and attacking options, as did Danny Murphy. New signings McAllister and Nick Barmby faced fierce competition. Furthermore, Igor Bišćan would sign in December for £5.5 million, and the injured Jamie Redknapp remained in contention despite long-term injury.

Gerard Houllier, though, saw potential and the bigger picture.

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Having started his career with Motherwell, McAllister spent four seasons toying with the roles of attacking midfielder and forward. A move to Leicester City, as a make-weight in a deal primarily for Ally Mauchlen, cemented McAllister as a midfielder. Whilst Leicester established themselves as a solid second-tier club, McAllister built a reputation as a tidy passer of the ball, with a keen eye for goal. Especially from distance, and set-pieces.

In football’s relatively brutal and ugly ‘80’s world, a player of McAllister’s dignity and finesse stood out. So much so that in 1989 Brian Clough was willing to part with £1.5 million to take him to Nottingham Forest. Rumour has it that McAllister left their meeting unimpressed by the Forest manager. An early indication of strength of character if ever there was one.

Months later McAllister did inevitably leave Leicester. Leeds was to be his destination, and replacing the outgoing Vinnie Jones, his task. During his spell at Elland Road, McAllister was part of a League Championship winning midfield featuring Gordon Strachan, Gary Speed, and David Batty, all supporting Eric Cantona in attack. Widespread recognition of the collective qualities of that midfield didn’t flow freely. Partly due to Leeds’ unfashionable reputation, and partly due to the fervour and hype surrounding the forthcoming Premier League, Leeds’ ‘92 title, and the players who made it possible, aren’t fondly recalled by the masses.

Though perhaps nostalgic admiration isn’t quite justified. 1992/1993 saw the FA Premier League’s inaugural season, and a Cantona-less Leeds narrowly avoid relegation. It remains the worst league title defence season in English football.

However, Leeds recovered once more and recorded top five finishes in ‘94 and ‘95, before slipping to a bottom half finish again in ‘96. In what was McAllister’s final season in Leeds colours, he did achieve the honour of captaining a team at Wembley. In keeping with inconsistency, though, Leeds were soundly beaten 3-0 by Aston Villa.

Already over thirty years of age, McAllister moved to Coventry City for £3 million in July 1996. Under the stewardship of Ron Atkinson, Coventry were exactly what one might expect; a team mildly high on attacking flair, yet ultimately lacking in depth or true quality. McAllister was signed to bridge that gap.

When ‘Big Ron’ moved upstairs to become Director of Football in November, he was replaced with McAllister’s ex-teammate, Gordon Strachan. Strachan made McAllister club captain, and Coventry went on an impressive run of form.
Dion Dublin was their star player, and one more than appreciative of McAllister’s dead ball expertise. By January 1997 Coventry were up to eleventh in the Premier League. Heady heights couldn’t be maintained, though, and Coventry won just four games after the turn of the year. Coventry entered the final game of the season needing a Highfield Road victory against Tottenham Hotspur, and other results to go their way.

Miraculously, Coventry recorded a 2-1 victory, and relegation rivals Middlesbrough and Sunderland both lost. McAllister notched up thirty-eight appearances and six goals, and helped secure what would be Coventry’s thirty-first successive season in top-flight football.

As Strachan went about turning Coventry into a stable Premier League team, McAllister sat out large chunks of the following seasons. He was, however, back to his influential best come the 1999/2000 campaign. His eleven goals, consistent threat from free-kicks, and obvious experience certainly stood out for Houllier.

Upon hearing of Houllier and Liverpool’s interest, McAllister thought there was a prank being played. However, initial talks revealed Houllier’s desire to bring in an established professional. Liverpool had just about shaken off the stigma of the ‘Spice Boys’ label, and Houllier felt that Gerrard in particular would benefit from McAllister’s attitude and professionalism.
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The opening day of the 2000/2001 season provided McAllister a cameo debut at Anfield, coming on as a second half substitute as Liverpool completed a 1-0 victory against Bradford City. Though despite striking the right chords in pre-season training, McAllister’s full debut only served to increase questions and doubt. In a fraught and defensively clumsy Liverpool display, McAllister received a controversial red card before half-time as Arsenal eased to a 2-0 win. The second half also saw Hamman and Patrick Viera sent-off.

McAllister didn’t feature again for Liverpool till October. His comeback coincided with a run of three consecutive victories, and a sack load of goals from Emile Heskey. There was no coincidence. Surrounded by younger and quicker players, McAllister’s attitude and vision found a spiritual home.

November saw McAllister face two of his previous clubs. At Elland Road Liverpool lost a humdinger of a game 4-3, with Mark Viduka scoring all four Leeds goals. A week later, and facing Coventry at Anfield, McAllister was instrumental in a 4-1 rout and registered his first goal in Liverpool colours.

Liverpool endured a frustratingly inconsistent winter, and it’s no coincidence this spell occurred while McAllister himself was in and out of the side.

The football season enters its business end as winter makes way for spring. Life and colour can spring from the least obvious corners of the garden, and the same can be true in the Premier League. Thankfully for Liverpool, McAllister was available for a lengthy run in the team.

Just three days after deciding the Merseyside derby with that free-kick, McAllister and Liverpool faced Barcelona. The UEFA Cup semi final second leg had Anfield decked out in the fervorous tones only a big European fixture can muster.

Having stifled Barcelona at the Camp Nou, an impressively stoic Liverpool had the tie finely poised. However, standing between them and a first European final since 1985 were tough opposition. Barcelona’s team sheet included the present day managers of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, and Curaçao. Lining up alongside Luis Enrique, Guardiola, de Boer, Cocu, and Kluivert, were 18 year-old Jose Reina, Carlos Puyol, Rivaldo, Marc Overmars, Gabri, and Sergi. 20 year-old Xavi, Ivan de la Pena, Boudewijn Zenden, Emmanuel Petit, and Dani were on the bench.
Though impressive, the quality of Barcelona’s team sheet masked a squad in transition. Louis van Gaal had departed the previous summer, and little did they know it, but the Catalan giants were about to go four seasons without a major trophy. The second leg proved the be Barcelona coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer’s penultimate game in charge.
With Anfield ceremoniously draped in flags and scarfs, Liverpool sensed a real chance after a goalless first leg, but the occasion needed a maestro.

Prior to the Merseyside derby, McAllister had started in just one of five previous games, yet he took this match by the scruff of the neck. Playing with the calculated intensity of a measured man on a mission, McAllister also put a few of Barcelona’s youngsters in their place.

Following a first half McAllister corner, Kluivert inextricably threw an arm in the air. After a few seconds deliberation, a penalty was awarded. Amidst the zest of a momentarily baited Anfield, and after some persecution from Puyol, McAllister firmly planted the penalty into the top corner. The image of McAllister and Gerrard, cast as master and desciple, fervidly celebrating in the face of Puyol will live long in the memory of many Liverpool fans.

Despite the attacking wizardry of Rivaldo and Kluivert, Liverpool’s back four held firm. Their clean sheet meant that McAllister’s penalty was the only goal of the game, and Barcelona were the latest addition to Liverpool’s impressive list of UEFA Cup conquests.

Again just three days later, with few complaints of fixture pile-ups, Liverpool faced Glenn Hoddle’s Tottenham at Anfield.

Going gung-ho on all fronts had seen Liverpool slip to sixth in the table, albeit with a game in hand. As a frantic and nervy quality gripped the game, McAllister again remained a cool and collected figurehead. Looking set for a 1-1 draw with fifteen minutes remaining, the game swung on McAllister’s second penalty in four days. Robbie Fowler added a third in the closing stages, and Liverpool gathered momentum.

Next up was a trip to Highfield Road, and a trip down memory lane for McAllister. With Coventry scrapping for their lives, this was by no means a classic. Liverpool seemed to reflect the frantic energy of their hosts, and the game appeared to be heading for a goalless stalemate. However, into the final throws and it was McAllister who drove Liverpool across the finishing line. He delivered a perfect corner for Sammi Hyypiä’s header to break the deadlock, and whipped in another spectacular thirty-yard free-kick of his own. Liverpool won 2-0, and McAllister all but condemned his former club to Division One football within 3 minutes.

May 1st saw a trip to Valley Parade, and a familiar pattern play out. Liverpool, somewhat slowly and unconvincingly, ground down their opposition. They missed a host of chances, and left it to the accuracy and finesse of McAllister to get the job done. Having laid on an assist for Michael Owen to open the scoring shortly after halftime, McAllister made it five match-winning set-pieces in as many games. His whipped twenty-yard effort crashing in off the underside of the crossbar.

Liverpool and McAllister were hitting form just when it mattered.

Owen’s hat-trick despatched of Newcastle United on May 5th, as Liverpool romped to a 3-0 win. Despite racking up a sixth consecutive appearance for the first time during the season, McAllister was unable to add to his remarkable scoring record.

With two cup finals on the horizon, McAllister’s leadership and quality were again deemed too important to rest as Liverpool faced Chelsea at Anfield on May 8th. Under new manager Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea were also looking to cement European qualification. They proved a tough nut to crack. Doubles from two of the season’s outstanding strikers, Owen and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, saw the spoils shared. A result which left Liverpool still uncertain of Champions League qualification.

The 2001 FA Cup Final, or the ‘Michael Owen final’ as it became known, was the first played at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Adding to the cosmopolitan and foreign feel, it was also the first final to be contested between two non-British managers. Arsene Wenger’s and Arsenal stood in-between Liverpool and their second trophy of the season.

Houllier had taken the tough decision to drop McAllister and Patrick Berger, preferring mileage of Danny Murphy and Vladimir Šmicer. Yet though Liverpool’s midfield had mileage to burn, it lacked composure. With little under half an hour remaining, McAllister replaced Hamman, with Liverpool on the ropes.

Though McAllister’s introduction bought an assured sense of cohesion, the inevitable occurred in the 72nd minute. Freddie Ljungberg rounded Sander Westerveld, and put Arsenal 1-0 up. Houlier responded by bringing on Fowler and Berger. Naturally, though, it was McAllister who created Liverpool’s unlikely winner. Arsenal failed to clear a swinging free-kick, and Owen pounced to equalise with 7 minutes remaining. With the threat of extra time looming, Berger set Owen free 4 minutes later, and the marriage of pace and creativity capped a winning goal for Liverpool.

Fresh from the energy-sapping sunshine and late drama of the FA Cup Final, Liverpool still had two games to play. May 19th would see the decisive final Premier League fixture, and May 16th would see the small matter of the UEFA Cup Final.

Houllier made just one change for what would be a dramatic night in Dortmund. McAllister returned to the starting line-up, and Robbie Fowler dropped to the bench. For Liverpool, it was a first European final since the Heysel tragedy in 1985, and for Alavés the match already represented a glorious culmination to their first ever European campaign.

Liverpool were up and running within four minutes. McAllister’s dead ball expertise laid on an assist for Markus Babbel, before Gerrard doubled Liverpool’s advantage ten minutes later. In what was fast-becoming a fascinating and menacingly open encounter, Alavés made an early defensive substitution, and got a goal back. Iván Alonso reduced the deficit with his first touch after replacing Dan Eggen. However, after a foul on Owen in the Alavés area, McAllister again kept a cool head to restore Liverpool’s two goal advantage from the spot before half-time.

Shortly after the break, potential disaster struck. Thanks to some uncharacteristic lapses in what had been a solid Liverpool defence, it took just six second half minutes for Javi Moreno to score twice, and Alavés to draw level.

With the score poised at 3-3, chances for both teams to lead came and went. Houllier replaced Heskey with Fowler, and just eighteen minutes remained when McAllister slipped the substitute through. Fowler drilled a right footed effort into the bottom corner, and McAlister claimed another seemingly crucial assist. Alavés, though, weren’t done yet. After both teams had penalty shouts turned down, a Jordi Cruyff header drew Alavés level with two minutes to spare.

Golden Goal extra time would prevail, and naturally, the drama wasn’t over.

In the opening exchanges of extra time, Alavés had a goal disallowed for offside, and Magno Mocelin received his marching orders for a second booking. Equally, Liverpool thought they’d clinched it with another Fowler effort, but that, too, was ruled offside. As a pulsating final entered its 115th minute, Alavés found themselves reduced to 9 men. Antonio Karmona received a straight red for hauling down Šmicer. McAllister curled in a mischievous free-kick, which was turned into his own goal by Delfi Geli.

The golden goal made it 5-4 to Liverpool, who claimed their third trophy of a remarkable treble. McAllister, a man closer to his fortieth birthday than his thirtieth, was Liverpool’s driving force. In a breathtaking final of one hundred and fifteen minutes, McAllister had provided assists for three Liverpool goals, and scored another from the spot. His attitude, influence, and energy drew richly deserved praise.

The final day of the 2000/2001 Premier League held much at stake for Liverpool. Suffering no hangover and little fatigue, McAllister and Liverpool romped to a 4-0 win at Charlton Athletic. Third place was secured, just a single point off Arsenal in second, which also meant Champions League qualification. Liverpool would be back in Europe’s elite club competition for the first time since 1984.

In the final 33 days of the season Liverpool played 10 matches. McAllister registered 6 critical goals and 6 equally crucial assists. By then aged 36, this amounted to a game every 3 days, of which McAllister started all but one.

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The 2001/2002 season kicked-off with two further trophies lifted. Manchester United provided opposition in the FA Charity Shield, and Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup. Picking up right where he left off, McAllister netted a second minute penalty as Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-1 at the Millennium Stadium. In Monaco, the savvy midfield partnership of McAllister and Hamann saw Liverpool home as 3-2 winners against Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich.

Sandwiched between the two trophies was the first fixture of the Premier League. West Ham provided Liverpool’s opening day opposition, and were themselves enjoying the benefits of a footballing artist in full renaissance. Paolo Di Canio may have briefly stole the show with an equalising ‘rabona’ penalty, but McAllister’s mercurially deft assist for Michael Owen’s opener was equally sublime. While Di Canio flitted in and out of the game, McAllister orchestrated it’s ebbs and flows, and ultimately saw Liverpool home as 2-1 winners.

Though McAllister couldn’t replicate the goalscoring feats of his first season at Anfield, he did record thirty-six appearances. He remained influential as Liverpool went on to reach the Champions League quarter-finals, and achieve a domestic runners-up spot.

To top it all off, McAllister was awarded an MBE in the 2001 New Year's Honours list. Following the League Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Cup, FA Charity Shield, and UEFA Super Cup, it became McAllister’s sixth medal. Not bad for a player who had only ever picked up two trophies in his previous nineteen years as a professional footballer.

In two seasons at Anfield, McAllister registered eighty-seven appearances, nine mostly crucial goals, and an staggering five trophies. In 2006 he was voted number thirty-two in a Liverpool supporters survey of ‘100 players who shook the Kop’. This recognition places McAllister ahead of names such as; Terry McDermott, Ray Houghton, John Toshack, and Jamie Redknapp, and goes some way to tell the deep levels of admiration and respect reserved for McAllister.

Just twelve months after 2001’s summer of renaissance, Gary McAllister returned to Coventry City as player/manager. By then lining up for their second successive season in the second tier, McAllister’s first in management was a definitive season of two halves.

With McAllister playing regularly, Coventry started well and stood in contention for the play-offs at the turn of the year. An undefeated December saw McAllister score three as Coventry recorded four wins out of five, and ship just one goal. However, January 2003 heralded a miserable run of one win in twenty league games through to the season’s end. Relegation was narrowly avoided, yet 46 appearances in a division one season spoke volumes of McAllister’s drive and character at 37 years of age.

McAllister resigned from his duties in January 2004, citing the imperative need, rather than decision, to spend more time with his family. His assistant, Eric Black, took the reins and guided the club to mid-table safety.

As a tragic undercurrent to this romantic footballing tale, Denise McAllister, Gary’s wife since their 1993 Gretna Green marriage, was diagnosed with cancer in 2000. Caring for his wife and family meant a number of spell away from the game. Gestures grand and small, and unwavering professionalism only served testament to McAllister’s character.

Sadly, Denise McAllister lost her battle with cancer in March 2006.

After an understandable break from the game, McAllister made a managerial comeback at another of his previous clubs. As Dennis Wise made a surprise switch from the Elland Road dugout to the Newcastle United boardroom, McAllister became manager of Leeds United in January 2008.

Initially tasked with maintaining their realistic aims of League One Play-off’s, McAllister did exactly that and was immediately rewarded with a contract extension. However, Leeds were defeated by Doncaster in the final, and struggled to recover. After a poor start to the 2008/2009 season, McAllister was on his way by December.

McAllister linked up once again with Gordon Strachan in 2010, in the capacity of Middlesbrough's first team coach. Soon after, and continuing the theme of reuniting with familiar faces, McAllister was signed by Gerard Houllier for a second time. Attempting a Premier League renaissance of his own, Houllier was appointed as Aston Villa manager and saw McAllister as an ideal assistant.

Sadly, Houllier’s ill health meant that Villa didn’t get a full season out of a promising managerial team. McAllister stood in as caretaker while Houllier spent the 2010/2011 finale receiving treatment. Eventually forced to step-down, Houllier was replaced by Alex McLeish, who chose not to keep the services of McAllister.

Most recently, summer 2015 saw McAllister return to Anfield as part of a reshuffle in Brendan Rodgers’ coaching team. The appointment felt idyllic, but was an ultimately short-lived arrangement. McAllister suffered an all too familiar fate. As Rodgers and Liverpool parted company, McAllister wasn’t retained as a coach by incoming manager, Jürgen Klopp.

In a fitting finale to McAllister’s Liverpool love affair, he was named as a club ambassador soon after Klopp’s arrival.

To a part of football’s collective memory, fickle and selective as it is, Gary McAllister will simply be ‘that perpetually old-looking bloke who used to play for Coventry’. However, for Liverpool fans, renowned for their wit and realism, McAllister is rightly a hero.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Scotland's Last King

(First published on 'The Football Pink' on April 12th, 2016.)

Throughout the eighties, football was raw in every sense. Shorts were short, terraces were fervent, and most playing styles were primitive. The majority of defenders were big, strong, and uncompromising. In Scotland, where various constraints on the national game lend it a persistently primordial quality, the vast majority of heroes were rugged defenders, combative midfielders, or robust attackers. Then there was Davie Cooper.

Cooper in the familiar blue of Rangers, the team he supported as a boy.

Cooper, a diminutive winger with a magic wand where his left leg should have been, made his name with Rangers. He won three league titles and 3 Scottish FA Cup's with the Ibrox club, yet it was the Scottish League Cup was particularly kind to Cooper. He won it a record seven times, and had a delightful knack of coming up with beautifully-crafted and well-timed goals in the final.

It was, however, another final which gave Cooper his career-crowning moment. The Dryborough Cup was little more than a pre-season tournament, yet Old Firm fixtures tend to be anything but friendly. Rangers won the 1979 final 3-1 with Cooper's 78th minute goal the definite highlight. Cutting in from the right flank, and while maintaining his scenic route to goal, Cooper twisted, turned, and juggled the ball over 4 hapless Celtic defenders before poking it past Peter Lachford.

If one goal has ever encapsulated everything about a footballer, this was it.

His slight stature and laissez-faire body language communicate to defenders and observers that he's going nowhere fast, and he wasn't too fussed by it. Like many wing-wizards, Cooper flitted between inexplicably vacant and methodically lethal, yet always had the absurdly sublime up his sleeve. The harmonious marriage of confidence and artistic physiological control enabled Cooper to maintain his balance, redirect his path, and decipher the changing geometrics of any given defence.

Watching him in full flow is akin to watching Lionel Messi. The two have much in common; a favouring of their left side, deliciously low centre of gravity, a seeming ability to absorb tackles, and that aesthetic ability to make the jaw-dropping look effortless. One striking difference, and one not simply down to era, is their fame. Of course, Messi is known the world over, yet for all Cooper's ability and magic, he never quite received what felt like worthy recognition. Not even after his tragically premature death.

A young Davie Cooper in action for Clydebank.

After playing junior football for various teams in his native Hamilton, Cooper signed his first professional contract with Clydebank. A move which the 18 year-old had to be heavily persuaded into.

It was a contented Cooper who at 16 served as an apprentice printer for Avondale, and played amateur football for family-owned Hamilton Avondale. Having represented Scotland at the under 18 Home Nations tournament, the youngsters talent wasn't without a merry line-up of suitors. Alongside Coventry City and Crystal Palace, interest closer to home came from Rangers, Motherwell, Clyde, and Clydebank. However, Cooper was initially put off the idea of professional football by extensive travelling and multiple training sessions.

Tempted on a whim, a whim that included a generous signing-on fee wafted under his nose in the Avondale car-park, Cooper made his Clydebank debut in August 1974. Having taken a season to acclimatise to the higher standards and increased demands of Division 2 football, the following season saw Cooper truly announce himself.

Clydebank won promotion to the top flight at the end of the 1975/1976 campaign, and Cooper was an ever-present driving force. He registered 22 goals in 49 games, not bad at all for a winger.

With Rangers maintaining their earlier interest, Cooper played his last game in Clydebank colours in April 1977. He officially signed for Jock Wallace's Rangers, the team he'd supported growing up, in June, and rebuffed further interest from English clubs in doing so. £100,00 was the fee, excluding a £10,000 signing-on bonus, and a weekly wage of £150.

Cooper's arrival at Ibrox coincided with a remarkable treble winning season. Success continued into the 1978/1979 season as Rangers followed a treble with a cup double. Cooper was directly involved in everything good about Rangers, and missed just a handful of games in his first years at the club.

Just weeks after his astonishing goal in the Dryborough Cup final, Cooper made his international debut under the late and great Jock Stein. Cooper registered successive caps in a friendly against Peru, and then a Euro 1980 qualifier against Austria a month later, yet wouldn't feature in the Scotland squad for a further 4 years.

Domestically, and by now under the stewardship of John Greig, 1979/1980 witnessed a trophyless season for Rangers and Cooper. One of just 3 in Cooper's 12 years at Ibrox. Suffering the pressures of being at a big club and lacking silverware, and enduring something of a blip in personal form, Cooper was subject to a new nickname. Coined in Scottish press, 'the moody blue' moniker referenced Cooper's apparent habitual distance, and reticence to place himself firmly in the limelight.

At a time in which footballers were beginning to flirt with the riches of marketing, personal sponsorship deals, and selling themselves for interviews, Cooper shied away from it all. A conscious choice that maligned Cooper, and saw he was often misunderstood by outsiders.

Cooper was in and out the team as more admirers attempted to lure him south of the border. This time it was Brighton & Hove Albion. Having placed a combined transfer bid for Gordon Smith and Cooper in 1980, Rangers bid farewell to Smith and retained Cooper.

After 4 years in the international wilderness, Cooper was a fixture in the Scotland team who qualified for the 1986 World Cup. Success, however, came at a tragic price.

Needing a point from their final qualification match, Scotland were 1-0 down against Wales in Cardiff. As Scotland were awarded a penalty with 9 minutes remaining, Cooper was the only cool, calm, and collected person in the stadium. His relaxed effort squeezed past Neville Southall, and sent Scotland into delirious celebration. Tragically, manager Jock Stein suffered a heart attack in the aftermath, and died shortly afterwards.

Given the way in which Cooper often placed himself in the background, and considering the shockingly sad end to his own career, it's almost sadistically apt that Cooper's international highlight was immediately overshadowed by tragedy.

Stein's assistant, a young Alex Ferguson was placed in charge, and Cooper was again instrumental in the qualification play-off victory against Australia. In Mexico, though, Cooper registered just 2 substitute appearances as Scotland were defeated by Denmark, eventual runners-up West Germany, and claim a goalless draw with Uruguay.

Cooper celebrates his winning penalty at Ninian Park, Cardiff.

The summer of 1986 also heralded significant changes at club level. Graeme Souness became Rangers' player/manager, switching from Sampdoria in Serie A. The league title returned to Ibrox in Souness' debut season, as did Rangers' lucky charm, the League Cup. Cooper netted the winning penalty in the cup final, securing the double, and his 11th goal of the season.

Souness' appointment heralded some big money signings, mostly from English football. Looking to shine on the european stage following the Heysel ban, the likes of Terry Butcher, Chris Woods, Ray Wilkins, and Mark Walters raised the bar at Ibrox.

For Cooper, by now the wrong side of 30, increased competition for places signalled the start of the end. Though it was clear Souness valued and appreciated Cooper, his impact was diminishing.

The next two seasons saw Cooper miss just a handful of games. However, by design of coincidence, Cooper appeared to retain his clinically sublime impact especially for old firm matches, European fixtures, and cup finals. Regular league games saw him offer only a handful of goals, and fleeting glimpses of his usual magic and creativity. Following a third place finish and another League Cup win in 1988, Cooper would bow out in style a year later.

Starting with a testimonial against Bordeaux, the 1988/1989 season proved to be Cooper's last in Rangers colours. Souness often preferred Walters as his first choice winger, and it became obvious Cooper's Ibrox days were numbered. Fittingly, he bowed out on a high as Rangers claimed another league title and League Cup double.

Cooper was expectedly dignified and understanding at leaving his boyhood club. Despite some public opinion to the contrary, and the lingering nicknames of 'the lone ranger' and 'the moody blue', Cooper just wanted to play football. Ex-team mate and then Motherwell boss, Tommy McLean, delighted in taking Cooper to Fir Park.

Naturally, his signature captured the imagination. Remarkably, Cooper played for Motherwell for 4 full seasons, and recorded just shy of 160 appearances. In winning the 1991 Scottish Cup, he was instrumental in ending the club's 39 year wait for a major trophy.

In what is becoming a decreasingly attractive option at the end of a footballer's playing career, Cooper returned to Clydebank, his first club, for one final season in 1994. Appointed as player/coach, Cooper was enjoying his work with the reserve and youth teams, and was even an ever-present in the first team up till his final appearance in February 1995.

Davie Cooper back at Clydebank in 1995.

On March 22nd 1995, Cooper was recording a coaching video together with Charlie Nicholas for STV. The two men, old firm adversaries and international teammates were in good spirits, and good health. Inexplicably and tragically, 39 year-old Cooper suffered a brain haemorrhage whilst filming. He died in hospital the next day.

Scottish football was thrown into mourning. Naturally, praise and tributes were forthcoming. Davie Cooper, both the man and the footballer, was admired and appreciated.

Months after his passing, Motherwell named their newly completed north stand 'The Davie Cooper Stand'. In Cooper's hometown of Hamilton, a statue of the winger in full flow was unveiled in 1999 by Ally McCoist. The 2005 Scottish CIS Cup final between Rangers and Motherwell was renamed 'The Davie Cooper Final', and Cooper was admitted to the Scottish football hall of fame a year later.

Though his consistency never quite matched his excellence, there can be no doubting Davie Cooper was one of the British Isles' most gifted footballers. A global fan base, and perhaps a whole new generation of fans had their eyes opened to the quality of Cooper in a 2007 edition of the magazine Four Four Two. In picking the best eleven he's played with or against, Dutchman Ruud Gullit named Cooper in his midfield. The man from Hamilton on a team sheet alongside Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Maradona, Frank Rijkaard, Kaka, Johan Cruyff, and Marco van Basten.

Having played against Cooper in a pre-season friendly, Gullit commented in an earlier interview; "that it's a great shame I never got to meet him on the continent". Indeed, Cooper's skill set would have been highly suited to the slower continental game.

Ray Wilkins, another well-traveled veteran of Serie A, and ex-team mate of Cooper lavished praise in the theme of foreign flair; "I could give you a million examples of moments when Davie Cooper took my breath away. After years of playing in Serie A with AC Milan, I can still confidently say that Dave is one of the best players I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. He was a Brazilian trapped in a Scotsman's body."

That said, fantasising about how Cooper might have showcased his 'samba-esque' skills for top European clubs can detract from his admirably grounded nature. Cooper was a mercurially gifted man who was initially put off the professional game due to its regular training and traveling. We should be eternally grateful he was tempted to Clydebank, and reached the heights he did with Rangers. In his own words, he "played for the club he loved".

Walter Smith, who played against and coached Cooper, sums is up rather fittingly: "God gave Davie Cooper a talent, and he wouldn't be disappointed with how it was used."