Charlie Cooke is 75 on Saturday. The two English clubs he represented will be doing battle at Selhurst Park on the same day. 22 gym toned specimens of 21st century physical magnificence, all bulging biceps & tattoos, most of them supremely talented members of their profession.
Few if any of them will have even a smidgen of the style & charisma of Charlie however. He was the man with the dancing feet, a footballing Fred Astaire, a player who could in younger days speed past a full back with that slightly hunched gait but whose supreme ball skills were always more noticeable & ultimately memorable. He seemed to glide rather than run anyway, usually with the ball seemingly tied to his boots. When you have as much time as Charlie Cooke appeared to with the ball at his feet there is really no need to rush.
Charlie honed his skills in Scotland during the era of the Tanner ‘Ba, the ubiquitous small footballs credited by many distinguished players of the post war era for developing their considerable footballing abilities. A nation that produced Jimmy Johnstone, Jim Baxter, Denis Law & many more extravagantly skilled footballers clearly have much to praise the manufacturers of the Tanner Ba’ for. Additionally, Charlie states in his autobiography that there were jugglers in the Cooke family history, & his mazy dribbles were a distinguished nod towards that tradition, & at least partly inspired by it. Modern Scottish youth is doubtless amply populated with teenage boys who can get Scott Brown to dribble like Charlie Cooke on FIFA 18. Sadly, that fact also accounts for there being a shortage of young footballers who can do more than merely dream of emulating Charlie for real, leaving that nation stuck with Scott Brown. It’s a familiar tale everywhere in fairness.
Always a slightly vulnerable looking figure on the pitch, Charlie would look mighty puny against the average modern-day footballer. Charlie was always deceptive though. There wasn’t much of him & most of his play betrayed a cerebral, rather than physical, approach to his craft. Watching a rerun of the 1970 FA Cup replay against Leeds does erode a few myths about the man though. His work rate is immense, he frequently drops deep to help out a frequently harassed defence, & also, & perhaps most surprisingly, manages to take out both flame haired nutter Billy Bremner & the terrifying Norman Hunter during this famously brutal encounter. It wasn’t usually in his nature but Charlie showed he could mix it at Old Trafford that night, as well as supplying the sublime chip leading to Peter Osgood’s headed second half equalizer. You can’t beat a chipped assist & Charlie’s is one of the top 3 I can remember in Chelsea history, up there with Di Matteo’s through ball for Dennis Wise in the San Siro in 1999 & the latter’s own perfect sand wedge to Gianfranco Zola during the Cup Winners Cup Final in Stockholm the year before.
I have thought a lot about the man ‘The Guardian’ once snidely referred to as the ‘rich man’s Pat Nevin’ just recently. Matt Lorenzo’s documentary on Bobby Moore includes a snippet of footage of the great man’s unlikely & ill-fated first foray into football management at Oxford City. The clip showed Moore & Oxford City owner Tony Rosser cracking open a bottle of champagne at their shabby White House ground. Sandwiched between them holding the bubbly is a very nice man called Les who was the father of a school friend of mine. My dad & brother-in-law both played for Oxford City & my grandad was a devoted fan who once spent a summer single-handedly repainting areas of the ground. Les, like my father & grandfather, is sadly no longer with us (along with poor Bobby Moore of course) & the White House ground itself is long gone, so this blink & you miss it footage induced some heartfelt pangs of nostalgia. It also reminded me of one of the few childhood bets I both won & managed to collect on. It was a bet with Nick, Les’s son, & it concerned the one & only Charlie Cooke. Had I been growing up in Scotland in the 1950’s it would have bought me two Tanner ‘Ba’s, though I could have practiced with them for years and still been completely fucking useless.
Charlie had left Chelsea in 1972, joining Crystal Palace along with full back Paddy Mulligan. I saw him play for them the day before his 31st birthday, in an away game at Oxford, neat & tidy as ever on the ball, but looking a little lost trying to impose his subtle midfield promptings within the hurly burly of a Division 2 game. It was like asking Andre Previn to conduct The Rubettes. By then he was close to losing favour with maverick Palace manager Malcolm Allison anyway. The Allison era is cooed over by many & he is regularly described as a genius. He had one decent cup run but spent a fortune & got Palace relegated two seasons running. Never mind, he donned a famously stupid hat during the cup run & also once got the players to share the team bath with jazz mag regular Fiona Richmond. Never mind the quality feel the swagger. He was the original talented coach who didn’t cut it on his own in management. Sometimes you just feel the word genius is a tad overused. Preoccupied with newer toys Don Rogers & Peter Taylor, Allison was only too glad to let Charlie return home to the Bridge in early 1974 for the princely sum of £17,000. Reputedly Winston Bogarde’s weekly Burger King budget a quarter of a century later.
He remained for most of that often unhappy decade, along with Peter Bonetti & Ron Harris, while fellow early ’70’s icons Osgood & Hudson departed, followed shortly after by John Hollins & David Webb. The latter two ended up playing alongside the brilliant Stan Bowles during QPR’s impressive tilt at winning the league in 1976, a team not wanting for maverick flair ably managed by a man derided at Chelsea as unable to handle such talent, one Dave Sexton. Charlie may not have saved Sexton’s job second time around but he did prove an inspired & popular signing. Such was his form in the early part of 1975 that he started to be touted as a candidate for recall to the next Scotland squad. Shortly before departing on a school skiing trip to France I boldly tipped this to happen. It had been mentioned in my old man’s ‘Daily Express’ so it had to be true didn’t it? Nick scoffed & the 5p bet was struck.
Spirits began to flag halfway through the skiing trip. Cauterets proved to be of limited appeal to a gang of oikish 12-13 year old comprehensive school kids once we had been banned from frequenting the Lunar Park, an amusement arcade near the hotel that was also near a bar run by a very jolly fat man who was happy to serve us beer with predictably Doulton damaging results. We were also questioning the Gallic reputation for culinary excellence. The food was simply horrible & meals eaten to the backgound noise of the bread for the following day’s packed lunches being cut with what sounded like an electric saw. Every day the rock hard bread & hard-boiled egg were quickly discarded on the way to the mountain & only the requisite Penguin bars retained. That’s right. Penguin bars. Tres sophistique. By mid-week we were starving & a visit to a nearby cinema did little to dispel the gloom. The village had a large poster proudly promoting the famous charms of Sylvia Kristel in ‘Emmanuelle’ but we were treated to a Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin film. In 1975! Our hunger was slightly assuaged by a crêpe pancake night in the hotel, following which I slipped into the television room at the sound of a football match taking place. A murky black & white screen made identifying the teams difficult, as did the foreign commentary, but we eventually worked out it was Scotland playing away in Spain. Poor quality black & white footage was the norm for games in Spain during this period. It was not until the end of the year that Franco died & the country began to slowly emerge from totalitarian bleakness. I know the game ended 1-1 but am not sure that was clear to us at the time. I didn’t care because one English word emerged from the excitable commentary amid the flickering gloom that lifted my spirits immeasurably. ‘Cooke.’ Charlie had made the Scotland team, & me 5p in the process. Good old Charlie. I blew it all in the corner shop at the end of the road from our school when we returned from the ill-fated skiing trip, namely my favourite Rhubarb & Custard sweets from the jars on the top shelf, distracting the shop assistant long enough to enable Steven Kershaw to fill his pockets with apples. The shop is long gone now. Can’t think why. To be a teenage Chelsea fan in 1975 was to be oddly akin to a cranky, incapacitated parent where our older players were concerned, deifying the absent who had flown the nest for pastures new while simultaneously taking for granted their more loyal siblings who remained true to the cause in less glamorous times. I was pretty happy with Charlie that night though. If only we hadn’t been barred from that bar near the Lunar Park.
I also thought of Charlie while flicking through an excellent book of photos from Blondie’s Chris Stein. There is one wonderful 1976 photo of band members Clem Burke & Debbie Harry walking along a busy New York street & clearly stopping everyone on it in their tracks in the process. They look like they have been beamed in from another planet & another decade. Both would look great wearing the same outfits in any street today. Everyone else looks, perfectly understandably, like they are in a picture from 1976. The fact that Burke & Debbie Harry, no stranger to stopping traffic in future years, were not even famous at that point only makes the picture more striking. it reminded me of the one time I was in close proximity to Charlie Cooke, as he emerged from an away game dressing room, ironically enough also in 1976. Accompanied by an elegant & sophisticated woman who I now know to be his American wife, he was wearing an immaculate, beautifully cut dark suit, with a stylish & uncommonly short haircut for the era, that familiar moustache also finely trimmed & groomed in the style of an old style Hollywood film star. He stuck out like a sore thumb against the high-waisted flares & stack heels of his largely younger ream mates, & even more among the Parka clad autograph hunters with their beetle crushing Freeman, Hardy & Willis shoes. Looking back it was like seeing Ronald Colman or Clark Gable on the set of ‘Confessions Of a Window Cleaner.’ If he had been a musician he would have been Bryan Ferry with his younger colleagues forming the audience on ‘Top Of the Pops.’ I suspect I thought Graham Wilkins & Teddy Maybank, with their mops of blonde hair & medallions, looked cooler at the time. How wrong I was. The image of Charlie strolling out of that dressing room is remarkably evocative to this day. If only the wonderful Hugh Hastings had been there to capture the moment like Chris Stein. I would pay a lot to have that photo.
Would Charlie have been a star in the modern game? He might have had to bulk up a bit, & been asked to show the same pragmatism he displayed against Leeds more regularly. A few more goals might be required too. I only ever saw one, scored in a 3-2 win against Newcastle shortly after returning from the Cauterets trip. The idea that a man with that much vision, balance & deftness of touch could not be accommodated today is unthinkable though. This is also a man who spent his formative years having lumps kicked out of him in Scotland & who worked on building sites bricklaying & hod carrying in the summer during his early days as a professional at Aberdeen. Charlie was no soft touch & he would have massively more protection from referees now than he got back in the day. He was a class act. I reckon he would have been just fine.
A shilling on it?
Many Happy Returns Charlie – & Many More Of Them!