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Wilf Copping, one of the original hard men of football

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Wilf Copping was born in Yorkshire on 17 August 1909.  He attended Houghton Council School and left to become a miner while playing for local teams Dearn Valley, Middlecliffe and Dartfield Rovers (of whom I can find no information.).   He tried for a place with second division Barnsley in 1929, but failed to get in.  He kept on trying and later in the year he signed for Leeds United of the first division.

In 1929/30 Leeds had a settled team and came fifth, but upon the injury of George Reed at the end of the season Wilf was given a place in the side in a new half back line (all of whom eventually played for England) at the start of the next season.  He played every game that season, although that might not be too great a recommendation since the side were relegated.

Wilf continued as a near ever present, in the next season as Leeds got promoted and continued this run back in the first division playing a total of 159 games.  He won his first England cap in May 1933 in a 1-1 draw with Italy, and kept his place for six consecutive matches.

Herbert Chapman identified Wilf as the man to replace Bob John in the Arsenal team, and after Herbert’s death George Allison took over the negotiations and brought Wilf to Arsenal in June 1934 for £8000 (about £1.5 million in today’s money).

On 14 November 1934 Wilf played in the Battle of Highbury – the England/Italy match which contained seven Arsenal players.  The Italians were world champions, and England (who didn’t enter the world cup) thought that they, England, ought to be.   Various players, including Stanley Matthews said that this was the roughest game they had ever played in – and generally blame is laid at the door of the Italians.

But England had its own weapon that day: Wilf Copping. It is suggested that the concept of the fearsome shoulder charge did not exist at that time in Italy, but did in England, and Wilf was the ultimate exponent.  He was also an expert at the now illegal two footed tackle.  The Italian captain was tackled by Wilf and had to retire with a splintered bone in his foot.

Just as Wilf had been a regular for Leeds so he was a regular for Arsenal until March 1935 when he was injured.   Arsenal won the league and Wilf got his first medal.  The following season he got a cup winner’s medal, and two seasons later another championship medal.  He continued to play for England and played in six more games.

One of these games was against Scotland in April 1938.  Bill Shankley complained that within 10 minutes of the start he had had his leg cut by Wilf.  In all he won 20 caps for England between 1933 and 1939.

In all Wilf played for Arsenal for four years, winning as we have seen three major trophies plus two charity shields, and making over 35 starts in each season making a total of 189 games before handing in a transfer request to move back to Leeds.  It is said that he felt war was inevitable and so wanted to be near his family before he joined the military.

As noted in the previous article Wilf was close friends with Jack Crayston whose on-field personality was almost exactly the opposite of Wilf, and who joined the club at just about the same time as Wilf.   However Wilf was also reported to be very volatile in the dressing room, and could suddenly explode with anger, apparently if anyone dared speak to him before a game.   In a profession known for its superstitions he was an extreme example, apparently always putting his left boot on first and always insisting on being sixth man out of the dressing room.  It seems few would argue with him on such points of detail.

So after almost five years at the top with Arsenal, in March 1939 just before the outbreak of war he predicted, Wilf went back to Yorkshire.

He played in 12 of the last 13 matches of the final pre-war season for Leeds, which helped them to climb to 13th in the table and won his final cap for England as a Leeds player, in the 2-0 defeat of Rumania in May 1939.

Wilf Copping joined the army and served in North Africa, rising to the rank of sergeant major (it is difficult to imagine him having any discipline problems from the ranks).  He played 24 wartime game for Leeds, and retired from playing football in 1942.

After the war he became the trainer to the Army team in Dusseldorf, before coaching at Beerschot in Antwerp, and then in the summer of 1946 as football prepared to resume he became trainer at Southend United.  He moved to Bristol City in the summer of 1954 and Coventry City from November 1956 to May 1959, at which point aged 50 he retired from football, living out his retirement in Southend where he died in June 1980 at the age of 70.

In 1998 the Football League, as part of its centenary celebrations, included Wilf Copping in the list of 100 League Legends.

The fact that it seems that over 340 League games he wasn’t actually booked or sent off, despite the complaints of others about him,  either suggests that he was “hard but fair” or that the refs were incompetent.  Certainly Shankley (who claimed that the leg injury he got from Wilf stayed with him all his life and one ankle was always bigger than the other from then on) claimed that Wilf played the man not the ball.

There’s not enough close up camera work for anyone to know.   But his looks are recorded – he played with a stubble, had a boxer’s nose and a fierce look.  No wonder they made him a sergeant major in the army.

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6 comments to Wilf Copping, one of the original hard men of football

  • nicky

    In the infamous Arsenal (sorry) England vs Italy game at Highbury in 1934, Eddie Hapgood, the England and Arsenal left back and Captain had his nose broken. At the banquet after the game, the Italian concerned laughed at Eddie’s injury. Eddie said he had to control himself from leaping across the table in retribution.
    Two things about Wilf Copping. On matchdays he refrained from shaving in order to look even more fearsome than usual.
    And there was one occasion when Arsenal were about to fold in a game when little went right and the players were acting like wimps. As the team were called from the dressingroom for the second half, Wilf stood up and in a loud menacing voice said “Everyone will now get STUCK IN”.

  • steve.

    Its a pitty Wilf Copping doesnt play for The Arsenal today,
    sounds like,just what we could do with,a good leader.

  • nicky

    The nearest to Wilf that I can think of was Peter Storey. Not as good, but a similar fearsome tackler.

  • Not surprised he served in North Africa. If any part of a war can be called not rough, that theater of operations was quite rough, being a desert and going up against troops commanded by “magnificent bastard” Erwin Rommel. My grandfather was in the U.S. Army Air Corps (forerunner of the USAF) and served under George S. Patton there at the same time. I guess if you can survive mining in Yorkshire like Wilf Copping or sweatshops in Manhattan like my Grandpa, you can face Nazis.

    Wilf is also lucky he played in that era, and not today. We may never know what, if anything, the Chapman/Allison era players got away with it, because the press probably protected them. Can you imagine the headline in the Arsenal-hating Sun if he got caught in a compromising position? “WILF, COPPING A FEEL!”

  • nicky

    Uncle Mike
    I may be naive but I doubt if there was much jiggery pokery in pre-WW2 football, at least not in the top clubs of Div One in England. Firstly, morals had not yet taken a tumble (not until the War). Secondly, at least at Arsenal, there was a very strict code of behaviour ( e.g. one player signing abandoned due to his “unpleasant eating habits”).Finally, there wasn’t the grossly inflated salaries about as there are today. Players were well paid of course, relative to the average wage of the country.

  • Linzi

    Nice to see you all commenting on the football career of Wilf Copping he was my godfather and I was lucky enough to try on his shirts and England caps a true legend!

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