30 years ago this coming summer saw a World Cup that produced something of an existential crisis in Scottish football.

The first one without the Tartan Army in 24 years, it was a tournament that locked the doors to an old era and ushered in a very different one. Hosted by the United States, it confounded the pre-tournament fear-mongering by providing a competition set in constant bright sunshine with fun, excitement, surprises and bags of individual stars. Maestros like Roberto Baggio, Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi driving their teams on with class more than purely sweat. A Herald review of the tournament was almost funereal. "In the beginning," it opened, "there was a longing to see Scotland be part of the World Cup carnival of colourful supporters and exciting players, but in the end, the feeling was one of relief that our players were not there. Scotland would have been out of place in America. The World Cup finals, which were brought to a close in Pasadena yesterday, were a celebration of football. They were about skill, goals and entertainment. All qualities which have been banished from the Scottish game."

The grey foreground of the Scottish game, with its punishing monotony on poor pitches - plus ça change? - was set in sharp contrast to the bright future of the game that could now only be seen in the background. One fanzine wag wrote a piece on style and professionalism in a dour and unhealthy Scottish game by joking, "I hope our players have studiously ignored the dubious 'talents' on view in the States.

"Talents' like the properly weighted pass, defenders being comfortable with the ball on either foot - ridiculous. These things, if imported into the domestic game, could ruin our traditional Saturday afternoon entertainment. What we want are full-backs who are adept at trapping a ball further than I can kick it, and they can do this with either shin! We don’t want our game tainted by centre-backs who insist on passing the ball to a player of the same team, such fancy continental stuff might work for Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, Holland, Mexico, Norway, USA, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the Uncle Tom Cobley Works XI, but we must retain our distinctive indigenous skills.

"There must always be a place for the big donkey who can only kick with one foot, and that only sometimes, and who, rather than playing a simple square or reverse pass to a colleague, wants to excite the crowd by punting the ball as far up the park as possible."

One new Rangers signing that season further highlighted the two distinct games that were starting to take place. The adulation for Brian Laudrup wasn’t limited to the Ibrox fanbase. The Scottish media had no choice but to lavish praise on a foreign import, the likes of which they had never seen before in their game. Saturday evening radio ran out of superlatives, in December the Sunday Mail likened him to the best type of 'Power Ranger’ which was the number one toy that Christmas and then, later in the season, STV’s Jim White delivered a line in a television interview – on the prompt of his director to truncate the original question – that created a lifetime of fawning, sycophantic parody.

The first part of the question is almost entirely forgotten but provides a context that makes better sense. "What can you say to up-and-coming youngsters, Brian, everybody wants to know about your appetite for the game and the skill factor," White started, before going on to finish by saying, "How come you are so good?" The ultimate softball perhaps but it rather summed up the general reception for a player who appeared to have arrived from space but who, in his skill and grace, had hints of what Scotland felt it once used to produce but no longer did: the supremely talented individual who played with carefree abandon.

Rangers Review: Brian Laudrup poses with the Rangers shirt after signing from Fiorentina. Brian Laudrup poses with the Rangers shirt after signing from Fiorentina. (Image: SNS)

Not everyone was a fan of course. One letter to the Herald in January asked the media if it was possible to "water down their adulation of Brian Laudrup just a little... This constant and extravagant eulogising of his talents simply focuses unwelcome attention on our own low level of attainment, and we are already too well aware of our deficiencies in this area... The man is unquestionably gifted, but as he continues to prance and cavort among the ranks of the inept, let it be recognised that while his game may be on a higher plane, he is not from another planet." 

Laudrup’s medals and accolades prior to arriving in Govan may be testament to achievement at a higher level – he was a European Champion with both club and country, had been voted the fourth best player in the world by World Soccer just 18 months before and would go on to win the FIFA Golden Ball in what became known as the 1995 Confederations Cup when Denmark defeated Argentina in the final – but there was a strain of truth among the curmudgeonly appraisal. Laudrup had already turned down a move to Barcelona to effectively replace his brother and did so without much consideration.

"So you prefer to play against Falkirk on a Tuesday night than go to Barcelona?" a surprised Walter Smith asked him when they met at what is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the banks of the Clyde, to discuss the offer. "Absolutely," replied Laudrup, desperate for the easy life with all the freedom that he could ever ask for on the pitch. Perhaps the most telling comment came from that arch critic of Ibrox, Ian Archer, in one of his Sunday Mail columns in December 1994. After devoting so much space to extolling the Dane’s virtues and how it was good for the Scottish game, he finished by writing, "Still, it would be nice to see some hulking defender dump him in a heap before the season is finished. That’s part of our game too." 

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It certainly was but just how comfortable the Scottish footballing public were about this reality was starting to change. One of the most prominent football writers advocating violence as the way to match sporting artistry was just one example of the deepening sense of insecurity and increasing isolation that Scotland was feeling, just months after the first World Cup in a generation in which they hadn’t featured. Years later, Andy Gray would raise that level of macho insecurity with his comments about Lionel Messi having to prove himself against Stoke City in the lashing evening rain but this was essentially the same point: your skill is all well and good but we have a culture and a climate that can bring you down to our level. When Rangers and Laudrup visited Kilmarnock on 10 December 1994, even that glimmer of hope disappeared.

"The thing about these foreigners is this: they are all right with their slick tricks and fancy skills when they have a bit of sunshine and a nice park. Wait until they get to Rugby Park on a dreich, soaking December afternoon. Then we’ll see," wrote Jim Traynor in his Herald match report on the 2-1 win.

"We did, too. And what did we get? We got slick tricks and fancy skills. For so many years we have managed to kid ourselves that the inadequacies of our own lot are as much down to the kind of weather and surfaces they have to tackle in a typical Scottish winter. When we play summer football, things will be different. Ah, well, it was a comforting argument. But it holds as much water as the marvellous Kilmarnock pitch did on Saturday. Brian Laudrup splashed through it with wonderful control, breathtaking skill, and enough strength to last the day." 

When Rangers beat Hearts 1-0 at Ibrox on 21 January with no strikers and after a poor performance, one match report opened with, "Stop the nonsense now. Just tell Rangers they can keep the Premier Division championship trophy. But let’s hold the ball for a minute. Someone has to take stock of what exactly is going on in our game. Frankly, it has become so one-sided it is embarrassing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, any other team can come up with will prevent Rangers from winning their seventh successive title."

The piece ended by saying, "Rangers' supporters might enjoy winning the title all the time, but no one else will, and the game will suffer." Dominance had led to drudgery.

It was somewhat poignant then that, as Scotland pondered its place in the game, its last true artist decided to retire. Davie Cooper was never slow throughout the end of his career to complain about the kind of fare that was being dished up for the paying public, often likening matches he had just played in as war rather than sport, where skill and expression were subjugated by physicality and fear. Approaching 39, it was time, while back at his first club Clydebank, to hang up his boots.

"My appetite hasn’t gone," he said. "I still love the game – but I’m not able to do the things I did before. It’s time to make way for a younger player." Given that Cooper was about to start filming an STV football training series for kids called Shoot!, a new chapter in his career was expected to open up.

Positive news then, that this particular voice – whether through coaching or punditry – could still be heard in a national game that badly needed to listen to it. For it to be lost immediately wouldn’t simply be a shame. It would be a tragedy.

If you were to read any popular history of modern Britain, you will most likely be told that until September 1997 it was a buttoned-up and emotionally repressed nation, unable to show public displays of emotion whatsoever and certainly not grief for an individual that one didn’t personally know. After one tragic evening in Paris nothing was the same again. Since then it has been a country much more in touch with itself, one where shrines to dead heroes would become commonplace. And yet, two and half years before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and admittedly on a different scale to the palaces of London, the flowers and scarves poured from the Ibrox gates out on to Edmiston Drive.

At this club of all clubs, renowned for its stoicism and deeply held suspicion for sentimentality. All that seemed to have changed. Whether at lunchtime or deep into the night, men, women and children gathered to leave something behind and to take it all in. Where the only noise to be heard was the passing of a car or the catching of a tearful breath.

Rangers had said farewell to legends in recent years – Willie Waddell and Willie Thornton to name but two – but this was different. Those were old men from a distant time. For many standing in silence on that cold, damp March weekend, it felt like Davie Cooper had still been playing for Rangers the previous week, such was the vibrancy of his legacy that had been captured and replayed in every news bulletin for days. It hit hard not just because it was a shocking and tragic loss for a relatively young, fit and healthy man but because his talent could have seen him jettison Ibrox quickly if it wasn’t for his heart ensuring that he couldn’t. "I think the continent may have suited me with the amount of time you get on the ball," Cooper said in his final interview. "But I don’t look back. I was a Rangers supporter and I spent the bulk of my career at the team I loved. You take your chances. I had a great career. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it." Cooper’s celebrations were always in sync with the everyman supporter. He was from those terraces. What he had often just done seconds before, however, was as if he was from another world.

On Wednesday, 22 March, Cooper was out on the astroturf pitches next to Broadwood Stadium, the new home of Clyde FC, near Cumbernauld, where he was showing 14 youngsters how football should be played. Shortly before they began filming a new session for a television show due to go out in the summer, he suggested to his co-star Charlie Nicholas that they should go for a pint afterwards.

Minutes later Cooper lay on the floor, motionless. One of the crew eventually shouted, "Okay, Davie, the joke’s over." When blood appeared from his mouth it was clear that the situation was infinitely more serious and he was quickly rushed to Monklands General Hospital before being transferred to the Southern General’s Institute for Neurological Sciences. Early signs were not good as stunned fans tried to digest the evening television and radio bulletins but their shock was nothing compared to Cooper’s family and former team-mates, as Ally McCoist struggled to convey the message over the phone to Ian Durrant, before making his way to spend the night close by his bedside.

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Updates on his condition were announced over the tannoy at Easter Road where Cooper’s other former club, Motherwell, were playing Hibs in an understandably lacklustre affair. Manager Alex McLeish was just one of many tough professionals who would speak to the media through tears the following day.

It was in the middle of the following morning, in a small lecture hall on the hospital campus, that the consultant neurosurgeon Garth Cruickshank delivered the news everyone had feared. Davie Cooper had suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage – bleeding between the membranes lining the brain that can occur without any hint of warning – and because of its nature, a successful operation was never an option. The reaction – whether from former team-mate or foe, media or the ordinary fan – was almost universal: Cooper was a quiet introvert who shunned the limelight that he could have hogged, a player who often refused to deal with the media in his early career leading to the ‘Moody Blue ’tag but who warmed to it in later life, showing his dry wit and keen observations as a pundit. He was one-footed, terrible in the air, poor in the tackle and slow in a foot race, but that all became irrelevant once he had the ball at his left foot.

There were hints of green and yellow among the sea of blue as the tributes piled up outside Ibrox Stadium. Cooper never hid his love for Rangers and all that went with it, and wouldn’t even politely entertain a bid by Jock Stein when he was still at Clydebank, yet there was a deep respect for his ability in death when far too often there wasn’t in life. Almost every written or spoken tribute had another commonality: will Scotland ever produce such a player ever again? Paul McStay spoke of a skill "sadly missing in the Scottish game just now" and Chick Young finished his piece for Friday Sportscene by calling him the "last of the great wingers... God bless you Davie, I know not when we’ll see your likes again." 

Rangers Review: Scarves and flowers left at the gates at Ibrox following the tragic passing of Davie Cooper. Scarves and flowers left at the gates at Ibrox following the tragic passing of Davie Cooper. (Image: SNS)

The Rangers fans too – so often consumed by the final score and nothing else – appeared to be gripped by self-reflection. The club’s historian, Robert McElroy, opened his tribute to Cooper with the great American sportswriter Grantland Rice’s famous quote, "For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game," and even the most cynical of Follow, Follow contributors was caught by it all when The Govanhill Gub finished his tribute by saying, "Is Rangers Football Club today, a club going for seven leagues on the trot, any better off than when the absolute shambles of a club we were ten years ago, had Davie Cooper and nothing else? Winning isn’t everything. It has taken the tragic death of David Cooper to make me realise this." In a season where the questions of skill and entertainment dominated the conversation, Cooper’s death underlined it with as much force as one of his free kicks.

Walter Smith and Ally McCoist led the mourners at the funeral, where crowds were ten deep as the hearse passed by. McCoist bravely got to the end of his eulogy, describing Cooper as a "remarkable talent and a fine, fine man", but it was Smith, as it was so often, who found the perfect words. "God gave him a great gift," he said. "But I don’t think he could be disappointed in the way it was used." 

Brian Laudrup was by then, as Cooper was a generation before him, a Rangers God. Upon whom so much adulation and mock worship was bestowed - the popular ‘We’re not worthy’ bow, made famous by Wayne’s World was becoming a regular feature at Ibrox whenever Laudrup took a corner or celebrated a goal - and from whom, so much creativity and invention was expected. There weren’t many other Rangers players pulling the strings in 1994/95 and that responsibility in isolation was a feeling with which both players would have been familiar.

But just how healthy is this God Complex? Not the mock worship in celebration or ‘Godrup’ pressed on the back of the new home kit, but a system no more advanced than "give the ball to Brian" and where thousands started to look forward to seeing one player play a team sport. The two played in very different circumstances, but both Cooper and Laudrup were expected to carry a team on their backs.

Gifted heroes with carefree spirits are fine – indeed they are necessary – but a dependence on one player is never sustainable in the long term, as better sides isolate them and leave the rest exposed. Perhaps the British obsession can be traced back to the cartoon hero Roy Race. "Don’t worry about working hard at creating a system lads, Roy will bail us out." Or Bryan Robson. Or Brian Laudrup. That season’s Champions League Final, held in Vienna, told a more modern story about visionary heroes. Rinus Michels and Arrigo Sacchi were not direct combatants – they were likely watching on in the stands or at home – but their ideas and their coaching legacies were going head to head as Ajax defeated AC Milan 1-0 to be crowned kings of Europe. Two of the strongest XIs ever to take the field in football’s most prestigious game and not one player – no matter how good – who stood tall among them all. It was a lesson in the direction of travel at the top level. Technical excellence was required all around the pitch.

Easier said than done for Walter Smith, still hamstrung by UEFA’s three foreigners rule and relying on the home-grown technique that was becoming more and more sub-par. In the summer of 1995, he committed to a system change that would get the best out of his existing squad, breathe new life into the career of his captain Richard Gough and would provide the platform to secure the fabled Nine. His key component in making the system work, however, was the signing of yet another God.

Smith was often agitated by transfer speculation even though it was a normal part of the job. In the summer of 1992, he rolled his eyes at the link to Lothar Matthäus, suggesting that, if the media was going through the Ms then perhaps Maradona would be next. He duly treated the weekly list of new names around this time with the usual straight bat. All except one. On Friday, 5 May the Daily Star ran yet another fanciful transfer link but by the Monday, Smith had been forced to confirm that a deal was in place with the player’s club. It was now all about the man in question. Not since Maurice Johnston six years before – not Brian Laudrup, not Basile Boli, not Mark Hateley or Duncan Ferguson – had Rangers been close to signing a player who generated so much thrill and cynicism in equal measure. The spark that would re-energise this dressing room or another expensive liability, both in body and mind? The debate raged all summer long both for those who were excited and for those who were frozen in fear. Before the season was even out, Rangers were making a huge statement of intent.

Gazza was coming and the insatiable thirst for individual heroes remained unquenched.