Coppell in with a shout of Cup glory

The Reading manager has a host of FA Cup memories as he returns to Old Trafford tonight hoping to cause a major upset, writes Paul Newman
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The Independent Football

It is 17 years since Steve Coppell last crossed FA Cup swords with Manchester United, where he made his name as a player, but both the Reading manager and his opposite number would have good reason to recall that occasion when they meet at Old Trafford in tonight's televised fifth-round encounter.

The 1990 Wembley final, when his Crystal Palace team came within seven minutes of beating Alex Ferguson's side before losing the replay, feels like "three lifetimes ago" to Coppell, but it remains as cherished a moment as his victory on the same stage in a United shirt 13 years previously.

As Reading attempt to reach the quarter-finals for the first time for 80 years at the expense of the best team in the land, that 1990 Cup campaign is a reminder that anything is possible.

Palace reached the final by knocking out all-conquering Liverpool, having lost 9-0 at Anfield earlier in the season, while United's subsequent Wembley victory probably saved Ferguson's job after his first four years had failed to yield a trophy. "Inadvertently, we were the catalyst for an empire," Coppell said, referring to the glory years that were to follow for United.

The FA Cup is dear to Coppell's heart. In his eight playing years at Old Trafford, United failed to win the League and won only two European ties, but the Cup brought three final appearances in his first four seasons.

"It almost felt commonplace," Coppell said. "We felt: 'Yeah, that's what we're about. You win six games and you win the Cup.' It was almost something that we concentrated on. We felt capable of beating any team, so we always felt that winning six matches in a row was within our compass," the Reading manager said.

Given Coppell's history, some might be surprised that his team tonight will show "seven or eight" changes from the side that beat Aston Villa last weekend, when Reading extended their run this year to seven wins and a draw from eight matches and cemented sixth place in their remarkable first season in the top flight. Stalwarts like Marcus Hahnemann and Glen Little are likely to be rested in favour of Adam Federici, a 22-year-old Australian goalkeeper with two first-team appearances to his name, and John Oster, who has started three Premiership games this season.

Knowing Reading would face "an FA Cup final every week in the Premiership", Coppell decided last summer that he would give fringe players their chance in the cups. He has been true to his word and said it would be "disrespectful" to his squad if he changed now.

He said no slight on the Cup was intended. "We want to win, 100 per cent, and if we didn't have that desire we wouldn't have won the previous two rounds," he insisted. "I'm excited by seeing how other players perform at that level. It's nothing to do with the people who played in the last League game or trying to protect them."

Nevertheless, Coppell agreed that the ever-increasing financial importance of the Premiership had altered clubs' priorities. "Access to the Uefa Cup maybe doesn't mean what it used to," he added. "Quite a few English teams have probably lost money in the Uefa Cup. Although you can say it's great being in Europe, every team is a business."

Coppell thinks that Cardiff has "a magnificent stadium" but reckons the years away from the Cup's historic home have not helped. "Wembley is still very, very special. Just the name. And the new Wembley will, I'm sure, be equally as delightful as the old one."

He said he cared deeply about the integrity of the Cup but stressed: "Nothing stays the same. There's always change and change is development. I think the European connection has been the biggest problem. Although the FA Cup has been massive for us, in most countries domestic cup competitions are the poor relations. We've adopted that mentality to a certain extent."

Mentalities may change but memories remain. Coppell recalls with fondness his first FA Cup goal, for Tranmere Rovers away to Farsley Celtic in the first round in 1974, when he was studying economics at Liverpool University.

"I usually played centre-forward for Tranmere," Coppell said. "A cross came in from the wing and I got across the defender at the near post about eight yards out. It was special because the match had been switched to Elland Road and I scored at what I considered the Kop end.

"It was especially poignant for me because I'd originally put Leeds University down on my UCCA list as my first choice. Liverpool was second choice, but my school in Liverpool had really good links with Liverpool University's Economics Department and when I went for interview they said that more or less whatever I got at A-level they would take me. I thought: 'Why bother busting a gut to go to Leeds?' Not that it affected how hard I worked for my A-levels."

United reached the final in Coppell's first Cup campaign for Tommy Docherty's team, despite needing two second-half penalties after Oxford United had led at Old Trafford in the third round. "The Doc always used to say: 'If you're going to win the Cup your name's on it from the first round.' I remember one year when we were fortunate to win at Colchester. There was a belief in the dressing room that luck was on our side and we'd go all the way."

Southampton beat United 1-0 in Coppell's first final, but he admitted he "wasn't too disappointed" afterwards. "Just to have taken part in an occasion which I'd grown up watching was very special. And I had a medal - even if it was a loser's medal - to prove it. I always loved the FA Cup final. I used to get up early and watch six hours of pre-match stuff, with all the silly preamble there used to be."

Twelve months later, Coppell was a Wembley winner as United beat Liverpool 2-1. "Climbing those steps to get a winner's medal, having climbed them to get a loser's medal 12 months previously, was undoubtedly one of my highlights," he said. "It was as though we were avenging what had happened 12 months previously."

Most football men will tell you that nothing beats playing, but, with a message that United should heed tonight, Coppell insisted: "Being there as a manager was just as good as being there as a player - probably because the sort of clubs I've managed, including Palace, haven't been fancied by anyone to get anywhere near the final. Walking out at Wembley as a manager was a really heart-stopping moment."

Docherty's duck shoot stands out in a trip down memory lane

Manchester United, managed by Tommy Docherty, reached the FA Cup final in Steve Coppell's first two full seasons at Old Trafford. The two semi-final victories at Hillsborough - 2-0 over Derby County in 1976 and 2-1 over Leeds United the following year - were memorable for Coppell for very different reasons.

"We were staying at the Mottram Hall Hotel before the Derby game," Coppell recalled. "After we'd trained the day before the match Tommy Docherty said to me and Gordon Hill: 'What are you doing this afternoon?' I said: 'I don't know.' He replied: 'Well, I've got the head waiter, Mario, and we're going hunting.'

"So we went traipsing across the fields with guns in our hands looking for rabbits and the like. I think Gordon had done a bit of shooting, but it was completely new to me and Tommy Doc. He was just so full of life that it was typical of him. After a couple of hours I was knackered. I remembered thinking: 'This can't be right the day before a game.' We got back to the hotel and the Doc hadn't actually fired his gun at anything, so he ended up trying to shoot one of the ducks on the lake at the back of the hotel.

"The afternoon left me very tired and I think that was reflected the following day. Thankfully Gordon was flying. He scored twice and we reached the final.

"I was really conscious of that when we played Leeds in the semi-final the following year. I made sure I looked after myself. I played well and scored. I remember Bobby Charlton voting me man of the match. I was really proud of that. I've still got the bottle of champagne.

"With people like me, Gordon Hill and Lou Macari in the team we were quite a small side. Before the game Gordon McQueen, all 6ft 4in of him, was growling in the tunnel, looking at us and saying: 'Look at all these midgets. If we can't beat this lot we need locking up.' Gordon joined us the following year and we didn't let him forget what he'd said."

'Calm, intelligent and not too emotional'

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, was full of praise yesterday for the job Steve Coppell has done in lifting Reading into the top echelons of English football, particularly with a squad of mainly home-grown players.

Ferguson agreed with the suggestion that Coppell should be named manager of the year. "I think it's totally deserved," Ferguson said. "It's a marvellous contribution he's made. And what's encouraging for the Premiership is that it's mostly British-based players in his side, with some Irish players thrown in. I think that says a lot for the way he has gathered his team together.

"It's encouraging because there is a contentious issue in our game about how many foreign players should be in our league. It's the duty of every manager to try to get the best team he can. But I think Steve Coppell has done it in a way that has surprised people."

Of Coppell's style, Ferguson said: "He doesn't get too emotional. He's a calm, intelligent lad. When we played Palace in the 1990 final, he had a really feisty team, all warriors. It was an example of how he's able to bond together good pros with a good, winning attitude."