Ian Cooper will always have a unique place in St Kilda Football Club’s history, but his friends and teammates will remember him for much more than the magnitude of his football achievements.
Ian passed away on the morning of December 14 after a long, brave fight against cancer.
“Coops” or “Humper” as he was universally known, was one of life’s true characters, with a love of St Kilda that endured right to the end. He recently confided that his dream was to present the Norm Smith Medal to the Saint who was best in our next Grand Final win, but he knew that his own time was running out. In that chat, he also suggested that St Kilda should take a look at his brother’s grandson, Charlie Constable who was subsequently picked up by Gold Coast.
If a Norm Smith Medal had been awarded in 1966, Cooper would have been the recipient. In a vote by the Sun reporters at the game he notched 16, nine clear of the next best. At the dinner on the night of the Grand Final, he received the club’s award as best on ground.
It is the measure of any footballer that he can shine in the biggest games, and Cooper was the quintessential big game performer. Indeed, he rates up with the names of Lenny Hayes, Ian Stewart and Brendon Goddard as the best ever St Kilda finals performers.
In an interview a few years back, he spoke frankly about his approach when asked if he ever got nervous.
"No. I knew I could do it. I knew what I was doing. I had complete, extreme confidence in my own ability. I didn’t know my limitations," he said.
"I knew I wasn’t heavy enough to go flying through packs, but I used to try. My playing weight was 11 stone 8 lbs (73.5 kgs). One kilo heavier than Ross Smith (the team’s rover). I was a big eater. When you are one of nine kids you had to fit as much in your mouth as you could because you never knew when the next feed was coming!”
St Kilda fans had their first inkling of what Ian Cooper would become when he was promoted from the under-19 side to the reserves team in mid-1963. He starred against Melbourne on the MCG turf which would later be the stage for his most magical moments.
"I remember coming down and a bloke named Ronnie Wilson, who was assistant coach, came up to me and asked, 'What position do you play?'. I said centre half-forward and he said, 'well we’ve got Baldock so that’s pretty well covered!'. He said 'any other position?' and I said ruck, and he said 'well, there’s Alan Morrow and Carl Ditterich (both state ruckmen)!'."
Alongside him in that 1963 reserves team were Bob Murray, Jim Read, Brian Mynott, Kevin Billing and Daryl Griffiths who would all be part of the club’s greatest day three years later.
The lightly built Cooper was most frequently termed as a "beanpole" by the press of the time. He was a superb high mark and possibly his best was taken in the middle of the MCG in the 1965 Queen's Birthday game as he soared over Melbourne’s Hugh Bromell. The clip was further immortalised when it was used for the vision package accompanying Mike Brady’s 'Up There Cazaly' anthem.
Cooper was one of the best in the 1965 and 1966 semi-finals and personally reckoned his ’66 preliminary final against Essendon was his best ever game.
"It was in the wet and “Yabby” (Allan Jeans) didn’t think I could play in the wet. I was on Alec Epis and finished up on Barry Davis. Epis used to give me a beating in the home and away games," he said.
"I played on Epis in my first game (in 1964) and I beat him and finished up on Barry Davis. Epis would run through you and be at you. That was a good learning curve. So was playing on John Devine - he was a tough bastard. I’m 11 stone 8 and you’ve got these 15 stone blokes lining you up."
He and the other forwards had to play the supporting role to the great Darrel Baldock at centre half-forward.
"That’s what we were there for. We had to stay as close as possible, but stay away as far as possible not to hinder him because when the ball was in the area, Breeny or myself or whoever else was on the flank was usually taller.
"We had to either mark the ball or bring it to the ground and get out of Doc’s way. It was said nicer than that. But the problem was that you’d say to Doc which way are you going to go and he’d say 'I wouldn’t have a clue'. And we were supposed to follow him!
"Jeansy was probably the first to try this out. It was to bring your forwards up the ground then push them back down so they were running in a forward motion and turn around. Doc didn’t have to do that because he could turn around and do all sorts of things. If you could mark it, well and good, but all Yabby wanted you to do was punch the ball to the ground and you’d have the blokes shooting down the ground. Other players like Moran and Stewie would also come down.
"You look at the size of Baldock, I played my whole career next to him. I thought I’d learn a little bit about him, but I never did. That’s why he beat opponents. I’m his teammate and I’m supposed to know what he was doing!"
Cooper gave a graphic description of the start of the Grand Final.
"Jeansy told us we were going to make history. In the rooms we were all gathered and he was still talking to us as we were patting each other on the arse and saying we were ready to go," he said.
"The door opened and this noise came up the tunnel to the rooms and shit, I turned white, I’m not joking. We went quiet. I remember this roar coming up and Doc put his foot out the door and a supporter said 'Here they come!', and that was it going down the race. Feet didn’t touch the ground."
By day's end he was running the famous lap.
"That was the hardest lap I’ve ever done in my life. Spent. That lap, I finished up walking because I couldn’t go any further. I went across to the boundary line and dragged one of those banners with the streamers on it from a fan. She gave it to me and I dropped it after about 10 metres. I was gone."
A few days later, Cooper found that one person queried whether he had been best afield – his dad, Reg.
"We were sitting down on about the Wednesday night after the game. I think that was the first time I’d been home!" recalled Cooper.
"I said what did you think of the game? Because I didn’t know he hadn’t gone. He said it’s great (that we had won). I didn’t think you played that well though! I said 'you didn’t go, did you?', and he said no. I said why not and he said 'I don’t like crowds'."
"Dad had gone to the Moorabbin pub and went up to a bloke at the bar and said 'do you want to go to the Grand Final?' and gave it to this bloke that he hardly knew. I never asked him if he regretted it."
Ian Cooper kicked the first ever goal at Moorabbin in 1965, not far from a spot where his family had once camped.
Many years before, the huge Cooper family had arrived from the Victorian country town of Foster after World War II and, unable to find accommodation, set up two tents on an empty expanse of land in Moorabbin. That land would subsequently be used as the home ground for the Moorabbin VFA club, and eventually St Kilda took over as tenants in the VFL. Ian Cooper, one of nine children, was just six months old at the time, and obviously did not learn of the tale until years later.
Cooper’s League career was cut short when he suffered rheumatic fever in 1967 just after he had bene selected in the Victorian team. He played some games in 1968 and 1969, but physically he wasn’t the same.
"I never came back after that. I tried, don’t think I didn’t, but they said at best you’ll be able to live a normal life - just going to work - at best. I was in hospital for a month and then I was bedridden for the next six months. I went to 50kg."
A champion was lost to St Kilda, but he was able to play in WA and in the VFA for Sandringham.
Ian Cooper was a man who could always see the funny side of life and loved nothing better than catching up with his many mates. A great Saint.