• Rewind to 1996

Coppell finds City pressure-cooker too much to take

Jon Carter
November 8, 2012
Steve Coppell's time at Manchester City was short-lived © Getty Images
Enlarge

On October 7 1996, Steve Coppell was confirmed as manager of First Division Manchester City, ending the club's 42-day search for a successor to Alan Ball. However, he lasted just 33 days before quitting because of stress on November 8.

The early stages of Steve Coppell's playing career hinted that his passion for football could veer to extremes of both joy and sadness. Rejected by Liverpool as a youngster for being too small [he stood just 4' 11'' at the time], he "cried all the way home," his father Jim said in a 1990 interview with the Daily Express's Christopher Hilton, and "lost his faith in ever becoming a footballer" after being rejected by Everton a year later.

With his focus turned to other pursuits - namely golf and studying economic and social history at Liverpool University - Coppell continued to play football for pleasure and was eventually persuaded to undergo one last trial at Tranmere Rovers. It just so happened that he scored a hat-trick under the watchful eye of Tranmere boss Ron Yeats, and was signed on a part-time basis, enabling him to continue his studies, soon afterwards.

Having grown seven inches in the space of a year, Coppell finally reached the sort of physique required for a footballer and did not look back. Manchester United manager Tommy Doherty signed him without even watching him play after he had scored 10 goals in 38 games for Rovers, and he would go on to break the record for the most consecutive appearances for an outfield United player - 207 from 1977 to 1981 - which still stands to this day, and boast statistics of 373 appearances and 70 goals during his time at Old Trafford.

England honours followed, and it looked as though Coppell would secure his place among the best midfielders in the history books - but tragedy struck in a vital World Cup qualifier against Hungary in 1982. A vicious challenge shattered his knee - he said it felt "like someone had put a firework in my knee and it had gone off" - and he would not recover.

With his career cruelly cut short at the age of 28, Coppell would have been forgiven if he had left the game altogether. But he took his first steps in management with Crystal Palace in 1984. At 28 years and ten months old, he was the youngest manager in the Football League and made many budget signings of unwanted players from the First Division - as well as snapping up Ian Wright from the depths of non-league football - to greatly improve the team's fortunes.

Indeed, only five years later, Coppell guided the Eagles back to the top flight after the South London club had dropped into the second tier under Alan Mullery, and was viewed as one of the best young bosses in the business.

The success continued to flow as Coppell took Palace to the 1990 FA Cup final, where they lost to his former team Manchester United in a replay, and the following season saw him guide the club to third place. It was their highest-ever league position, and came with plaudits that only increased when they also claimed their first major trophy: the now-defunct Zenith Data Systems Cup.

But it could not last. As a Daily Telegraph article explains: "The inaugural season of the Premier League in 1992-93 coincided with the cyclical decline of the lesser club. Palace were relegated, prompting Coppell's resignation, but not to the detriment of his standing in the game, and he was talked about as a candidate for the England post."

Steve Coppell enhanced his reputation at Crystal Palace © Getty Images
Enlarge

Instead of England, though, Coppell returned to Crystal Palace as Director of Football in 1995, but his ambition to manage at the highest level continued to drive him.

If he was looking for stability, then perhaps he chose the wrong club. At the time, Manchester City were unravelling: They had been relegated at the end of the 1995-96 season under the stewardship of Alan Ball, and a poor start to the following campaign had seen him sacked in August.

The club were looking for new investment, and a revealing article in the Daily Express in September saw "mystery Arabs" who had been linked exposed as "just a mirage", while chairman Francis Lee went on the attack and claimed: "I am sick of talking to idiots, the clowns I have met who were supposedly interested in investing in the club. I am sure that two or three were just in it for the self-glorification."

Searching for a new manager and new investment at the same time is never easy, but Lee's job was made all the harder when George Graham and Dave Bassett turned City down at the last minute. "Football is a jungle," Lee proclaimed after revealing that Bassett had got cold feet overnight despite agreeing to everything (including a player to sign) the day before. After the fiasco of Graham, another rejection did not go down well: "I asked him [Bassett] if that was his final decision," said Lee. "He said 'yes' so I told him I was looking forward to thrashing him 5-1 when he came to Maine Road next. Then I hung up."

After Asa Hartford took over as caretaker manager, City had a brief dalliance with Kenny Dalglish - he also rejected them as he was not ready to return to management - and it was left to Coppell to finally agree to take the reins after beating off competition from the likes of Bruce Rioch and Alan Smith in October.

"I'm an animal who tends to roost wherever he stays," Coppell told reporters at his first City press conference. "I was at United and Palace for nine years apiece, and I hope that City is a long-term rather than a short-term move."

But it was not. From day one, he had the look of a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders and, after only six games and 33 days in charge, he quit, citing severe stress. Only two of his games were won, leaving City 17th in Division One with a mountain to climb.

"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," Coppell said.

"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. I am therefore resigning for personal reasons. I'm extremely embarrassed by the situation and I would like to apologise first and foremost to Francis Lee and his board, who have done everything in their power to help me."

There was sympathy from City chairman and former playing legend Lee, but also some barely disguised annoyance: "There is pressure in managing anything, but that sort of pressure doesn't come along in three or four weeks," he said. Palace chairman Ron Noades added: "I was surprised at how much it took out of him. I think he found the club [City] too enormous, but he weathered it."

Coppell was not alone in finding City's hotseat too hot, and was their third manager of a season in which five men took charge of the team in one capacity or another. However, his 33-day spell in charge was the shortest by any City manager then or since.

Phil Neal - temporarily at least - was left to pick up the pieces © PA Photos
Enlarge

What happened next? Lee put assistant Phil Neal in charge before appointing Frank Clark, who took City a few places up the table but not enough for promotion. Coppell returned for two further spells at Crystal Palace, the first as chief scout before he was promoted after the resignation of Bassett (ironically) in February 1997. He secured promotion back to the top flight, via the play-offs, but the Eagles went down again the following season.

He achieved success with Reading, leading them to the Premier League for the first time ever in 2006, but found the pressure of managing Bristol City too much and quit after only four months in 2010.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Close