Steven James Coppell was born on the 9th of July 1955 and long before he discovered Ian Wright and led Crystal Palace to their highest-ever League finish, before performing similar miracles with Reading, Coppell plied his trade as a winger for Manchester United.
1975, Steve signed for United after they offered him twice the wage he was on at Tranmere Rovers, but also afforded him the chance to finish his degree in Economics at Liverpool University, something other top sides were not willing to do.
The Manchester United Steve signed for was very different from the one we’re so used to today and more than a world away from the Sir Alex era of the 90’s and Noughties. Playing in England’s second tier, Coppell played ten times and scored once in a campaign that saw the Red Devils return to the top tier of English Football, he’d go on to appear 312 more times and score 52 more goals in the league for United before hanging his boots up in 1983 aged just 28, due to a serious knee injury.
His grounded attitude towards education and betterment of oneself, would prove to serve Coppell well after his playing career was cut tragically short. I’ve touched upon his impact with Crystal Palace, his first job in management at just shy of 29-years-old. However, it’s his time at Reading F.C that I believe he earned the title of gamechanger.
As a Reading fan myself, I remember the day Steve Coppell was announced as our new manager and in truth, I felt a little underwhelmed. The incumbent Pardew had played for Coppell in a previous life at Palace, his extra-time goal against Liverpool in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final, will forever be remembered by Palace fans. Pardew left for West Ham shortly before, a man responsible for taking us from near relegation to what is now League Two all the way to a Championship Play-Off final in as little as three seasons. Palace’s 3rd place finish in the Premier League under Coppell a distant memory, punched by an infamous 33-day stint at Manchester City, it didn’t feel like, at the time, an appointment that would take us forward.
Coppell’s appointment, however, would come at a crucial time for the Royals, as challengers for play-offs and even automatic promotion to the Premier League, Reading were able to attract top young talent from the lower divisions or non-league and more experienced players from the promised land above.
His first season in charge went reasonably well, finishing 9th and just 3 points outside the play-offs, Shaun Goater and Nicky Forster led the line that year, scoring 14 and 11 goals respectively, had it not been for a horrid run of games that produced just two wins from nine, Reading would have been contenders for the title yet again. Coppell also made two purchases of his own that year who would go down in Royals folklore.
Dave Kitson was a Sainsbury’s shelf stacker and part-time Footballer before signing for Cambridge United and subsequently for Reading in 2003 for a fee of just £150,000 and it’s his signature along with the Wolves centre-back Ivar Ingimarsson’s for £175,000 that would shape the Royals’ long-term future.
Always the Bridesmaid
Coppell’s first full season in charge would play out much like the previous year, Reading would have a great run of results early in the year that saw the team challenging for the title right up until Boxing Day 2004, The Royals again would go eleven games without a win, due mostly to Kitson, Goater and Forster all being injured. Kitson would still finish the year as the club’s top-scorer with 19 goals, taking advantage of the change of tactics brought about by Coppell’s appointment.
The season ended in agony for Reading, finishing 7th in the table after a final day defeat to Wigan who’s win saw them slip into 2nd place behind Sunderland and promoted automatically.
The Hogwood training complex had been completed just a few weeks after the start of the 2004/05 season, and at a cost of £2.5m, it had everything a team would need to develop and grow. If it was one thing Coppell was great at, it was taking a team of rough diamonds and moulding them into world beaters, facilities such as Hogwood crucial to that strategy.
Reading had shifted from playing a traditional, get it into the box at all cost under Pardew, to quick transitional passing play under Coppell in the space of 12 months. Hogwood and it’s 8 perfectly maintained pitches played a strong part in allowing Coppell to develop this method of play, it would be this style of play that would take the division by storm the very next season.
The summer signings that year went under the radar for most, none more so than two youngsters from Ireland, Kevin Doyle and Shane Long, who joined the club for less than £50,000. Doyle was scouted by Coppell personally after spending some time in Ireland with Reading’s Academy manager, the late Eammon Dolan, the story goes that Steve and Eammon were knocking back a pint of the black stuff before Coppell confessed to Dolan he’d never seen a game of Gaelic Football.
Eammon happened to know a team that were playing nearby and took Coppell along to the game, and it was there Steve first spotted Kevin Doyle with a ball at his feet. He was impressed by the pace, physicality and quick-thinking required to play the game and recognised that Doyle had everything required to play Football at the highest level because of it. It would transpire that Doyle wasn’t even supposed to be playing that day, as a paid professional at Cork City, it’s unlikely they would have given him permission to go and play semi-pro Gaelic Football in his spare time. Coppell returned to Ireland just a week later to watch Cork City and specifically Kevin Doyle and a deal was struck to sign Doyle just two days later. Shane Long came as part of the package on recommendation from Doyle himself, Long was part of the Cork City youth set-up and was held in high regard by Kevin and the club’s staff, he also dabbled in another sport on the side, Hurling. Both would go onto represent Ireland at International level a combined 145 times and despite coming into the club for a nominal fee, both would leave on transfers totaling £13m.
This was very typical of Steve’s time at the club and for me, why he should be labelled a game changer for Reading, he found the hidden gems more often than not or the rough diamonds that could be polished and shaped into irreplaceable pieces of an intricate jigsaw. Looking back over the signings Coppell made, at the time they were a ragtag band of Academy rejects, lower league journeyman or from a “sub-par league.” Where they played and whatever their circumstances though didn’t deter Coppell from signing them, if he felt you had the right attitude and were coachable, he had all the time in the world for you.
Perhaps it was that ethos that bonded the players more than any other team I’ve seen play before or since. Steve brought in a special bunch of players, with a great mindset and it showed on the pitch as well as off it.
Much like Steve himself, the 2005/06 season started out very unassuming, and smacked of “here we go again” with a 2-1 loss to Plymouth on the opening day. Reading had dominated the possession and looked the better team throughout, the new signings looked settled and bright, we just didn’t have the cutting edge on the day, going down to a 90th-minute winner by former Everton Academy graduate Nick Chadwick. What would follow over the next 33 games would break records, that still stand over a decade later.
Reading just didn’t lose, between 1st November and 10th February, they failed to take all three points on just two occasions, with draws against Crystal Palace and Derby County. They weren’t shy in front of goal either, closing the campaign with 99 goals in total and only conceding 32 times spoke volumes for the defence too. Coppell had now fully implemented his style and it was paying dividends, winning the league comfortably and heading towards the Royals’ first-ever season in the Premier League.
What stood out more than anything else though was how the players reacted to certain situations, they reflected Coppell’s calmness in the most heated moments of the game and displayed a bond stronger than any other team when they went behind or conceded an equaliser. Each goal was celebrated together as a group, the goal scorer showing appreciation to the player who provided the assist and they offered opportunities to each other and every turn.
This manifested itself in the best possible way on the final day of the season against QPR. Reading had long been confirmed as champions, with a 1-1 draw against Leicester City 5 weeks earlier. Going into the last 5 minutes of the game, Reading were awarded a penalty with score at 1-1, as it stood Reading were one point behind Barry Town’s highest points in a season record of 105, but by scoring this penalty, they could claim the record for themselves. Graham Murty stood as the only outfield player yet to score a goal and the team decided it should be him that took the penalty.
Reading ended the year on 106 points, a European League record and in hindsight, were just two goals away from an undefeated Championship season, had we scored a second against Plymouth on the opening day and had Doyle scored a hat-trick instead of a brace against Luton Town, Reading would have gone 46 games without loss. Let’s be honest though, no one is losing sleep over that, instead, they revelled in a truly remarkable season, instigated by a manager many thought would take us backwards.
Part Two looks at Reading’s first-ever season in the Premier League and what the continued influence of Steve Coppell would look like in England’s top tier.