Coppell winning the battle of the promoted
Sheffield United 1-2 ReadingThere was hardly a flicker of an emotion on his face. Nonetheless, the underlying impression was that this was a morose man. Not an uncommon sight at Premiership football matches, granted, but it was something of a rarity given that his team had taken a two-goal lead away from home.
But then Steve Coppell does not belong to the excitable school of managers. Not for him the boisterous touchline antics of Martin O'Neill, Stuart Pearce or Neil Warnock. He is not as unpredictable as Jose Mourinho or, well, Neil Warnock. At Reading, however, understated is unsurpassed: their first ever Premiership away win left them - temporarily, anyway - in the top five.
Not that Coppell was getting carried away with the sight of Reading level on points with Chelsea. 'I can't see the Premier League the same at the finish as we are now,' he said. 'This division can wear you down, It's very, very easy to spiral out of it.'
It is, and it has become a time-honoured tradition, an annual ritual, no sooner is a side promoted to the Premiership then predictions of the imminent demotion materialise, as both Coppell and Warnock know.
Coppell is the braver in his attempts to stay in it. He has eschewed the 'experienced' approach of recruiting players with time in the top flight on their CV's. Instead, his faith has been placed in the side that shredded Championship records, plus selected additions from the Football League.
It is all the more remarkable when the limited pedigree of the players involved is considered: all 14 players who appeared against Middlesbrough on the opening day were making their Premiership debuts.
It was why Coppell could honestly say: 'We didn't have expectations of ourselves, because we've never played in the Premiership before. We're wide-eyed.'
Wide-eyed, perhaps, but not not naive. Even Coppell's comments on the match seemed focused more on an awkward final 30 minutes, rather than a hugely impressive first hour. 'We played terrifically but we knew that we would be a Warnock reaction. He changed the shape and gave us problems and we lost our fluency. After they scored, different qualities were required to get the three points.'
While Coppell remained resolutely downbeat, in came the Sheffield United manager to proclaim: 'I'm the eternal optimist.' With each setback, Warnock seems to enthuse more. Clearly he is determined to become a stranger to the FA's disciplinary panel.
After only taking two points from five games, the born-again bundle of joy added: 'You are pretty miserable buggers, you lot, but I tend to look at the positives.' Those included a spirited response - eventually - to the fastest goal of the Premiership season, the performance of Rob Hulse and the Blades' vocal support.
But they were outweighed by the negatives and, as with the managers, the teams provided a contrast with each other. Sheffield United have a greater past in the top flight, albeit not recently, but less aptitude for it. The traditional Yorkshire virtues of grit and graft may not be enough and, though Hulse ended a 375-minute goal drought, it was only their second of the season.
And, as Warnock admitted, 'Reading wouldn't have conceded goals like we did in the first half.' To compound Sheffield United's embarrassment at conceding within 18 seconds, they actually kicked off as well. When possession was swiftly lost, Bobby Convey released Kevin Doyle who, appreciably quicker than the lumbering Chris Morgan, sprinted away to finish past Ian Bennett.
The goalkeeper, given a Blades debut because of Paddy Kenny's thigh injury, deserves sympathy. His first touch as a Sheffield United player was to pick the ball out of the back of the net. Before long, he was also beaten by James Harper, with an angled drive against the post, and Seol Ki-Hyeon, nestling his shot in the bottom corner after the unfortunate Morgan was beaten with conspicuous ease.
Cue a picture of misery from the (in theory) happy manager. Coppell's counterpart was more animated, though the chorus of 'Warnock, give us a wave' game from the taunting away fans. The man himself didn't oblige, adding: 'I'd have liked to have got an equaliser so I could have put 2-2 up when they kept asking what the score was.'
Hulse, who remains the only Sheffield United player to score a Premiership goal since Nathan Blake in 1994, maintained that record with a low drive from an acute angle. Marcus Hahnemann later saved well from Keith Gillespie but otherwise, pressure was exerted but without the craft to create chances.
It meant the margin of victory was only one goal. When they won promotion from the Championship together, 16 points separated Reading and Sheffield United. The gulf looks much wider now.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steve Sidwell (Reading) - Once voted the best player outside the Premiership, now looking a very accomplished midfielder in it. His energy and enthusiasm, coupled with that of James Harper, gave Reading the edge in midfield, though there were several other candidates in blue and white - especially Doyle, Seol and Ivar Ingimarsson.
SHEFFIELD UNITED VERDICT: They face an uphill battle to survive. No matter how much effort they put in, they lacked the guile to create clear-cut chances and a creaking defence always risks being exposed.
READING VERDICT: A small and unheralded squad combined very well, playing with pace and positivity. Whether they can continue fielding two wingers against stronger Premiership midfields remains to be seen but, for now, the omens are good.
ODDITY OF THE MATCH: This was a game watched by an unspecified number of people. Sheffield United's computers went down, so they're not altogether sure exactly how many. 'I don't know what the crowd was,' remarked Warnock innocently after the match.