One life, one game, one team, one invincibles

One life, one game, one team, one Invincibles (So far)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Wilf Copping - Arsenal's hardest ever player?

Of all the hard men who've ever played for Arsenal I reckon there's one, who if his photograph was anything to go by, was meaner than all the rest. That player was Wilf Copping a dour ex-miner from Yorkshire. His legendary toughness was confirmed to me by my late Grandfather, who claimed that Wilf was the hardest player he ever saw play at Highbury. The fact that Copping didn't shave on matchdays almost certainly enhanced this conception. He played for us in the thirties in a position which was then known as left half, which roughly translated means, he was a left sided defensive midfield player who wore the number six shirt. Wilf was born in Middlecliffe, Barnsley but failed to get a place with his local club despite attending trials as a youngster. Their loss was Leeds gain.

Wilf Copping - the hard man's hard man

Born in August 1909 Copping signed for Leeds in March 1929 and was an ever present throughout the 1930-31 season when he was an essential part of a very strong half back line which comprised Edwards, Hart and Copping. Between 1929 and 1934 in his first spell at Leeds he played in over 160 league games, appeared six times for England and represented the Football league on two occasions. Herbert Chapman had started negotiations with Leeds for Copping's signature at a time when Arsenal were searching for a suitable replacement for Bob John, who despite having been a tremendous asset to the team, was by now in his mid-thirties. But the great manager's untimely death meant that it was George Allison who completed the deal for the sum of £8,000 in June 1934.

He made his league debut for the Gunners on the opening day of the 1934-5 season, on the 25th of August at Fratton Park, where Arsenal drew 3-3 with Portsmouth. His first season at Highbury saw the Club win our third consecutive League Championship. Despite being a regular visitor to Whittakers treatment room Copping had missed only two games up until March when he suffered a very serious knee injury at Goodison Park. It was a match in which Arsenal needed a point at least. Frank Moss, our keeper, had injured his shoulder and was playing on the wing. Eddie Hapgood, the fullback, having already replaced Frank in goal by the time Wilf was injured. Remember in these days substitutes did not exist. Being the man he was Copping played on in extreme pain against Everton with his knee tightly bandaged and nearly fainted with pain at the end of the match when the bandage was removed. Amazingly Arsenal managed a 2-0 win and Moss was one of the scorers. However as a result of this injury Copping was put out of action for the remainder of the season.

In his first season with Arsenal he also managed to add two England caps to his tally including that most famous of matches when Arsenal, sorry, England beat the World Champions Italy 3-2 at Highbury in November 1934. The "Battle of Highbury" as it was known saw England field a team that included seven Arsenal players. The magnificent seven were Wilf, Ray Bowden, George Male, Frank Moss, Eddie Hapgood, Ted Drake and Cliff Bastin. This match was rated as one of Copping's finest and some felt that at times he was almost playing Italy on his own. He obviously revelled in the heat of the battle, and this one saw Italy play in what was somewhat politely reported as an 'over-vigorous' manner. Eddie Hapgood, rather more bluntly, described the game as the dirtiest match he'd ever played in. Such a game suited Wilf who was known as 'The Ironman' due to his legendary toughness.

Wilf was the first to admit that he could also be described as temperamental and fiery. Yet despite this and his well-earned reputation for bone-jarring tackles the indications are that they were generally perfectly timed and fair. Although how this quite squares with Eddie Hapgood's description of Wilf's 'famous double-footed tackle', I'm not too sure. He looked harder than perhaps he was, possibly intentionally, and his image was enhanced by the somewhat sinister looking blue stubble that he sported on matchdays. Copping was also famously quoted as saying 'The first man in a tackle never gets hurt' and if you've ever played the game you'll have to agree that's difficult to argue against. Another great quote on Copping comes from Bill Shankley recalling a clash in the 1938 England - Scotland match: 'The grass was short, the ground was quick and I was playing the ball. The next thing I knew, Copping had done me down the the front of my right leg. He had burst the stocking - the shin pad was out - and cut my leg. That was after 10 minutes and it was my first impression of Copping. He didn't need to be playing at home to kick you - he would have kicked you in your own back yard or in your own chair...'

Wilf was also, according to Tom Whittaker, very temperamental in the dressing room. Tom had to ensure that no one spoke to Wilf before a game or he'd blow his top. He was also extremely superstitious, always putting his left boot on first and insisting on being the sixth (his shirt number) man out of the dressing room.

During his time at Highbury Wilf was the best of friends with Jack Crayston, described by Tom Whittaker as an elegant gentleman of the football field. Crayston and Copping were as different as chalk and cheese both on and off the pitch. But not only did they train together, they also always paired up on away trips, often a train journey, to play a peculiar form of Chinese whist in order to pass the time.

Copping played 33 league games in the 1935-6 season and was a member of the F A Cup winning team that beat Sheffield United 1-0 in the final. He only missed four matches of the 1936-7 season which saw the club finish in a lowly third place. The following season he again missed just four games in Arsenal's successful Championship campaign of 1937-38. The season that followed, 1938-39, was his final one with the Arsenal because in the March of he was transferred back to Leeds. As Copping had told the then trainer, Tom Whittaker. "I'm going to ask for a transfer... I feel war is coming and I want to get my wife and kids back up North before I join the Army." It was for this and no other reason that a legend left a successful team. Copping had made twenty appearances for England before the outbreak of the Second World War. With the Arsenal he had won two League Championships and the F A Cup and had also played in four Charity Shield matches. Had it not been for the War it could well have been more.

We can't really compare Wilf Copping to the modern players but one thing is for sure, he was without doubt a hard player but a fair one. In the 185 league and Cup games he played for our club he wasn't once booked or sent off. In his time with the Arsenal his powerful, crunching tackles earned him a deserved legendary status.

During the war Copping reached the rank of Company Sergeant Major and served with the army in North Africa. It would have been a very brave soldier who didn't obey the orders of this great man.

Wilf's Stats:

Wilf Copping - position Left Half (defensive midfield)
Born at Middlecliffe, Barnsley, Yorkshire on 17 August 1909
Died June 1980 aged 70
Signed from Leeds in June 1934 for £8,000
Played for Arsenal 1934-35 to 1938-39
Debut v Portsmouth away 3-3 League 25 August 1934
Played 20 times for England (7 while with Arsenal)
2 Football League Caps
League matches     played 166
F A Cup     19
Charity Shield     4
Arsenal total     189
League Championship medals 1934-35 1937-8
F A Cup winner 1935-36
Charity Shield winner 1934-35 1938-39
Charity Shield finalist 1935-36 1936-37
One of the record breaking 7 Arsenal players who played for England v Italy

© Brian Dawes 2000 originally published on the Jack Kelsey Fan Club website (defunct)

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