Flying for Finlay

How Colin and Julie Cooper have turned their darkest hour into a children’s charity that’s become an incredible force for good

Colin and Julie Cooper’s world is filled with dragonflies. The first thing visitors to their Harrogate home notice is its dragonfly door knocker, and once inside, almost every room contains an ornament or picture depicting the distinctive double wings.

The dragonfly is the emblem of the Finlay Cooper Fund, which has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for children’s causes in memory of the couple’s two-year-old son since he died in a choking accident 16 years ago.

Former England international footballer Colin was on a high after playing his part in Middlesbrough’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Manchester United earlier that day – January 26 2002 – when the family’s hopes and dreams were shattered.

“We were just about to have something to eat when our eldest daughter, Annie, appeared on the stairs saying Fin had put something in his mouth,” Colin recalls. “He’d already picked up a screw once and she’d taken it off him and put it on the desk in their bedroom. As they were watching the DVD he picked it up again, put it in his mouth and swallowed it. I have to be honest, everything else is a blur.”

As Finlay began to gasp for air and change colour before their eyes, Colin and Julie tried slapping him hard on the back and then abdominal thrusts. When nothing worked they rushed to a nearby nursing home to seek assistance.

“They tried to help him and the paramedics continued to try to keep him breathing as we were taken by ambulance to Harrogate District Hospital,” continues Colin. “We hadn’t been in there for long when the nurse came through. I thought she’d say they’d got him breathing and he was all right. But he wasn’t. They’d tried to open his airway but the screw had lodged itself in. There was no way of releasing it and he’d gone.”

Finlay’s death was a devastating blow for Colin, Julie and daughters Annie, ten, Molly, eight, and five-year-old Daisy. Overwhelmed by unbearable grief, Colin didn’t care if he never kicked a ball again.

“I said that was it, I was finished with football,” he says. “I was disappearing into a hole without any shadow of a doubt.”

But Julie was not prepared to let the tragedy tear her beloved family apart.

“I was determined we would continue to move forward, and so we took the children back to school a week after we lost Fin. I was aware that the longer they were away, the more difficult it would be to go back into their normal surroundings.

“It was the same for me going back to the supermarket. We were doing the everyday things we had when we were a normal family. I knew I had to do that to get back on an even keel at some point.”

Julie also knew that Colin had to return to the game he had played since he was growing up in Trimdon, County Durham. Reluctantly, he eventually agreed. But he now says it was the best advice he has ever been given.

“The day Julie made me go back to Middlesbrough was the start of my healing journey,” he says. “The lads and the fans were unbelievable. That became my crutch. I had to get back onto the horse and if I hadn’t, I know I would have disappeared down that hole. If it wasn’t for this lady, God knows where I’d be now. She knew we had to get back to some sense of normality.”

Soon he was back training in the Boro squad and played on for a further four years, playing his last game at the age of 39 shortly before Middlesbrough played in the 2006 UEFA Cup final.

That year Colin donated the proceeds from his richly deserved testimonial match to a new charity set up in Finlay’s name after encouragement from Boro’s then commercial manager Graham Fordy, accountant Nick Waites and legal eagle Lee Bramley. The charity would become a huge part of the Coopers’ healing process.

“We were blown away and it took a while to take in,” says Julie. “We hadn’t been in the right place to consider it ourselves because we were too busy looking after each other. But when we thought about it we decided it was great way to allow our trauma, sadness and loss to help other people. It has become cathartic for the whole family, including our brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces and our parents as well. It was a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

The Finlay Cooper Fund has since helped countless children on Teesside and beyond, stepping in wherever it sees a need and paying for anything from minibuses to powered wheelchairs, supporting Zoe’s Place Baby Hospice and Butterwick Children’s Hospice and even providing holidays for disadvantaged Teesside families in a static caravan near Filey.

One of the couple’s favourite causes was that of nine-year-old Alfie Smith, from Seaton Carew. Alfie has cerebral palsy and his parents were trying to raise £50,000 for an operation that could help him to walk. The fund was able to provide the final £14,000 to ensure the surgery could go ahead.

“He’s doing amazingly well, he’s now weight-bearing and will hopefully be able to walk,” says Julie.

“That’s an amazing gift and it’s thanks to everybody who raises the money that we were able to help him.”

“There are no barriers to what we can do,” adds Colin. “The only rule is that it’s to help children or their families who just need a leg up or something to make their lives a little bit easier or better.”

After ending his playing days, Colin studied for his coaching badges alongside the current England coach, his former team-mate, neighbour and close friend, Gareth Southgate.

After a spell out of work following his time as Hartlepool manager, Colin is now back in football. The FA have asked him to undertake a new “out of possession” coaching role, working closely with under-21 lead coach Aidy Boothroyd but also helping smooth the transition of England players at all levels through to full international level.

While football has helped Colin to get his life back on track, Julie has found both solace and healing in yoga and is now passing on her experience as a yoga and sound therapy teacher.

“I started yoga not long after we lost Fin,” she says. “I was having flashbacks and couldn’t settle my mind at all. But I was hooked from my first class. I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s done for me. It’s helped me put everything into perspective, spun me around 360 degrees and given me a path to follow.”

The family chose the dragonfly after been given a book called Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney to help Finlay’s sisters deal with his death.

“It’s about that transition and it was a massive help for us,” says Julie. “Dragonflies start their lives under the water as nymphs and after about two years when they’re ready, they climb up the water lily stalk and onto the lily pad. After that the other water nymphs don’t see them anymore.”

But the Coopers see reminders of Finlay every day, and they still feel his presence in their lives.

“As soon as the dragonfly became a significant symbol, we started seeing them everywhere,” Julie says.

“When I walk past people in the street they might be on earrings or a blouse. It makes us think, yes, here’s there. I’ve always felt that. I’m not doing it to make myself feel better, even though it does, but there’s a very strong sense that Fin’s around a lot, although not as much now we’re a bit further along our journey as he was when we lost him.”

Finlay would now be 18 if he had lived. His sisters have grown up and the eldest, Annie, gets married next year and is putting her own experiences of grief to good use by training to be an adult bereavement counsellor.

“Julie’s got a special birthday this year so we’ve got lots of celebrations to look forward to, although God knows, things could have been a million times different,” Colin says. “But this is where we are now and we continue to do what we need to just to carry on.”