The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

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.”

PIC­TURE: Act­tion Im­ages

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

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