Rare is the footballer who can articulate what it’s like to play football in front of forty or fifty thousand people. The former Manchester United winger Steve Coppell did better than most when he described his 1974 United debut as: “It was beyond a fairy tale.
"And despite winning trophies, that day was my highlight as a United player. My heart was jumping out of my chest and I’ve never had another experience like it. I wasn’t running; I was floating across the grass. Words do not do the experience justice; it was a drug like euphoric trance. I’ve had a few operations, and it was like that little pleasant stage after the anaesthetic. Only multiplied by a hundred.”
The United and Palace fans heading to Selhurst Park on Saturday will not agree on many things, but they’ll find consensus in an appreciation of Coppell, a top player for United and England and a man who managed Palace four times.
L-R: Steve Coppell - Manchester United, David Peach - Southampton
Image credit: PA Photos
The Scouser, who grew up in Croxteth like Wayne Rooney and who went to the same south Liverpool school as John Lennon, was an undergraduate at Liverpool University when United manager Tommy Docherty signed him from Tranmere Rovers. It was an intriguing signing, one which surprised Coppell himself.
“I was a full time economics student at Liverpool University who played part-time for Tranmere,” said Coppell, now 60 and currently without a club.
“Football was a bonus as I’d resigned myself to not making it. Mark Palios (later head of the FA and now back in charge at Tranmere) was an older student footballer at Tranmere and I’d often take his guidance.”
The cerebral Coppell could think for himself, even when a series of surging right wing displays at Prenton Park saw attention bestowed from beyond the Wirral.
“Apparently a couple of Liverpool directors had been watching me,” he said, “then halfway through my second year at university I got a call telling me that Manchester United wanted to buy me and that Tranmere had agreed a fee. It was like a dream.”
Even then the fee was tiny, although United had to pay another £20,000 if Coppell made 20 appearances. He would make 395 - not bad for a player who trained alone in Liverpool after signing.
“I told Tommy Docherty that I had an option to delay my studies,” recalls Coppell, “but he said, ‘Absolutely no chance, football can be finished at the click of your finger, academic qualifications are with you for life.’ I’m eternally thankful for him saying that.”
Crystal Palace manager Steve Coppell celebrates with chairman Ron Noades in 1997
Image credit: Eurosport
Coppell, the student United professional, studied in Liverpool, training by himself, except for a weekly Tuesday night session at the Cliff.
“It would never happen now, and it would only be with a character like Doc that that happened then,” said Coppell, noting that, “Docherty was a major influence on my life and I still love him to bits.”
Docherty actually signed Coppell without seeing him play, trusting the opinion of his chief scout Jimmy Murphy, the legendary right hand man of Matt Busby.
"Murphy was like a god,” said Docherty, “and he knew exactly what he was doing. I signed Steve Coppell without ever having seen him play. Jimmy Murphy had seen him twice. He called me and said: ‘Tom, sign him.’ It was normal for scouts to send a report in. Jimmy told me that if he had to write a report on Coppell, another club would sign him in the meantime. I signed him.”
Docherty described his new player as: “quick and aggressive. He would go to the by-line and smash his crosses in.”
Coppell continued his degree in Liverpool and played in Manchester.
“There were no problems with me studying in Liverpool and playing for United either,” said Coppell. “I had good friends and if United didn’t have a midweek game I’d play in the net in the university interdepartmental league. We got to the cup final, losing 6-1 to Geography, not one of my better games!”
Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty (r) parades the FA Cup around Wembley with Steve Coppell (l) after their 2-1 win
Image credit: PA Photos
The bizarre concept of playing for United at Anfield at the weekend, and going to lectures in Anfield for Economics midweek became the norm. And being a Liverpudlian didn’t cause problems either.
“United fans appreciated it if you had a go,” he states. “They don’t like prima donnas, regardless of skill, they want to see commitment and effort. I’d have a bad game but as long as I tried the crowd were alright. Whereas if you appeared big time then they would dig you out. Old Trafford could be a harsh and demanding environment.”
Coppell’s thrilling runs and slick skills ensured he became a regular and at one point in his eight-year Old Trafford career he played 206 consecutive league games – a club record unlikely to be broken.
Coppell caught United’s victorious ’74/75 promotion year – yes, Manchester United once played in the second division - but twelve months later experienced opposite emotions, defeat by Southampton in the 1976 FA cup final.
“I watched the 1975 final as a student and a year later I was playing in it,” he notes. “I didn’t feel that bad after the game but later it dawned that it might be the only time I played in a cup final and I got really depressed.”
“After the defeat the Doc told fans: ‘We’re going to win the cup for you next year.’ All the players thought, ‘Oh, no’, but we did win – and against a team chasing the treble.”
Reading Footbal Club Manager Steve Coppell poses with his Barclays manager of the month award at their training ground in Reading, southern England December 8, 2006. Coppell received the award for being the most successful manager in the English Premier l
Image credit: Reuters
Liverpool, to be precise, Coppell’s childhood favourites.
“Maybe the winning goal in the ’77 Cup final was fortuitous, but we won and it was made all the more special because we’d lost out a year earlier,” he recalls of that great day in May 1977.
League success, however, was harder to achieve.
“Liverpool were so good,” he explains, “albeit with a different style. They would spend the first 15 minutes passing the ball back to the goalkeeper. You couldn’t get into the game against them.”
“The Doc’s side were mavericks,” he adds. “When things were going great we could smother teams, but when they weren’t we didn’t have other options. We played a fast, high-tempo exciting style, more suited to today, especially with the back pass rule.”
Coppell’s career was effectively ended by an injury picked up playing for England. He was advised to quit football at 28, before moving on to have a fruitful career as a manager, most notably with Palace but also at Brighton, Bristol City, Brentford, Reading and briefly at Manchester City.