6 January ~ Liverpool fans had precious little to applaud during their dismal recent home defeat to Wolves. But the pre-match tribute to ex-defender Avi Cohen, who has died after being involved in a motorcycle accident in Tel Aviv, was a warm testament to a player remembered with much fondness in these parts. He certainly wasn't the greatest in the club's history – racking up just 24 appearances over two seasons – but he was highly popular with both fans and players alike.
Bob Paisley signed him for £200,000 from Israeli Champions Maccabi Tel Aviv in May 1979. Cohen was a versatile, highly-rated star back home, even hailed by some overexcited sports writers as the Middle East's answer to Franz Beckenbauer. Yet he struggled to adapt to the fearsome pace and physicality of the English game. His debut was hardly auspicious, replacing Ray Kennedy in a 1-1 draw at Leeds that September. In fact, so uncomfortable did he look that Paisley duly returned him to the reserves for another six months.
But he marked his presence in spectacular style during the last home game of the 1979-80 season, when drafted in to replace the injured Alan Kennedy. Needing to beat Aston Villa to secure the title, David Johnson had already given Liverpool an early lead when Cohen set about attempting to block a cross from Ivor Linton. Unfortunately the ball merely spooned up into his own net from his outstretched leg. Six minutes into the second half, however, Cohen made amends. Latching onto a poor Villa clearance, he drove the ball into the opposition net through a scrum of bodies. It was redemption sweet enough to prompt a trademark "Oh I say!" from Match Of The Day commentator John Motson, gasping further: "At the same end he's got one back!" It set Liverpool up for an emphatic 4-1 triumph and their 12th League title, though Cohen's lack of games that term meant he wasn't eligible for a medal.
It was nevertheless enough to endear him to the fans. Being the first Israeli player to join an English club also upped his popularity, bringing a whiff of the exotic to the damp confines of Stanley Park. When Cohen first arrived for training, he discovered his peg was next to that of Kenny Dalglish. "You and me, the same," he blurted out when his team-mate first walked in. There followed an awkward impasse, Dalglish the very picture of befuddlement. "You and me, the same," Cohen repeated, beaming back at him. "Both learn English. Nobody understand." Legend also has it that Bob Paisley once fielded a call from a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle, wanting to know if Cohen was orthodox. "Orthodox what?" asked Paisley, "Orthodox defender or orthodox midfielder?"
But there were more serious religious implications to scratching Cohen's name on the team sheet. In September 1980 he opted to play in the 2-2 draw at Southampton on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It was a highly controversial move, upon which he was roundly lambasted by the Israeli press.
Cohen played in a handful of games at the start of the 1980-81 season, but despite being a smooth passer and a decent stopper, a lack of pace found him still wanting. Liverpool chose not to renew his contract in 1981 and he returned to Macabbi Tel Aviv that November. He ventured back to Britain six years later at the behest of former colleague Graeme Souness, then manager of Rangers. Cohen's first-team appearances though, as at Anfield, were scant.
After retiring from his final club, Maccabi Netanya, he became their manager. For the past five years he was head of the Israeli Professional Footballers' Association. He took enormous pride in monitoring the development of his son Tamir, who graduated from Maccabi Tel Aviv's youth squad and signed for Bolton Wanderers in January 2008. A ceremony was held for Cohen at the Israeli national stadium after his death. "It was a big, big shock for us that Avi passed away," said his friend, the ex-Israel goalkeeper Bonnie Ginsburg. "For the family, for the friends and of course for the nation, because Avi was the captain of the national team and he was a hero." Rob Hughes