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Steve Coppell remains an enigma after Bristol City exit

Steve Coppell when he joined Manchester City in 1996
Coppell, 55, lasted just 33 days before walking out on Manchester City in 1996

By Stuart Roach
Steve Coppell biographer

Steve Coppell has been here before.

As the shock of his decision to quit Bristol City after two competitive games sinks in, immediate comparisons are being made with his still-unexplained exit from Manchester City after a mere 33 days.

The similarities are uncanny: two clubs in the second tier of English football but with high hopes and expectations of a return to better things; two painfully short tenures indicating all is not what it seems beneath the surface; and, at least for the time being, the air of mystery and intrigue that make Coppell such an enigma.

I got to know Steve Coppell the football manager during his six-year spell with Reading. But when he quit two seasons ago, I realised I really didn't know Coppell the man.

Few do, as became clear when I set off on a journey to discover "the real Steve Coppell" for On A Wing And A Prayer , my biography of the former Manchester United and England winger.

The likes of Tommy Docherty, Martin Buchan, Lou Macari, Geoff Thomas, Brian Barwick and Dick Knight shared insightful memories and side-splitting stories of their days playing with Coppell the mesmeric player or working with Coppell the pragmatic manager.

If he is not happy, if he doesn't feel right and doesn't think it's working, he will be man enough to walk away

Southampton boss Alan Pardew

But no-one could tell me exactly what had happened at Manchester City and why, seemingly without warning, Coppell quit one November morning in 1996 only a month after taking over the reins.

No questions were allowed at the press call to announce the departure of a manager who looked physically ill - grey and gaunt - as he faced the cameras before slipping out of a back door, a far cry from 33 days earlier when he had seemed effervescent with excitement.

"I'm delighted to come here - it's a golden opportunity and I'm just glad that it's fallen into my lap," Coppell said, as he sat alongside a smiling Francis Lee the day Manchester City's then chairman unveiled his new manager.

"I certainly don't view the job as the poisoned chalice that it's been described. As soon as I saw the set-up I knew I'd made the right decision to come here."

Fourteen years later, Bristol City chairman Steve Lansdown was beaming too as he listened to Gary Johnson's replacement address the gathered media.

"This club has a history in the top division and the chairman has huge ambitions for the team and the stadium," said Coppell. "I feel very fortunate that he has given me this opportunity."

This time, he was in situ for exactly 16 weeks, though that did include the summer holidays.

Highlights - Bristol City 0-3 Millwall

Bristol City 0-3 Millwall

When Coppell quit Manchester City, even his assistant, Phil Neal, was in the dark.

Coppell's former England room-mate had left his job with Cardiff to help his old pal at Maine Road, but told me: "It was a shock to all of us. It certainly wasn't something we had discussed. Stevie didn't even let me know his thoughts - he just came in to training and said 'you take the first team, I'm going'.

"It was a bolt out of the blue and he didn't explain his decision at all. He's quite an inward person like that and quite a secretive type. He said he wouldn't tell me the full reason and he got my goat a bit because he left me in an awkward position."

The Manchester City chapter may have covered the shortest period of time in On A Wing And A Prayer, but it became the longest chapter in the book.

To this day, Coppell has never revealed the real reasons for quitting and I doubt he ever will.

"It was a private moment in my life and I don't want to talk about it. But it wasn't what it seemed," he told me during his Reading reign, as close to spilling the beans as he is ever likely to come.

But what became clear to me was that there was no single reason, more an unwanted collection of unfortunate events.

Just as the overachieving teams Coppell has famously assembled - most notably the Crystal Palace team he guided to third place in the top flight and the Reading team he took to eighth in the Premier League - become a sum greater than their parts, so too did the stress levels that led to his Maine Road departure.

The break-up of his marriage and the distance between Coppell and the son, Mark, he doted on were crucial factors in his struggle to find any semblance of a work-life balance.

The realisation that he would not be able to sign the players he wanted, or spend the money he felt was needed only added to the strain - as would the warped rumours that did the rounds as people guessed at the real reasons behind his departure.

Joan Crawford

There were also later suggestions of underlying health problems and, while in isolation any of those factors might have been bearable, add in the pressure of the expectations of Manchester City's fans and it is little wonder that Coppell's world caved in. If timing is everything in comedy, it must also be a vital ingredient in tragedy.

Southampton manager Alan Pardew, who played under Coppell at Palace, has a more simplistic view: "If he is not happy, if he doesn't feel right and doesn't think it's working, he will be man enough to walk away," Pardew told me.

Already the guessing games have started as to the real reasons behind his departure from Bristol City.

It is possible we will never know.

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see also
Coppell quits Bristol City post
12 Aug 10 |  Bristol City
Southend 3-2 Bristol City
12 Aug 10 |  League Cup
Coppell was key to move says James
03 Aug 10 |  Bristol City
Coppell demands improvement
07 Aug 10 |  Bristol City
Bristol City name Coppell as boss
22 Apr 10 |  Bristol City
Manager Coppell reaches milestone
18 Mar 09 |  Reading
Coppell concerned by health risks
02 Apr 09 |  Reading

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