In the last year or so, I have ceased to be a man of ritual. Saturday afternoons are not always the time of the match. Not for me. But that doesn’t mean I’ve taken leave. I may be on a train or at a desk, in a pub or perhaps a gallery, but no matter what the main distraction, come 2pm my hand inevitably fumbles for my phone. Who’s starting? But I’ve realised lately I don’t fully ingest what I find – meaning minutes later I have to look once again to check the full line-up. That’s because in truth I’m only scanning the starting XI for one name; that of James Coppinger.
I am a 35 year-old adult. I’m a man old enough to play in veterans’ football matches; old enough to remember two Germanys and shell-suits being worn unironically. I am, frankly, too old to have a favourite footballer. I should be passed that; should have left it on the playground like a forgotten jumper used for a goalpost. But then I should be a lot of things; healthy, solvent, able to ice-skate. So why pretend? If, in a world of decreasing pleasures and increasing fear and uncertainty, I can draw natural warmth and genuine joy from seeing the number 26 on a Rovers team-sheet, why fight it?
Occasionally the number 26 isn’t there. It wasn’t there three Saturdays ago, when I sat in a Deptford pub refreshing the Rovers team announcement over and over again in the hope it was merely a typo; human error. The prospect of an afternoon at the football to be spent without that first touch, that chop inside the defender. It’s like being told the star is sick and the understudy is filling in; it’s a Happy Days episode without The Fonz, it’s vegetarian sausages.
That particular omission of Coppinger – for Rovers FA Cup tie at The Valley – was doubly disappointing, because had he taken to the field that day it would’ve kept him on course to make his 600th Doncaster Rovers appearance against Scunthorpe. A local derby, a day when I’d be in attendance. I won’t be at the Oxford game; and I’m genuinely sad about it. Even though I’ll spend its duration with good friends and family, there’s no escaping the regret at not being part of the big six oh oh.
When Coppinger broke Rovers all-time appearance record, I made a list of the 187 players he’d lined up beside in a Rovers shirt. Now, after 599 matches, that number has grown to 221, and the list (visible in the graphic below) is a remarkable snapshot of Rovers recent history. From Simon Marples, Tim Ryan, John Doolan et al in his first outing, to Shaun Cummings in his 598th; through all the ups, downs, promotions and relegations in between Coppinger’s name is right there, written into the team-sheet by muscle memory.
He has taken to the field in front of 23 different goalkeepers, played with Rovers of 34 different nationalities. He lined up alongside James O’Connor 198 times, he played alongside Jon-Paul Pittman for all of a minute. He made his Rovers debut alongside the heroes of the Conference years; he was at Wembley and the Millennium Stadium; he graced the turf of Belle Vue; he played against Aston Villa, and Arsenal; twice. It was his shirt that disappeared in the euphoric madness of Brentford, it was his hat-trick against Norwich that put us fourth in the Championship. He’s played alongside Franny Tierney, El Hadj Diouf and Herbie Kane. He scored those goals against Southend, and he has made approximately 234 full-backs contemplate a career change.
Even in view of Coppinger’s sizeable achievement, even as I’ve sat beneath the banner of his face in the South Stand, I have worried my own heightened fandom has crept too far beyond reason; that my glasses have become so rose-tinted as to be opaque. But in October I was joined for the trip to Rochdale by a non-Rovers supporting friend. A Liverpool fan, with a knack for securing big match tickets, the majority of the live football he’s seen in recent seasons has been in the Champions League; the creme de la creme. Yet, as we walked in the Spotland turnstiles he broke from our increasingly middle-aged conversation about housing and next-steps to ask “You’ve still got James Coppinger haven’t you? He’s great to watch”. Vindication, of the sort that had me beaming like a proud parent as we took our seats.
That particular friend is one of my closest; I’ve known him since we took on running a university football team in 2003. We’ve been through a lot in that time, and yet in the background, throughout all of it, the same man has been dutifully pulling on a red and white hooped shirt. Coppinger is the glue that binds the last fifteen years of my life together; two long-term relationships, four cities, nine addresses, eight jobs, one degree, two football grounds. Through all that flux and fug of living there have been just three constants; my family, some friends, and the man in the number 26 shirt. It’s no wonder I cling to his involvement so tightly; it’s the handrail that’s run alongside three quarters of my adult life.
Such longevity as his, combined with the sort of talent that has you shuffling forward in your seat to see what he’ll do next, and a first touch that could trap a gas, would be enough to have any of us fangirling over a player for eternity. But there is even more to James Coppinger. He is a footballer who gets football. He gets what it means to you and me, and he will continue to do so for as long as he’s allowed to step out of the Keepmoat Stadium tunnel and into the light. He’s one of us, and that deserves to be honoured as much as any of his virtues or milestones.
So, the next time you’re told that the days of loyalty in football are over – that players don’t care about their clubs, they care only for the money; you need only look the person telling you this in the eye and say “My friend, you’ve just not met the right player”.
by Glen Wilson
This article first appeared in issue 97 of popular STAND fanzine. We still have a small number of copies remaining, if you would like one, please fill in the form on the back issues page of this site.