August 20, 2019

GARY COOPER: 1938 – 2019

On Monday morning, 19th August 2019. Trinity lost another of their 1960s heroes when former full back, Gary Cooper passed away, aged 80. Cooper was the full back in our two Championship winning sides of 1967 and 1968 gaining man of the match honours and the Harry Sunderland Trophy in 1968.

Gary Cooper is often classed as a Trinity great, but he started his trade at Featherstone Rovers, his home town club, where he joined from their juniors in 1958. He debuted in a 12-17 loss to Bramley in August of that year but was up against the legendary Rovers full back, Jack Fennell for the number one shirt. Over the next eight years, he reached a couple of Challenge Cup semi finals, a Championship semi final, toured Australia and New Zealand with Great Britain but was often in dispute with Rovers which saw him move into the centre position and ultimately leave for Trinity.

He developed into a top class full back in the Rovers line up, and he was outstanding as they were one step from Wembley in 1959 and again in 1962 when Trinity halted their Wembley progress, aswell as defeating them in the Championship semi final. His try scoring exploits were also being noticed, but he was dropped as Rovers won the 1959 Yorkshire Cup. Dejected by lack of opportunities, he switched to the centre position where he was selected as one of four centres for the 1962 tour squad, alongside club team mate, Don Fox. There was no test jersey on tour, but he did play in sixteen tour games, scoring thirteen tries, including a hat trick against West Coast in New Zealand and a South Africa XIII on that leg of the tour. He never did gain county honours, often being overlooked despite a couple of squad selections.

On his return from ‘Down Under’ he was made Featherstone captain, but he soon gave this up as it affected his game. He missed out on the 1963 Yorkshire Cup Final defeat to Halifax and moved back to full back in 1964, after Fennell retired, but after further disputes and a transfer listing he moved to Trinity in September 1966. In all he played 192 times for Featherstone, scoring 43 tries and kicking 9 goals.

Cooper joined his former team mate, Don Fox at Trinity, in a squad that also had Neil Fox, Harold Poynton and Bob Haigh. They were in between their ‘glory years’ after three Challenge Cup wins in four years in the early 1960s, and with Gerry Round winding down his career, Cooper was signed as an ideal replacement at full back. Don Metcalfe, Geoff Wraith and Richard Paley had all been used in the number one jersey and Metcalfe was brought back as Gary made his Trinity debut at centre in an injury hit side that lost 13-27 at Swinton, a game which also saw the debut of Peter Fox. He scored his first try at Doncaster a fortnight later and within a month he was wearing the full back’s jersey in a 17-10 home win over York.

Cooper soon ‘wooed’ the Trinity fans with his scintillating performances and Trinity rose up the league table, eventually finishing third behind Leeds and Hull KR. Salford, Workington and Hull KR were all defeated in outstanding performances as Trinity reached the 1967 Championship Final and he starred at full back in both the 7-7 final and 21-9 replay win over St.Helens to win his first club medal. The final was his twenty ninth appearance (replay his 30th) in a Trinity shirt and he scored seven tries in his first season.

Twelve months later he was lifting the trophy again and he also won the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match with a breathtaking performance. Trinity had finished in second place in the 1967-68 league table and they defeated Huddersfield, Castleford and Wigan before Hull KR were defeated 17-10 in the Championship final. The following week, Trinity were also at Wembley but the ‘Watersplash Final’ went down in history for all the wrong reasons as the weather robbed the public of a West Yorkshire classic with Leeds. He had added another seven tries with another 43 appearances, missing just seven games all season.

The team was gradually breaking up as the 1968-69 season progressed, but they still reached their sixth Challenge Cup semi final of the decade, but Castleford prevented another Wembley appearance. Cooper continued in the full back berth over the next couple of seasons but with the rise of Geoff Wraith his appearances became less. After 136 appearances and 25 tries, Trinity allowed him to leave to join York, where he became player-coach in February 1972. He revitalised York as they rose up the table but seven months later he was back at Trinity as part of the coaching staff and became trainer, before moving back to York in 1974 where he coached until 1976.

Gary Cooper revolutionised the full back role in the 1960s. In an era when full backs still kicked back to the opposition, he would run at the defence with his pace causing mayhem in the opposition backline, and occasionally down the ‘blindside’ where he scored many tries. These skills are fondly remembered by fans at both Post Office Road and Belle Vue. Any player that played with him, or for him, all had a story to tell; he was just one of the game’s characters.

Mick Morgan tells great stories about Gary running him up and down the pits stacks of Sharlston Colliery when he signed in 1966, and Mike Lampkowski noted he was the scout that noticed him playing rugby union in 1977. Cooper signed Neil Fox at York in 1976 and there is a full chapter of Fox’s Cooper and York stories in his autobiography, but his best was when the York players could not follow his instructions and he took a bell into the dugout and rang it once when he wanted a certain move and twice when he wanted another… but chaos prevailed when a fire engine went past the ground with its bells ringing!

Gary’s brothers, Brian and Steve also played for Trinity, Brian playing 21 games, between 1966 and 1972 but Steve never reaching the first team and his sister, Kath Hetherington has forged her own identity in the rugby league world as a well respected administrator, alongside her husband Gary, who Cooper also signed at York in the mis-1970s

— Rest in Peace, a Trinity Hero —