Always lots of interesting stuff in ‘The Football Supporter’ (the magazine of the Football Supporters Federation) and the December/January issue included a wonderful article about Lee Cook which really warms the heart. Well done to Jez Robinson and thanks to the FSF for giving us permission to use it – Steve Russell
I’m in a West London pub which rates as one of my favourite drinking establishments in the world. I’d tell you where it is, but it already gets busy enough, thanks. And, anyway, I’d have to teach you “the knock”. It’ll be a few hours yet before Brian, the Celtic fan, calls time on the craic and bundles us out into the night. If it’s true that you can judge a man by the company he keeps, it’s as well there’s no one around to pass sentence on anyone drawn into ours tonight – innocent bystanders don’t deserve to be deemed guilty, by association, of excessive Guinness consumption and living in the past.
West London wind and rain lashes the windows outside, as a Saturday night slides into Sunday morning. But it’s cosy in here. We’re deep in football conversation and have reached territory doubtless familiar to many of you. We’ve wandered right down memory lane – and, let’s face it, the journey back is not an exciting prospect once you’ve a few pints on board. For six of the seven of us plotted up in the pub tonight – three are QPR fans (Dahey, JB, Struan), one West Ham (Patto), one Fulham (Delaney) and one Sunderland (yours truly) – discussing all our yesterdays is our only chance to brush with success. And even the Gooner, Mol, would turn back the clock if he could, because though he’s watching arguably the best Arsenal team he’s ever seen, he just can’t relate to any of the players anymore. Reckons football lacks heroes, says he never has that feeling it matters to the players as much as it matters to him. You can’t look at any of them and think “he’s one of us” when they’re lifting more in a couple of months than you can aspire to trouser in a lifetime. Even if local lads make it into the team, how can they be expected to stay connected to their roots on that kind of money ?
A bout of binge-bitching about over-paid, work-shy, self interested modern footballers, with bad attitudes seems certain to ensue – they seem to do with grim regularity, these days. But those in the QPR corner are having none of it. The conversation is obviously destined to take an unexpected twist, because the Hoops have suddenly come over all smug. They look positively triumphant and that’s not been said about them often. “Of course, it’s different at Rangers, because once you’re QPR you’re QPR for life – like Lee Cook, my all time Rangers hero”, pipes up Dahey. High praise indeed and completely unexpected from a man who defines the term cynic, and who, in the fifteen years I’ve known him, has never previously used the term ‘hero’. He also detests pretty much every player who has left Loftus Road inside his own lifetime. “He saved my Club – if he hadn’t done what he did when he went to Fulham, we’d have gone under – he’ll always be one of us, and one of the legends like Gerry Francis, Kevin Gallen, Sir Les Ferdinand, Alan McDonald and Roy Wegerle.” I’m intrigued – and not just by him mentioning Wegerle.
When, after the Rangers contingent have regaled the bar with several choruses of “There’s only one Lee Cook”, I press them for the full story, it becomes immediately apparent that it’s one which should be told in tfs. With typically dogged professionalism, I peel one side off a Guinness beer-mat and with a bookies’ pen borrowed from Brian behind the bar, scrawl “Lee Cook – phone Fulham” on it and file it in my pocket. Finding it as I fumble for change at the tube-station next morning, I’m pleased I did – because the state of my head suggests I’d have forgotten all about it otherwise. It turns out that when boyhood Rangers fan Lee Cook left QPR for Fulham for ¬£2.5m back in the summer, he arranged for some of the money he was due from the deal to be paid to the Club he’d supported as a kid. And, following a succession of phone calls to the unfailingly courteous staff at Fulham’s press office, I’m told Lee Cook has agreed to tell us all about it – as long as we promise we don’t make it look like he’s making himself out to be some kind of hero !
In the past, I’ve had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get interviews with Premier League footballers and I’m expecting more of the same when I’m asked to call a London number at an appointed time to make arrangements. So it’s something of a surprise when Cook himself answers the phone. I explain his name had come up in conversation in the West London pub I’d been in. He knows it, says some of his friends drink there, reckons it’s pretty much a QPR bar – and is understandably chuffed to learn his name has been mentioned in the same breath as some Rangers greats.
“I’m a Hammersmith boy, know all that area of West London and where I grew up it was all QPR – I’ve friends and family from White City which is a staunch Rangers area, and I love the Club”, Cook says. “All I ever wanted as a kid was to play for QPR, so did every other kid I grew up with, really, but I’ve been the lucky one because I actually had my dream come true – I ran out in a Rangers shirt with my friends and family there in the crowd and it was an incredible feeling which will stay with me forever.” When I mention the popular perception that he saved the Club, though, tricky winger Cook is, understandably, a lot more guarded and at pains to play down what he modestly describes as “a gesture he was lucky enough to be able to make.” Even if Cook’s generosity did play a part in keeping Queen’s Park Rangers afloat, he’s certainly not interested in taking any of the credit. Having come through the ranks the hard way before earning a move into the Premier League, he knows he’s one of the fortunate few – and the friends and family who’ve ensured his feet have stayed firmly on the floor would never forgive him if he ever forgot that.
“I was at Southampton when I was a kid, but didn’t do myself justice because I was a bit of a baby, really, and I found it very hard being away from home”, Cook said. “Then I ended up at Aylesbury Town, playing in the first team aged just eighteen against big, horrible, ugly blokes trying to kick me off the park. That toughened me up and Watford had me watched and I ended up going there, delighted to be getting another chance in the full time, professional game. I did okay. When QPR came in for me, there were other Clubs interested too, but there was only one place I was ever going to go. When Cook’s form for his beloved Rangers began catching the eye of Premier League scouts, he sensed another move might be in the offing. Cook admits he did have a few concerns as to how people might treat him if he left Loftus Road.
“I did wonder how people might react, but even when stories first started appearing about me in the papers, everyone I spoke to said they would understand if I had to leave, and they’d wish me well”, Cook said. “That means a lot to me and I never forgot that kind of support – when the Club had done so much for me by letting me make my dreams come true by playing there. I just wanted to give something back when I went. I don’t want to go into details but basically there was a clause in the contract worth 10% of the ¬£2.5 million deal which was due to be paid to me and I arranged for it to go to QPR instead. I’d been talking to the people at the Club and knew how bad things were financially at the time. I think it’s fair to say there were people interested in the Club long term, but in the short term, things weren’t looking good and it was something I was able to do to help out.”
To QPR fans, Cook’s story may be the stuff of legend, but as he starts a brand new chapter in his career down the road at Craven Cottage, he’s acutely aware of the need to prove himself to a new set of supporters. A succession of injuries saw him forced to write off the first half of the Season and Fulham fans can rest assured Cook isn’t about to take anything for granted on his return to full fitness. “I’ve played the game at a few different levels in the last few years and I know just how many excellent players there are out there who never get the sort of chance I’ve been given here at Fulham”, Cook said. “It’s been incredibly frustrating because I’m desperate to prove myself to the Fulham fans. They’ve been brilliant to me so far, even though I’ve achieved nothing for them yet. I’ll always be a Rangers fan, but now my life is all about Fulham and proving myself in the Premier League.”
I ramble on a bit about various West London hostelries, and Lee Cook is polite enough to indulge me for a few minutes before making his excuses and leaving for a scan on his knee. I remember that pubs aren’t really on the agenda that much when you’re a professional athlete playing in the most watched league on the planet. But, as Dahey says, when I call him later on: “Point is, if Lee Cook ever fancied a pint around here, he wouldn’t have to put his hand in his pocket to pay for one, and how many people can say that about the Manor they were born and bred in ? We owe him – so tell him where we’ll be, he’ll know the place !”