Manchester United Career Details:
Signed From: Tranmere Rovers, February 1975 for £60,000 by Tommy Docherty.
Position: Right Midfield/Right Wing
Appearances (Goals): 396 (70) between March 1975 & October 1983
Honours: F.A. Cup Winner (1977, 2-1 vs. Liverpool).
Not many players that will appear on this United ‘The Greatest Transfers’ feature were passionate Liverpool fans as boys and later managed Manchester City, but Steve Coppell is possibly the only exception! Born and raised in Croxteth, the Liverpudlian lad attracted interest from his home city’s big clubs as a youth, but chose to sign for Tranmere Rovers instead, chiefly so that he could combine his fledgling football career with studying for an economics degree at the University of Liverpool.
Such was his impact as a pacy right-winger at the lower league side (13 goals in just 38 appearances) that United, then in the old 2nd Division under colourful manager Tommy “The Doc” Docherty, had to act swiftly to snap Coppell up for a mere £60,000 in February 1975…and what a bargain that turned out to be!
The young lad helped his new club to an immediate promotion to the 1st Division for the 1975-76 season, quickly establishing himself as a permanent fixture in the starting XI at right midfield/right wing. His startling turn of pace and superb close-control abilities with the ball left many left-backs in the English top division with dizzy heads; his crossing ability was radar-like in its accuracy and that he added a considerable goal-threat (often with late runs into the area to meet crossed balls from his counter-part on the left wing, little Gordon Hill) was simply ‘icing on the cake’ for Docherty, and his managerial successors, Dave Sexton and later Ron Atkinson.
Indeed, Coppell was such an utter success at Old Trafford that The Doc later described him as “the greatest signing of my entire managerial career”, which is quite some accolade! I might also add that Steve was my first childhood idol, a dashing winger who brought the crowd to its feet when he ran with the ball. Whilst other lads wanted to play centre-forward (so they could score the goals), I always wanted to play on the right side so I could pretend to be Steve Coppell!
Steve Coppell wore the United no. 7 shirt, made famous on occasion by George Best during the previous decade, and later turned iconic by the likes of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona & Cristiano Ronaldo; if I told you that Steve Coppell in his prime was more than fit to be mentioned in the same breath as those players, you will have some idea of just how good Steve became at United….
That he ended his playing career with a solitary victor’s medal from the 1977 F.A. Cup Final victory over arch-rivals Liverpool is an absolute travesty. He experienced the bitter disappointment of losing three other cup finals with the Red Devils (1976 F.A. Cup vs. Southampton; 1979 F.A. Cup vs. Arsenal; 1983 League Cup vs. Liverpool), though he played well in all those games too, actually setting up both United’s late goals for Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy in the comeback from 0-2 down against Arsenal in 1979, and then suffering heartbreak along with everyone connected to the Club when Gunners striker Alan Sunderland scored their winner with the last kick of the game on 90 minutes (coincidentally the only time I, then a boy of 7, have been reduced to actual tears of sorrow by the outcome of a football match!)
If there is one word that could be used to describe Stevie Coppell’s United career it would be “reliable”- the man simply never had a bad game, which is even more remarkable for a winger, given that most wingers are known as ‘eccentric & erratic’ performers these days….
Perhaps that explains why, almost 35 years later, Steve Coppell STILL holds the United club record for consecutive appearances, playing in 206 games in a row between January 1977 and November 1981. The fact that his United career was effectively ended by a bad knee injury suffered whilst on international duty with England in that November of 1981 (much like what would happen to Neil Webb some years later) was a ‘knife through the heart’ to United’s hopes of challenging the growing domestic domination of Liverpool in the early 1980s- that’s how influential the lad was by that time.
Though he returned from that terrible injury, chiefly (ironically) to help England’s campaign in the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain, Steve was never the same player, constant pain in his knee preventing him from performing as he wanted to, and had previously shown he could. Finally, under medical advice that if he continued playing he risked a good chance of permanent immobility, Coppell retired at the young age of 28 in October 1983; instead of spearheading United’s push for honours under Big Ron Atkinson alongside captain Bryan Robson, Steve was effectively finished by a malicious challenge from a no-mark Hungarian left-back whilst playing for his country.
It was a tragic way for what should have been one of the all-time great United careers to end; had Steve played 30 years later, the advancements in medical science and knowledge since 1983 would probably have seen him able to make a full recovery to resume his playing career, and perhaps Manchester United wouldn’t have had to wait until 1993 to begin knocking his boyhood favourites ‘off their perch’!
Steve has since enjoyed (or endured!) a long managerial career, chiefly with Crystal Palace & Reading, though he did spend 33 ill-fated days as Manchester City manager in 1996, which ended with his resignation from the stress of managing that lot…. He therefore holds the record as the shortest-serving City manager in history too! He currently manages a team in the Indian Premier League, his love for our sport clearly undiminished from the days when he terrorised opposition full-backs at Old Trafford.