16 seasons, approaching 650 appearances, 240 different team-mates, one club. James Coppinger’s tale is one of true loyalty and, for someone who never wanted to be a professional footballer, he’s done quite alright.
A player’s medal collection or international caps are often used as measures of success when it comes to a career in football, but there are other definitions of success, and James Coppinger’s unconventional but spectacular rise – as it’s best described – is certainly a prime example of that.
In a career that has so far spanned 21 seasons, the 38-year-old has racked up more than 750 career appearances. From Sunday League to Premier League, the most remarkable thing about Guisborough-born Coppinger is not that he’s still one of the first names on the Doncaster Rovers teamsheet, it’s that he didn’t even want to be a footballer in the first place.
A player isn’t generally branded a ‘legend’ until he hangs up his boots, but James Coppinger is a likely exception to that rule. Portraits of him through the years are dotted around Doncaster Rovers’ training ground; his 2013 league-title winning goal is pictured on the wallpaper as you enter the Keepmoat Stadium, and a banner of him overlooks the pitch in the South Stand. After 16 seasons at the club and over 640 appearances, you’d struggle to find anyone in Doncaster that disagrees with his already acquired status.
Even as he strolls from the training pitch to the changing room after the morning’s session, his relationship with the club – and its undisputed respect for him – is obvious. At 38 years old, it’s clear that he is enjoying his football more than ever, and Rovers’ role in what can only be described as an esteemed career should not be underestimated.
“I didn’t ever think I’d get anywhere near 21 seasons in professional football, I didn’t even want to be a professional footballer,” Coppinger says with a smile on his face.
“To think that 21 years down the line, I’m still playing and enjoying it more than ever, is amazing.”
Coppinger’s introduction to the professional footballing world is about as spectacular as it gets, going from non-league to Premier League in a matter of months, without even wanting to.
“I played for the best Sunday League team in my area, Marton Juniors, until I was about 15” Coppinger recalls.
“A lot of players went on to play for the likes of Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest or Newcastle United, but I didn’t. I loved playing football but never wanted to do it professionally, so I just went to play for a local team with my friends from school.
“I got Player of the Year, I scored loads of goals and picked up loads of trophies. Darlington asked me to go for a trial and I was offered a two-year Youth Team Scholarship.
“My dad never forced me into playing football. Perhaps if he had, it might have been different, but at the same time I might have resented him and
quit completely. I enjoyed playing football with my mates, riding my bike, playing tennis and just being a kid. It wasn’t until I went to Darlington that I realised I was a half-decent player and had potential.”
What followed was something most youngsters can only dream of.
“Four months into my YTS, I got an England trial,” he continues. “I remember scoring a hat-trick past Chris Kirkland before getting picked to go to Poland with the team.
“On deadline day that season, I got sent to go to see the manager. I went up to his office thinking I was in trouble and he just told me that my dad was on his way down with my suit because I was going to St James’ Park to sign for Newcastle United.
“I went from Sunday League to the Premier League and all of a sudden was training with Alan Shearer and Ian Rush! At 17, that was very surreal and I’m not sure it ever really sunk in, to be honest.”
Coppinger spent four years at St James’ Park and, after a loan spell at Hartlepool United, made his Premier League debut in 2000 at 19 years of age.
“I made my debut against Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park in front of 55,000 people, I came on up front alongside Alan Shearer. That’s something I’ll always remember but at the same time it’s frustrating looking back as I just didn’t make the most of it.”
By his own admission, a ‘small-town mentality’ prevented him from taking his chance at St James’ Park, one he looks back on with frustration, but not necessarily regret given what was still to come.
“I had a real small-town mentality,” he explains. “Even when I moved to Newcastle, I never thought of myself as a professional footballer. That’s both strange and worrying. My dad used to say to me ‘do you realise where you are and what you’re doing?’ but I just used to laugh it off. No-one ever sat me down and told me what a massive opportunity I had. “
With no further first-team chances forthcoming, Coppinger had swapped St James’ Park in Newcastle for St James Park in Exeter and, within two years of making his Premier League debut, had dropped out of the Football League completely.
“I went from Sunday League to the Premier League and before I knew it I’d dropped out of the Football League after relegation with Exeter. I look back at that time as without a doubt not just the biggest learning curve of my career, but genuinely my life.”
Following the relegation, he decided to walk away from football for good, before a phone call from Eamonn Dolan - Exeter’s manager at the time - convinced him to try again. A supportive club, a sympathetic manager and a successful season in the Conference turned things around for Coppinger who, from then on, never looked back.
“I was on the golf course when he rang me,” he recalls. “I didn’t go back for pre- season, I didn’t want to. But he told me I was his best player, he even said I could have Mondays off to spend more time with my family. He worked wonders with me and was massive for my career.”
Coppinger’s ‘light-bulb moment’, however, came when asked to relay his football story while representing England ‘C’.
“I stood up and told everyone I played for Exeter City but two years ago made my Premier League debut. Everyone in the room was so shocked. It was a sobering moment for me and I asked myself why and how I’d fallen so far down the ladder. It knocked me into shape.”
Coppinger’s career has taken him from Newcastle to Exeter, and from the Premier League to Non-League but his move to South Yorkshire was the start of a record-breaking relationship.
Recent success for Doncaster Rovers, including back-to-back promotions, saw manager Dave Penney come calling for the midfielder and even he couldn’t have predicted what the next 16 seasons would bring. The Doncaster era is where Coppinger’s life changed, and not just because of the football.
“I’ll always thank Dave Penney for what he did for me. I was doing well in training, but come matchday I couldn’t replicate anything and I just didn’t know why. I was struggling off the pitch personally, though I didn’t really know it at the time.”
In a bid to help Coppinger reach his potential, Penney introduced him to behaviourist Terry Gormley.
“I remember Dave said to Terry ‘I’ve got someone who I want you to work with. If you can change the fortunes of this player and make him a better player, I’ll buy into what you’re doing.’
“So I met Terry and I remember just thinking ‘wow’ after our first session. It seems over the top to say it, but it was honestly life changing for me. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I must have been in a really bad place psychologically for him to have that much of an influence on me. Mental health wasn’t really talked about back then, but every time I worked with him my mind-set got better and I started to see a massive improvement in my life off the pitch as well as on it, which coincided with both myself and the club being successful.”
Of course, with success off the pitch comes success on it, and Coppinger went on to play a major part in a golden period of Doncaster’s history. They even took on the nickname ‘Arsenal of the north’.
“We went on to have a hugely successful period at the club. We had a new ground, new players and a new manager in Sean O’Driscoll. He was structured, hard working and believable – all the things that I wanted in a manger. Those five years were arguably the best of my career. He transformed the way we played football; you had to witness it to believe it and I always believed that destination Championship was achievable under him.”
And Coppinger was right. League Cup wins against Aston Villa and Manchester City were followed by glory in the EFL Trophy in 2007, and a promotion in 2008 which was the icing on the cake.
A 5-1 win (including a Coppinger hat-trick) over Southend United in the Play-Off Semi-Final, secured Rovers a date at Wembley Stadium against Leeds United – a day that will live long in the memory of any Doncaster fan.
“That day will take a lot of beating,” Coppinger says. “Thinking back, I’ve got so much to be proud of. How many times can you say you’ve scored a hat-trick in the Play-Offs? Cementing our place at Wembley to play Leeds, and go on to beat them, was an absolute dream come true for anyone connected to Doncaster. That season is such a special part of this club’s history.”
After four seasons in the Championship, Rovers found themselves back in League One, and despite the expectation to return to the Championship, no- one was prepared for what happened at Griffin Park on the final day of the 2012/13 season.
Needing a point to seal automatic promotion, Rovers travelled to Brentford, and with the scores at 0-0 after 94 minutes, it looked like an immediate return to the Championship was imminent. But, as ever in football, nothing is that simple. What followed was one of the most incredible finales to a promotion showdown the League has ever seen.
With Brentford being awarded a penalty – and then striking the crossbar – Doncaster went from agony to ecstasy in a matter of seconds as they caught Brentford on the break, allowing Coppinger to tap in from close range. Not only had he sealed promotion with the last kick of the game, but the League One title too. Legend status, confirmed.
“It’s probably the best feeling I’ve ever had in football,” Coppinger said. “I’ve played professional football for 21 years and they’re the moments you play for. I’ve got goosebumps now just talking about it. That and the Wembley win – they’re what you class as once-in-a-lifetime moments.”
After playing such a key part in Doncaster’s golden period of history, it’s hard to believe that Coppinger was brought to the club as an understudy to Jermaine McSporran. But it hasn’t been all highs for the Doncaster veteran, of course.
His individual success caught the eye of others and, with relegation following, opportunities arose for him to continue his football elsewhere. But not playing football for financial gain and enjoying being a part of a club that makes him genuinely happy, Coppinger understood that the grass isn’t always greener and continued to build a legacy at Doncaster.
Fast forward to season 2019/20, the 38-year-old – approaching his 39th birthday at the time of writing - has no immediate plans to hang up his boots, recognising his mind-set as his strongest tool and the reason he’s still successful today.
“My mind-set is the strongest thing I’ve got. It’s something I’ve worked really hard on over the years – it’s not just a coincidence. I think that’s why I’m still playing at the age that I am.”
Determined to pass his experience on, Coppinger set up a business called Pro Mindset, helping young footballers improve their mental approach to the game.
“A lot of people aren’t open enough to admit that they need to work on something or don’t know how to. I’ve always wanted to become a better person, whether that be a better husband, a better father, a better friend or a better footballer and that’s the sort of help I want to give people. We’re all conditioned in different ways and it’s the players who are willing to open their minds to improve that will go on to have the best careers.”
Whilst he now does his own work from home on a Monday in a bid to keep in the best shape possible, it’s clear that the Rovers legend still has plenty to offer, contributing a number of goals and assists to Darren Moore’s side this season.
“I feel really good at the moment. I genuinely feel really fit – I wouldn’t still be playing if I didn’t, but after speaking to the coaches and the sports scientists, my stats are up this season too so I know I’ve still got something to offer this team.”
Admired, respected and an example to everyone that steps through the doors at the Keepmoat, James Coppinger is a true model professional. Just £30,000 was all it took to bring to him Doncaster Rovers... not bad value for a player that quickly became invaluable to the club.