Blue-eyed boys - Robert Hopkins

Robert Hopkins in action for Blues
Robert Hopkins in action for Blues.

At times we were training on the car pack outside the ground. Even though at the time I was wondering what I’d done, I was just glad to be back there.

Robert Hopkins

With the First Team squad and management on their summer breaks, over the coming weeks we will be bringing you a selection of interviews with former Blues players that appeared in last season's matchday programme.

In the first of these, Sean Cole caught up with former St. Andrew’s midfielder/forward Robert Hopkins, a lifelong Bluenose whose career started across the other side of the Second City with Aston Villa…

Robert Hopkins got to live the dream of every Birmingham City supporter, not once but twice. A boyhood Blues fan born in Small Heath, just a mile from St. Andrew’s, he had a trial with the Club as a youngster but was turned down. He started his career with Aston Villa instead, first getting the chance to come home in 1983. Hopkins returned for a second time six years later.

Part of a family of Blues fans, he had no choice over who to support. After being taken along by his dad at the age of six, Hopkins had been hooked ever since. Even now he’s at every home game and most away ones too.

Hopkins has always had a complicated relationship with his first side Aston Villa. Despite his instinctive dislike of the club, hardwired from birth, they gave him his  chance in professional football. He signed for them at 15 and made his first team debut two years later, coming on as an injury-time substitute to score with his first and only touch of the game against Norwich City.

When playing for the reserves, who would kick off at 2pm, Hopkins would often rush to St. Andrew’s to catch the second-half if Blues were at home. His loyalties always lay elsewhere and were made clear through some controversial choices that eventually hastened his departure.

“When I was at Villa I used to appease myself by carrying my boots in a Blues bag and wearing a Blues badge. I always wore something to do with Blues,” he recalls. “When I was a kid you had to take your own boots, so I had a Blues bag and I’d wear my Blues socks. On matchdays, in the reserves and that, I’d wear my Blues badge under the Villa shirt.”

That habit continued during his three games for the first team, creating tension between Hopkins and the supporters when they discovered what he was doing.

“Because I used to wear the badge under my shirt, a few people knew, but not many. The manager at the time was Tony Barton and he warned me not to wear it. I was playing Notts County away and my shirt ripped. It nearly caused a riot, because the Villa fans spotted it.

“The move to Blues partly came about because of that incident. There was a big uproar about it. It was a fairly well-known thing but there was no Facebook, or Twitter, or any of that stuff at the time, it was just word of mouth. But people actually saw the badge then. So, Tony Barton said, ‘You’ve got to go.’ Luckily enough, Ron Saunders signed me a few months later.”

The deal was a straight swap for Alan Curbishley and Hopkins was pleased to be reunited with some familiar faces at St. Andrew’s. Saunders had been his mentor when he was coming through the ranks at Villa, whilst best friend Noel Blake had recently crossed the great divide too. Blues were struggling in the First Division at  the time.

“Funnily enough, my first game for Blues was against Notts County. Just coming out and wearing the shirt was amazing. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was playing for the Club I love,” says Hopkins. “I always remember, after 10, 15 minutes, Mark Dennis got sent off. I thought, ‘Oh great. There’s somebody worse than me.’ I had to get like 200 tickets because all my family are Blues fans. A section of the stand was basically just all my family.”

Blues won 3-0 thanks to a Mick Harford goal and a brace from Mick Ferguson. An impressive run, culminating in a final day win at Southampton, clinched survival. Next season was another struggle, with two feisty games against Aston Villa. The first, a 1-0 loss at theirs on an almost unplayable pitch, featured some brutal challenges and a red card for Colin Gibson. Steve McMahon put Kevan Broadhurst out of action with a two-footed tackle which led to some post-match retribution.

Noel Blake headbutted McMahon just after the final whistle and a scrap followed in the tunnel as aggrieved Blues players sought answers. That era was defined by a notorious group, including Dennis, Blake, Harford, Hopkins, Howard Gayle and goalkeeper Tony Coton, whose antics on and off the field drew attention and endeared them to supporters. They shared a work hard, play hard attitude and would regularly be seen on nights out.

“It was brilliant. We all got on so well. At the time you had to live within 20 miles of the ground. That was one of the rules, which sounds good but it’s not because most of us were single so we were all meeting up and going out. But football was different then. You could go out and have a drink and do what you like. Just get on with it and enjoy it. But we did like a night out to be fair. There were a lot, but I can’t talk about that!” he laughs.

A measure of revenge was enacted against Aston Villa in the return match at St. Andrew’s, where Gayle scored the winner before climbing the fences to celebrate with the home fans. An iconic moment in the club’s history, Blues failed to kick on from it and suffered relegation. Their fortunes continued to fluctuate.

Hopkins played 45 games and scored 10 goals as an immediate return to the top flight was secured but more struggles were to come. With Blues well adrift at the bottom of the table, an FA Cup defeat to non-League Altrincham at St. Andrew’s spelled the end for Ron Saunders. Hopkins had a difficult afternoon, scoring for Blues but then gifting the opposition victory with an own goal as his backpass beat David Seaman and went straight in.

“Everyone brings that up. The Club was just on a downward spiral at the time. We’d lost so many league games on the trot and then we play Altrincham and I end up scoring the goal that knocked us out. I remember on the night, I went out and just slept in some pub that I know. I woke up the next morning and I was on all the back pages. I was completely gutted,” he says.

As Blues returned to the Second Division, the Club accepted Manchester City’s offer of £130,000 for Hopkins, who reluctantly left. He was there for less than a year as the manager who signed him, Billy McNeil, left to take over at Aston Villa. His replacement, Jimmy Frizzell, wanted to bring in Imre Varadi from West Bromwich Albion and Ron Saunders would only agree to a deal if Hopkins went the other way. The two were reunited once more.

“I loved Ron Saunders,” says Hopkins. “He knew what I was all about. He signed me three times – for Villa, Blues and Albion. He used to try to give me advice but as a kid I wouldn’t take any notice. You could see he cared though. He came across as a hard sergeant major type bloke, but you could see he cared about people.”

After two years at the Hawthorns, Hopkins was offered the chance to rejoin Blues on a cut-price deal. Things had changed significantly while he was away. “Blues were in the division below but I said yes straightaway. My heart ruled my head. Blues weren’t the same at the time. They were in a bit of trouble. I went back and I think my first home game was against Shrewsbury and there were less than five thousand there.

“We had no training ground and the club was broke. It was in a bit of a mess. At times we were training on the car pack outside the ground. Even though at the  time I was wondering what I’d done, I was just glad to be back there.”

Financial difficulties defined Hopkins’ second spell at Blues. The Club were barely scraping by under the Kumars but at least enjoyed a lucrative and morale- boosting run to the 1991 Leyland DAF Cup Final. Left on the bench, it would prove to be the winger’s last involvement with the Club, watching on as they beat Tranmere Rovers at Wembley. What could have been a fitting end wasn’t to be and it rankles with him to this day.

“I was gutted. It was Lou Macari, who I didn’t get on very well with. He was just a fitness man. He’d pick his team based on whoever was the fittest sometimes. I had a bit of a reputation as a drinker so he didn’t like me from the start. There was no way around it really,” says Hopkins.

“I thought he might have put me on at the end, but he didn’t. He only put me as a substitute because somebody got injured at the last minute. After that we had the parade around Birmingham and then the next day, believe it or not, this shows how old it is, I had a telegram saying, ‘You’re no longer wanted.’”

Hopkins had a year at Shrewsbury before briefly going to play in Hong Kong. When he returned to England he combined semi-professional football at Solihull Borough with Friday games for Colchester United. Once his playing days had finished he became assistant manager and honorary social secretary at Solihull. Somebody needed to organise the nights out.

Now a delivery driver, his passion for Blues is as great as ever. In 2012 he was delighted to be inducted into the Club’s Hall of Fame and continues to follow events closely. Hopkins acknowledges that he wasn’t the most talented footballer but was always determined to give his best. He understood what it meant to play for Blues and supporters recognised and related to that. They still do.

“I love watching the Blues and I tell you what’s great, people still recognise me. After 25 years, people still come up and shake my hand and thank me for what I did. It’s really humbling. A lot of them are younger than me but they’ve heard that I support the Club and used to give my best. I didn’t kiss the badge or anything like that. People just knew that I was a Blues fan. The supporters are brilliant. It’s unbelievable.”

GALLERY: A few action images from Robert Hopkins' playing days.