Coppell content to manage nicely

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The Independent Online

Ask some Manchester United supporters about Steve Coppell and the reaction is surprising. "He played better for England than he did for the club," is a common comment, which is a less-than-glowing testimonial for eight years of service and more than 300 games.

Ah the mists of time... but, if the Stretford End were grudging in their appreciation, you could not walk around the rest of Old Trafford last night without tripping over superlatives. Bryan Robson, for one, described the Reading manager as the best footballer he played with at United, which, when you consider the alternative candidates, is the sort of compliment that you would want to cut out and frame.

Sir Alex Ferguson, too, was ready with his eulogies in his programme notes, nominating Coppell as manager of the year for pushing his team into the Uefa Cup places. "Somebody has got to achieve the Treble, or at least the Double," he wrote, "to match Reading's achievement in this their first ever Premiership campaign."

So it was plaudits all round then? Not if you were a BBC executive. It seemed a good idea when the FA Cup fifth-round draw was made to have United versus Reading as Saturday prime-time viewing, but football has become embedded in the fabric of the nation when the reserves are expected to stop you switching channels.

You suspect fingers were hovering over the remote as soon as the teams were announced because United made six changes and Reading seven which meant BBC1 were giving the greatest coverage for a bunch of stiffs since the screening of Dawn Of The Dead. "Every game we play in the Premiership is a cup final," was Coppell's explanation, which is unlikely to have cut little ice in Television Centre last night.

To be fair to Coppell, who sat largely stone-like, Reading had the better of the opening minutes until the home team began to spread to the wings and the older members of the Old Trafford crowd could make the comparison between Coppell and the players who patrol the flanks for United today.

Coppell was a subtle player who, in football's vernacular, "did a job" on the right wing. He was the straight man to his colleagues' more extravagant contributions, working hard, helping his full-back and firing in crosses when the chance allowed. Cristiano Ronaldo, yesterday all step-overs, show and little substance, has the red No 7 shirt that the Reading manager wore in his pomp but a more natural successor is Park Ji-Sung.

Maybe the South Korean has more pace, but you are not gilding Coppell's memory by awarding him a cooler mind in the penalty area. There is a debate about whether the Park part should come at the start or end of his name, but however you construct his identity, he fulfils the old joke that his nickname ought to be Jigsaw because he falls to pieces in the box. On three occasions in the first half he wasted a chance by being hasty.

Which is an accusation you could never throw at Coppell, whose demeanour is more bored librarian than demonic manager. Last night he did not emerge from his bench until after an hour and then he looked almost embarrassed. As for the reaction when Brynjar Gunnarsson scored Reading's equaliser, the expression "stiff upper lip" was made for the occasion.

No manager in England better shrugs off football's extremes ordeserves the plaudits that he received last night. For the record, he was a pretty good player for club and country too.

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