Rovers Failings Laid Bare in Coppinger Hire
Here we go again. On the eve of their dismal relegation to League Two being mathematically confirmed, Doncaster Rovers have announced club legend James Coppinger as the club’s new Head of Football Operations. It is a move that smacks of all the same problems that plagued Rovers in previous managerial and staffing hires which have directly led to the sorry state of things in DN4 at present, and it appears the hierarchy of the club has finally completely lost the plot.
Before I dig into why exactly this move looks for all the world like a misguided attempt to solve the problems at play without properly addressing them, let me just say that I love James Coppinger. The Rovers fanbase universally appreciates all that he has done for this club, knows how much he cares about our fortunes and can be sure that he will do his absolute best to succeed in the role. There is no doubting any of that.
However, there are numerous reasons why we should all be very, very concerned by the appointment and if these concerns are not addressed, those making the big decisions at the club will have nowhere to hide.
Let’s start with the club statement announcing Coppinger’s ascension to the role. Justifying his suitability for the role by mentioning his “unrivalled knowledge of the club” shows in the very first paragraph that the men overseeing Doncaster Rovers have completely missed a very important aspect of the miserable 18 months that have led us to this point: the club is in a stark losing mentality that multiple managers and a slew of different players and coaches have been unable to shift.
The move to bring in a figure at the head of the football arm of the club was a golden opportunity to inject a new ethos and fresh set of eyes on an operation that has been deficient in almost every area for quite some time. Instead, the club have turned to a man who, whilst undoubtedly knowledgeable in the club from top to bottom, has been part of that losing mentality himself (as a player, a coach and as a mentor) and very much someone who has been inside the closeted walls of Doncaster Rovers for an awfully long time.
The statement also speaks of Coppinger bringing “a clear identity” and “detailed plans” to the table, as well as touting buzzwords like “culture” and “cohesion” in explaining his role. Chairman David Blunt – a man who has done extremely well to dodge the scrutiny he surely deserves as the ultimate day-to-day decision-maker at the club in favour of pushing the manager or CEO in front of the press to take the flak – waxes lyrical about Coppinger’s “passion” and the “strong foundations” that he will lay…words we have come to dread after hearing it all before out of the mouth of the Rovers board.
Upon confirming Gary McSheffrey as permanent manager back in December, Blunt touted his “calming influence” on the players whilst talk of how “enthusiastic” he had been about the role was bandied about. The reality is that enthusiasm and passion can only take you so far, and such phrases are often only put at the forefront of these announcements when the people making it know that their chosen candidate is not suitably qualified or experienced enough to fit the bill.
A Corporate Recruiting Shambles
The glaring red flag as far as the club’s decision-making goes is in how they actually recruit their personnel. Even putting aside the utterly disastrous player acquisition stretching back five or six transfer windows now, the cold, corporate nature of how Doncaster Rovers advertise and hire their footballing staff stands out as a bizarre, ill-fitting process which has led to repeated bad hires, from the managerial appointments of McSheffrey and Richie Wellens, to abject failures in technical roles such as that of Graham Younger to the laughable "Talent Identification Manager" position.
Now with the move to make Coppinger the Head of Football Operations after a publicised search stretching over several weeks, involving job adverts akin to those that Amazon and Greggs put on Indeed stuffed full of meaningless general phrases, Rovers have done it again. After making a song and dance about truly reflecting on errors made prior, and committing to a big change that will hopefully arrest the slide, they have on the face of it done the exact same thing they’ve done with at least two managerial appointments in the last 12 months.
The board argue once more, that the alleged stand-out candidate is actually somebody already employed by the club, something demonstrably proven untrue with McSheffrey, and most galling of all, the timing of this entire process throws more fuel on the fire of those who say with a cynical tone that the entire process is nothing more than a charade put on to make out to supporters that the club are actually doing due diligence rather than handing another important role to one of the boys.
A fortnight before he was officially announced, Coppinger was stated to be the new Head of Football Operations by a report from Football Insider, a news item then corroborated by journalist Pete O’Rourke on Twitter. That story broke on April 8th, a full three days before the official deadline for applications set by Doncaster Rovers. Similar occurred when McSheffrey was presiding over his caretaker run in the dugout back in December, yet the hierarchy would have us believe now that Coppinger simply beat out the other top candidates in the interview process.
It cannot be denied that Rovers are in a real mess. Next season they will play in League Two, and a promised season of consolidation under bright young manager Richie Wellens has turned into a disappointment of huge magnitude that will now potentially set the club back years in its aim to be a sustainable Championship football team. Wellens proved a bad fit for the role, and was seen as a good hire back in the summer, but both Andy Butler and Gary McSheffrey were clearly not good appointments at the time and both have been thrown under the bus as scapegoats for failings made by their bosses.
This same ownership has been here before too. In 2016, Rovers plummeted from a solid top half place to relegation in shocking fashion under Darren Ferguson after failing to learn from mistakes made in the recent past. On that occasion, money was ploughed into the playing budget and the Ferguson-led recruitment team brought in a number of quality players who achieved an immediate promotion back to League One. Ferguson though was a vastly experienced and successful manager, and without that key element of the structure it is easy to suggest that Rovers would have found it far tougher to escape the bottom tier so quickly.
In 2022, Rovers have a greatly inexperienced manager who has lost the fanbase entirely and shown in more than half a season that he has not got what it takes to keep his side in the division, despite a historically bad set of teams to do better than. His assistant manager is also inexperienced as a senior league coach, and his playing squad is full of young, unproven players. James Coppinger comes in to the head of the structure with absolutely no experience whatsoever in such a role, and his only tangible suitability for the job comes from his study on the FA Technical Director course.
The Bottom Line
James Coppinger may well prove an astute hire who finally brings the vague “DNA” and “identity” that Blunt and Gavin Baldwin have talked about so soullessly this season back to Doncaster Rovers for real. If he does though, it will be in spite of the club’s ownership because they have now shown with cast-iron clarity that they do not know how to set this football club up for success.
They got very lucky when they hired Grant McCann and he overperformed every expectation and resource at his disposal before leaving when he saw the writing on the wall, and they also got lucky – in a dark sense – that they had a global pandemic to point at when questions were being asked by genuinely concerned supporters and journalists last summer about the direction the club was heading. Those concerns have borne out in truth now, and putting Coppinger’s smiling face front and centre will not in itself stop Doncaster Rovers from sinking to further avoidable depths next season and beyond.