The day I started juggling - by a master of the ball

Charlie the Chelsea darling desperate to ensure that kids don't throw away their talent
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The Independent Football

It is only 7am in Cincinnati, Ohio, but on the other end of the telephone line Charlie Cooke is in wide-awake mode, the flow of words as assured and captivating as a Cooke dribble. Ah, the dribbling. They remember it with gratitude and awe in Aberdeen, in Dundee and, most gloriously, for a dozen years at Chelsea, with a brief, unexpected interlude at Crystal Palace in between.

The late Peter Osgood once told him with mock severity: "Never forget, Cookie, there's only one King of Stamford Bridge." Bonnie Prince Charlie pushed him close.

These days he is a footballing missionary in the United States, propounding the gospel of "soccer" through the individualistic Coerver method of coaching, a philosophy based above all on "ball mastery". His own Damascene moment had come in 1953 at the age of 10, a blinding light at the local cinema in Greenock giving way to a Pathé newsreel of Hungary's magicians in their famous 6-3 victory at Wembley. That it was Billy Wright's much-vaunted England on the receiving end made all the more favourable an impression on a young Scot.

"Just watching those foreigners when we'd been so imbued with British football superiority, you'd never have imagined somebody could come and do what they had at Wembley," he says. "It was just astonishing."

In an entertaining autobiography* published last week, Cooke reveals: "It was after that day that I started juggling." Out in the back yard, he would play "keepie-uppie" for hours, making a mental note of personal bests for each foot, thigh, shoulder and head. Ball mastery; those sessions would have a clear influence on his approach to football still evident today.

It was a style of play the Scots loved and that west London would later fall for, though one that laid itself open to occasional criticism. "Selfish Cooke Forgot About His Colleagues," read a stern headline after an early game for Aber-deen. Those colleagues probably did not mind too much, for in his first season there, the team climbed from 15th to the top six. Interestingly, the 17-year-old scored 10 goals in 32 games that year but never even approached such a figure for the rest of his career. "I fooled myself into believing my role was to create goals for others," he says. "I regret that. What I say to kids nowadays is that if you want to be a good midfielder, you have to carry a scoring threat."

His fellow countryman Tommy Docherty was the manager who brought him down south in 1966, to achieve instant popularity with the winning goal in a triumphant London derby debut away to West Ham and their three World Cup heroes (the return game that season finished 5-5). Dave Sexton took over a year later.

"They were totally different types. Tommy Doc was a laugh a minute, great to be around, a super guy we all loved. Dave was a much more controlled, introspective type. He was much calmer verbally." Until, that is, the day that Cooke, Osgood, Tommy Baldwin and John Boyle decided on a long, liquid lunch at a restaurant next to Stamford Bridge instead of going into the ground for treatment. "Burning rage" ensued on the part of the manager, followed by fines and a one-week suspension for each.

"I was always a pretty serious drinker during my whole career," he now admits. "I didn't try to hide that. I always think of the extra boozing as an embarrassing tic in my character. But being Scottish, it was, well, commonplace."

During his only unsuccessful period as a player, at Palace from 1972-74, he looked at a magazine questionnaire about drinking which suggested that anyone answering "yes" three or more times was in danger of becoming an alcoholic. "I stopped at number five." It would be another dozen years before he made the decision to give up alcohol, but from that time he has not touched a drop.

By that time he was working for Nike in the United States, Chelsea's FA Cup and Cup-Winners' Cup triumphs long gone, and a 21-year playing career having wound up with California Surf and then the Indoor League team Cleveland Crunch.

Desk life did not suit, but Coer-ver coaching might have been made for Cooke. For, bound up with all his belief in individual technique is a lingering, if over-critical, frustration that his own career did not develop as it might have done: "Coming out of the game, I felt I wasn't a better player than I had been at the start. In the beginning I had some skills but by the end, none of them had been refined or enlarged.

"You learned how to compete and fight and be a tough opponent, but I don't think you added to your skills. Professional soccer is about supposedly finished articles. I don't think there's a lot of development that takes place in that competitive environment. I wouldn't blame the coaches, because they don't have the time."

So he and his fellow coaches around the world try to catch them young. "We get them at that beautiful golden age of eight to 12, where kids are like sponges. We see kids here of that age who can do almost anything with a ball." The telephone line hums with a laugh of sheer pleasure, interrupted only when doubts are expressed at this end about the sport's strength in the US.

"You guys are in dreamland if you don't think it's taking off. Soccer's a huge industry in this country. A lot of people in Europe and Britain want to look down their noses at it and protect their superiority, but they're gonna get their comeuppance."

1953 all over again? He believes it will happen, and even backed the US to win the last World Cup. Greenock's Cincinnati Kid may on that occasion have been a less successful gambler than Steve McQueen in the eponymous film, but at 64 the country still needs him and feeds him, along with his American wife and son. "I never even think about retire-ment, I just want to be active and doing things," he says. "Life is good." Which is good to hear.

The Bonnie Prince (Mainstream, £17.99)

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