Jim Cooper: No one likes us... Met Police manager prepares for FA Cup

They meet Crawley in the Cup tomorrow and few fans will be cheering them on. But getting stick is nothing new

In East Germany, Dinamo Berlin won 10 successive championships in the 1980s, but theirs was a tainted glory. Dinamo were the "police team" and their dominance owed much to fearful or corrupt referees and high-level interference.

We do things differently in Britain, which is why Metropolitan Police FC play in the Ryman League, not the Premier League, and why tomorrow's FA Cup first-round tie against Crawley Town is one of the biggest days in a 93-year history. It is only the Met's fourth appearance at this stage of the competition and their first tie against a League club since being beaten 9-0 by Northampton Town in 1931.

In normal circumstances the local populace would be queueing round the ground to get tickets for such a historic match, but while the Met may not be detested like Dinamo, who represented both the Stasi secret police as well as the regular force, most people in the neighbourhood are more interested in tickets for Monday's Bonfire Night extravaganza. A 2,000-plus gate is expected tomorrow, but almost all are likely to have travelled from Crawley.

Even by Ryman League standards Met Police are poorly supported. On Wednesday they played another cup tie, an FA Trophy second qualifying round replay against Leiston. The gate was 66 and as the goals went in it became clear most had travelled from the Suffolk coast. Large areas of terracing at the well-appointed Imber Court ground were deserted.

"It is difficult for the players to motivate themselves," said manager Jim Cooper, "but the facilities are among the best in non-league. All the trappings of grandeur we provide with facilities is counteracted by the lack of support, but we know that: who is going to support the Met Police FC? If it wasn't for parents and friends of the players we would have even less."

Cooper, a former Met player and manager for nine years, is a detective sergeant based in Essex. Normally involved in monitoring sex offenders in the community, he is currently on secondment to Operation Withern, the investigation following up and seeking convictions from last year's riots. All the administrative and coaching staff are current or former officers, but not the players. Only the right-winger Craig Brown, once of Orient, and reserve goalkeeper Tom McNeil, pound the beat. The rest include several teachers, a golf club greenkeeper and, in defender Jay Lovett, a youth team coach at opponents Crawley.

The club went open in 2004 to solve a goalkeeper crisis, but there are still restrictions. The likes of Joey Barton, Marlon King and Lee Hughes need not apply – no one with a criminal record is allowed to play for the club and they do have code of conduct. PC Brown was booked against Leiston but there was minimal dissent. "It is difficult sometimes but good conduct is expected. They may not all be in the service, but they are representing the Met Police," said Cooper.

One player, midfielder Tyron Smith, a scaffolder, wants to join the police after being involved in the club, but has been stymied by a recruitment freeze. Clearly, he had not been put off by the police-related abuse the players receive from some fans. "I find it quite funny," said Cooper, "fans assume all our players are Old Bill so they give them stick. It is everyday policing for me, water off a duck's back, but the others realise how we feel normally."

Cooper said the abuse was usually in good spirit but it does raise a serious issue. Across the Atlantic the "first responders", including police, are being praised effusively and deservedly for their efforts, as they were after 9/11. It does seem there is greater respect for police in the US. Yet the Met are on the front line too – last year they had to cancel matches during the London riots, partly, said Cooper, as the Met could not be seen to be playing football amid such disorder, but also because four players, himself and his coaches were on the streets dealing with the problems. Like referees, police may not be popular, but imagine life without them.

We are talking outside in a near-darkened stadium, primarily as Leiston's celebrations after their 4-3 win include a ghetto blaster which is pounding through the dressing-room area. Cooper considers the issue carefully. "We don't always get it right, we know that, but the majority of times that we do – for those people we help out and we save lives, prevent disorder, those people are obviously very thankful we are here.

"The response of the public to the untimely deaths of the two young policewomen in Manchester showed how well the police are respected, those people who are normally quiet came out in vocal support of the police service. I've been involved in a similar thing and it is a dreadful time to be a police officer, but at times like that the public do come out in support of the police. But, quite rightly, they are vociferous when it does go wrong."

Football supporters and police have an often difficult relationship, highlighted by the recent revelations of a cover-up after Hillsborough, but rooted in the two decades before when the force had to respond aggressively to hooliganism. Cooper is aware of the way his club are perceived. It was his idea to have them running out to The Clash singing "I Fought The Law". "It's a good way of breaking the ice, and it is a good tune as well," said Cooper.

There are some other nods to their background. The "boys in blue" play in blue while the first two questions in the match programme quiz referred to the incidents leading to Joey Barton's two jail terms. The club is free from taxpayer involvement, being funded by a voluntary lottery paid by each Met officer that also supports other recreational activities, and football income. To that end admission prices have been increased tomorrow angering Crawley fans but agreed by both clubs.

Long-term the club, which is based near Hampton Court, are trying to develop roots in the community developing junior and academy teams. Cooper hopes the Kickz project, an outstanding initiative funded by the Met and the Premier League that seeks to break down barriers between teenagers and police, could also prove to be a source of players.

Crawley were the Met's opponents last time they reached this stage, in 1993, but Crawley were Southern League then. Now they are chasing promotion to the Championship and nicking a result will be difficult. The Met play passing football on a lovely pitch and on Wednesday dominated Leiston with Brown and Guyanese international Chris Bourne causing problems on the flanks, but they wasted chances and defended abysmally. The former was partly as the Met were without Jonte Smith who has scored 10 goals in their FA Cup run but is on loan from…Crawley. As it happened a groin strain means he could not have played anyway. Cooper hopes the defending will improve with the return of captain Steve Sutherland, one of several players rested for tomorrow's game.

"The Cup run is great for the club because of the exposure and we'll give it a good go," said DS Cooper. "We will be well prepared off the pitch – that is something the Met do well – so it should be a good day for the Crawley fans, and for our two fans."

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