In mid April with Doncaster Rovers still in pursuit of a place in the League One play-offs, popular STAND fanzine editor Glen Wilson sat down with the man who has come to define Doncaster Rovers; James Coppinger.
“It’s my first day, so I’m not sure who everyone is,” says the woman on the Stadium reception desk, when I tell her who I’m meeting. “But him I do know, he’s just through there”. That in itself is a measure of the standing of James Coppinger in Doncaster. Even for those to whom football is an afterthought, there’s no mistaking Copps.
I rescue the man himself from the process of putting his signature on a club shop’s worth of merchandise, and after we’ve chased some people out of a ground floor office, I look at my pages of notes. Where to begin with a man who’s played well over 600 times for your hometown team, and come to embody everything you love about your favourite sport? I suppose the beginning.
“I always loved playing football, wherever I went as a kid I had a football, whether it be with my friends down the park, or in the house, if it was round I was kicking it about. But I wasn’t a confident person so I never envisaged being a professional footballer.”
It’s hard to believe a man who has enjoyed such longevity in the game never contemplated a career in it. Though he played for Marton – a successful junior side whose alumni included Jonathan Woodgate and Stewart Downing – it wasn’t until he was 15 and playing for enjoyment with a team of his friends, that a future in football opened up. A good season brought trials with Nottingham Forest and the North East’s big three, but they came to nothing. He returned to the Sunday League before another club came calling – this time Darlington who offered him a trial, and ultimately a YTS.
Within a year of joining The Quakers, and before he’d made the first team, Newcastle United came calling. Coppinger puts the move down to having made the England Under 17s squad whilst at Darlington, but even though he’d played in a European Championships for his country their interest still came as a surprise.
“I was called to the gaffer’s office one morning and I’m thinking ‘Oh God, what have I done wrong?’ But he said your dad’s coming down with your suit and we’re going up to St James’ Park. Newcastle want to sign you. Suddenly I’m sat in an office, me, my mum, my dad and the chief executive of Newcastle United, trying to thrash out a contract; it was surreal.”
Coppinger impressed manager Ruud Gullit, but when the Dutchman got the sack he found himself loaned out to Hartlepool. His time at Victoria Park was successful, helping ‘Pool to the play-offs, and he returned keen to make an impression on new boss Bobby Robson. “I wanted to prove a point, prove I was good enough and I wanted it.” In September 2000 he was given his debut, coming off the bench to partner Alan Shearer against Tottenham. “It was a fantastic day, a fantastic achievement, but looking back I was nowhere near prepared for it, mentally. I can’t believe I got to where I got to, thinking the way I was.”
“Making my debut for Newcastle was a fantastic achievement, but looking back I was nowhere near prepared for it, mentally. I can’t believe I got to where I got to, thinking the way I was.”
“I was a very poor communicator when I was younger, very opinionated for someone so young, which could come across as very arrogant. I fell out with the assistant manager Mick Wadsworth and never really figured after that. I don’t think I appreciated the position I was in. I don’t think I gave it everything, I don’t think I gave it anywhere near what I needed to, which looking back is frustrating because you’re only given those sort of opportunities once or twice.”
Another successful loan at Hartlepool followed, but in the wake of ITV Digital’s collapse and another failed play-off campaign they were unable to offer a contract, prompting a move much further from home. “I had a year left at Newcastle, I wanted to play football and I just took a big risk.” That risk was to join an Exeter side who would slide out the Football League at the end of his first season there. “It was a tough two years. I was 350 miles away from home for the first time ever, 21 years old, doing all the things that I shouldn’t be doing.”
But then Exeter themselves were hardly doing things smoothly. “Michael Jackson was on the board, and he came down pre-season, along with David Blaine. We had Darth Vader on the board too, and Uri Geller was the chairman. Uri used to ring me quite a bit, and when I wasn’t going to return after my first season, he said bring your girlfriend, you can stay with me, we’ll get her a job. He couldn’t have been nicer. Him and his son Daniel; they were there because Daniel had had a premonition that he wanted to be part of the club. It was a bit surreal to be honest.”
After a two year diversion into Devonian surrealism, Doncaster Rovers came calling. “It was massive, to be back up north was a huge factor for me. And from meeting John Ryan and meeting Dave Penney, I just got a great feeling that the club was going in the right direction, with John pushing them all the way.”
It’s certainly easy to see how Ryan’s enthusiasm could hook a player in. “Yes, he was massive for me. Not just as a chairman, but as a person, he’s inspiring. To see somebody so enthusiastic. He’s a fan, he’s probably the biggest Doncaster fan I’ve met in the 15 years I’ve been here and he was the chairman. He knows everything about every game, who scored, every single decision, he lives and breathes Doncaster Rovers. I used to think this guy’s lost the plot, he’s talking about us going to the Championship, he’s talking about us getting a new stadium, but everything he said came true.”
Dave Penney too was to provide a key role in Coppinger’s career, when he introduced him to behaviourist Terry Gormley. It’s always surprised me, I say, that it was a somewhat old school manager like Penney, who encouraged Coppinger to explore the mental side of his game. It doesn’t seem like a route he would have nudged a player down.
“No, you’re right. Terry walked into Dave’s office and Dave went right, you’ve got ten minutes to prove to me that this stuff works. So Terry picked up his bag and went ‘right I’ll see you later then’. And Dave was like ‘what do you mean?’ Terry said, ‘well you called me to come in and now you’re telling me I’ve got ten minutes to tell you if it works’ and that’s how it started. As a manager you have to buy into it for your players to buy into it. Dave said ‘ok I’ve got one player that if you can speak to him and this works, will prove to me that you can do something’. So I was a guinea pig, but that moment undoubtedly changed my life, not just my football career.”
“It was a defining moment in the way I started to understand my mind, how I was thinking, how it had an impact on my life, on my football, on everything. Just realising you can improve yourself by doing different things, by building an armoury so when you get disappointments, you can draw on them.”
“Meeting Terry Gormley undoubtedly changed my life, not just my football career. It was a defining moment in the way I started to understand my mind”
“I’ve said to Terry he changed my life, but he disagrees as so many players come to him that don’t want it. They go for the sake of it, to tick a box. You’ve got to want to buy into it, and I went all in. And since that day I’ve gone from strength to strength in every department. There’s not one thing that has happened to me negatively since that day.”
Really? “Yes. I don’t have bad days. Ok, to other people I may have bad days, but for me it’s going to happen, so if that happens, what can I do to put it right? Or what can I do to make it better? That’s the way things have evolved for me. I’ll never go back to how I was.”
To hear James speak about the impact it’s had on him, it’s surprising more players don’t explore the same route. “Not just footballers, people in general. A lot of people are scared, a lot of people don’t believe in it. People don’t want to admit to themselves they’ve got faults. But every single person on this planet, whether you’re on the streets or a billionaire, you’re going to have problems, things are going to happen in your life that you can’t control, it’s about how you deal with them.”
“We’re only here once, and when you put it in context your life isn’t as bad as you think; everybody is going through what you’re going through, it doesn’t matter who you are. The amount of people who’ve committed suicide who had the world at their feet, they’ve got everything, but it’s not about that, it’s about what’s in your head and how you process everything… There’s so much you can teach people, but they’ve got to be willing to open up and be honest.”
It’s fascinating to hear a player talk so positively and passionately about mental well-being; welcome fresh air from the soundbites of post-match interviews our interactions with footballers are usually confined to. But whilst it’s tempting to devolve our chat into what would be a very welcome therapy decision, I draw us back to Rovers, and the appointment of Sean O’Driscoll.
“On their first day I had a meeting with Sean and Richard O’Kelly. I was sat there and I didn’t know who Sean was or who Richard was. So when Richard first started talking, because he was the more dominant, louder person, I’m sat there thinking, right well this must be Sean O’Driscoll, he’s the manager. Then we went out to train and someone starts calling Sean, Sean and I’m like Oh God! But that’s exactly what it was like, Sean was so quiet and reserved and methodical in everything he did and Richard complimented him really well.”
When I interviewed Sean for popular STAND 99, he’d said that when he set out his approach as manager to the players, whilst a couple didn’t take to it, for Coppinger ‘it was like opening up a door and letting him go’. Did it feel like that at the time?
“Definitely. Everything he did I bought into wholeheartedly, because it was exactly how I wanted to play football, it was exactly how I envisaged playing football. It took a while to get used to his philosophy; how we trained was totally different compared to any other manager. We all had to wear long socks with shin pads every single day, we used to do warm ups where he was constantly testing your brain, then we’d do passing drills where there were multiple conditions on everything we did.”
But those rigorous methods bore results. “Unless you were here, and unless you were part of it, and unless you came and watched us, you wouldn’t realise how good it was, every single week. It was an absolute joy to play in so I can’t even imagine what it was like to watch. I remember playing against players I knew and they were asking how on earth has he got you playing like this? It was brilliant to be part of and for me personally it was exactly what I needed at that time. You’ll never get anybody like Sean again.”
“Personally, I think the way we played was the best I’ve ever been involved in, passing the ball, the players that we had, we were just missing one or two who could score. I think if we’d have got Billy Sharp earlier, in our second Championship season, I think we’d have got promoted again. Paul Heffernan was doing well, but I think if Billy had come then he’d have made a massive difference. It could have been huge for us.”
“Sean got four of us in his office once and said, if you keep performing the way that you’re performing you’ll get moves from Doncaster, so forget about the results, just keep playing the way you’re playing and then other teams will come and hand pick you from this club. And they did. It was testament to how he got us playing, the amount of players that went to bigger clubs. Well, apart from me”
That’s not to say that the opportunity for James to move on wasn’t there. Sean had told me that he’d had the chance to join Ipswich Town at one point. “Yeah, I had a few opportunities to go for more money. But I was always happy here. The club matched my ambition, especially through that period, so I never felt a reason to go. I could go for so much money more, but you don’t know where it’s going to lead. All I ever wanted to do was be happy playing. That’s why I’ve played 46 games this season at 38, because all I want to do is play football, I love doing it. Money has never been my motivation. Being happy is my main motivation.”
Sadly those good times came to an abrupt end with Sean’s sacking. “It was a massive shock. Hindsight’s a beautiful thing, but I always said as soon as we lose Sean – because of what he had instilled within the club over a long period of time – we would struggle. Because unless you were going to replace him with somebody similar and do the same thing, there’s no way you could follow him.”
But rather than take a similar approach Rovers went off on a Willie McKay induced tangent. What was that like as one of the club’s longest serving players? “It was soul-destroying. Everything we’d built was about team spirit, team togetherness, team ethics, everything was team, and it went from that to the individual. It was hard for all the players that were part of Sean’s tenure, because it went against everything we’d been doing”.
“It doesn’t matter what sort of sector you’re in, whether it’s football or business, if you’ve got half your team doing one thing and half your team doing another you cannot be successful. One half of us wanted to work together, and the other half didn’t and ultimately we paid the price of not being able to perform on a Saturday and not being able to train”.
I pick up on the point about not being able to train and ask if it was true that Habib Beye was flying in from Marseille for matches? “Yeah, he’d come in with his suitcase, so he’d train Thursday, Friday, play Saturday. If we had a Tuesday game he’d turn up on a Tuesday. How can you justify that? You’re not performing and you’ve got players who are chomping at the bit, it’s their livelihoods, they’re coming in every day because they want to do well for themselves, their families, they need to get contracts. You’re doing everything you can to get in the team, and then all of a sudden there are guys coming in once, twice a week and playing in front of you. It’s soul-destroying for everybody and it’s only going to end one way.”
The following season Coppinger moved away from Rovers, for a loan spell with Nottingham Forest. I ask if it was the fall out from ‘the experiment’ that prompted it? “It was a combination of a lot of things. They wanted to get me off the wage bill. I think Dean Saunders wanted me to be as far away from him as possible. Plus I used to support Forest as a kid, Sean was the manager, and they were back in the Championship so it was a combination of everything. And I was 31, I knew Forest wouldn’t offer me anything, so I knew I’d be coming back”.
Would it be safe to say his relationship with Dean Saunders wasn’t a close one? “It was difficult because of the situation he was put in, to follow Sean O’Driscoll after five years of being so methodical in every single bit of training. Dean was just starting out as a manager, and had to follow somebody who’d arguably given the club the best period of it’s history. He’s a personable guy, a really nice fella, and I had a lot of respect for what he did as a player, but as a manager I found it difficult to work with him, because he was so inconsistent with the way that he did things. I like honesty and I like people that say it like it is, and I didn’t feel that was the case.”
Saunders though did manage to mould a side challenging for promotion before departing for Wolves. When Coppinger returned, midway through the season, it was to a team with a very different leader. “Rob Jones guided us to promotion. It was the best captain, slash manager, slash player performance I’ve ever seen. Not just the way he played, the way he was off the pitch, the way everyone looked up to him. When Rob said something everybody listened. And because he was playing so well he could back it up. Everything he did turned to gold, he scored goals, kept clean sheets, he’s the best captain, the best leader I’ve played under”.
Of course we all know how that season reached its denouement. I ask what went through James’ mind when Brentford were awarded that injury-time penalty, and get a surprising answer.
“I’d bought a pair of football goals for the kids, and walking out the shop realised the woman hadn’t charged us for one of the goals. I was thinking I’m going to have to go back and tell her, but didn’t get chance. So when that penalty was given, I was thinking this is because I didn’t take that goal back. So in amongst everything I’m stood on the edge of the box thinking I should’ve taken that goal back to Toys R Us.”
“What happened after that, you just couldn’t write it. Once the whistle went for that penalty everything just became like an out of body experience, you’re stood there thinking about toy goals, then all of a sudden Billy’s got the ball and I’m thinking just run… Billy was a typical striker, selfish, he never used to pass to me. And when I was running alongside him, I’m thinking there’s no way he’s going to pass me the ball. That’s why I took a touch because I was surprised he’d passed it.”
If he could savour one moment from his long career at Rovers would that be it? “There’s been a lot to be honest, and that was incredible, but personally it’s the hat-trick against Southend. To score a hat-trick in the play-off semi-final, and the way I scored it and everything about it, it was a defining moment in my career and gave me a massive lift, and massive belief that I could go on and play the next season in the Championship.”
From the past to the present, and a Rovers side again chasing promotion from League One. At the time of our chat, Rovers sit sixth with four games to play, despite making few additions to a squad which disappointed last season. What’s changed?
“It’s hard to tell isn’t it. But remember a lot of the players were playing their first season in League One last season. People don’t see those seasons, they just see this one, but I think last season was huge for us in terms of giving people games. When you’re young, you have to start believing you’re capable of competing at this level.”
“This season, with a new manager, new ideas, and the players that have come in have done so well. Danny Andrew being fit is massive for us, he’s been really good and gives us good balance. I just think everything has come together. And when you find a team that clicks, and you win games, you get momentum. We’re competing with five or six unbelievable football clubs in Portsmouth, Sunderland, Charlton, Luton, Barnsley. It’s going to be difficult, but it’d be nice to see us get that last play-off spot.”
And Coppinger personally? It feels like he’s spent the last three or four seasons now proving people wrong; those people who spend pre-season saying ‘his legs have gone’, ‘he can’t do it anymore’. Is he aware of those criticisms?
“Massively. I do it to other people, so it’s part and parcel of being my age, but I love it. The good thing is I don’t feel any older. Forty-six games already this season, and forty-three games a season on average for the past 17 years, so when people say that to me I just say look, here are the stats. The last two or three seasons have been arguably the best of my career, so it is frustrating, but I know it’s part and parcel of being a 38-year-old professional footballer.”
It’s clear from his performances this season, though he may have become synonymous with Doncaster Rovers, there is no tokenism in Coppinger’s appearance on the field. But when we meet, in mid April, his future is still uncertain, as he waits on the offer of a new contract. “You’ve got players that want to progress and want to do well, want to better their careers and I want to be part of that, even at 38.”
It’s hard to conceive a Doncaster Rovers side with no ‘Coppinger, 26’, but would he really contemplate moving elsewhere if he wasn’t offered a new contract? “One hundred percent, I still enjoy playing football. I’ve played 46 games, with four games to go I’m tying for the most assist in the league, so for me to stop playing, well it’s just not going to happen”
James Coppinger’s career, indeed his life, is split into two distinct parts; before and after Terry Gormley. And whilst his natural talent is undoubted – once described on our pages as possessing a first touch that could trap a gas – it’s hard to envisage that the pre-Gormley Coppinger would still be playing at the level the post-Gormley Coppinger continues to flourish. His longevity in the game is indicative of his willingness to improve himself, and his openness to learning and understanding how he thinks, much more than how he plays. And to hear him talk about that transition is genuinely inspiring.
I forget who warned us not to meet our heroes, but I doubt they’d have faced much disappointment had they’d gone through life idolising a red and white hooped number 26 shirt. I sincerely hope this isn’t the end for him and us, because whilst fifteen years may be a lifetime in football, it isn’t nearly long enough to prepare for that.
by Glen Wilson
This interview first appeared in print in issue 100 of popular STAND fanzine. The day after that issue went on sale James Coppinger signed a new one year contract with Doncaster Rovers, taking him into a 16th season with Doncaster Rovers. We’re already looking forward to it.