By: Neil Drysdale
Picture the scene: you’ve just left school and been offered the opportunity to join a professional football club, only to discover that one of your first assignments is cleaning your boss’s toilet. That was the unpromising scenario which confronted 16-year-old Neale Cooper in 1979 when, as a young hopeful at Aberdeen, he found himself tasked with keeping Alex Ferguson’s throne in pristine condition. It was a gruelling regime at Pittodrie, but the young Cooper, a keen-as-mustard ball boy and fervent football fan from his childhood, long before he had ever signed a contract, was ready to do anything he could to succeed at the highest level. He later recalled: “Before I made my Aberdeen debut, I was cleaning Fergie’s toilet. It was my job, looking after his room and the coaches’ room. Then, one day he came in and said: ‘When you have finished sorting that out, get yourself home’. I asked why. And he replied: ‘Because you are playing tomorrow.”
It was a reminder of how swiftly the teenager burst into the spotlight. Some players make an instant impression; while others toil away for years, gradually stamping their imprint on the game. There was never any doubt in which camp Cooper belonged. He was the youngest member of the Aberdeen contingent who secured their fabled triumph over Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final on a rainy night in Gothenburg in 1983; an achievement which cemented their posterity for as long as people in the Granite City are talking about football. Yet, while others searched for superlatives, Cooper himself refused to buy into the hype or believe the headlines which emblazoned him as a star. Instead, he was always as happy chewing the fat with fans as he was impersonating his former manager. That philosophy was summed up by his reaction to the German maestro Franz Beckenbauer declaring – after the Dons had beaten Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals – “Young Neale Cooper is the closest thing I have seen to me at that age”. And the Scot’s reply? “That just shows that even the very best can talk sh***.”
It’s five years since Cooper became the first of the Gothenburg Greats to leave us at the age of just 54 and, even now, there is tristesse at the fashion in which the youngest member of the team slipped away. The recent celebrations surrounding the Dons’ Class of 83 being given the Freedom of Aberdeen was tempered by the knowledge “Tattie” wasn’t involved in the thick of it. But the tributes to him were fulsome and delivered with an emotional punch, as myriad former players and fans alike commemorated somebody they regarded as their best friend. Cooper, born in Darjeeling in India, prior to attending Airyhall Primary and Hazlehead Academy in Aberdeen, might have left his roots to pursue his playing and managerial career at Aston Villa, Rangers, Reading, Dunfermline, Ross County, Hartlepool United, Gillingham and Peterhead. But he was never more in his element with a spring in his step and a joie de vivre than when he was on the rampage with the Red Army cheering him on, while he and his colleagues marauded down the Beach End.
In the aftermath of his glory days on the pitch, during which time he collected league titles, Scottish Cup medals and European honours with the Dons, and added to his silverware at Ibrox (yet, astonishingly, missed out on Scotland selection), Cooper proved he could cut the mustard at management level. He was – and remains – a cult figure in Hartlepool and was inducted as one of the most cherished members of the English club’s Hall of Fame. Yet, despite assuming a senior role at Victoria Park and steering Ross County to uncharted heights, he was happy to indulge in spontaneous impressions of those with whom he had worked.
Sky Sports presenter, Jeff Stelling, was among those who saw how skilful Cooper could be in the art of mimicry. He said: “I remember the first time I met him, we took a camera crew to the hotel in London where the team were staying to do an interview. I had heard about his reputation for doing a Sir Alex Ferguson impression so, not knowing him at all, the first thing I asked him was if he would do it – and he refused point blank, in the nicest possible way, of course. But ‘Tattie’ was the sort of guy who just couldn’t help himself, though – and five minutes later, he was in full, fluent Fergie mode and was excellent. I hope people in the football world know that he wasn’t just loved in Aberdeen, but was loved in Hartlepool as well, because it was his second home.”
It was a measure of the fun and flamboyance which ‘Tattie’ brought to his often action-packed life and times that there was still plenty of laughter amid the tears as Richard Gordon hosted the proceedings. Joe Harper, the all-time leading goalscorer at Aberdeen, gave one of the most touching appreciations of his close friend. He said: “In those winter nights, when you see the star twinkling, that is the star of the north and that is Neale winking at you.” He left us and his family prematurely. But he will never be forgotten.