As James Coppinger heads for the home straight, Holly Hunt spoke to the Doncaster Rovers cult hero to discuss why, in spite of the pandemic, the 2020/21 season ranks so highly in his memory and why he doesn’t want to ‘overstay his welcome’ at the club.
James Coppinger is en route to South Yorkshire to return to training with Doncaster Rovers after a COVID-19 outbreak forced the squad to self-isolate.Embed from Getty Images
It’s an 88-mile commute to the Keepmoat – which is currently being used as a vaccine centre – for the midfielder who relocated back to his hometown Middlesbrough six years ago to allow his two sons to grow up around family.
He gets plenty of time to think, and chat, during the long drives.
“In 22 years as a professional footballer, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he said, in disbelief. “The training ground is totally different to anything I’ve ever seen before. There’s no showering, no food, and you have to be in and out as quick as you can.”
Last week, Doncaster postponed League One games against Fleetwood, Peterborough and Oxford when players started showing symptoms.
There have been calls for the EFL to suspend League One after a spate of positive tests, with clubs fearing they might receive points deductions if they don’t fulfil fixtures.
“From the EFL’s perspective and each individual club’s perspective, it’s got to be what’s right for the players and the staff,” he said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for people’s health.
“If at any point they think it’s going to affect people’s health, it would be wise to have a break and see how that works.”
Rovers currently sit four points outside of the automatic promotion spots, with two games in hand to league leaders Lincoln City.Embed from Getty Images
A cup run would be a fitting end to Coppinger’s Doncaster career but they’ll have to overcome Blackburn Rovers first, who they face for the first time in the FA Cup on Saturday, having not trained since before Christmas.
“Having 10 days of isolation and then coming in and trying to restart again is tough. You’ve got to try and make the best of the situation.
“I’m really looking forward to this weekend. We played them earlier in the season in the Carabao Cup and got narrowly beat 3-2 but we gave them a run for their money. They’re doing well in the Championship and it’s always nice to pit your wits against better players and a bigger club.
“There’s an opportunity to get ourselves into the hat and potentially get a Premier League club. My two boys will be looking out as well because they’re Liverpool supporters so they’ll want us to get into the next round.”
Last year, he announced that this season would be his last at Doncaster Rovers but it wasn’t a decision that Guisborough-born Coppinger took lightly.
His swansong season isn’t quite what he’d envisioned, but Coppinger believes that although social distancing is the new norm, the Rovers squad feels closer than ever before.
“It’s been amazing to see how we’ve galvanised each other and got together as a group. The team spirit and togetherness within the group has been brilliant. We lost quite a lot of staff at the start of the season and quite a lot of players.
“To be fourth in the division and have the opportunity to go top at Christmas – albeit we got beat against Shrewsbury – was an amazing achievement I think.”
The midfielder, who turns 40 later this month, has marked each calendar year with a goal and a new haircut, some of which have been more questionable than others. But although he’s lost the long locks he sported back in 2006, he hasn’t lost his eye for goal.
“For my dad, my kids and wife not to be able to see me in my last season is tough, but it won’t stop me from trying to score!” he laughed. “I’m six away from 100 career goals now.”
At the ripe age of 39, he is still going strong, aside from regular injections in his ankle which is, not surprisingly, showing a bit of wear and tear.
His secret? “When a lot of players get into their 30s, they start focussing on what they’re going to be doing next and take their eye off the ball then their performances dip,” he explained. “It’s not something that I’ve done.
“Ultimately, it’s about how I feel day-to-day with what’s going on at the club. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and play for the sake of playing.”
And contrary to popular belief, the EFL veteran maintained that he doesn’t get handed a new deal on a silver platter.
“A lot of fans look at me and think that every season they must just offer me a contract but that’s never been the case,” he reaffirmed. “Some managers are reluctant to offer you the deal you deserve, in my opinion. You have to justify why you’re still playing and it’s not as easy as people think. That’s why a lot of players don’t carry on.
“I was finding it really difficult to get a contract every year. It gets to the point where you say, ‘I’ve had enough.’
“Especially with the salary cap coming in and the financial implications that clubs are experiencing now, depending on the manager and the chairman, you don’t become an asset.”
This year he enters the home stretch and as he reflects back on his playing career, he recalls how he simply stumbled upon the sport.
“I just fell into professional football when Darlington offered me a YTS. I genuinely love every part of what I do and that’s why it’s going to be so difficult to stop. To still be playing after not wanting to be a footballer, a lot of people must look and think ‘How is he doing that?’”
Almost 800 appearances and half a dozen shy of 100 career goals, three promotions and one cup final win later, he hasn’t done bad for someone who had no plans to become a professional athlete.Embed from Getty Images
The number 26 knows all about pressure and expectation, having openly admitted he crumbled under the spotlight when he first penned terms for Newcastle United in 1998.
“I made my Premier League debut at 19, got relegated out of the Football League at 21 with Exeter and my mentality had to change. I had a lot of self-doubt and a lot of things that I struggled with, including my mental health.
“I moved away from home for the first time at 21 with no real support network. Things spiralled out of control. It affected my football and my performances. When I moved back up north and stabilised my life, everything changed for me.”
From thereon out, it’s been the stuff of “comic books” for Coppinger. He scored his first hat-trick in Doncaster colours as they saw off Southend United in the second leg of the 2008 League One play-off semi-final.
TV commentary describe the treble as ‘three goals of the highest quality’ but it meant much more to Coppinger.
“That night was a realisation that I could do it at that level and all my hard work that I’d put in over a three-year period paid dividends,” he explained. “The collective performance at Wembley to beat Leeds in front of 75,000 people and get promoted for the first time in our history was a massive high.”
He’s made memories on and off the pitch that Rovers fans across all generations will cherish for a lifetime, and that measure of loyalty is hard to come by.
In December, the club honoured their longest serving player with a commemorative shirt that Coppinger designed himself. The special edition JC26 jersey flew off the shelves, becoming the fastest selling kit in the club’s history.
“It’s been a hell of a 17 years,” he exhaled. “I count Doncaster as my second home. Both of my kids were born here so it’s got a special place in my heart.
“I went for £1.8 million to Newcastle at 17-years-old which was a lot of money for a teenager at the time and maybe Doncaster did get a bargain but they took a calculated risk rather than a gamble, because of what I’d done and where I’d been.
“To play almost 700 games for one club, I’d like to think I’ve repaid that £30,000 and a little bit more!”