• Adam Stubbings

Player, Influential: #5 James Coppinger

During the course of the lockdown, we’ve been taking a look at the 2019/20 season as it stands and spotlight a few of the most influential players in the Doncaster Rovers side.

Our last feature in this series looked at goalkeeper Seny Dieng, so this week we turn to the evergreen maestro himself, midfielder James Coppinger.

In Pursuit of Immortality

It is hard to know where to start when it comes to James Coppinger. The Guisborough-born maestro has been at the club so long and made so many appearances that a quick online search will give you three different appearance numbers from three fairly reputable statistic outlets, but what is not in any dispute is Coppinger’s worth to Doncaster Rovers Football Club. He remains a constant presence around the team and those he plays alongside always benefit from his experience and sheer class on and off the field.

Now in his 16th season wearing the hoops, Coppinger isn’t really slowing down. Last season was his busiest of any of them, going past 50 games in all competitions thanks to the club’s Play Off run, and his 15 assists ranked as the second best in League One. He has continued that productive trend in the current season, although with the nature of the suspension it may never be possible to fully compare the two performances.

Chart the man’s career trajectory across his entire tenure as a Rovers player though and you get the picture of consistency: Copps is a player never on the sidelines, who has made 37 or more appearances in every season since 2004 bar the 2012-13 season, when he spent half the campaign on loan at Nottingham Forest. He has always chipped in with a decent handful of goals and has always played a vital role in creating chances and goals for team mates.

No Waning Impact

A third manager in as many seasons has meant the veteran having to adapt once more, but any doubts that James Coppinger is now too long in the tooth to keep up have been answered emphatically. As a player always better at using close control and technical proficiency on the field than any raw physical abilities, Copps’ game has evolved to only enhance his creative capabilities and ensure he can still play at a high level no matter what age he is.

An important contextual aspect of the midfielder’s exemplary 2018/19 season was the discourse surrounding James Coppinger’s changing role in the team after Grant McCann’s arrival. The Northern Irishman quickly set about implementing a more in-your-face, relentless playing style than any of his predecessors in recent memory had used, and so the inevitable questions came about Coppinger’s ability to thrive in such an environment at his advancing age.

His superb return of assists and important goals answered the naysayers and then some. Yet still those questions came again when Darren Moore replaced McCann last summer. Moore’s more cerebral tactical approach was always going to suit Coppinger’s game, and the biggest benefit was a return to utilising a conventional ‘#10’, a position that the 39-year-old is perfect for now he has reached the twilight of his career. The proof is in the pudding, with 4 goals matching his tally for last term in only 33 games and 9 assists making him the team's best creative outlet.

Coppinger also batted away the notion that losing the captaincy was a negative move, as he felt he preferred to focus on his football and didn’t need an armband to cloud his natural influence on the squad and his peers. Moore was keen to stress – in appointing Ben Whiteman as his first Rovers skipper – that he wanted leaders throughout the team and Coppinger is clearly one of those regardless of designation.

Impact Unquestionable

That bore fruit as soon as the season got going, with Copps racing out of the blocks to exert considerable influence on the team’s early season results. He set up Kieran Sadlier for the team’s first goal under Darren Moore on the opening day, a 1-1 draw with Gillingham, and a fortnight later he was essentially the match-winner against Fleetwood as his injury time free kick was turned in by a defender, adding to a sumptuous curling strike in the first half that opened Coppinger’s account for 2019-20.

His sterling record in local derby matches continued soon after that too, as he clipped in the equaliser in an eventual 2-1 victory over Rotherham at the Keepmoat, and before September was out he had shown his versatility again by notching a deft header that set Rovers on their way to a terrific 2-0 victory over Peterborough. In those early months, his creative team work alongside Whiteman, Sadlier and Alfie May in particular was a boon for Rovers and must’ve felt like a huge leg-up for Darren Moore in settling into his new job.

As the team’s form ebbed and flowed throughout the autumn, Coppinger remained an anchoring presence in the team, and when performances started to click once more and Rovers put together a string of wins to move up the table, he was a key part of it again. Assists in key wins over Shrewsbury and Bristol Rovers underlined his continued importance, and heading into his 40th year there appeared little that would slow him down.

Future Less Certain

However, we are now entering the least assured period the club has experienced in two decades. Coronavirus has halted the sport and left everything up in the air, including the future of one James Coppinger. Whilst the man himself has expressed his desire to continue playing as long as his body will allow, the longer the sport remains on hold the less sure we can be of seeing him reach another milestone in the red and white hoops.

Before the virus hit, a persistent ankle issue coupled with January arrivals in the transfer window had reduced Copps’ playing time. Since missing the squad entirely for the first time in 2019/20 at Tranmere, Darren Moore has left his most experienced player on the bench four times, granting Coppinger only two starts and preferring instead to test out young loanee Jacob Ramsey. The hope is that football can resume over the summer and another contract can be put to the great man, but we can no longer be confident in that being possible.

What does underline the continued influence of Coppinger however is his performance in his most recent home appearance, a 2-1 win over Bolton on a bitterly cold night in February. He ran the show that night, and the vision and accuracy he displayed in putting a narrow cross right over onto the head of Niall Ennis for him to score what proved to be the winning goal typified the sheer class of the man.

Whether or not we do see an on-field conclusion to this campaign, there is no denying the unique and important contribution of Doncaster Rovers’ legendary number 26. James Coppinger is cemented as an all-time great of the club, and of the EFL entirely, and those calls for him to be honoured with a statue outside the Keepmoat Stadium once he does hang up his boots will only grow louder for his efforts this season.


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