On the day that legendary Manchester United youth coach Eric Harrison was formally honoured for his extraordinary developmental work with young footballers – most notably his discovery and nurturing of the Class of ‘92, “Fergie’s Fledglings”, the cherished crop of youngsters who burst free from the Manchester United academy and into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team to astounding acclaim in the early-90s – a photograph that would one day frame the cast of English football’s most inimitable success story was taken.
That photograph shows eight men simply standing in a line, each smiling, with their right forearm leant jovially against the back of the man in front of them. The eldest of the men, closest to the camera, holding a bottle of champagne and an award from the Premier League’s sponsors is Eric Harrison and those beside him are the very players he helped to bring forth into the limelight. From left to right they stand: Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Terry Cooke.
Of those seven players, one name stands out; the name of the one player who never quite made it into the limelight, who never made it into Manchester United’s treble-winning squad of 1999 or the 2013 documentary film that would chronicle the lives and careers of his revered teammates. That name, of course, belongs to Terry Cooke.
It is rather fitting that Cooke should be found on the outside of that famous photograph’s line-up. Though he could never have known it at the time, unlike his fellow classmates, Cooke would also find himself outside of his manager’s plans soon after his promotion to the senior team and it would later be some way outside of his home nation, and by extension his comfort zone, that he would eventually find his place in football.
Back in the early days, when cleaning the older professional’s boots and laying out their kits in the dressing room was as much a part of his daily routine as training, Terry Cooke was no different to any of his fellow Manchester United players, except, perhaps, those less likely to gain promotion to the first team.
A skilful right-midfielder blessed with an abundance of pace and a penchant for adding himself to the scoresheet, Cooke featured heavily for United’s youth teams after joining as a schoolboy in 1991, aged 14. Having helped his side to lift the FA Youth Cup in 1995, scoring the winner in the penalty shootout no less, Cooke was handed his first team debut on 16 September of the same year, at home to Bolton.
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Until an hour before kick-off, Cooke was entirely unaware of his impending inauguration. “The gaffer looked at me and said ‘Cookie, you’re on the right. Go out and enjoy yourself’.” But despite his being in the dark, Cooke’s parents had known for a fortnight and had driven to Manchester from their home near Birmingham to see him play. His gift to them, on the weekend of their 25th wedding anniversary, was a man of the match performance.
A genuine threat from the first minute to the last, terrorising Bolton’s left wing for what felt to the visiting side like hours, the highlight of Cooke’s debut came with his orchestration of a stunning counter that culminated in him assisting the second goal of what would become his team’s routine 3-0 victory.
Retreating into his own half to meet a short pass to feet, Paul Scholes gained possession and flicked it neatly towards the wing. Anticipating a swift give-and-go, Cooke instinctively back-heeled the ball round the corner to his nearest teammate before immediately spinning outside his marker and racing forward into the final third. The ball was touched back to Scholes who spotted the run and laid his pass on thick, down the line, to meet Cooke’s rapid advance. Without a touch to settle or position himself, Cooke sent in a whipped cross, long towards the far post, where it was met by Giggs on hand to squirm the ball in at the near post beyond the luckless Bolton goalkeeper.
“Ryan Giggs the scorer but he owes everything to the man with the tricks on the other wing: little Terry Cooke.” The game’s lead commentator couldn’t speak highly enough of the debutante. “[Cooke] started the move with a little back-flick, from there he beat the Bolton defence for pace, wonderful cross … it’s 2-0 to United.” Funnily enough, neither could those around the club.
Appearing at times as though they felt lucky to have the teenager to call one of their own, regardless of their embarrassment of riches in terms of promising youngsters, Cooke made good on his early potential and was voted Manchester United’s young player of the year for 1995. But that, sadly, was where Terry Cooke’s achievements at Old Trafford came to an abrupt end.
“After my debut I thought that was it, I’d made it,” Cooke told the Manchester Evening News in 2014. After such rave reviews, it was no wonder Cooke had begun to believe he was on the brink of something big. “Then, the next week, I didn’t play. I was in squads and made a few more appearances and then I went to Sunderland on loan. I played for two championship-winning teams in the same season and never got a medal. That summed up the way my career went. It was very frustrating.”
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Cooke returned to Manchester in time for the 1997/98 season, with loan spells at Sunderland and boyhood club Birmingham City behind him, but upon his arrival found that competition for a place in the starting line-up, particularly on his favoured right wing, had only increased during his time away, namely in the form of new recruits Karel Poborský and Jordi Cruyff.
With first team football out of reach, Cooke became a regular for Manchester United’s reserves and it was in a reserve match against Sheffield Wednesday that Cooke was forced off with an unfortunate injury that would wake him from his United dream once and for all. “I was stretchered off, and in the dressing room, Alex Ferguson asked if I would be alright for Saturday, because I was going to be starting in the Premiership. I had been playing well. I didn’t know what I had done to my knee, I thought I had twisted it. Then the physio said I wouldn’t be playing for the rest of the season. I’d snapped my cruciate ligament.”
It wasn’t until Cooke’s extensive period of rehabilitation had ended, late in October 1998, that he came to return to first team action. By that point, though, Manchester United had come to rely upon the magic held within the remarkable right foot of his old companion Beckham, and Cooke was no closer than fourth in line to challenge for Beckham’s place in the team so he found himself on loan again; this time to Wrexham.
Having stood out during one particular fixture while playing his football in north Wales, Cooke was able to earn a quick move back to Lancashire, however it wasn’t to Manchester United. Instead, it was the lasting impression left upon Joe Royal, whose eye had been caught by Cooke when Wrexham had met his Manchester City team in the third tier, that inspired Cooke’s loan move to his parent club’s cross-city rivals.
Cooke enjoyed his early days at Maine Road immensely and his new fans felt similarly inclined. “The fans sang my name which was surprising as I’d just come from United. The team spirit in that City side was the best I’d known, a dressing room full of characters.” Having joined only temporarily in January 1999, Cooke’s loan was terminated in order to make his move permanent in the following April.
Though he would surely have been filled with pride watching his friends dancing long into the night as the sun set in Barcelona – with his old club having secured an unprecedented treble by beating Bayern Munich to add the Champions League trophy to the Premier League and FA Cup trophies already tucked away back at Old Trafford – it must have hurt to have been so far away; so far from the old days at Manchester United and from the accolades his one-time teammates were now amassing in his absence.
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Nevertheless, Cooke could do nothing to change the past and, more immediately, he had champagne of his own to spray as he and his Manchester City colleagues emerged victorious from the Division Two playoffs at Wembley and climbed back into the second tier of English football. However, though Cooke was beginning to feel at home in the sky blue half of Manchester, he was during that time closing in on his final days at City too; an eventuality widely attributed to the club’s financial constraints.
It was reported that the £1.2 million fee offered to Manchester United in exchange for Cooke’s services was to be paid incrementally, based upon the player’s surpassing of set appearance milestones. But with City looking to better distribute their finances, focusing their immediate future on regaining their Premier League status while still practising a necessary level of frugality, Cooke was dropped from the squad in order to prevent him from reaching his final appearance landmarks, ensuring his club wouldn’t be forced to pay the consequent fees.
Cooke was shipped out on loan yet again and over the subsequent three seasons found himself roaming the lower leagues once more, representing Wigan, Sheffield Wednesday and Grimsby along the way, seemingly with no visible route back to the top tier he started out in. Eventually, Cooke he it was time to follow his career path a little further afield in search of recognition, and this time it would take him as far as the United States.
“Going to America was the best decision I ever made,’’ Cooke attested. “Everyone is so optimistic. In England you feel people are waiting to knock you down.” If anybody was familiar with the feeling of being knocked down it was Cooke, but, having been offered a chance to move stateside by Colorado Rapids, he was more than ready to get back up again.
Though it had seemed at times as though fate was toying with him during his early career, rewarding his efforts with one hand only to snatch them back with the other, on the occasion of what was perhaps his finest showing in the US, serendipity did grant Cooke one memory he would be sure to treasure long beyond his playing days.
On 29 March 2008, the day that would open the fourth of his five seasons in MLS, as the captain of his team, Cooke lead Colorado Rapids out at their home stadium, preparing to kick off their latest campaign against LA Galaxy. Beside him, as his opposite number and rival captain, was the man predicted by many to run the show, dominate the occasion, overshadow his fellow compatriot; the man who, a decade before, had done just that in order to ensure Cooke remained only an afterthought to their manager at Manchester United. Beside him, for the first time since the mid-90s, was David Beckham.
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Given the trajectory of their given careers, the disparate medal collections belonging to them both, and the incomparable profiles of the men in question, many cameramen present took every measure to keep within frame the unquestionable star out of the two Englishmen. Only, on this occasion, should the picture have remained solely trained on Beckham for the 90 minutes, those watching at home would have missed the game’s opening goal and two astute assists, as it was Cooke who led his team to a resounding 4-0 victory and took the man of the match award home with him come the night’s end.
Though it could well have been billed as such, this was no revenge mission for Cooke. Beckham had done nothing to intentionally harm Cooke or his career; in fact as boys they had shared digs together in Manchester and helped one another through the rigours of living so far from home, and the fact the Manchester United career of his old right wing rival had plotted a course completely opposite to his own had largely, in the earliest days at least, been simply at the mercy of chance; luck or the lack thereof in Cooke’s case.
After the game the two players embraced. Beckham smiled, genuinely pleased to see his fellow graduate and to have competed with him again, just like old times. Cooke beamed, also joyous to be reunited but, understandably, all the more delighted to have gotten one over on his old friend once and for all. It wasn’t Manchester United, it wasn’t for a trophy, or Sir Alex Ferguson’s approval, but his emphatic victory that night was one Cooke needed.
Cooke remained in Colorado for five seasons before setting off to see a little more of the world beyond Manchester, seeking out short-lived spells in Australia with North Queensland Fury, and Azerbaijan, where he experienced life under former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams during their time at Gabala FK.
Such was the timing of his ingress into professional football, and the comparatively small imprint left upon its surface by his career, relative to those he graduated with, there may never be an end to Terry Cooke’s presence in pub quizzes the world over; as a feature of countless ‘name this player’ rounds, inevitably accompanying the image of him in the aforementioned photograph with his Class of ‘92.
Still, Cooke looks back upon his playing days with an unreserved fondness, and does so with good reason. “I started my playing career at United and I feel really blessed to have played for such a great club,” Cooke told Tribal Football in 2011. “Learning my trade alongside greats. Growing up playing football with [the Class of ‘92]. I could not have asked for a better experience. I had some great times playing at Manchester City too, the most memorable being the playoff final where I scored in a penalty shoot out at Wembley and we won promotion. When I moved to Manchester City I was only the third player in history to do so, the others being Dennis Law and Brian Kidd, so I guess you could say I’m in great company.”
Great company, indeed.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp