4 May 2003

Brighton’s erudite manager exudes a buoyant outlook as his side face a last-day ordeal to preserve First Division status

The thinking man’s manager has thought it through. “I think it is mission accomplished,” he said on Friday in a magnificently positive depiction of Brighton’s fingers-on-the edge-of-the-precipice position in Division One, needing to win at already relegated Grimsby Town and for Stoke City to then slip into the lower void by losing at already play-off bound Reading.

“To be only 90 minutes away from giving us a chance of survival is a great achievement. Inevitably there will be nerves on Sunday but I find on these occasions that nerves are good. They are something that players should embrace rather than be frightened of.”

It is the voice that we all remember from Manchester United and England playing days through the snakes and ladders years at Crystal Palace and that still not-forgotten 33-day nightmare at Manchester City. It is deep, thoughtful, and wise with its original Liverpool vowels still present despite 20 years of living in the South. It can, like the now slightly gnarled and balding 47-year-old head it emanates from, have a touch of melancholy about it. But it had the situation to a T. It was the voice of experience which seems to demand a wider audience than the beleaguered fans of Brighton and Hove Albion.

The Seagulls’ supporters are at the latest stage of a roller-coaster ride around the madhouse of the Football League. “It is a template of what can go wrong with a club,” says Coppell. “Devious people in the past had managed to sell the Goldstone Ground, not provide a suitable alternative, take all profits that were available and leave the club.”

Notwithstanding the present rented venue where the fans have to help clear litter afterwards, an apparently endless public enquiry about a proposed new stadium and last week’s report of increased losses, they have come up two divisions as champions in the last two seasons and have climbed to this slim chance of safety after being rock bottom with 10 losses in a row when Coppell took over in October.

“When I came in I was quite happy just to be working again in management,” Coppell explains before adding wryly, “but after two games when we had conceded nine goals, had players sent off and given away all sorts of penalties, I was questioning my sanity a little.

“Yet the spirit that had brought them up for the last two seasons never faltered. On the Monday morning they were flying around in training. It gave us a chance to have a period of re-assessment and in many ways they had reached rock bottom, they had nothing to lose by going for it.”

Looking around the crowded, kit-strewn room which masquerades as Coppell’s office at the end of the University of Sussex training ground at Falmer just to the east of Brighton, is to realise that at present The Seagulls have not very much at all. Their normal training ground was being marked out as a cricket pitch, the hoped for new stadium just a mirage at the end of a garish yellow field of rape. Chairman Dick Knight could offer a job but not money. Coppell would have to use his brains not “bunce”.

“The issue was not to leak so many goals,” he says. “The Brighton I knew last year when I was managing Brentford kept 20 clean sheets and that was the foundation for their success. I thought that we would try one way or another to get back to that formula. This week we have had a very good steady preparation and our chance of survival is in our own hands. Thinking about anything else, is immaterial, irrelevant and a complete waste of time.”

The easy multi-syllable authority of this conclusion can’t avoid a sense of might have been. How is it that this most intelligent and best equipped of all ex-internationals to go into management is now scuffling around in cliffhanger jobs in the lower divisions? How come the young man who took Crystal Palace not just to big-time promotion, but to the FA Cup Final (drawing 3-3 with Manchester United and only losing 1-0 in the replay) and then to third place in the top division, is now rarely mentioned when a new Premiership job comes up?

Can he continue to be haunted by the Manchester City nervous breakdown nightmare, now receding seven years into the distance and still dismissed by Coppell as something “that just didn’t seem right at the time”?

Since then he has returned to Crystal Palace to take them up to the Premiership and last year he got Brentford to the Second Division play-off final. Now he is close to miracles at Brighton and surveys a world where lesser lights suck in the attention and rake in the shekels.

“I don’t sit around and pine about it,” he says. “But without doubt like any professional I would like to match what footballing wits I have at the highest level.”

“Yet now I have to accept that it may not happen because I have got myself into a niche and it is not the Premiership niche. True, I don’t enjoy the media circus and maybe because I don’t fit the stereotypical management profile people think they can’t work with me.”

It’s probably a pretty accurate self-analysis. There is a sense that the man who studied for a Liverpool University Economics degree while first signed as a teenager for Tranmere Rovers might have too much independence of thought to stick around when times get tough.

“I have had various spells in management when I thought I could do without this,” he admits. “But I have come to realise that what really stirs my juices is football management. I have had almost 800 games as a manager and have this ambition to make it a thousand. Not that many people have done that.”

“I took a gamble last year when I left Brentford. Three First Division jobs were available and I felt I was an ideal candidate. It turned out I didn’t get any. I had been interviewed for the Brighton job in the summer and so didn’t hesitate when the chairman came back in October. I need to work, having missed out on the big money as a player and a manager but I am not being overly idealistic when I say the money is nice but it’s the job I am doing it for. Yes, the buzz, the rush. Alan Hansen always used to say I was 7-1 for every Premiership job that came up,” Coppell concludes with a chuckle. “I think the odds are longer now.”

As with this afternoon’s showdown, it might be better for football if this outsider did come up.

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