FLASHBACK: Chris follows Frank’s footsteps

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FOOTBALL has often provided us with evidence of family members inheriting the same sporting gene - Brian and Nigel Clough, Harry and Jamie Redknapp, Peter and Kasper Schmeichel for example.

But a chain that holds greater significance from a more familiar and local perspective is that of former Burnley player and manager Frank Casper and son Chris. After beginning his career with Rotherham United in 1962, striker Frank moved to Turf Moor in June ‘67 for a fee in the region of £30,000. It was the first time in just under a decade that the club had signed a player from another club; the last player being Alex Elder who had arrived from Glentoran in January 1959.

The Barnsley-born hitman made an immediate impact with five goals in as many appearances after signing. He went on to score 74 league goals for the Clarets, 89 in all competitions in 268 outings, before retiring in his eighth season. A cocktail of over-exuberant challenges, mainly those of Leeds United’s Norman Hunter and Spurs’ Cyril Knowles during the 1973/74 campaign, contributed to a career-ending knee injury, though they failed to plague his irrefutable achievement at the club.

He immediately joined the coaching staff and became assistant manager in 1979 when Brian Miller replaced Harry Potts. Casper took over from Miller in January 1983 until the end of the season. He had a spell as assistant manager at Bury, when Martin Dobson was in charge, and then returned to Burnley as manager, again replacing Miller, in January 1989. Casper held the job until being sacked in October 1991, the season the Clarets were crowned Fourth Division champions.

And though that ended a decorated tenure with Burnley, the faith shown in his son paid off as Chris was offered an apprenticeship with Manchester United. “I always loved football through my dad, who was always very active with regard to my development, and I was playing football from an early age, kicking a ball around the garden and in the park with my mates,” declared Chris.

“There was obviously the interest through my dad when he was coach and manager at Burnley and then he moved on to Bury. There’s always been that football element within the family since I was a very young lad so it stemmed from there.”

Chris added: “I would say he was inspirational but he never pushed me or forced me to do it. My mum (Brenda) was the same and was always incredibly supportive of what I wanted to do but at the same time there was never any pressure from the pair of them. It was something that came from myself but also inspired by my parents. My mum was a very impressionable role model for me, she was a fantastic woman.”

And it’s Casper junior who will be the eponymous protagonist of this feature. The defender started out in the sport at Cliviger Primary School before crafting his trade at Barrowford Celtic and St Theodore’s Sixth Form, now Blessed Trinity.

“I started at Cliviger Primary School and played for the school team from being seven,” he said. “I then moved on to St Theodore’s and I was really pleased with that because I knew the reputation of the school in terms of sport.

“I loved sport - not just football - I loved cricket, golf, athletics. To get a place at the school was great for me. There were some brilliant teachers who helped push me forward. They wouldn’t let me slack on my studies and if I wasn’t doing them right I wasn’t able to do sport. That was unthinkable so I always got my head down.”

He added: “I played a full season at Barrowford Celtic Under 14s and I think that had an impact on my development because I was playing as a 12-year-old. It gave me that challenge to make sure I could handle myself in an older age group. You look back at certain parts of your life and wonder what it was that kicked you on - I think that year was quite pivotal really.”

Chris had become accustomed to the humble environment of grassroots football but, in the pursuit for success, his career escalated towards the unimaginable, and the famous surroundings of The Cliff became his new home. The defender’s dedication, endeavour and desire was not only rewarded with inclusion among the Red Devils ranks, it earned him a grounding alongside Alex Ferguson’s proteges, including David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs.

“Joe Brown spotted me playing for Burnley Town Team,” Casper recalled. “He was one of his scouts. He invited me to go along to training for a week at the Cliff and I really enjoyed myself. They offered me a schoolboy apprenticeship and a professional contract eventually.

“It was a great privilege. Burnley was always my number one team growing up but I also had a soft spot for Man United with the likes of Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and all these great players who you aspire to be like.

“They were winning trophies when I was growing up and I developed that connection. To actually go on and play for them was a fantastic honour.”

He added: “We had a good youth team, there’s no questiont. At the time we didn’t realise; there was only one person who was destined to reach the potential he had and win the trophies he has and that was Ryan Giggs.

“Even from being 14 or 15 when he played for Salford’s Town Team and we played against them in the English Schools Cup he was totally different to everyone else. He was already part of United’s youth and reserve team.

He was always destined to achieve big things. There was never any insurance that the others would go on to achieve the careers that they have.

“But you look at the lads, Scholes, Beckham, the Nevilles, they’ve had unbelievable careers and deserved every ounce of recognition that they’ve got. They worked extremely hard and took their chances and opportunities when they came. They’ve gone on to set an unbelievable standard for young players coming through.”

Casper’s big moment arrived on October 5th, 1994, when he was awarded his senior debut at Old Trafford against Port Vale in the League Cup second round second leg. “I made my debut against Port Vale in the League Cup,” he said. “It stays in my mind, we won 2-0 at Old Trafford and it was a great night. It was a great feeling being able to fulfil my dreams. You’re always expected big things at Manchester United. Every game you play you’re expected to win and every team wants to beat you.”

The occasion provided the domestic filling for the international recognition that he’d already enjoyed and the caps that were yet to come. He served as captain of the England youth team and had already been a member of the European Championship winning side of 1993 (pictured). He would then go on to appear for the England Under 21 side in Toulon in 1996.

“When we went to play for England we were fortunate to have a very good team with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Sol Campbell, Julian Joachim, and obviously the United lads so we always expected to win and wanted to win,” said Casper.

“It was an honour being able to represent my country. I remember speaking to my mum when the manager told me that I was going to be captain of the team. It was a very proud and quite an emotional feeling. To speak to my future wife (Karen) and my mum about becoming captain of England was again a fantastic honour.”

Casper found his opportunities limited at Old Trafford and was loaned out to Bournemouth, Swindon Town and Reading. And when Sir Alex made Dutchman Jaap Stam the most expensive defender in history, in a deal worth £10.6m., it signalled the end of his time at Manchester United.

“I got to the stage where I felt opportunities were always going to be quite hard to come by,” conceded Casper. “The manager had signalled his intentions by breaking a Premier League record in bringing Jaap Stam in for over £10m. which at that stage was unheard of really. I was 22 and I got to the stage where I wanted to move on. I was part of the squad and the European squad but I wanted regular first team football.

“I had three successful loan periods at Bournemouth in ‘96, Swindon the following year and then Reading in ‘98 who I ended up signing for. It was just my time to move on and I had to be honest with myself and do it for my career.”

Casper’s transfer to Berkshire, where the Royals had entered a new chapter, switching from Elm Park to the Madejski Stadium, should have been a time of enthusiasm, excitement and optimism. However, those emotions along with Casper’s ambition were shattered during the 1999/00 campaign in a Division Two fixture against Cardiff City. After cementing his place in Tommy Burns’s side and then Alan Pardew’s, hopes for Casper were high, but midfielder Richard Carpenter brought all that crashing down with a horrific, career-ending challenge that caused a double leg fracture. And though the physical scars have since healed, the psychological trauma endured is still apparent.

Casper said: “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still play over in my head. It was a changing part of my life really. To have to deal with something like that was a life-changing situation. It ended my career and I had to deal with that emotionally as well as physically. It was very tough. I’m a firm believer that you get dealt a hand and everyone gets a different hand to play. You’ve got to get on with that and take it. It was through no fault of my own that my career ended.”

He added: “It was a challenge on the halfway line. Richard Carpenter had over-run the ball and he tried to make amends for his mistake and basically went in to the tackle very, very recklessly, two-footed and I ended up with a double leg fracture, ankle ligament damage and cruciate knee ligament damage all from the same tackle. That was the severity of it. It took a long time to move on and emotionally it was very difficult.

“It was quite awful. I ended up having a bone graft and one of the bones didn’t heal like they thought it would do. Psychologically it’s always very difficult when something like that happens. I was 23 when I got injured and 26 when I finally decided that I couldn’t carry on. It was difficult but I had to make a decision.”

Those of a more fragile pedigree would have been forgiven for cutting any remaining ties with the sport, distancing themselves from any further heartache. But Casper followed in his father’s footsteps and while undergoing rehabilitation at the University of Bath, he coached Team Bath along with Paul Tisdale. The pair guided the side to the first round proper of the FA Cup in the 2002/03 competition, making history in the process. When facing Mansfield Town they became the first university side to reach that stage since Oxford in 1880, who went on to lift the trophy. But Bath’s journey culminated that afternoon with a 4-2 defeat.

“We had a great side of students,” beamed Casper. “We worked hard with them and ended up live on Sky in the first round of the FA Cup. We did ourselves proud and were very unlucky to get beat. It was a great achievement for the lads and the club. We made history so it was a fantastic achievement.”

The following step on the coaching ladder saw Casper join Bury as youth team coach before taking charge of the reserves during the 2004/05 season. At the beginning of the 2005/06 campaign, with six defeats from the first nine League Two games, he replaced Graham Barrow as manager, ultimately becoming the youngest boss in the top four tiers of the English football league pyramid.

“I can remember taking over the role on a temporary basis against Oxford,” Casper said. “We got beat in that fixture but then I took charge again against Bristol Rovers and we won. It was kind of thrown on me but I soon developed a hunger for management. I applied for the job and fortunately I was appointed manager.

“It was a fantastic experience to hold such a responsibility at 30. Things were tight, including the budget, and I had to plan quickly. I ended up staying in the job for two-and-a-half years, which I think exceeds the average managerial tenure, so I was extremely proud of that. All in all I feel I progressed the club and the young players. During my time I awarded around 12 or 13 debuts to lads from the academy which is a testament in itself really. I was grateful for the opportunity that Bury gave me.”

Casper was confirmed youth team coach of Bradford City in June 2008, taking over from Jon Pepper, and later became appointed assistant manager to Neil Woods at Grimsby Town, replacing Brian Stein. Casper stepped down from the position at the end of the 2009/10 season with Town suffering relegation from the Football League and joined the Premier League as a club support manager working within the new academy system, a role he still enjoys to this day.