United pride for no-frills Coppell


Last updated at 23:31 29 December 2006

As Steve Coppell makes his nostalgic stroll from the dressing rooms at Old Trafford on Saturay he could be forgiven if he looks along the wings and starts to hum The Green, Green Grass of Home.


Coppell will not be greeted by the 76,000 fans at Manchester United with quite the same hysteria they reserve for Eric Cantona or Bryan Robson but there is a very good reason for that.

Coppell: Ronaldo can be a superhero

His style was never flamboyant. He never played to the crowd. He was one of those footballers who worked his shift, got into the bath and made his way home. But he will be welcomed nonetheless as a man steeped in United history.

Talk to those who shared the red shirt with him in those topsy-turvy times in the late Seventies and early Eighties before a cruel Hungarian tackle forestalled a brilliant career at the age of 28 and they will tell you his worth.


Lou Macari, the brilliant attacking mid-field star who was another United favourite of the generation was frank in his assessment: “He was a no frills player,” he said. “He was direct and uncomplicated, a manager’s dream.

“When he came to us from Tranmere, it was a massive move for him. He was still studying at University and he relished every minute of his time at the club. His contribution all the time he was there was magnificent.

“He is the type of players you don’t see around very often nowadays – uncomplicated wingers who you could almost hang your hat on to deliver every week.”


It was a talent recognised by Ron Greenwood who had seen the shape United had with Coppell on the right and Gordon Hill on the left.


The England manager decided to go with two wingers and a big centre-forward himself and chose Peter Barnes from across the City of Manchester on the left, with Everton’s Bob Latchford through the middle.


The late Greenwood was to recall later: “I thought Coppell had the right character for the job. He was small, busy and elusive, a ferret of a player, who worked the whole of the right touchline.


“He and Barnes were part of England long-term future because they gave us width and flair, they were the edge of our blade. Coppell fulfilled all my hopes: he was a little jewel, consistent, brave, a thinking raider, one of the names I always put down first. What a tragedy when injury cut short his career.”


Praise indeed from a man sparing with his superlatives but the truth is that Coppell never let you down, made few enemies and was so unassuming that it was difficult for him to offend anyone in the egotistical world of professional sport.


I shall always remember his contribution to the 1982 World Cup under Greenwood and particularly the opening game against France when Bryan Robson scored a goal after 27 seconds.


The then England captain tells a wonderful story of the last training session before that match which led to that lightning first goal.


“It came about as a result of a chance remark on the day before the match,” Robson recalls. “We were on the training pitch practising our routine from Kenny Sansom’s long throw-ins.


“Kenny had always given us that threat from the left. Terry Butcher or Paul Mariner would always try to flick the ball on for me to make a late run and get in behind the defence.


“As we walked off the training pitch Steve who was sitting on the ground with Ray Wilkins, having a drink at the end of the session said ‘I can do that, Don’ to our coach Don Howe.”


Howe said they had done enough training for the day but asked Coppell to show how far he could throw the ball.


“He had a terrific throw, which nobody had realised so Don said to him ‘OK you take the throw-ins from the right’ That meant we could work the routine from both sides of the pitch,” Robson recalls.


The next day an early throw-in from Coppell found Butcher’s head and Robbo rammed it home, a feat for which he won a gold watch for the quickest goal of the World Cup. He still wears it from time to time, with gratitude to Coppell.


Alex Stepney, the former England goalkeeper who was in the same United side as Coppell remembers: “When Tommy Docherty bought him from Tranmere we all wondered what he was like because we knew he was still at college.


“But he and Hill formed a wonderful wing partnership and that is why we were playing to capacity crowds of over 50,000. We were playing exciting football and scoring goals.


“Coming to United was a bit of a culture shock for him. He was very reserved and he had joined a dressing room of established players. You sensed he might go on the coach once he knew he couldn’t play again.”


His management career has been largely as low-key as his playing career with the exception of his 33-day sojourn at Manchester City when he resigned saying: “I am not ashamed to admit that I have suffered for some time from huge pressure I have imposed on myself.”


Coppell was hugely embarrassed by having to make that admission but he was to emerge three months later to resume his management career.


It is no coincidence that the team he has led to the Premiership with a massive 106 points – 16 clear of his nearest rival – has been with a team that so much reflects his own personality.

Macari says: “He has bounced back superbly. He manages like he played, in an uncomplicated manner. His players have come into the Premiership the way he came into Old Trafford all those years ago.

“They have come in as unknowns and made an impact the way he did at United. You can see his style in the way they play.”


Indeed, the style maybe simple but Reading are a tidy, organised side. Just like their manager.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now