Left half Wilf Copping was born in Middlecliffe, Barnsley but was rejected by his local team Barnsley, and worked for a time in the pits while playing junior football for Dearne Valley Old Boys in 1928 and Middlecliffe & Darfield Rovers in 1929. He eventually joined First Division Leeds United in March 1929, and made his Football League debut against Portsmouth in August 1930, soon becoming a regular in the Leeds half back line. They were however relegated in his debut season, only to gain immediate promotion back to Division One as Second Division runners up in 1931-32. He soon developed a reputation as a hard man, very much a forebear for those that were to come in future decades such as Norman Hunter, Ron Harris, Peter Storey, Tommy Smith and Graeme Souness. Together with his Leeds United team-mate Billy Furness, he made his debut for England in a 1-1 draw against Italy in Rome on 13th May 1933. Copping played 174 games for Leeds in five seasons, scoring 4 goals, and won six England caps during that time.
Copping was signed by Arsenal in June 1934 for £8,000, as a replacement for Bob John, and immediately took a first team place at left half. He made his debut against Portsmouth on 25th August 1934, and was an ever present in his first season for the club, until suffering a serious knee injury in the third-last match of the season against Everton. Copping soldiered on and remained on the pitch to ensure Arsenal won the game 2-0; this ensured the club won the 1934-35 League Championship.
Copping recovered from his injury to continue playing for Arsenal, making over 35 appearances in each of his first four seasons with the club. During his time at Highbury, Arsenal won the FA Cup in 1936, beating Sheffield United 1-0 at Wembley, another League Championship in 1937-38, and two Charity Shields. His England career also continued, and he was one of seven Arsenal players to start England’s match against Italy in November 1934 (the “Battle of Highbury”) – a game for which he was named man of the match. In total he won 20 caps for England between 1933 and 1939 and made two appearances for The Football League.
He remained a near ever present for Arsenal until March 1939; with the Second World War looming, Copping put in a transfer request so that he could return to the North with his family. Arsenal duly complied, and Copping re-signed for Leeds United. In all he played 189 matches for Arsenal without ever scoring for The Gunners.
Copping played out the rest of the 1938-39 season with Leeds United, but War broke out in September 1939 and all first-class football was cancelled after he had made a further 15 appearances for the Elland Road club. Copping joined the Army at the start of the War, and served in North Africa, eventually becoming a Sergeant Major. He played the occasional wartime game for Leeds, but retired from playing football in 1942.
Copping was known as a hard man and a strong player; his most famous quote was “the first man in a tackle never gets hurt”. Despite his nickname of “The Iron Man”, and his image (he took to the field unshaven, a remarkably unusual practice at the time), Copping was never booked or sent off in his career. After the War ended, Copping became a trainer and coach at various clubs, including Beerschot in Belgium, Southend United, Bristol City and Coventry City, finishing at Coventry in May 1959.
NB in the photograph he sits on the right, with Arsenal team mate Jack Crayston.