Football: Coppell recovers his bounce: Joe Lovejoy meets the Crystal Palace manager, who almost resigned recently

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The Independent Online
IF they need a new Aladdin at Croydon's Fairfield Hall, they could do a lot worse than Steve Coppell. If Crystal Palace's studious young manager is to be believed, the striking transformation in his team's fortunes is testimony to the power of nothing more ingenious than wishful thinking.

Four weeks ago, after a 5-0 drubbing at Anfield, Palace were 'in the shit', to borrow Coppell's colloquialism. With just one win in their first 17 League games, they were sinking fast and, with no new ideas to stop the rot, Coppell went to his chairman, Ron Noades, and suggested that a change might be mutually beneficial.

Noades would have none of it. After eight and a half years at Selhurst Park - longevity matched only by Brian Clough and Oldham's Joe Royle - Coppell had not used up his credits in the space of three months. They would soldier on together. A wise decision. Six successive wins later, Palace are up from 21st to 15th in the Premier League, through to the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup, and Coppell is about to be named manager of the month for December. 'Glad All Over', the club's anthem, suddenly sounds a mite more appropriate.

Hartlepool, who must have fancied their chances in today's third-round FA Cup tie when the draw was made, will now be casting their minds back to last season, when Palace went to the Victoria Ground in the old Rumbelows Cup, and earned a replay in which they romped home 6-1.

Needless to say, Coppell is a much happier man with the pressure off. Happier, but slightly puzzled. 'People ask me, 'What have you done to turn things around?' and I'm not sure. The improvement is largely the result of doing the same things, only better. I suppose there are a couple of minor things we have amended, or changed. The most obvious alteration is that we are playing with a sweeper. But in terms of the atmosphere around the place, and the attitude of the players, I would say it has been constant all the way through.'

With one notable exception, that is. After selling three of their best men (Ian Wright, Mark Bright and Andy Gray) and losing a fourth, John Salako, with a serious knee injury, Palace could have done without the on-off transfer saga which disillusioned their inspirational captain, Geoff Thomas.

The dynamic midfielder, who was fetching and carrying for England before the advent of Carlton Palmer, might have gone to Blackburn Rovers or Arsenal during the summer, and took a long time to get over the disappointment when both moves broke down.

The stumbling block was Crewe's entitlement to 15 per cent of any fee under the terms of his transfer to Palace five years ago. Coppell explained: 'The chairman said to me: 'What's he worth?' and I said: 'To us, two and a half million pounds'. We wanted two and a half million pounds net, with Crewe's percentage on top, which took the price to nearly pounds 3m. Arsenal stuck at two and a half million, but we got very close with Blackburn before they suddenly said: 'That's it. Full stop.'

Thomas, understandably, was bitter about the outcome, but got short shrift from his manager. 'I don't sympathise, no,' Coppell said. 'I can see that he thought he could go to Blackburn and earn a lot of money, but all players have got to realise that if you sign a contract, you've got to be prepared to see it through.'

Truth be told, Coppell had not wanted to sell. Wright's transfer to Arsenal, against his wishes, had 'diminished' the club, he felt, and the sale of Thomas would have done so still further. 'I don't want to be scrambling around, fattening lambs for slaughter. I don't want this club to be a farm for others, and that's why I made my stand. Geoff is my captain, and I wanted him to stay. I wanted it badly.

'After a difficult time, he has responded superbly. He has had his injury problems, and went to Lilleshall for three weeks, which was like a career retreat. He worked hard and came back fitter than he had been all year. In the last couple of games he's been excellent. The Geoff Thomas of old.'

A battle won. The one Coppell lost still rankles. 'We're not as attractive a club without Ian Wright,' he says. 'When he left, it was indicative of our standing. It was someone saying: 'I'm a top player, I want to be with a club who are going to win things, and that means I leave Crystal Palace.'

Coppell was hurt, but was Ian right? Are Palace big enough to win the Premier League?

'I've got to say yes, haven't I, but realistically, I think no. This season is confounding everybody, with teams up at the top who are not from the higher echelon, but I think an awful lot of that is to do with the Taylor Report, and big clubs diverting resources for ground improvements. Once all that is out of the way, in a couple of years' time, money will talk, and win, again.'

The cost of covering, and seating, the Holmesdale Road end at Selhurst Park had prevented Coppell from resorting to the transfer market when Palace were going from bad to worse. 'We couldn't have bought anyone - or at least only a tiddler,' he says.

A month ago, he was at his lowest ebb. 'I went to the chairman one day for a chat and said: 'I've got no magic ingredient. All I can do is keep on doing what we are doing and hope we get a break.' He was very reasonable. His attitude was: 'We're in the shit, can we do something about it?' I said I had no special formula.

'I told him I was amazed that we were where we were, and he said: 'Well, we can't go out and spend pounds 1m on a player.' There were funds available, but not enough for the kind of player who could come in and make a major impact. We sat there and came to the conclusion that all we could do was battle on.'

A parting of the ways had been considered, third-party overtures from Sunderland suddenly of interest. 'I think we were both thinking that after eight and a half years it might be time for a change,' Coppell said. 'I'm always self-critical, and although we do have a tremendously high turnover of players here, I sometimes think they've heard everything I've got to say. The one thing I don't want to do is get into a rut which turns into a grave. Thankfully, it hasn't come to that. They've really pulled round.'

History had repeated itself in the sense that a crushing defeat by Liverpool had proved to be a watershed. In September 1989 Palace lost 9-0 at Anfield, but bounced back well enough to get to the FA Cup final, gaining revenge over Liverpool in a memorable semi-final at Villa Park. Five weeks ago, Palace were buried 5-0 by McManaman, Rosenthal and Hutchison, and again it was a cathartic experience. They have won their six games since, seeing off Liverpool with a heroic performance in the Coca-Cola Cup.

With six regulars out, for various reasons, no one gave them a prayer, but a make-do-and-mend side, drawn largely from the the youth team and reserves, produced an upset in the very best traditions of knock-out football.

Coppell was encouraged, the whole club inspired. 'I had never doubted the players' commitment, but sometimes it is heightened in bigger games, and it was at a peak that night. Imran Khan said to Pakistan before they won cricket's World Cup: 'Play like cornered tigers', and that was our attitude. We knew we had to dig really deep if we weren't to get stuffed again, and it's amazing how often that backs-to-the-wall spirit works.

'That result had a positive effect throughout the club, and we've played all right since. I have to say, though, that we've had the bounce of the ball in a couple of games, like at Middlesbrough on Monday, when we should have been beaten. The goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, was superb.'

The smile comes more readily now, the spring back in the determined stride, but Coppell is taking nothing for granted. 'It can all go wrong again just as quickly as it came right, and again I probably wouldn't know why.

'As a manager, you're like a prostitute. You depend on other people for your living. Come three o'clock, there is that element of chance beyond your control. You are reliant on others being mentally right, physically prepared and tactically knowledgeable enough to cope. If they're not, who knows why?

'Yes, it worries me, but football is still better than real work. The cold reality of it all is that if I'd used my degree (in economics) to become a teacher, I'd be earning pounds 20,000 a year. I'm not stupid enough to go down that path now when I've got used to a certain lifestyle. I want to live.'

Having attained his goal in terms of a comfortable standard of living, Coppell is happy with his lot. 'I don't have driving ambitions in a football sense. I don't feel I've got to get on and do this or that and I don't envy Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or Graeme Souness at Liverpool. I certainly wouldn't manage England. Slagging off the England manager has become a cottage industry, and he gets very little respect or support. People say he's well paid, and therefore fair game, but any criticism should be constructive, not as painfully destructive as it is. I wouldn't want that.

'The English League is very much club orientated. It is almost as if it is constructed to inhibit the England team. We all know there are too many games, and that's one of the reasons I think we were better off out of Europe. Nobody agrees with me about that, I know, but I don't see how playing in Europe improves our standards. How can we learn anything from the Italians, or whoever, through one club playing one game a season against them? You can learn more from watching them on the telly.

'No one goes to study their training methods. That's where you learn. We should be learning from the Dutch who, from a population of 11 million, consistently produce the best national side in Europe. Charles Hughes, or whoever is in charge of coaching in this country, should go to Holland and find out what they are doing with their kids to produce brilliant players year after year. We should be copying that. That's learning. If you can't innovate, then imitate. We should copy what the Dutch do.'

Hence the sweeper, presumably. Even at Hartlepool.

(Photograph omitted)