LEGEND SIR BOBBY BROKE MY HEART
HE’S made 300 starts and almost 400 appearances in a decade at Doncaster Rovers, but at 33 James Coppinger is not slowing down.
Which is hardly surprising for a midfielder who started under Bobby Robson, a man who was still doing situps in his seventies.
“It’s true, he was,” laughs Coppinger, who joined Newcastle as a trainee in 1998, and played once before leaving for Exeter in 2002.
“In his first pre-season, all the first-team partnered up and I was the young lad left on my own.
“So Bobby would come with me and he’d be doing all the press-ups and sit-ups. All the first team would be laughing at him trying to keep up, but he knew what he was doing. It got me involved, it got them having a good time. He was a one-off, so charismatic and enthusiastic. And he genuinely cared about all his players.
“When I went to Doncaster, I played with Ben Smith, whose dad Simon was the goalkeeping coach at Newcastle. Ben would say: ‘My dad says Bobby’s been asking after you. He says he hopes you’re doing well’.
“To do that with a lad who played one game for you shows what a fantastic guy he was. Looking back, I probably took him for granted. I was a young kid who wanted to be playing and saw him as the reason I wasn’t.
“But the senior lads – Alan Shearer, Gary Speed – they absolutely adored him. And now I’ve been around a bit more I can see why because the enthusiasm he had for the game made the club a brilliant place to be.”
Robson ended Coppinger’s dreams at St James’ Park. Signed by Kenny Dalglish and admired by his successor Ruud Gullit, he almost broke through as an 18year-old in 1998.
“I came so close to the first team,” he says. “I went on pre-season and was involved in all the games in Germany and Holland. I got my squad number – 26 – which I still wear today.
“When Paul Dalglish got injured I was due to play at Everton. But Ruud got sacked on the eve of the game, and Bobby put all the reserves on the transfer list.”
So it was off to Exeter and then Doncaster in 2004.Ten years on, Copps has tasted League One title success, a Wembley promotion, a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win and a couple of Player of the Year awards – not to mention averaging 40 games a season.
“It feels like yesterday that I joined,” says Coppinger, whose last-minute winner at Brentford sealed Donny’s promotion to the Championship last season.
“But I couldn’t be happier with the way things have gone. The main thing is enjoying your life. I’m married with two kids, another on the way. And I’ve never had a reason to leave.”
It also offered the chance to work with Sean O’Driscoll, another manager Coppinger admires. “He’s probably the best manager I’ve ever worked for,” said Coppinger. “He’s so tactical
ly aware and opens his players’ eyes to that side of the game.
“Ask the players who’ve come through under him, and I think the majority will want to go into coaching and managing.
“He makes you more aware of what football is really about. It’s not about going out and kicking a ball around. It’s about analysing systems, reacting to what you’re playing against, working out ways to nullify opponents’ strengths.
“People see that as a manager’s job, but Sean wanted his players to understand that too.”
And Coppinger is hoping he can learn something from former Newcastle and Peru international Nolberto Solano who was still playing for Hartlepool at the age of 38.
“I did the Inca trail for the NSPCC in 2011,” recalls Coppinger, who lives in Guisborough with wife Lucie and sons Finley and Isaac.
“It was hard – the altitude sickness gives you what feels like a migraine. When I was going to Peru I rang Nobby. He told me that’s how he went on so long – he lived and trained at altitude so he had this incredible aerobic capacity. Hopefully that bit of Peruvian air will keep me going that long.”
DONNY AND DUSTED: Coppinger celebrates after scoring against Barnsley, and, inset second left, with David Cotterill, Tommy Spurr and David Syers showing off the League One trophy GOING UP: Coppinger and Jason Price of Doncaster after beating Leeds in the 2008 League One Play-Off final at Wembley. Inset: Bobby Robson