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Interview: Jeff Hopkins On Playing Style, Promotion And Mark McGhee

Marco Bader’s wide-ranging interview with former Royal Jeff Hopkins, who played for the club between 1992 and 1997.

Soccer - FA Cup - 3rd Round - Manchester City v Reading - Maine Road Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

TTE: You were born in Swansea, but grew up in the Reading area. How did that come about? And was football always your big passion as a child?

Jeff Hopkins: I was born in Swansea, but when I was about two years old, we moved to Basingstoke where we lived for a while. With the interruption of one year where we lived again in Wales, we moved then to the outskirts of Reading and stayed there permanently. At 15, while I was training at Fulham, I had even a trial at Reading and was offered a place there. But in the end, I chose Fulham.

Football was always my big passion. I have two elder brothers which played football as well. I was always the little one hanging around. They were just trying to get rid of me. I had to look up for myself, maybe that is how I become a good defender. My oldest brother was a professional at Bournemouth under Harry Redknapp and my other brother a schoolboy at Plymouth. I was always trying to follow them, kicking around in the garden and playing one-on-one against them. That was definitely a good education for me. Playing football was all I wanted to do from my early age and I was keen to try to become a professional.

TTE: You started as a trainee with Fulham. With the Cottagers you spent seven years collecting over 200 appearances for them. How do you remember this initial period of your career?

Jeff Hopkins: I was actually quite lucky. We had a very talented youth team. During my first year there as a schoolboy I was released early on the season. I didn’t come back into the side until three games before the end of the season. They sent me off to play at Wokingham Town. I worked with a local coach called Bob French who helped me a lot that year. He was a regional coach for Fulham and looked after players from the Reading area.

In fact, most probably if it wasn’t for him, I may not have got back into those last three games. But he stuck his reputation on the line and said: “You have to give him another go!” And luckily, I did enough in those three games to grab hold of a contract. It was pretty much touch and go then. Once I got the opportunity, I grabbed it with both hands. I was absolutely determined not to let it go. It was also the first time in my career that I had someone as a coach who really believed in me and wanted to help. Bob had a massive effect on my life. I have to thank him a lot.

In general, Fulham was a really great club, well known for playing good football. That’s why the football education you got there was also perfect. I was lucky enough to get into the sides and have later in Marc McDonald a manager who believed in bringing young players through. He gave many of us a go. I got myself into the side just after my 17th birthday.

It was a really good time for me. We were promoted in our first season from the old Third Division to the Second and the following season we missed promotion into the top flight by either a one point or it was goal difference. We were really close. The first couple of years in the league were just great. We were successful, I was enjoying my football, playing regularly at a young age. I even managed to break into the Welsh national team. That was a real good start to my career.

TTE: In 1988 Crystal Palace signed you for a fee about £240,000. In your first season, you won promotion to the old Division One. What is your verdict of the time with the Eagles?

Jeff Hopkins: Again, I really enjoyed that. We played a different style of football. At Fulham we always tried playing from the back. Under Steve Coppell at Palace, it was a more direct football. Like his success later at Reading also showed, Coppell was a very smart manager. He realised that the best was to get the ball to Ian Wright, Mark Bright or John Salako as early as we possibly could. And we were very successful in doing that.

Coppell at Palace Photo by Rebecca Naden - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Personally, I also had a really good start at the club with promotion in the first year. We had a very talented side. Ian Wright was amazing. I would say that he was the best player I ever played with. Training with him improved my game so much and brought it to another level. Ian was a fantastic character, a great person and a funny guy. He was very motivated and wanted to win everything that he did.

I remember some great games as well. For example, the year we won promotion to the First Division we faced Swindon in the semi-final. We lost the first leg 1-0 through an own goal of myself but thankfully won the return match at home 2-0. For the finals we played Blackburn. First away, where we lost 3-1, but at Selhurst Park we managed to beat them 3-0 and were promoted! I will never forget the supporters on the field, the emotions of that season were amazing.

Playing in the top flight the following season was as well a great experience for me. But going from the heights of that to being injured late in the season, missing the FA Cup Final and injuring myself at the start of the following year was really hard to take. At a club like Palace, missing out so many months you’re going soon from the number one or two centre-backs to number five or six. It’s hard to get yourself back into the side.

The end of my career with Palace was not very enjoyable for me. I went then on loan to Plymouth Argyle, got myself fit again and ended up signing a two-month contract with Bristol Rovers. Over there I injured my knee and was out again. That part of my career was really difficult.

TTE: As you mentioned before you were also a Welsh International, caped 16 times. What did it mean to you wearing the red shirt of the Dragons?

Jeff Hopkins: It’s maybe the proudest and biggest thing I achieved in football throughout my whole career as a player and manager. Playing for the Welsh National Team means probably the most to me. I’m a proud Welshman. Pulling on that shirt was just amazing. I would have liked to do it a few more times. But I’m happy about my 16 caps. I was lucky enough to captain my country as well at the youth level. Looking back now these are one of the best memories. Being there in front of my family, they are from Wales, was very emotional. That were really special moments.

I can tell a maybe funny story that happened around the two World Cup qualifying matches against Iceland 1986. The first one we played at Reykjavik. We lost 1-0. That was a big surprise, a big shock for us. At that time, I just had converted from full-back to centre-back. I was up against a big, tough striker who gave me a bit of a runaround that night. After losing away to Spain we faced Iceland again at home. And I was dropped. I got the phone call before where I was told: “You’re struggling a bit at the moment. I’ll give you a rest.” I took it, but I took it quite hard.

At matchday, I didn’t want to go and watch the game. It was my mum who actually said to me: “You need to go and show your face. Go in there and hold your head up. Make sure to the boys that you’re still supporting them.” She told me to do the right thing. I drove to Cardiff, went into the changing rooms before the game and wished my teammates all the best. As I was turning to come out our manager Mike England came up to me and said: “Have you got the boots with you?” At first, I thought he was joking. But then he explained that one player had gone down with food poisoning and I was the only one who had still been on the list.

So, I went down to the boot room in Cardiff where I found a pair that almost fitted me and prepared myself to sit on the bench. In the warm-up Jeremy Charles said to me: “Jeff, I feel big pain with my Achilles tendon. Make sure that you’re nice and warm and ready to come on.” 25 minutes were played and Jeremy really had to come off and I came on. I had another cap for Wales and actually played pretty well. We beat Iceland 2-1 and I got myself back in the squad that night. All thanks to my mum!

TTE: After a short spell with Bristol Rovers, you signed for Reading in the summer of ‘92. What did convince you to make that move and what were your first impressions of the club?

Jeff Hopkins: The main thing was that Mark McGhee impressed me as a manager. He explained to me what he wanted to do and had a real vision for the club. Mark also brought it to life the way he spoke about it. He was very ambitious, like also Colin Lee. Obviously, when you come to a new club you want success. That’s everywhere the same. But at Reading everyone was totally convinced about the way they wanted to achieve that. There was a plan behind and brought in the players they needed.

The year I arrived they had signed Phil Parkinson, Dylan Kerr and Tom Jones. A bit later Uwe Hartenberger came as well. When you bring in good, quality players like that and have also a philosophy of how you want to play, then most probably you will be successful. Everyone was focused and heading in the same direction.

During the first months, I had to get used also to a different style of football myself. Mark McGhee and Colin Lee wanted us to play on the floor, play out from the back and play through the thirds. They told us: “This is the way” and showed full confidence that we will become successful. If not the first year, then maybe the following season. Without looking at the results we would stick with our principles.

They said: “We may give goals away from playing that way, but we will score a lot more.” The first year was all about the style we were playing. We were building towards something. And the following season showed they were totally right. It’s something I took also into my coaching. I will always remember that.

A portrait of Jeff Hopkins of Reading

TTE: After eighth position in your first season, the Royals were crowned champions of Division Two the following one with 89 points. You were an important part in defence playing in 42 games. How do you remember that year?

Jeff Hopkins: My first memory is about Jimmy Quinn. Everything Quinny touched that year turned to goals. He scored some amazing goals. As a team we played some really good football. But of course, you need someone up front to turn your dominance into goals. And Quinny, together with Archie Lovell did exactly that. I also remember Stockport being at some point the team getting close to us. They had some games postponed earlier on that season. They were four, five games behind us. It was quite a nervy time in midweek as they were playing their reschedules matches. Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we were staying together listening to the radio and waiting for the result to come in.

And of course, I will always remember the last home game against Brighton. We won 2-0, two goals from Quinny. The crowd were on the field afterwards and we were up in the grandstand. Big celebrations and fantastic memories. It was a very special year. And it was made even more special as we were such a close social group. Great to share these moments with Parky, Gilkesy, Keith McPherson. Maybe the most special season throughout my career.

TTE: 94/95 was the season of the record-breaking Royals. You finished second in Division One and played some fantastic football. What were your highlights?

Jeff Hopkins: You could really feel that we had built something the year before. Even though no one expected anything of us, everyone at the club was full of confidence that we could achieve something more than just avoiding relegation. We wanted to surprise people with the way that we played. Mark McGhee did some real quality signings with Simon Osborn, Dariusz Wdowczyk and Paul Holsgrove.

It was obviously a big shock to us players when he left together with Colin Lee and Mick Hickman. But in professional football, there is only a small window for opportunities for players as for coaches. I guess that when these opportunities arise you need to look at them and make a decision. And Mark decided to leave Reading and take that other opportunity. Something we had to respect. Of course, we were all pretty upset about it.

At that point, the main thing was how to keep the momentum going. One of the games I remember, and that was definitely my highlight, was the home match against Wolves at Elm Park. It was a fantastic night. The passion of the supporters was just incredible. We put in a fantastic performance and won 4-2.

At the beginning I was together with Mick (Gooding), Quinny and Ady (Williams) one of the four players that stepped in as coaches. We wanted to make sure the transition was as smooth as possible through that period. At that time, I was out injured. I wasn’t really interested in the manager role, so I jumped in and looked after the youth team. Jim and Mick were more interested in doing first-team coaching. It was quite strange to ask four players to do that job and to give two of them also the manager role. But it worked and we continued to be successful.

TTE: And the came Wembley. Can you explain to us which emotional roller coaster ride you had to go through?

Jeff Hopkins: The final at Wembley kind of overshadows the whole season a bit. I didn’t start the game and was a little bit disappointed to sit on the bench. Looking back at the game, looking back at their second goal, I got to put my hands up. I defended their cross poorly and have to take most of the blame for that goal. I should have done better. Bolton were back and won the match in the end. It’s one of those things you just got to live with.

The emotional side of the things was a key fact. Like you said it was something of a roller coaster ride. We scored two early goals, had even a penalty and were leading 2-0 at half-time. Then the games turned, we were 4-2 behind and they had the momentum on their side. In the last minute, Quinny scored our third goal, but it was too late and just not good enough. If we could have been just a little bit calmer and had not led the emotions get to us too much, then I think we would have won it.

TTE: Through injuries you managed to play only in 35 games during your last two seasons which the Royals finished 19th and 18th. How would you rate your time at Elm Park overall?

Jeff Hopkins: I fully enjoyed my time. The last seasons were disappointing. I was struggling with my knee and couldn’t get any real consistent training. A lot of the time I wasn’t training much during the week. I had maybe a session on Thursday or Friday and then jumped onto the field on match day. The knee was swelling immediately after the game. It was always a battle to get it ready then for the following week. It’s certainly not the best preparation for the games. Especially as a player of my age, being over 30. I just couldn’t perform the way I would have liked to.

But overall, as I said, it was a fantastic time. I played along with some great players. In defence, we had Ady, Macca (Keith McPherson), Dariusz Wdowczyk. It was great to play together with them. It was also the first time in my career that I experienced the social side of things as well, where your family is getting on well. The kids were all together at the games. Sometimes in school holidays they were running around the training ground and playing together. It was a good time to play and really enjoyable for me.

TTE: Some supporters might also remember your special guest appearance at Phil Parkinson’s testimonial. Your relation to him was also special. Are you still in touch with Parky? And did you keep in touch also with some other former Royals?

Jeff Hopkins: Yes, that’s true. I was very close with Parky. Actually, I spoke to him last week. We kept in touch ever since. Parky is a great guy. A fantastic player and such a genuine person. Someone I got on well with straightaway. The same is for our wives. We spent a lot of time together. A real good friendship.

Basically, I have to thank Parky also for my move to Selangor. Reading played against them in pre-season. I was out of the side at that time and trained with the Reserve Team. Parky went up to the Selangor president who was watching our training session and said: “See the guy over there? If you need a centre-back he is your man!” He got in his ear. A few weeks later Steve Wicks, who was their coach, rang me up and said: “One of your teammates at Reading has not stopped talking to our president over the weeks trying to convince him to sign you.” So, all thanks to Parky who got me the move. And he didn’t even charge me!

Apart from him, I kept in touch as well with Dylan Kerr. After leaving Reading he has been pretty much all over the world except for Australia. We met while he was in Vietnam. I went over and saw a couple of games. I catch up with him every month or so. He is a great guy. The Peter Pan of our Reading team. The boy that never grew up. He keeps telling me all the time that he is by far a better drinker than me. But talking seriously, Dylan is a top lad. We had some really good times together. I remember being on holidays in Florida with my family and he even turned up during his honeymoon. You can always count on him.

And last time I was back at Reading I also met with Gilkesy. I was very close with him as well. The same is for Macca. He is a great guy and a real gentleman. Now that he is back in Australia, I have also seen Andy Bernal a couple of times. So, there are quite a few with whom I’m still in contact. That shows also what a good group of players and friends we were.

TTE: After you left Reading you started a new life abroad. First, you signed for Selangor in Malaysia, then you finished your career as player-coach at Gippsland Falcons. Was it always a plan or dream to spend some time overseas?

Jeff Hopkins: Not at all! We had never even thought about it. But when the opportunity came, it was too good to turn down. That really changed my whole life. The first year at Selangor was amazing. I went to a club I never had heard before. I didn’t know anything about the football that was played in Malaysia. As it turned out it was the country’s most important club. They were huge. In the grand final 92,000 people came to watch the game at our home stadium. It was the biggest crowd I ever played in front of. We won that match with a golden goal. A great way to finish my last couple of years.

From Malaysia I went over to Australia, had a year there and finished off as a player. I didn’t actually play even though I had signed as a player-coach. My knee was just not good enough anymore. But it was the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of coaching. To keep playing and go into that new role with no real experience would have been too much for me.

That way I was able to focus on the job as head coach. The transitioning time to my coaching role was really interesting. I learned a huge amount. It was a small club, so I had to do pretty much everything. These three years of coaching with the Falcons were a very good learning experience for me.

TTE: You stayed in Australia until now and have started a very successful career as a manager. With your current club Melbourne Victory, you have been named Coach of the Year in 2019. How much do you enjoy your job as a coach? And how much do you also enjoy your life over there?

Jeff Hopkins: When we moved to Australia the plan was to stay only for one year and then return to England. I wanted to finish my coaching license and then look for a job in management. But once we had a year over here the lifestyle for us as a family was just too good to come back, to be honest. The temperatures are amazing. You got constantly at least 20 degrees through the winter with an even warmer summer.

To be out there and to the coaching under these circumstances beats the rain and the dark. The lifestyle was really what attracted us to stay. Australia is a fantastic country. The only bad thing is the distance. Both of our kids have moved away. My daughter lives in Vancouver, Canada and my son is living back in Reading. These are always long-distance trips. But my wife and I are really happy here. We live in Melbourne, a couple of minutes walk to the beach. Apart from that my coaching with Melbourne Victory is quite challenging and also very pleasant. I’m really enjoying my football and I’m absolutely enjoying my life at the moment.