Leon Wobschall chats to Terry Cooper, who was simply ahead of his time.
TERRY COOPER may be best remembered for famously wearing white boots for much of his time at Leeds United, but it was his illuminating displays that truly brought a splash of real colour to the left-back landscape.
Not just at Elland Road but much further afield as well during what was widely considered to be a golden age of football in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Great players are often pioneers for future generations and so it was that a buccaneering winger-turned-defender known by all and sundry as TC provided the template for aspiring England internationals such as Kenny Sansom, Graeme Le Saux and current incumbent Ashley Cole to follow after reaching his zenith at the World Cup in Mexico just over 41 years ago – where he was labelled as the best left-back in the world.
The lad from Brotherton walked tall against the most feted international side of all-time, legendary 1970s winners Brazil, earning gushing praise from the greatest of the greats Pele.
The footballing icon stated that Cooper was good enough to feature in that crop of Samba specials, providing the ultimate acclamation for the talented if modest Yorkshireman, genuinely worthy of the world class tag which is disrespectfully thrown around so wantonly in modern-day football.
Cooper’s wares have more than stood the test of time, with scores of YEP readers effusive in hailing him as the best-ever No 3 to grace Elland Road in our Dream Team cast.
Not bad for a slip of a teenager who came to the club as a rookie left-winger from Ferrybridge Amateurs with his boots in a paper bag and asked for a trial.
On praise from no less an authority than Pele, Cooper – who celebrated his 67th birthday on Tuesday – said: “That was good, I must admit...It was just my dream from being a kid to be a footballer and everything came true and more. I was so thankful it was my job and I just loved every minute of it and I like to think I played every game as if it was my last.”
He added: “Obviously, I’m delighted, it’s very pleasing to be named in the best-ever Leeds United team.
“For me, it was just the right time to be at Leeds and I was just so privileged to play with so many tip-top players. And, of course, to have a fantastic manager as well.”
Revie’s decision to switch Cooper from the left wing to left-back – displacing a talented incumbent in Willie Bell – was a true masterstroke with his overlapping runs and marauding attacking instincts adding a new dimension to United’s play. Their left-sided flank of Cooper and Eddie Gray was one that had few, if any, peers during the 60s and 70s.
Cooper, whose Wembley strike against Arsenal in the League Cup final of 1968 brought United their first major trophy, said: “Before I switched to left-back, Don Revie actually used to play me in the tough away games (to cover) and in 1964-65, I probably played more games than Albert Johanneson, though he played in the FA Cup final. I think I played in all the away games.
“I remember Willie (Bell) was doing quite well at left-back but I think they were short on cover there and they knew I always liked a tackle, despite being on the left flank.
“I think it was Syd Owen who said ‘Let’s play you in the reserves at left-back’. It was a case of ‘see how you go’ and while my natural instinct was to get forward, what I found was because I was coming from deep, I didn’t get picked up as easy as I did on the wing. I found it easier to get on the ball at left-back.”
Cooper’s place in the footballing sun arrived amid the searing heat of Mexico, but just under two years later, in April 1972, he suffered a savage blow when he broke his leg playing in a league game against Stoke City.
The initial consequence of missing out on an FA Cup winner’s medal was far less sobering than the wider one of curtailing a career for nigh on two-and-a-half years while he was still at the height of his powers and deemed by the likes of team-mate Norman Hunter to be still very much world class.
While it robbed Cooper on a professional level, it was also a wound sorely felt by Leeds supporters who had grown accustomed to seeing his captivating presence down the left-hand side supplement the bewitching wing talents of Gray for many of the “Super Leeds” years.
Followers of the national team felt it too with the likes of Frank Lampard snr, David Nish, Ian Gillard and Emlyn Hughes stepping into the shoes of Cooper – whose 20th and final international appearance in his comeback England match against Portugal in November 1974 was his last – to varying degrees of success.
By common consent, given a fair wind on the injury front, Cooper would have earned a great deal more England caps, though his international status remains fully intact.
Back in West Yorkshire, his place in Elland Road folklore is pretty much taken as read with his displays for both club and country widely perceived to have been ahead of their time.
Cooper added: “Football does evolve, doesn’t it? But when I was playing at left-back, it was just always my instinct to get forward and I didn’t find it a problem.
“When I look at some of the full-backs today and the ones who cross the halfway line, I can see them thinking ‘Oh my God!’. Whereas for me, because I’d played on the left wing, it was just natural for me to support Eddie Gray or whoever. It was in my game to overlap and try and make two-on-one situations. Either I had the ball or Eddie would beat the full-back.
“Internationally, it helped playing with so many great players and I really enjoyed it, although I probably would have got a lot more caps if I wasn’t injured.
“I’ll always remember Mexico in 1970, although it was difficult to play in as it was so hot! But England had a decent team then with still seven or eight of the 1966 World Cup winners playing.
“For me, looking at my career, I just felt fortunate to play with probably the two best left-sided centre-backs there has been in Norman Hunter and Bobby Moore. They just used to give me the ball and say ‘Get on with it’, which was great.”
HOW YOU VOTED:
Terry Cooper: 47%
Tony Dorigo: 37%
Ian Harte: 11%
Frank Gray 3%
Wilf Copping: 1%
John Milburn: 1%
Willie Bell: 0%
Grenville Hair: 0%