There’s an important and hugely significant date in London this evening for Colin Cooper. Before visiting the Houses of Parliament, Nick Loughlin, The Northern Echo’s Sports Editor, caught up with the Hartlepool United manager who has spent the last seven years helping raise over £300,000 for good causes.

IT has been claimed over the years that football and politics don’t mix.

But for every David Mellor and his Chelsea allegiance or Tony Blair playing head tennis with Kevin Keegan, there’s exceptions to the rule.

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Colin Cooper will this evening be at the Houses of Parliament. It’s not because of his work as Hartlepool United manager, as a Middlesbrough stalwart or Nottingham Forest crowd favourite, although he accepts his high standing in the game has helped.

A reception is being held in Westminster to recognise the achievements of the Finlay Cooper Fund.

The charity was set up in August 2006, four years and seven months after Cooper and his wife, Julie, lost their son in a choking accident at home.

In that period, over £300,000 has been raised and handed out to deserving causes in the North-East and beyond.

For a charity with no overheads or operating costs, Cooper is constantly being pleasantly surprised by the public generosity.

Tonight’s event is being hosted by Michael Dugher, the MP for Barnsley, a supporter of Nottingham Forest, a club Cooper enjoyed five successful seasons with.

“I am really pleased to be hosting this important event,’’ said Dugher. “Colin is a hero of mine and I am incredibly supportive of his charity work in memory of his son.

“Finlay’s death was an appalling tragedy. By ensuring his memory lives on Colin and his wife Julie are doing an amazing job which deserves all our support.”

And it’s that support which really humbles Cooper.

The Northern Echo:
Colin Cooper and his fellow climbers on top of Mount Kilmanjaro, which they scaled last year and raised over £100,000 for the Finlay Cooper Fund

He readily admits that he wondered if the money first raised at his testimonial game at the Riverside would be the beginning and the end of the fund.

Instead, he’s since gone on to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro – climbing mountains both physically and metaphorically.

“Going to the Houses of Parliament is an incredible shot in the arm to be recognised nationally,” reflected Cooper, who saluted the role Londonbased Boro fan Mark Davies has played in helping arrange the event.

"We all recognise we are growing outwards. That’s because there’s a hell of a lot of generous people out there who have helped us raise money and, for whatever reason, the Finlay Cooper Fund has become bigger than we all thought it ever would" - Colin Cooper

“What surprises me is the amount of people who come to us and want to raise money for us. We started off with the Middlesbrough 5K and 10K, my benefit game for Middlesbrough against Chievo and then suddenly you find yourself climbing Kilimanjoro and people are coming to you asking to help.

“There’s only five of us running the charity – myself, my wife, Nick Waites, Graham Fordy and Lee Bramley – but it is growing and we are feeling the growth.

“I have to say we are outgrowing ourselves to a certain degree, but I find it hugely humbling that people want to put money into the fund for us to donate.

“We have donated around £30-40,000 in the last six weeks to various causes.

Some of the lads who climbed Kili have had things they wanted to donate to, which we asked them to do as their right for what they achieved.

“And there’s lots still pending and by the end of the year we hope to have donated something in the region of £60-70,000, which is the good bit and the bit we look forward to more.’’ He added: “Going to the Houses of Parliament is something I feel hugely privileged to do. It’s not going to be a massive fundraising evening, it’s more of a profile raiser.

“How many charities actually get the opportunity to do something like that? I accept a certain amount of it is because of what I do for a living, but I also recognise that an awful lot of hard work has gone into it over seven years.

“It’s something to really look forward to and it’s very humbling that people are coming along to speak on our behalf.’’ Ahead of tonight’s event, two moving articles in the Daily Mirror and The Times last week told the story of how Finlay Cooper died, in a choking accident at home.

The Northern Echo:
BEST FOOT FORWARD: Paul Smith recently ran 65 miles in a day in aid of the Finlay Cooper Fund and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. He is pictured with Cooper and Sir Bobby's son Andrew before the epic challenge

The Fund is there to carry on his name, and to assist and offer support in a financial sense and more to those who need it, be it individuals or organisations.

“We had two articles in the national press last week and, while people will give sympathy, we are 12 years down the line and all it is for us is to try and do something positive,’’ said Cooper.

“We don’t need sympathy, we have been through that and we use it as a tool in order to do good.’’ And there’s plenty of good being done.

Over £100,000 was raised from last year’s Mount Kilimanjaro climb, and a steady stream of regular donations have been made over the years to a string of causes and charities.

Last year The Northern Echo’s Richard Mason completed two halfmarathons and a string of smaller runs to raise funs, while Pools fan Paul Smith recently ran 65 miles in a day from Newcastle’s St James Park to Pools’ Victoria Park taking in the Stadium of Light and Riverside Stadium on the way. A total of £500 was also raised at The Northern Echo’s Local Heroes Awards in December.

It’s acts of this and a similar nature that keep the charity going and keep upping the ante.

Cooper added: “We are only a small charity. We had a meeting last Wednesday night about what we have planned and what donations we have out there.

“We all recognise we are growing outwards. That’s because there’s a hell of a lot of generous people out there who have helped us raise money and, for whatever reason, the Finlay Cooper Fund has become bigger than we all thought it ever would.

“We were saying last week that after the game at the Riverside against Cheivo we thought that the six or seven thousand pound going into the bank might be it. “Here were are over £300,000 and seven years down the line and being recognised on a national scale, I think we are all very proud. We see we are small and are all very grateful, but more people want to raise money for us, which is the nature of charity really.

“We are aware it’s been driven by ourselves for a certain period of time, but now it’s being driven by others for us. It’s amazing.

“People come to us and want to do things for our fund – it’s an amazing feeling.’’ Tonight’s event is a further landmark in the Fund’s history. For five professional people to oversee such an evergrowing operation takes some doing.

Cooper and the four trustees all hold down professional positions, so all time spent arranging events and charitable work is done in their spare hours.

The Northern Echo:
Colin Cooper, and his wife, Julie, present a cheque for £5,000 on behalf of the Finlay Cooper Fund to Maureen Thompson, Chief Executive of Teesside Hospice

Smaller charities have a far bigger staff lists – and external costs – as part of their operations. This one doesn’t.

“We chose to do something in terms of interviews recently so we tell the story,’’ reflected Cooper. “We always say Finlay wasn’t ill – and an awful lot of people who we have come across in recent years we try to do good and help them, and some of them are fighting an illness or trying to do something to make their lives better.

“We felt we wanted to do something good and, the last seven years, it’s been an amazing ride for us as a group of people who see things get bigger bit by bit by bit.

“Where we go from here, goodness only knows.

“But the thing we recognise is we are small – we can’t afford to expand too much. I work for a living, my wife works for a living, Nick, Graham and Lee do. We dedicate as much time as we can to it, but it isn’t a fulltime thing.

“Charities much much larger than us have fundraising managers who get paid – we have no overheads and want to maintain that, but it’s hard when we are expanding.

“We don’t want to pay someone to do what we are doing, but we can’t stretch ourselves so thin we can’t do our own jobs to the best of our abilities.’’ And, for all their time, efforts and work, there is a reward at the end of it all, one which brings a smile and a great deal of satisfaction.

“We have our events and our meetings, but the donations is what we look forward to the most,’’ admitted Cooper.

“We get some exciting opportunities to put events on – dinners, balls, runs, climbing mountains, going across the peaks – but the actual good bit is dishing money out and that’s where the five of us get the most pleasure.’’ AND so to the next challenge ... After climbing Mount Kilmanjaro last year, the Fund has now arranged a second walk – one closer to home.

On June 21, the longest day, the Fund is holding what it is hoped to be its biggest event to date.

Cooper hopes some 300 people will join in to complete the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, a 26- mile walk taking in the three highest points of the county.

There’s already been plenty of interest from people wanting to join in.

“This challenge is something a few of the lads involved in the Killi trek have spoken about and we are excited about doing the Yorkshire Peaks – we want as many people as possible who fancy a trek across the Yorkshire Moors to come and join us.

“It’s a marathon across the moors, encapsulating the Three Peaks.

“The Three Peaks and the Great North Run are two big things that people can come and join us and get involved in. It’s one to look forward to and if you don’t like the idea of running 13 and half miles or trekking up a mountain, then come and join us on this one.

“Last year was epic climbing Killi, but this is a good 12-hour trek.

“If you don’t fancy running a distance, then this could be one to get involved in.

“We hope to ship people across there and we will help to raise money on our behalf and we kit them out with a Finlay Cooper Fund T-shirt and, if mother nature is kind to us, we can all have an enjoyable summer stroll.

“Do you keep trying to get bigger and set bigger challenges? Can you get bigger after Killi?

“But we had 40 people doing the Great North Run for us – it’s been an unbelievably amazing year.’’