The discreet charm of Steve Coppell
Ah, Steve Coppell. My first football hero, though I never saw him play. Not even a one-minute clip on the evening news. Not even, in the internet age, a 30-second archival clip on YouTube. But I was a fan. I read every word about him in every story I could find in the British Council, or in the United Reviews that occasionally turned up at our house. What was it about him that attracted a pre-teen kid thousands of miles away in Calcutta?
Maybe it was the fact that he was a winger. I've always loved wingers, and back in the late 1970s, when I first started following Manchester United, they had two of the best in English football: Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill. Together they destroyed opposing defences in that very attacking side put together by the manager Tommy Docherty. Then Hill left, and in came Mickey Thomas (better known today as @therealMickeyT) and the party continued. Coppell played on the right, could use (and score with) either foot, often popped up on the left and sometimes in the middle too.
Maybe because he wasn't flash. Gordon Hill was flash, exuberant and the darling of the terraces. Coppell was a grafter -- that's the word most commonly used about him. Think Antonio Valencia -- 100% dependable, prodigious work rate; no Ronaldo, not even Nani, but a manager's delight. Here's one Docherty quote about him: "If a defender beat him nine times he'd go back and beat him at the 10th attempt." As a non-flash kid, I could relate to that. I could be Coppell.
Maybe it was his degree. He was one of the rare footballers (perhaps the only one) with a college degree, in economic history. Perhaps that gave him the wit to play as a winger without the traditional winger's skills, made him more Dravid than Tendulkar. I know it certainly marked him out in my mind as a different kind of player. More so when, in one stint as an RJ, he chose Lennon's No 9 Dream as one of his songs to play.
Maybe because his career finished tragically early. He was only 28 when a knee injury, brought about by a bad tackle, forced him to hang up his boots. Typically, he played on with the injury for several months, including through a World Cup. By then I had my second United hero, "Captain Marvel" Bryan Robson, who took over Coppell's No 7 shirt. But I still remember exactly where I was when I heard that Coppell was retiring. (It's actually no big deal -- I was by the radio, which was the font of all information back then.)
Maybe it was his career as a coach, where he earned a reputation for uncovering young talent. Among them (Arsenal fans, take note) Ian Wright. Or maybe because he coached Crystal Palace not once, not twice but in four successive stints. He was the David Moyes of his time, taking an unfashionable club to an FA Cup final and third place in the league. Fifteen years later, in a different league -- the Premier League -- and a different era, his Reading side ended the season in eighth position. And yet another decade and another league on, he took Kerala Blasters to the ISL final. And then, typically, took up the challenge of managing Jamshedpur's debut season in the league.
Maybe because it's the fact that he's never stirred controversy or fallen into the crass, self-serving or brassy ways of many of his peers. Watching him as a pundit on TV last year you could make out Coppell the player, Coppell the coach: Quiet, insightful, not a wasted word nor a provocative statement, yet never boring.
Maybe it was what Ron Atkinson, Coppell's third and final manager at United, said about him: "He was always prepared to sacrifice the outstanding attributes of his own game for the overall benefit of the team."
Who wouldn't love a player like that?