Yesterday's script clearly called for Steve Coppell to inspire Crawley Town to victory on his return to the dugout for the first time since resigning as manager of Bristol City in August 2010. As the League Two side's new director of football, he made sure that Craig Brewster, the caretaker manager, took centre stage in the technical area, but surely victory would be delivered thanks to some subtlety, some nugget of wisdom gleaned from Coppell's time in the top flight with Crystal Palace, Manchester City and Reading.
But things did not turn out as planned, and it did not require Premier League experience to see that the League Two side's main problem is keeping 11 men on the field. Already missing four suspended players – three as a result of the notorious battle of Bradford last month, which ended in a mass brawl – Crawley were down to 10 men after only five minutes of yesterday's game when Hope Akpan was sent off for a challenge that broke the leg of the Wimbledon forward Jason Prior.
It was Crawley's second red card in as many matches and Akpan's second this season against the same opponents.
Still the better side with 10 men, Crawley went behind when Sammy Moore put Wimbledon ahead from 15 yards after 77 minutes. Gary Alexander equalised nine minutes from time but they could not find a winner – the best director of football in the world cannot prevent players from missing chances
Coppell's improbable return to club football came when he phoned Crawley last Monday to offer his assistance over the final five games of the season – now four. The call gave a much-needed boost to Crawley after the sudden departure to Rotherham United of Steve Evans, the manager who had led the club into the Football League this season, reportedly frustrated by the sale of top scorers Matt Tubbs and Tyrone Barnett.
But not everyone has mourned Evans's exit. Dannie Bulman, the captain, spoke last week of a "little circus on the sidelines" and the culture of the club will certainly change. Where Evans was abrasive, Brewster and Coppell are both more measured, and Coppell in particular will improve the reputation of a club that has not been well-liked by others. "It has ticked the box, hasn't it?" Alan Williams, the chief executive, said. "Steve Evans's way was different to Steve Coppell's, but both ways work. This has turned out very well for us. Just the announcement of his name lifted the players and the staff. Hopefully both parties like what they see and we'll be able to make it more of a permanent arrangement."
That many come after four games, or the play-offs, but it is hard to imagine that Crawley will not want continued access to Coppell's nous and knowledge, at all levels – which his director of football title suggests. Coppell is at pains to state that he is not looking to wrest away control of team affairs. "I made an innocent phone call and I would hate people to think: 'There's that devious so-and-so trying to squeeze people out of work'," he said. "One hundred per cent no. When I was at Palace it took me five years to get promotion. I doubt you'd get that now. Young managers need a sounding board. That would satisfy my craving for football. Going forward it's just seeing what happens."
He was not looking to restrict himself to the low pressure environment of a backroom role, but recognises that his options are probably restricted after walking out on Bristol City as he did Manchester City in 1996. "Pressure has never been an issue, it has never deterred me," he said. "Regrets? No. Did I damage either club? Not a great deal – I wasn't there long enough.
"I wasn't inundated with offers [before Crawley]. People were correctly suspicious of me. It has been a funny ride I've taken. It was never planned to be the way it has turned out. But with five games to go, I thought maybe there was something I could do to benefit Crawley Town." Getting them to cut out the red cards will be a start.
Crawley (4-4-2): Kuipers; Simpson, Dempster, Wassmer, Howell; Davies, Bulman, Akpan, Neilson; Clarke (Watt, 79), Alexander.
AFC Wimbledon (4-1-2-3): Brown; Hatton, Mitchel-King, Stuart, Gwillim; Jolley (Yussuff, 70); S Moore, Moncur; L Moore (Djilali, 70) Prior (Harrison, 9), Midson.
Referee Darren Drysdale.
Man of the match Mitchel-King (AFC Wimbledon).
Match rating 7/10.Reuse content