As Jackie Fennell’s reign at full-back came to an end, it was obvious who his replacement was going to be: a name straight from Hollywood.
1959 Gary Cooper.
1959 Gary Cooper.
The redoubtable Fennell had received numerous challenges to his full-back position over a long and distinguished career, notably from Ken Elford, but the rise of Gary Cooper coincided with an injury to Fennell, and the recently-signed youngster jumped at the chance. Even as a novice, Cooper displayed the speed and poise that would mark his whole career, and everything he did had a touch of class about it. His eye for a gap, and an unorthodox style made him a difficult player to bring down. After being a virtual ever present in his first season as a pro in 1958/59, it must have been tough for Cooper to accept a bit part role over the next two seasons as Fennell recovered form and fitness. Cooper had to be content with A team rugby, some occasional runs at full-back or centre, and even a spell out of the game when he was studying down south. Gradually though, he carved out a first team place for himself in the three-quarters, and he did this so successfully that the 1961/62 season brought him 18 tries. His form won him a place on the 1962 Great Britain tour of Australia, undoubtedly a career highlight for any player. Don Fox was the other Featherstone representative on that tour. Although he did not make the test team, Cooper played a total of 16 games on tour and scored 13 tries.
On his return, Gary Cooper was named Featherstone’s club captain, but quickly gave that up when it started to affect his game. In late 1963, soon after asking to be transfer –listed, Cooper finally took over at full-back as Jackie Fennell’s career wound down. Gary played through until the end of 1965/66 when his long running dispute with the club came to a head and he was finally sold to Wakefield Trinity for £3,000. In eight seasons at Featherstone Rovers he played a total of 192 games and scored 43 tries.
He enjoyed a tremendously successful time at Belle Vue, playing in the watersplash Challenge Cup final of 1968, and winning the Harry Sunderland medal for his performance in the 1968 Championship final against Hull KR. Once his playing career was over he had a two year coaching spell at York, between 1974 and 1976.
Back at Featherstone, Cooper’s departure opened the way for a number of young players coming through to try and stake their claim in Laurie Gant’s team. These included Stan Dawson, Howard Darbyshire and Dave Kellett. But it was another name that would fill the full-back shirt for Rovers at Wembley in 1967.