With his perpetually half-finished cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth and his iodine-soaked rag, Harry Cooke was one of the most recognisable figures at Goodison through the first half of the 20th century. His association with the club spanned roles as player, trainer, mentor, coach and scout, and for generations of Everton teams he was, quite literally, 12th man. Smartly kitted out in a three-piece suit, he appeared on most team photographs from the 1920s onwards. On match days he was a constant presence, fag invariably in hand, bucket and sponge at his feet; a man who had, in the words of David France, ‘developed his own therapeutic massage treatment involving a propriety blend of iodine and wayward cigarette ash’.
Cooke’s association with Everton began in the first years of the 20th century as a reserve forward who was utilised occasionally in the first team during the 1905/06 season. Of his debut in the FA Cup second round against Chesterfield, the Liverpool Courier reported: ‘Cooke made a creditable debut, as partner to Sharp, who, despite one particularly bad miss was by far the most conspicuous forward on the field.’ He was, another report noted later in the season, a ‘thorough trier’ but with men such as Sharp, Sandy Young, Jimmy Settle and George Wilson ahead of him, establishing a regular first-team role was always going to be challenging and his first-team career began and ended in 1906.
COOKE continued playing for the reserves but in August 1908 a board minute records: ‘The temporary engagement of H. Cooke as assistant trainer at 25/- per week was confirmed.’ Thus began in earnest one of the most remarkable associations in the club’s history.
In an era before a proper team manager and long before the concept of sports science, tactics, advanced physiotherapy or any other concepts we would consider essential parts of modern football, it is difficult to emphasise the importance of someone like Cooke. In his rudimentary way he encompassed all of these roles and many more.
The stories about him are legion, but his most famous association was with Dixie Dean, whom he nurtured back from multiple injuries. In his career he was to undergo 15 operations and Cooke would preserve bits of Dean’s bone in jam-jars and thrust them under the noses of newrecruits, saying,
That’s what it takes to be a real player!
Ahead of Everton’s famous match with Arsenal in May 1928, with Dean needing a hat-trick to beat George Camsell’s scoring record, it was only through the assiduousness of Cooke that Dean was fit to play. Cooke was a constant presence at the forward’s side in the week leading up to the match, staying with Dean at his Claughton home. ‘Harry was bandaging and putting plasters on my right leg through the week,’ remembered Dean. ‘He stuck with me right to the morning of the match and we went across to Goodison together.’ Dixie, of course, broke the record, but Cooke’s part in helping him has usually been overlooked.
Cooke had a good reputation through football and during the 1930s was hired by the FA as trainer and team attendant to an England XI. ‘Popular with all and sundry. He lives through every moment of every match and by his encouragement in his quiet way puts an atmosphere in the dressing room,’ recorded one contemporary report. He was fixated with Everton and every New Year’s Eve would turn up at Goodison to let the New Year in.
EVEN WHEN Everton dispensed with the secretary-manager system and appointed a manager in the modern sense of the word in Cliff Britton, Cooke was retained. He was, recalled the 1950s goalkeeper Jimmy O’Neill, ‘the main trainer in those days’ and ‘a character in his own right’. He recalled in Three Sides of the Mersey: ‘Anybody who ever had an operation, a cartilage out, or a bone out of his knee, or a bone out of his ankle, Harry used to keep all these bones in glass jam-jars. He used to preserve all these bones. I think he had a piece of Dixie’s skull.’
Brian Labone recalled: ‘When I joined in 1957, Harry must have been about 75 then, and he used to have this dirty old cloth, and he just used to rub your leg. Whatever was wrong with you, he just used to rub your leg with oil and stuff. He had this dirty old cloth which hadn’t seen soap and water, I don’t know, since Dixie Dean’s day perhaps, and, after he’d rubbed your leg down, your leg would break out in a rash or something a few days later. That’s how basic it was in those days.’
While Cooke may sometimes seem like a caricature from football’s past, his value to Everton was recognised. After Everton won the 1931/32 League Championship, ‘Pilot’ in the Liverpool Evening Express filed the headline ‘WHAT GOODISON OWES TO HARRY COOKE’. He wrote: ‘This is a tribute to Harry Cooke the Everton trainer, who has been one of the vital factors in Everton’s championship success. It is Harry Cooke’s fifth season as Everton trainer, and during that time the club has won the First Division twice; the Second Division once, and reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. He is conscientious in his work, and nothing is too much trouble for him, he has made a special study of each player, so that he knows just what each man requires to attain and maintain fitness. All the players appreciate what Harry Cooke, who first played for Everton in 1906, has done for them. In praising Everton, let us not forget that hard worker.’
COOKE continued to serve Everton through the managerial reigns of Britton, Ian Buchan and Johnny Carey. The arrival of Harry Catterick in April 1961, however, signalled the end of an association that spanned nearly 60 years. In June that year the board resolved that Cooke be retired on a pension of £5 per week.