Terry Cooper Obituary

Last updated : 14 August 2021 By Brian Glanville

The footballer Terry Cooper, who has died aged 77, was England’s ebullient left-back in the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico and Leeds United’s classy, exciting defender when they were at their brutal best in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Although England were knocked out in the quarter-finals in Mexico, Cooper did not want for winners’ medals. With Leeds he won the First Division championship in 1968-69, the League Cup in 1968, and the Fairs Cup in Europe – twice – in 1968 and 1971. An offence-minded defender, he was particularly effective in partnership with the Leeds left-winger Eddie Gray, whom he would join in attacking forays.

Cooper was picked for England soon after he started playing regular football for Leeds, and in the 1970 World Cup finals produced an excellent series of performances as England progressed to a quarter-final against West Germany in León. In intense noonday heat, he was finally the victim of his own galloping exuberance in that match. It seemed plain that Cooper, exhausted by the taxing conditions, needed to be substituted. But for all his virtues Alf Ramsey, the England manager, never really came to terms with the newly instituted concept of substitutes. Cooper stayed on the field and his weariness was eventually exploited by West Germany’s own substitute, the outside right Jürgen Grabowski, as England went out 3-2 in extra time.

Nonetheless, Cooper had proved himself one of the stars of that 1970 side, tackling superbly and joining attacks with accurate crosses from the left. He could have expected to be England’s established left-back for many years to come, but in 1972 he broke his leg badly and spent the best part of three years out of the game. Not only did that effectively bring an end to his England career, it also left him high and dry at Leeds. 

Although he had another decade as a player with Middlesbrough and then Bristol City, his days at the very highest level were over. Once he stopped playing the game, he plied his trade as a football manager for two decades – notably for Birmingham City. 

Born in Brotherton, North Yorkshire, Cooper was first signed by Wolverhampton Wanderers as an amateur outside left. When Wolves let him go, Leeds United were happy to pick him up. Don Revie, the Leeds manager, in due course converted Cooper to a left-back, although with all the traditional winger’s gifts. His first team debut and one other league game had come in the 1963-64 season.

But opportunities for first XI football were limited because Willie Bell, the Scottish left-back, was the regular first team choice. Cooper tended at first to oscillate between left-back and left-wing, and in 1966, out of frustration at his lack of opportunity as a winger, he was put on the transfer list at his own instigation.

Although a £20,000 offer came in from Southampton he stayed put, and when Bell moved on to Leicester City in the 1967-68 season, Cooper was able to settle down as the recognised left-back, making 37 out of a possible 42 appearances in the First Division. That season he also scored the only goal in a 1-0 win in the League Cup final against Arsenal, volleying the ball in after a corner had been half-cleared.

In 1969 he was an integral part of the Leeds First Division championship-winning side and won his first cap for England, who needed a successor at left-back to Ray Wilson. Capped for the first time against France, Cooper, with his pace and versatility, proved emphatically to be the man.

In 1970 he had two excellent games in the FA Cup final at Wembley against Chelsea and then in the replay at Old Trafford, even if he finished on the losing side. After that he travelled with England to the World Cup finals in Mexico, where he was one of the squad’s best players.

At that point a long international career looked promising, but misfortune awaited. In a match against Stoke City at the Victoria Ground in April 1972 he collided with Jackie Marsh and broke his leg, necessitating two operations and the insertion of a metal plate. The treatment did not work and in 1973 he had to undergo a third operation, which involved a bone graft.

Leeds and Revie were patient and encouraging. Early in 1974 Cooper came back in the reserves at Newcastle and his return to the first team was made in an FA Cup tie at Peterborough, where Revie played him on the left of midfield and Leeds won 4-1. In November 1974 Revie, by then in charge of England, recalled Cooper for his 20th England cap, against Portugal at Wembley, but he broke down after 23 minutes. It was to be his last international match.

Cooper’s lengthy spell out of action cost him dearly with Leeds: he missed two FA Cup finals (one victory in 1972 against Arsenal, one defeat the following year to Sunderland) and a European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Milan in 1973, which Leeds lost 1-0. When he did find his way back into the league championship-winning side of 1973-74, he was not able to receive a championship medal because his one match in the competition did not qualify him for any silverware.

In March 1975, after 250 league appearances for Leeds, Cooper was transferred for £70,000 to First Division Middlesbrough, managed by his old Leeds colleague Jack Charlton, where he played more than 100 matches before joining Bristol City, who were then also a First Division club, in 1978. The 1980-81 season saw him shift across the city to Second Division Bristol Rovers, where he became player-coach. There followed a brief spell as a player and assistant manager at Doncaster Rovers, then he went back to Bristol in 1982 for a six-year spell as manager of City, by then down to the Fourth Division, initially as player-manager.

Cooper’s stay at Ashton Gate encompassed promotion to the Third Division in the 1983-84 season, although he almost left in April 1984, bitterly distressed when City fans rioted on the terraces at Reading. In fact he would stay in his post until he was dismissed in 1988, a reverse he took with customary good humour. “I have enjoyed every minute in Bristol,” he said, “and will probably stay here.”

In the event, he became manager of Exeter City, helping them to the Fourth Division championship in 1989-90, and in 1991 was appointed to manage Birmingham City, who were then languishing in the Third Division.

He spent two years at St Andrews, gaining promotion before resigning in 1993 when the club was taken over by David Sullivan and Karren Brady. Later Cooper conceded that he had misread the way things were going under the new owners, and had made a mistake in resigning. “They were absolutely first class with me but I had it in the back of mind that they wanted their own people,” he said. “I jumped when really they wanted me to stay.”

Instead he fetched up back at Exeter, where he had a far less happy spell in 1994-95 as the club went into receivership. That was the end of his management career, and he spent the following 12 years scouting for Southampton before retiring in 2007.

In addition to his football-related activities Cooper was an enterprising businessman who at various times owned a sports shop and post offices and newsagents in Leeds and Middlesbrough.

With his wife Rosemary (nee Boulton), whom he married in 1967, he had a son Mark, who was also a professional footballer, and two daughters, Rachel and Alison.