Searching for the real Steve Coppell
by Stuart Roach
Know The Score Books, £17.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 277 March 2010

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Is Steve Coppell interesting enough to merit a second biography? Reading-based journalist Stuart Roach believes he is and seeks to add spice with the sub-title “Searching for the real Steve Coppell”. As an organising principle this fails simply because there are no false or pretend Steve Coppells. What you hear from Steve is what there is – it’s one of his distinguishing characteristics. After 200 pages Roach predictably admits defeat – he “remains a footballing enigma”.

XCoppell is an important personality in English football – a former chairman of the PFA, twice LMA Manager of the Year and still with the potential to assume any number of important roles within the game, a Brooking with bollocks. His key values are wisdom, integrity and the respect so many people have for him. The interesting questions are how did he develop such a singular image and what use has he put it to. Coppell guards his privacy, so we do not hear directly from him via Roach in a one-to-one contemporary interview and many of the Coppell quotes used are not attributed to a time or context.

Roach does not attempt cod psychology so it is left to the reader to adduce the effects of being a student/footballer, of a top career cut short at 28, of being a naturally quiet and sensitive person in a raucous environment. Honesty and having a deadpan sense of humour are excellent defences. But being intelligent enough to strip out all the waste of words, of money, of time spent with impossible people is the over-riding virtue of the man. Roach could make more of his contrast with the rest of the football world but unfortunately there’s no word from any of his chairmen except Brighton’s Dick Knight.

In terms of achievement Coppell has been more successful in gathering plaudits than winner’s medals. Roach doesn’t count them but I made it just three (FA Cup 1977, ZDS 1991, Championship 2006) plus a few Palace promotions. The eras of success – Palace 1989-91 and Reading 2005-07 – are rightly seen as “cycles” rather than “foundations”. In nip-and-tuck races and one-off big games Coppell’s ratio of success is not favourable, an aspect of his management that goes unnoticed, let alone analysed. Roach’s approach is one of thorough and professional reportage but based on the views of friends, a prose version of This Is Your Life. A revealing biography needs to go further, to have a shaping vision of its subject and interpret the evidence.

Roach is obliged to do this, by public interest, with the most out-of-character episode of Coppell’s life, the mere 33 days he spent as manager of Manchester City, and he does it well coming up with a plausible explanation, a potent mix of personal and professional factors. At the moment Coppell is resting between jobs but everyone is sure he will be back in some, possibly important, capacity. If you don’t know the Coppell back story Roach offers a useful and balanced guide to his whole football career. If you want to know the man himself you need do no more than listen to him speak.

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