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
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.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
“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.
THE BLUES CRAZY GANG
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.
CUP NIGHT TO FORGET
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.”
BACK IN B9
“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.’”
ONCE A BLUE, ALWAYS A BLUE
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.