Steve Coppell, loved by Albion and Palace fans

In the first of a two-part interview, we catch up with the man who managed both sides.

By Nick Szczepanik • 21 February 2021

Dick Knight welcomes Steve Coppell to Albion in 2002

Steve Coppell is one of a very small number of football people equally revered by fans of both Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace, who meet at the Amex on Monday.

He managed Palace on four occasions and Albion only once, but his spell in charge at Withdean in 2002 and 2003 was both memorable and eventful.

Steve took over from Martin Hinshelwood in October 2002 with the club on a run of ten league defeats and apparently marooned at the foot of the second tier table.

He took the battle against relegation to the very last day of the season before laying the foundations for the instant return in 2004.

He was also responsible for bringing Steve Sidwell and Leon Knight to the club, two players who would go on to become significant figures in Albion history.

“I’d left Brentford after Ron Noades, the owner, had hinted he was going to sell players and I thought it might be time to go,” Steve recalls.

“So I had a good summer, free of all the issues about signings and pre-season, went to a few games, and then I got a phone call from the agent Athole Still. He asked if I would be interested in the Brighton job.

“At the time I was aware that they had had a very poor start to the season and I didn’t really know a great deal about the team.

But of course I was interested. I lived more or less at junction seven of the M25 so it was a straight run down the motorway, and when I looked at the results, I thought there was no better time to go in to any club – the only way was up! I was conceited enough to think that I could make a difference with whoever the group of players were.

“Once the wheels were in motion, it all happened fairly quickly. I met Dick Knight and Martin Perry, and I thought they were both very positive and I thought, yes, if it’s offered I’ll take it. I don’t think I’d seen Withdean before I took the job.

Kerry Mayo became a key member of Steve Coppell's side

“I knew from having played them with Palace that Brighton was a really good club and although it had gone through bad times, it was too good to stay down for long.

"There was too much interest from the supporters and the local community for it to be on its knees forever.

“As Palace manager I’d been to watch games at the Goldstone and everyone had been very hospitable. It was very sad that the club had declined and lost the ground. I felt it was only a matter of time before the club got going and I took the job very much on those terms.”

Was he not concerned about fan reaction, bearing in mind the rivalry between Albion and Palace? “It was a factor, without doubt,” he says.

“I’d spent an awful long time working for Palace but realistically, what clubs was I going to be open to?  So yes, I thought about it, but this is football and it happens. People go from Real Madrid to Barcelona.

"I knew the intensity of feeling on the part of both sets of supporters but I just thought: ‘This is where my career has taken me.  I have to accept it and go with it’.”

Things got worse before they got better, his first game in charge a 4-2 home defeat by Sheffield United.

The Blades came back from a 2-0 half-time deficit thanks to two controversial penalty awards by referee Phil Prosser, whose performance prompted Hove MP Ivor Caplin to threaten to ask questions in the House of Commons.

The next game was a 5-0 thrashing by Palace, of all clubs, at Selhurst Park. “I couldn’t win,” Steve said.

“Brighton fans thought I’d done it deliberately and Palace fans disliked the fact that I was working for Brighton and were ecstatic that they had hammered us and hammered a nail in my managerial coffin at Brighton, as it were.

It was a real low, low point and obviously the worst possible outcome for a new manager coming in. 

“I couldn’t really go mad at the players because I’d only just arrived and the ideas I had hadn’t been fully put across.

"But I’ve found in my career that when you have had absolutely horrendous results that quite often they are a catalyst for change, and change for the better. I had it when Palace lost 9-0 to Liverpool. And things had to change for us to start climbing the league.

Ivar Ingimarsson joined the relegation battle on loan from Wolves.

“So I realised fully the implications of that result.  It was obvious that the team needed help, so we had to get other people in, although I was lucky in that I already had some real solid characters in the squad – people I really enjoyed working with like Charlie [Oatway], Danny [Cullip], Dodge [Paul Rogers], and on the staff Bob Booker was fabulous.

"I felt it was a good environment with a bad outcome at the time. If we could bring in a few troops then it would turn and we could be competitive fairly quickly.”

His first signings were Shoreham-born former Palace midfield player Simon Rodger and ex-Wimbledon central defender Dean Blackwell.

Both started and Rodger scored as Albion beat Bradford City 3-2 in Coppell’s third game.  Bobby Zamora, fit again after missing seven of the ten defeats through injury, netted the other two.

“I knew Simon inside-out and I often said that when he was in his pomp that his set-piece delivery on the left was as good as David Beckham’s from the right,” Coppell said.

“People had laughed but they saw the quality of his delivery. English football is still, even with changes in playing styles, set-piece-centric. It is such an important part of every team’s DNA and if you had someone with Simon Rodger’s quality delivering then you had half a chance. That was critical.

“Danny Cullip was obviously very vocal and you needed someone who was simpatico alongside him. Dean was very quiet and laid-back but good, efficient. He gave us a bit of the rigidity at the back that we needed.

The goalie [Michel Kuipers] was good, a terrific shot-stopper, who cared and was passionate, although he had his kicking issues.

“Kerry [Mayo] and Watto [Paul Watson] were good fullbacks. Kerry was big, strong and powerful with a sweet left foot, but lacking in confidence at the beginning.

"As we started to get results, he took off and showed what a decent player he was. Watto was a great character and a hell of a good footballer, a left footed right back – it shouldn’t have worked, but it did. You could see the bones of a decent side.

"It was there or thereabouts. It just needed a few refinements. I had to make a few difficult decisions, but before too long we were capable of going anywhere and getting results.

“And one of the critical factors was Martin Hinshelwood.  I had known him and thought he had a lot to offer. I had a conversation with him and said I would still like him to be involved.

"He was obviously upset to be relieved of the managerial duties but it was his club and he knew the passion, it was obvious. I wanted him to stay around and he did. That continuity was important for him and for the club.” 

Danny Cullip gave Coppell's team defensive solidity.

In November he signed Steve Sidwell on loan from Arsenal. “My son played football at Chipstead and the Sidwells had been involved there so I knew Steve from the age of 11 and when I was at Palace I tried to sign him, but he was entrenched at Arsenal.

"When I went to Brentford I signed him on loan even though I didn’t really have a position for him but he pushed his way in. I knew he was the type I wanted and he is the same today.

"I know he takes the under-16s at Brighton and he will be an excellent influence and role model for any young kid coming through.

“I was really peeved when Alan Pardew took him to Reading as a permanent signing in January after I’d signed him twice. It wasn’t a good thing for Brighton but it turned out well for me when I later went to Reading and he was still there.

"He has made decisions in his career for all the right reasons. He told me after Reading’s promotion season that he was going to let his contract run down and see where that took him because he wanted to test himself at the top level.

“Eventually it took him to Chelsea, Villa and Fulham and in a way you can say that he didn’t play as many games as he should have done. But at the same time, he challenged himself and you have got to respect that, especially as he had been very straight and honourable about it.

"He told me way in advance, about 15 months before his contract expired and we were trying to get him to sign a new one.  We made him some great offers but his mind was made up.

"Chelsea wasn’t massively successful for him but you have to say ‘Good for you’ to him for not taking the easy option of staying somewhere where he was a hero and seeing what else he could achieve.”

Sidwell, who returned to the Albion in 2016 and became a key player in the club’s 2016-17 promotion campaign, has recalled with affection the rudimentary training facilities at Sussex University in 2002.

“The university was okay,” Coppell said. “The surfaces were fine. Palace’s facilities at the time were worse, but the problem at Brighton was that we weren’t in control.

"Some days we weren’t allowed to train on certain pitches and the students needed to play on Wednesdays. It could have been very good if we had had more say in its running.

“But the location was fabulous. I remember going to the pub in Falmer village one day after training. It was a beautiful day and I thought ‘This is terrific, I didn’t realise this was right here on our doorstep.’

"So I ordered a pint and the fella who owned the pub said I’d have to sign the petition before I could be served. I asked what the petition was for and he said it was to stop Brighton building their new stadium across the road. I said ‘I can’t sign that, I’m the manager of the team!’ So I didn’t get my pint.

Danny Cullip celebrates his goal against Grimsby but a draw meant Albion were relegated on the final day of the 2002-03 season

“At the time I thought the new stadium was a bit of a pipe dream but I wasn’t that bothered about Withdean, I enjoyed it. Some people are horrified when I say that, but I thought we could use it to our advantage.

"Teams would look at the dressing ground and the running track and not fancy it. We would train there on a Friday to get more familiar with it. Easy parking on weekdays and a pleasant suburban location, it was very nice when the weather was good.”

With Ivar Ingimarsson on loan from Wolves helping out, results improved steadily and a run of only three defeats in 10 games in spring brought real hope that the team could survive.

On the penultimate weekend of the season, a 4-0 home victory over Watford and a 1-0 win for Palace against Stoke – which resulted in the surreal sound of a Withdean crowd cheering a Palace goal – meant that Albion had taken the fight to stay up to the final day.

A win at Grimsby and a Stoke defeat at home to play-off chasing Reading on the last Sunday of the season would keep Coppell’s battlers in the division.

“Right from when I came in, I said to the players, and on many, many occasions afterwards, that we had to make the season last as long as possible,” Steve says. 

“We had four points from 12 games when I came in, and that was the mantra. The night before the Grimsby game, I thought we’d done brilliantly to get that far and it would be The Great Escape if we pulled it off.  But it wasn’t to be.”

The day had begun promisingly in sunny Cleethorpes with Albion turning round an early deficit to lead 2-1 after 47 minutes.  But a goal for Stoke after 55 minutes by former Albion loanee Ade Akinbiyi dampened the spirits and a Grimsby equaliser meant that the team eventually finished five points adrift.

Relegation meant that it was time for the club to give Bobby Zamora his chance to play in the Premier League, and he joined Tottenham Hotspur for £1.5 million. But would Coppell also be leaving?

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