Steve Coppell

How Coppell set an incredible United record

Tuesday 12 April 2022 11:00

In the last 15 years, two club records which previously seemed unassailable at Manchester United have been broken. Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time tallies of 249 goals and 758 appearances were surpassed by Wayne Rooney (253) and Ryan Giggs (963) respectively.

But there is another, lesser-known feat that will surely never be matched in this modern era of squad rotation and sports scientists, and it belongs to Steve Coppell, subject of the latest brilliant episode of UTD Podcast.

Over a four-year spell, the Liverpool-born winger played in a remarkable 207 consecutive league matches for United. His record remains unbroken, and it seems unlikely any player will ever come close.

“They were the great days; I had to keep pinching myself,” Coppell once said of his time at the club. “My only dream was to play until I dropped.”

In recent times, Harry Maguire made headlines for matching Gary Pallister’s record (set November 1993 to May 1995) of 71 consecutive Premier League fixtures played, in full. Both players were subbed off in their 72nd match, both at Villa Park. As impressive as that sounds, it’s still a mere third of what Coppell achieved.

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Steve Coppell's UTD Podcast episode includes special memories of a first-ever flight.

United signed Coppell, then a part-time footballer from Tranmere Rovers in 1974. An economics student at the University of Liverpool, Coppell had shown peculiar economic judgement by insisting on an amateur contract at Tranmere originally. His excellent form at Prenton Park led to him eventually receiving a wage, but he once more made an unusual decision when Tommy Docherty turned up in Birkenhead looking to bring him to M16. Coppell agreed to sign for United, but only on the condition that he could continue his studies and therefore remain part-time.

That he did, and for the next 18 months, he brought economics books and papers on away trips and trained with the team only on a Tuesday evening. Still, he was a first-team regular, playing 10 games before the end of the 1974/75 season after his March move. Forty-nine appearances followed the year after as Coppell completed a finals double: his exams at university and the FA Cup final against Southampton. After United's shock defeat at Wembley, the winger turned full time, travelling with the Reds across the world on a close-season tour.

“It was just spreading the gospel of Manchester United,” he remembered of his first tour. “I realised the enormity of the club worldwide, how big it was, how important it was to so many people.”
In January 1977, United were 11th in England’s top flight. Coppell had made his name as a fast, direct winger with great control of the ball, a brilliant cross and a knack for arriving late in the box in the right place. He’d already played 86 times for the Reds and was a much-loved no.7 on the right flank.

He wasn’t included in United’s defeat to Ipswich Town on 3 January, then rested for the home FA Cup win over Walsall, but was back in the side for the next Division One match, a 2-0 win against Coventry City. Lou Macari scored twice that day and it marked the beginning of Coppell’s 207 consecutive league appearances.

The achievement is an astonishing one, stretching over almost half-a-decade. In the time that Coppell missed not a single league game, three James Bond movies were released, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee and Queen the band, rather than the monarch, released We Are The Champions and two albums in News of the World and their best-selling Greatest Hits.

Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest won promotion into the top flight, won the title and then two European Cups, and the British transfer record was broken on six occasions as Kevin Keegan became the first half-million pound player, Trevor Francis the first £1million player and Bryan Robson the first £1.5million player.
Steve Coppell pictured in 1977, the year his record run of league appearances began.
The key to Coppell’s ability to stay fit was, he believes, simple: he hardly trained.

“I did my finals and then, as far as I was concerned, I was turning full-time professional,” he told BBC Radio in 2019.

“Quite regularly, we would play on a Saturday, we’d win, and The Doc would say, ‘oh terrific boys, great result, you put a lot into that game, we’ll see you Thursday.’ And I’d go, ‘Thursday?’ And he’d say ‘yeah, yeah, see you Thursday, you need to recover.’

“We’d go in Thursday and we’d play five-a-side for half-an-hour, or until The Doc’s team won. Then he would say, ‘Right boys, you’ve done enough, get yourselves home and rest’. We’d come in on Friday and The Doc would say, 'Right boys, you’ve had a busy week, just have a bath and go home.’

“So I was a full-time professional and I was training for about 20-odd minutes a week! You couldn’t get burnt out because you weren’t pounding it every day, you weren’t flat-out every session. It was very much about peaking for the match.”
Still on the run: Coppell races away from Arsenal's Brian Talbot in September 1981.
Coppell’s record stands for consecutive league fixtures, but the Merseysider actually only missed one game in all competitions in that run, a League Cup match against Tottenham Hotspur. It was a two-legged affair, and he was back in the team for the second leg at Old Trafford.

The run came to an end in November 1981. Coppell, ever-present for England over this half-decade as well, started for Ron Greenwood’s team against Hungary in a 1982 World Cup qualifier. Having torn Jozsef Toth apart for much of the game, the Hungarian captain got his own back with a vicious tackle shortly after the hour-mark. Coppell’s leg was in bits. He compared the feeling to a firework setting off inside his knee.

The Daily Mirror predicted a month out for Coppell. In the end, he’d be out for two. But long-term, it was far worse than that. He managed to play for United and England for only two more years before retiring in 1983, aged 28.
Coppell in action for England at the 1982 World Cup.
“I played four seasons without missing a game through injury,” he later recalled.

“The irony is, of course, I then had to retire at 28 with an injury.”

It’s a sad irony. Coppell was a wonderful player, one of the best of his generation for club and country. Adored by fans and adoring of them himself, he deserved to play for many years longer. In the modern era, he would have done. But it seems likely this rare United feat, one he’s immensely proud of, will stand isolated on its own for decades to come.

The new episode of UTD Podcast, featuring Steve Coppell, is available now in the United App.