Premier League Clubs Managed: Crystal Palace (1992-1993), (1997-1998), Reading (2006-2008)
As a player, Steve Coppell was a flying right winger who won domestic honours with Manchester United and represented England at the World Cup finals in 1982. His work-rate levels have served him well in management, having four separate spells in a variety of different roles at Crystal Palace and also guiding Reading to the top-flight in 2006, followed by an impressive eighth place finish in their debut Premier League campaign.
Coppell played a huge role too in the career of Ian Wright. He signed Wright from the depths of non-league football and turned him into an international footballer and one of the leading strikers in English and Arsenal history. He continues to manage today, currently with Atletico de Kolkata in the Indian Super League.
A promising career cut short
In the mid-1970s, Steve Coppell was multi-tasking to the extreme. He was studying for a degree at University, coached a University team and played part-time for Tranmere Rovers. His life changed forever when Manchester United offered Tranmere £60,000 for his services, offering to double his wages too. Unsurprisingly, Coppell signed on with the Red Devils.
Manchester United allowed him to complete his degree in his spare time whilst he made his professional debut for the club. He made his debut in March 1975 as a substitute in a 4-0 victory over Cardiff City. He made 10 appearances before the season’s end and also broke his goalscoring duck as United bounced back to the First Division at the first attempt of asking.
The following season, he won honours for the England Under-23 team and made a big mark on the Manchester United first-team, scoring 10 times in 39 games. One of those goals came at his boyhood club, Liverpool FC at the famous The Kop terrace. It was an exciting Manchester United side that manager Tommy Docherty was putting together and Coppell experienced cup glory in 1977 when the Red Devils beat Liverpool 2-1 in the Wembley showpiece. He did end up as a loser though in both the 1976 and 1979 finals despite claiming two assists in the latter match against Arsenal.
He made his senior international debut with England in 1977, playing in their final qualifying game for the 1978 World Cup finals. They beat Italy 2-0 but the damage had been done earlier in the campaign, so the Three Lions missed out on the finals in Argentina. Coppell would win over 40 caps, scoring seven times and he featured in Ron Greenwood’s teams on a regular basis including at the 1980 European Championships.
His career took a major change in 1981. He was the victim of a vicious tackle from Hungarian player Jozsef Toth during a World Cup qualifier whilst on England duty. He sustained bad knee damage and needed two operations. He was never quite the same player again. Coppell did struggle on through the 1982 World Cup finals and the 1982-1983 season but further setbacks and operations followed. In October 1983, he announced his retirement from playing, aged just 28. He had broken the record for the most consecutive appearances for an outfield Manchester United player making 207 from 1977 to 1981. It is a record which still stands to this day.
Making his mark at Palace
Less than a year after his retirement from playing, Coppell became one of the youngest men to ever manage a club in the Football League. He was 28 years and 10 months old when he was appointed Crystal Palace manager. He would remain in the post with the Eagles for the next nine years.
He had to rely on signing players who had been rejected by other First Division sides and took the opportunity to give a young Ian Wright his chance, signing him from the non-league. When he took over, Palace were in the Second Division and it took until 1989 before the Eagles were promoted to the top-flight via the play-offs. In 1990, they went on a wonderful journey in the FA Cup, knocking out champions-elect Liverpool FC 4-3 in an epic semi-final at Villa Park. They met Manchester United in the final, still looking for their first major piece of silverware under Alex Ferguson. Wright sparkled, scoring twice and the first game finished 3-3. United won a scrappier replay 1-0 to take the prize.
In 1991, they finished in third place in the top-flight, only below Arsenal and Liverpool FC. However, they had to sell their main striking assets. Wright eventually moved to Arsenal and his long-time strike partner, Mark Bright went to Sheffield Wednesday just a few weeks after the start of the Premier League. Crystal Palace were relegated on the final day after losing 3-0 at Highbury, whilst Oldham Athletic’s 4-3 success over Southampton saw them complete a late escape from the drop at the expense of the Eagles. Coppell resigned from his position as manager shortly after their relegation.
The 33-day experience in Manchester
When Graham Taylor stepped down as England manager following their failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals, Coppell’s name was linked with the job but he swiftly ruled himself out of the running. Another job where his name was strongly mentioned was Middlesbrough following Lennie Lawrence’s departure in May 1994. Ex-Manchester United captain and Coppell’s former teammate Bryan Robson was ultimately chosen as Lawrence’s successor.
In fact, Steve remained out of the game until June 1995 when he returned to Palace in a Director of Football capacity. It was a role he held until October 1996 when the lure of managing Manchester City was simply too much to resist. Coppell was appointed with the club struggling to make an impact in the First Division. It looked like it would be a great moment for him but it turned into a nightmare. His reign lasted just six games and 33 days.
He gave a press conference where his facial expression and tone of voice was completely different to how he had been when he took the job on. He admitted:
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I have suffered for some time from huge pressure I have imposed upon myself, and since my appointment this has completely overwhelmed me to such an extent that I cannot function in the job the way I would like to. As this situation is affecting my well-being, I have asked Francis Lee to relieve me of my obligation to manage the club on medical advice.”
His reign at the club is the shortest of any City manager to date.
So, he went back to Crystal Palace in another different role, this time as Chief Scout. Before the end of the campaign, he was back in the managerial hotseat after Dave Bassett left in February 1997 to take a role with Premier League strugglers Nottingham Forest. He secured promotion back to the Premier League with the south Londoners after David Hopkin’s dramatic late winner in the First Division play-off final against Sheffield United.
He stayed in the role going into the Premier League but stepped down in March 1998 as Crystal Palace supporter Mark Goldberg led a takeover of the club. The club were relegated at the end of the season. Goldberg though wanted to keep Coppell on and so, he reverted to a Director of Football position with Terry Venables appointed first-team manager on their return to Division One.
In January 1999, he was back as manager yet again after Venables’ resignation. By this point, the club had severe financial issues and high-earners had to be sold to cut spending such as Attilio Lombardo. They finished 14th in 1998-1999 and 15th in 1999-2000. Simon Jordan bought the club in the summer of 2000 from Goldberg and replaced Coppell with Alan Smith. That bought Coppell’s association with the club to an end. For both parties, it had been a loyal collaboration but both needed to go their different ways.
After spells managing Brentford and Brighton & Hove Albion, Coppell’s next major project came at Reading in October 2003, succeeding Alan Pardew who had moved on to fill the West Ham United vacancy. After finishing seventh in his first full season as Royals manager, Coppell guided Reading to the Championship title in 2005-2006, setting a new league record of 33 league games unbeaten during the campaign. The Berkshire club finished with 106 points which was another record smashed and could look forward to Premier League football for the first time.
Reading impressed many neutrals with their style of play and results achieved in 2006-2007, finishing their first Premier League season in an impressive eighth position and just one point away from qualifying for European competition. He received praise from Sir Alex Ferguson, who said after Coppell won Manager of the Year: “I think it’s totally deserved. It’s a marvellous contribution he’s made. What’s encouraging for the Premier League is that it’s mostly British-based players in his side, with some Irish players thrown in. I think that says a lot for the way he has gathered his team together.”
Reading’s second season was not as good as their first and it ended in relegation back to the Championship. Coppell said he would consider his future as Reading manager after being relegated on the final day but he stayed on in an attempt to get the Royals back up at the first attempt. However, he missed out on promotion in 2008-2009 via the play-offs after a semi-final defeat to Burnley and this time, he elected to resign immediately after the game, feeling he had taken the club as far as he could.
One more challenge cropped up in England in May 2010 when he signed a 12-month rolling contract at Bristol City. However, he walked away from the position just three months later, saying that he would retire from football management altogether citing a lack of passion for the job.
He hasn’t retired from football management as mentioned but the job at Ashton Gate was his last in English management. He has since worked as Director of Football at both Crawley Town and Portsmouth before moving to Asia where he has managed Kerala Blasters FC, Jamshedpur FC and ATK where he was appointed manager in June 2018.
Steve Coppell has managed over 1000 matches in his career and boasts nearly a 40% win ratio rate. That’s a pretty decent return for someone who has spent nearly 35 years in the management game.