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Len Cooper – the Gornal lad who played for England

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 09, 2014

  • A programme from a key match in Len's early career

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THE BUGLE recently published an account of my meetings with Jim Allen, Roy Leddington, and Brian Wooldridge who were members of the legendary Brierley Hill Schoolboys side who reached the final of The English Schools Shield in 1951.

With the help of Brian Wooldridge I have tracked down another member of that side, Len Cooper, who now lives in Cheltenham.

Len was born in Summit Place, Lower Gornal and attended Redhall Junior School before, at the age of eleven, moving to Robert Street Secondary Modern where he appeared in the school first team (under fifteen years of age in those far off days) when he was only twelve years of age.

In that successful season of 1950-51 Brierley Hill Boys played twenty five games and Len was one of only three lads who were ever present, the other two being John Timmins (Bent Street) and Jim Worton (Tipton Grammar). A diminutive left-winger Len scored twenty-two goals, second only to Brian Wooldridge who netted twenty-eight.

The next highest was Jim Cochrane (Bent Street) with eleven. In the semi-final of the English Schools Shield against Newburn, from the northeast, I watched as Len was carried tearfully from the pitch after injuring his knee. Fortunately, after attention from trainer Bill Kendrick, Len was able to return to the pitch and make a significant contribution to the team's 5-3 victory.

Len was the only Brierley Hill representative for the North versus South schoolboy international trial held at Dudley Sports Centre, although he did not make the international side.

He played on four occasions for Birmingham and District and also four times for Staffordshire. Included in the Staffs side that played against Worcestershire at the ground of Brierley Hill Alliance on April 28 1951 were no fewer than six of the Brierley Hill lads – Jim Worton, John Timmins, Trevor Smith, Jim Cochrane, Brian Wooldridge and Len.

Included in the Worcestershire side was the great Duncan Edwards as well as John Hulston, who later gave sterling service to both Halesowen Town and Stourbridge, and also Dave Parsons who played for Halesowen Town for several years.

The referee for the game also had local connections – George Yardley, who was a much-respected teacher at Brook Street School as well as being a hard working youth leader. My parents took me to watch this game and I still have the match programme amongst my collection.

In the Brierley Hill Schools souvenir handbook Len's pen picture is entered as:

"LEN COOPER (Robert Street) was a speedy, dangerous outside left who had a dangerous shot in both feet. His enthusiasm was infectious and he was always at his best when things were going against us. He gave the finest display of wing play at Villa Park last Easter that we saw all season"

On leaving school Len was delighted that Wolves, the team that he supported, offered him a place on their ground staff. For the princely sum of £3 per week Len was expected to clean the boots of the senior players as well as sweep the terraces and roll the pitch, the latter under the watchful eye of the groundsman, Albert Tye.

Initially Len played for the sides that Wolves entered in the Walsall Minor League and Wolverhampton Amateur League. In his second season he progressed to the fourth team who competed in the Worcestershire Combination, then to the third team in the Birmingham League before making his debut for Wolves Reserves in the Central League a few weeks before his seventeenth birthday.

"I am pleased to say that I was in the crowd at Molineux that day and watched Len score with a header to secure a point in a 2-2 draw against Everton.

This was during the era of a Wolves playing staff that was stocked with quality players who were blazing a trail in European football with those never to be forgotten floodlit encounters against the likes of Honved, Spartak and Real Madrid.

In season 1953-54 Wolves were not only Football League Division One Champions but their sides also topped the Central League, Birmingham League and Worcestershire Combination.

Along with John Timmins, Len was also a member of the Wolves youth team who reached the first ever final of the FA Youth Cup, losing the two-legged final against the Busby Babes of Manchester United. After losing the first leg 7-2 they performed much more creditably in drawing 2-2 in the second leg at Old Trafford.

They also reached the final in the following season, again finishing runners-up. After drawing 4-4 in the first leg at Old Trafford they unluckily lost the return leg at Molineux by one goal to nil.

Turning professional on his seventeenth birthday, Len continued his soccer education, playing regularly in Wolves' Birmingham League and Central League sides.

Observers from the Football Association also noticed his ability and he was chosen to play for the England Youth team on four occasions, including appearances in an International tournament in Belgium, with each member of the squad being presented with a tie and blazer featuring the three lions crest.

When I visited Len in November 2013 he was proudly wearing his England tie, presented to him sixty years ago, and with justifiable pride he showed me his England cap. Unfortunately he no longer has the blazer. Whilst on National Service he left his blazer at the family home in Gornal and his brother, Arthur, decided that he would wear it to go to work in.

Arthur was a miner at the nearby Baggeridge Colliery so we can only imagine what state the blazer was in when Len came home on leave. Confronting his brother Len took the badge and told his brother that he had better keep the blazer! Had that incident not happened I feel sure that the blazer would still be in Len's possession.

Len's army service was wholly spent at Rhyl as a telephonist and this was where he met his future wife, Mair; they have been happily married for 57 years.

Whilst in the army Len played a great deal of football, both for his unit and regiment. In one game, played at Shrewsbury, Len turned out although he was suffering from blistered feet and thus did not perform to the best of his ability in front of Wolves manager, Stan Cullis. Although a week later Len played a blinder in a game for Wolves' Youth team against an International eleven, he is convinced that following the game at Shrewsbury Mr Cullis had made up his mind and decided to end Len's Wolves career. His dream of a successful career at Molineux had been shattered without a first team appearance.

Len was transferred to Walsall, then playing in the Third Division (South). Len soon made Walsall's first team, scoring on his debut on 26 March 1956 in a 2-1 win against Watford at Fellows Park, before a crowd of over 10,000 (about three times the average gate of this current, 2013/14 season).

This was followed by a further goal in the next game in a 1-1 draw at Colchester. Len retained his place for the next two games, a 2-2 draw against Brentford and the return fixture against Colchester that resulted in a goalless draw.

Left out of the team for the next game he returned to be part of the side that defeated Exeter 3-1 at home on 21 April 1956. Within a month Len had played in five League games, scoring twice, and never appearing in a losing side.

That short space of time encompassed Len's entire Football League career. Unfortunately Len never really settled at Fellows Park and he decided to leave, thus ending his full time commitment. A career that had promised so much was over before he reached the age of 21.

By a strange coincidence two of Len's team mates from his Brierley Hill Schoolboys days also had short playing careers at Walsall. Both Trevor Smith and Jim Cochrane had joined Birmingham City on leaving school, each appearing in the first team at St Andrews, with Trevor also making two appearances for England. Joining Walsall, Jim was to make a total of six appearances in season 1958-59, scoring one goal. Trevor made only a total of twelve appearances in seasons 1964-65 and 1965-66, before his career was ended by a knee injury.

My own vision of Len's career, one that had him flying down Wolves' left wing season after season, his place never in jeopardy, and watching him make many appearances for England, was not to be.

However, a friend told him that Yeovil Town (then in The Southern League) were keen to sign him and suitably flattered he signed a contract to play on a part-time basis whilst having a full time job at the nearby Westland Helicopters.

After a season with Yeovil another friend told Len that Cheltenham Town (also then in The Southern League) were interested in signing him. As he had not been happy playing at Yeovil he decided to throw in his lot with Cheltenham, again as a part-time professional, and at the same time secured a position as Production Controller at Smiths Industries.

After two seasons Len decided to sever his connection completely with the professional game and from that point on played several happy seasons with the team run from Smiths Industries, competing in the Gloucestershire Senior League, before retiring at the age of thirty. For a time he also acted as a team manager for Moreton-in-Marsh FC, and also donned cricket whites to play for Smiths Industries.

Len's other sporting qualities came to the fore when he decided to take up the game of bowls, becoming a member of Cheltenham Bowling Club as well as Mid Gloucestershire Indoor Bowling Club.

Outdoors he and Tony Allcock (an England international bowler) became Gloucestershire County Pairs Champions. Len also competed in the National Bowls Championships that are held annually at Worthing, and in 1988 he and Tony Allcock were National runners-up in the Pairs competition.

Len, a keen gardener, also cultivated an allotment for over forty years.

In life our paths do not always take the obvious route. As a fifteen-year-old Len's life pattern was set to be dominated by football. That was not to be, but I talked to a man who has had a happy and fulfilled life. A good marriage, sporting enjoyment with a degree of success at National level in two sports, job satisfaction and time to relax on his allotment. What more could one ask for?

He is still remembered sixty years on for the pride that he brought to the village of Lower Gornal and the part he played in bringing honour to the Brierley Hill area.

From a personal viewpoint I met a man whose autograph I had obtained (and still have) after watching him play in 1952 for Wolves' Worcestershire Combination side against Kingswinford Wanderers at Kingswinford Park. He had been one of my first sporting heroes over sixty years ago, and I was not disappointed. Thank you Len.

Do you have fond memories of your footballing days that you'd like to share with Bugle readers? Give us a call, drop in at Bugle House, or send an email to gjones@blackcountry bugle.co.uk

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