• Adam Stubbings

The Coppinger Game: Five-Star Rovers Seal Wembley Trip

This past Sunday we ran a Retro Rewatch of the 2008 Play Off semi-final between Doncaster Rovers and Southend United. Read on for our review of that game and stay tuned to ITEN in the coming weeks for more ventures into the vault of classic Rovers memories.

A Philosophy Coming Together

A year on from lifting the Football League Trophy in Cardiff, Sean O’Driscoll’s Doncaster Rovers had stepped up a gear. Everything off the field was ticking along nicely, with the new Keepmoat Stadium proving a huge boost, but on the pitch a culture change was taking place. Teething problems from O’Driscoll’s first year in charge were gradually being ironed out though, with the additions of a couple of key players down the spine of the team pushing Rovers from Play Off pretenders to genuine promotion contenders.

Combative midfielder Richie Wellens was a near ever-present alongside Brian Stock in midfield, enhancing the fluidity and overall effectiveness of O’Driscoll’s considered tactical style. Striker James Hayter, who made his name at Bournemouth under O’Driscoll, brought goals up front – the only player to hit double figures in a side with goals spread evenly throughout the team – whilst young defender Matt Mills, on loan from Manchester City, showed maturity and composure beyond his years in the back four.

These players, added to a crop of Cardiff heroes including Stock, Neil Sullivan, James O’Connor, Jason Price and James Coppinger, made Rovers a force in League One and for much of the campaign they duked it out for automatic promotion behind runaway leaders Swansea with Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Carlisle. Defeat at Cheltenham on the final day of the season saw Forest pip Rovers to the post, but the Play Offs represented a familiar route to glory, as O’Driscoll’s side took on in-form Southend over two legs for a place at Wembley.

Stepping Into Heffernan’s Shoes

The quiet manager had an unusual approach to handling his forward line, utilising a rotating group of half a dozen forwards of varying styles in his 4-3-3 system. It meant no one player stood out as the team’s primary goalscorer, and it meant the team were appropriately prepared for the worst case scenario that befell them in the first leg of the Play Offs at Roots Hall. Late in the game – which ended goalless – talismanic striker Paul Heffernan was sent off for a headbutt on Southend’s Charlie Mulgrew, forcing O’Driscoll into a change of plans.

The rotation policy was such that no forward had started even half of the team’s league fixtures that season, and only Hayter had hit double figures across all competitions, with 10. He was the natural choice to come in and partner Jason Price up front, with the pace of Lewis Guy and the size of Mark McCammon and Gareth Taylor waiting in the wings if a change of tact was needed during the match, so O’Driscoll did just that, partnering the hard-working duo in a fluid front three also containing Coppinger.

It worked a treat. Price had a couple of early sighters before battling his way into the box in the 11th minute and finding himself wrestled to the ground by Peter Clarke. Rovers had an early penalty, which was duly dispatched by Brian Stock straight down the middle. The opener came minutes after Southend had nearly taken the lead with a fine counter attack, but young forward James Walker smashed his effort off the crossbar and suddenly Rovers were out in front instead.

Soon the Shrimpers were well and truly on the back foot, struggling to cope with the passing interplay of the forward line, spearheaded by Price. Twice he was denied by quick blocks after being set on for shots first by Hayter, then by Paul Green. That trio then combined to double the lead, albeit with a slice of fortune, as Hayter drifted out wide and played an angled cross to the back post, which Green headed back across goal for Price to bundle in. The touch came off Southend skipper Adam Barrett, but the ball ending up in the net was all down to the endeavour of the man they called “Afro Goal Machine”.

Enter Coppinger

Hayter and Price had shone through the early stages in what was fast becoming a night to remember for Rovers fans, but it wasn’t just down to them. Right through the team, the players were performing at a very high level and now, two goals to the good, confidence was clearly growing. Stock and Green, ably augmented by Wellens returning from a hernia injury, were running the show and giving Southend a torrid time. Aside from a couple of half chances from Nicky Bailey, the visitors were not finding in-roads to assert themselves on the tie.

If what we had seen so far was good, things were about to get even better. Picking the ball up on the right hand side from a battling Jimmy O’Connor, James Coppinger glided in-field past Clarke, approached the area where three more Southend defenders faced him as a blue wall, then in one movement snuck round the outside of the all three of them and fired an unstoppable shot across goalkeeper Darryl Flahavan and into the goal to make it 3-0. It was a fabulous individual effort that put Rovers on their way to Wembley, yet the mercurial midfielder was only just getting started.

Shrimpers boss Steve Tilson no doubt gave his boys a rollicking in the dressing room at the interval, and for a few minutes it seemed to have worked as Southend started the second half brightly, but their efforts were undone by another moment of brilliance. Again Coppinger came inside with the ball and approached the area. Again he was faced up by a defender, looking to show him onto his weak foot, and again he was unfazed. Shifting left on the edge of the box, he unleashed a fierce drive with his so-called weak foot that flew through two more defenders and into the corner of the goal.

Four up and cruising, O’Driscoll started to experiment. Green moved to right back, O’Connor to the left. Guy and McCammon both game on to reshape the attacking line, and still Rovers bossed the game with Stock almost adding a sumptuous fifth before seeing his effort go inches past the post. Matt Mills showed that even the defence was on song, nicking the ball off the toe of Alex Revell in front of goal. Watching this Rovers team hitting their peak was something to relish.

The Man Becomes A Legend

Coppinger, now playing a deeper central role alongside Stock after the withdrawal of Wellens, was still giving Southend a hard time. Prowling the edge of the area at a corner, he took the ball and nicked it past Bailey, who brought him down in mid-air for a free kick right on the line. There was no doubt who was going to take it, but the sheer ingenuity of what followed is still hard to believe to this day.

Lining up the goal, Copps rolled the set piece a yard sideways to Paul Green, who stopped it dead for Rovers’ #26 to take aim. That little adjustment had completely collapsed the Southend wall looking to react to the short ball and caused keeper Flahavan to take two steps towards the centre of the net. Coppinger then struck an absolutely marvellous curling shot over the lot of them and into the far corner, completing a truly spectacular hat trick and putting the cherry on top of the finest night the Keepmoat has probably seen before or since.

Simply, it was genius. Even if Flahavan had not been fooled by the short ball, there’s an argument he would still not have stopped the shot because it was so sweetly struck into the corner. Coppinger wheeled away to the bench where he was mobbed by his team mates, to a man including veteran keeper Sullivan who sprinted the length of the field to join in, and the reaction of the manager said it all. Throwing out his arms in disbelief, Sean O’Driscoll clearly couldn’t believe how good the finish, and overall performance, was.

It has not always been plain sailing for Coppinger at Doncaster Rovers. He is rightly hailed a legend now, but until this night and these incredible goals, he was often a frustrating figure; capable of these moments of excellence but also inconsistent and not always able to stamp his mark on games. His three immaculate goals in this Play Off semi-final however made everyone stand up and take notice and from this point forward he never really looked back, going on to star in possibly the greatest team to ever don the red and white hoops.

Wembley Awaits

Southend did manage a consolation goal in front of their travelling contingent of fans, who essentially started a party in the away end as soon as they went 4-0 down, accepting that their season was over and choosing to look on the bright side of life. Nicky Bailey’s turn and finish in the box was perhaps a slight disappointment for Sullivan and his defence as they gave up the clean sheet, but it was at least a moment of celebration for a very deserving bunch of fans.

It ended 5-1 after a merciful one minute of injury time added by referee Mark Halsey, and soon the fans were on the pitch to salute the efforts of the Rovers players. This performance was almost flawless from a side really starting to believe in themselves as a footballing force of the Football League, and in Sean O’Driscoll and his assistant Richard O’Kelly were being led very much in the right direction. Chairman John Ryan must have felt very proud on this night of what he had assembled, but knew that the real test was yet to come.

The once mighty Leeds United waited in the wings for a storybook showdown at Wembley Stadium. Rovers’ first trip to the national stadium in their near 130-year history would be a big one.

Join us this weekend as our Retro Rewatch takes in that memorable day out in London for the League One Play Off Final. Coverage begins on Sunday afternoon at 2pm over on our Twitter page and we will also have a review of the game up early next week.