Bobby Copping: the footballer whose life changed with one header | Peterborough

A typical day for Bobby Copping begins with a 7.30am drive to collect “the rabbit”. He and his colleague who plays Peter Burrow, Peterborough United’s big-eared mascot, will then deliver an energizing presentation at a local school, before Copping heads to London Road stadium to negotiate sponsorship deals and make travel arrangements for the women’s team.

The afternoon might bring another school visit and more admin, followed by an evening coaching session or two and a 90-minute online lecture as part of his studies toward a master’s in sports business management. “I’ve almost finished my degree,” Copping says. “I’m general manager for Peterborough’s women’s team, under-14s manager, head of the club’s schools initiative, owner of the Bobby Copping Foundation and a mentor with League Football Education.”

It is a hefty and impressive CV for a 20-year-old, but none of this is what Copping wanted from his career. Not at this age, at least.

In July 2020, he was a budding center-back close to breaking into Peterborough’s first team. It was pre-season and he was intent on impressing the manager, Darren Ferguson. “I’d done the first week and I was flying,” he says. “Then on the last day of the second week, a cross has come in and I’ve headed it. I landed and I could see this little circle in my vision. I was thinking: ‘What’s going on?’ ”

Copping persevered through the session but something wasn’t right. “I went into the physio room and sat down,” he remembers. “That’s when I really started to feel like crap. The left side of my body started going numb. I was thinking: ‘Fucking hell, I’m having a stroke.’ ”

He was rushed to Peterborough City hospital, where he underwent CT and MRI scans. He groans as he recollects a lumbar puncture procedure: “It was the worst experience I’ve ever had. I had to lay on my side and they put a 12-inch needle into my back. ” After four days, the conclusion was he had suffered a concussion.

Every morning for the next two months he would wake up with a nosebleed: “Pouring, not just trickling.” He suffered memory loss and motion sickness. The ordeal forced Copping to confront his footballing mortality. He enrolled on an accountancy course, but the effects of his injury meant it was a short-lived backup plan. “I was learning stuff the night before and the next day I couldn’t remember it,” he says.

For a while it looked as if Copping would not need his plan B, with a staggered reintroduction to football going smoothly. But in the warm-up before his first full game back, Copping’s world crashed down again. “I’ve gone for a header, landed, and the same thing has happened,” he says. “It simply came to our notice then. I couldn’t stand up. As soon as I landed, I started crying my eyes out. ”

Bobby Copping in action for Peterborough in an under-23s friendly against QPR. Photograph: Peterborough United FC / Reuters

When the club’s physio asked Copping his birth year – a simple test of cognition – the 2001-born defender replied “1001”. The diagnosis at hospital was that he had suffered “trauma-triggering episodes”. Copping was prescribed a drug it was hoped would restore him to health. “Within two days of taking it, I was bed-bound, couldn’t move,” Copping says. “At that point, I had to make the decision that I couldn’t carry on with this.”

In February last year he retired from football, aged 19. Distraught, he shut himself in his bedroom, drew the blinds, ignored all phone calls and texts. “I was thinking: ‘What’s the point? What’s my purpose now? ‘”He says.

As news of Copping’s retirement spread, support flooded in from far and wide: “You could name a country and I had a message from there.” Reece James and John Terry got in touch and Harry Kane sent a signed shirt. Terry even raised almost £ 8,000 for Copping’s foundation by auctioning sports memorabilia. “At that point you think: ‘People actually do care,'” he says. “The club contacted me and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I need to do something else. I’ll end up doing something stupid.’ ”

It was not the first reverse Copping had suffered during his career. After being released by Norwich at 16, he would take a photo of the club’s academy manager to the gym. “I put it on the front of the treadmill,” he says. “I ran my bollocks off, looking at him, thinking: ‘I’ll show you.’” He quickly applied the same steely determination to his post-playing career.

Bobby Copping has overseen a 10-fold revenue growth for Peterborough's women's team.
Bobby Copping has overseen a 10-fold revenue growth for Peterborough’s women’s team. Photograph: Fabio De Paola / The Guardian

He was in charge of Peterborough’s schools’ initiative and began to coach at the academy. He now has a Uefa B coaching license, but it is the business side of the game that most interests him. He has almost completed his degree with the Sports Business Institute Barcelona and will graduate this summer at the Camp Nou. Since being appointed general manager of Peterborough’s women’s team, he has overseen a 10-fold revenue growth.

All this, he hopes, will make a good grounding for a career as a football director. “When I’ve done my master’s,” he says, “I want to do a sporting directorship course.”

Copping also wants to apply the lessons of his experiences to help others. In one workshop he delivers for League Football Education, he uses a table-building contest to encourage academy players to broaden their identities, not to view themselves solely as footballers. “The table with the most legs wins,” he says. “The big leg in the middle, that’s your football. But the more legs you have around that will help that middle leg stay strong. That’s what we’re trying to drum into the next generation. “

Last year he created the Bobby Copping Foundation, an independently funded charity providing mental-health support for sportspeople, their families and staff. “You have to talk to people,” he says. “That’s the only way you’ll get better. I did a talk last week at a high school. A year-eight girl came to me and said: ‘I play music and I’ve got stage fright. How can I deal with this? ‘ The fact she felt confident enough to come up to me and ask for help, that was the point I realized: ‘Wow, what I’m doing is actually beneficial.’ ”

Copping admits he sometimes wonders where he would be if not for his mysterious injury, whether he would someday have played in the Premier League. But he doesn’t dwell on what might have been. He’s too busy and far too content. “If you can have a positive mindset in a negative situation, you’ve got a chance,” he concludes. “I’m just grateful to be where I am now. I feel lucky. ”

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