IF the quirks of fate had been different, James Coppinger could well have been lining up for Barnsley and not Doncaster Rovers in this afternoon’s South Yorkshire derby.
That sight would certainly have represented a somewhat surreal one for Rovers fans, with the midfielder, 34 tomorrow, having been part of the furniture at the club since 2004.
But the equivalent of the removal men were almost in last summer, which was not exactly a conventional time at the Keepmoat Stadium. Again.
Coppinger had verbally agreed a new three-year deal pending John Ryan and Louis Tomlinson’s Rovers takeover, only for the bid to dramatically collapse in July.
The Guisborough-born player – not offered fresh terms by the existing board after his last deal expired in June – was hastily forced to seek employment elsewhere, with Barnsley making their pitch.
But another twist enabled Coppinger to remain at the club closest to his heart, with the Rovers hierarchy putting together a package to keep him for another two years.
Coppinger, who will lead out Rovers today, never truly wanted to leave but it was a close shave.
Now, the likelihood is on him beating Colin Douglas’s all-time appearance record of 468 games and ending his career at Rovers, who have awarded him a testimonial this Spring, with a launch event taking place at the Crown Hotel in Bawtry early next month.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “It was one of those where I was out of contract and it was a case of seeing what was out there.
“They (Barnsley) showed an interest and it’s a difficult choice not having a job and then someone offering you a job.
“But I just kept my options open and thankfully re-signed here.”
Coppinger needs no introduction not just to Rovers fans, but probably the vast majority of the 2,000-plus Reds fans in the away end today, with the north-easterner having produced some choice contributions in the ‘Pitman’s derby’ over the past decade.
Like just under 12 months ago, when he fired a brace in the Keepmoat fixture, only for a last-gasp Nick Proschwitz goal to earn a dramatic point for the visitors.
Then, there was March, 2010 when he hit the only goal of the game at Oakwell to keep Rovers’ chances of reaching the Championship play-offs alive and end Barnsley’s faint hopes in the process.
Another key intervention today would arguably perform the same trick, with Rovers spying the League One end-of-season jamboree and Barnsley still clinging onto a touch of hope, with little margin for error.
As for the game’s traditional importance, Coppinger does not have to be told twice about it; after living in Doncaster for many years before returning to his native north-east, he soon understood its gravity.
While Rovers fans like to lower the colours of both Sheffield clubs and Leeds, Coppinger acknowledges Barnsley is THE derby, as it stands for supporters, whose rivalries in the 80s and 90s were more concerned with Rotherham, York and Scunthorpe, with Scarborough and even Boston taking pre-eminence in the Conference era.
The derby cocktail is added to by Ross Turnbull, who Coppinger shared lifts with to training last season, making his first Keepmoat return after his summer move to Barnsley – but the pertinent issue is league points.
On the ‘Pitman’s derby’, Coppinger said: “For me, when I lived in Doncaster, it was always the one. Knowing people who lived in Doncaster – out of all the derbies, this was the most important.
“It is one you go into fired up and I have always looked forward to it and have also scored a few goals in and sampled success.
“I will pass onto all the players how important a good performance is.
“Obviously, I have spoken to Ross a few times and he is from my area and I got on really well with him when he was at Doncaster and he’s a fantastic keeper.
“It will be good to play against him and try and get a goal.
“It is always good to get a goal against your local rivals, but it’s more important to get a result.”
Coppinger sampled some glorious highs in the Championship with Rovers and while Paul Dickov’s side are in 14th place in League One, the fact they are just five points away from the top six and showing renewed consistency means no-one is giving up on a return to the second tier at the first time of asking and repeating the feats of 2012-13 just yet.
Coppinger added: “I would say we have as good a chance as anybody of the play-offs and there’s two spots available realistically and there’s a long way to go before the end of the season really.
“Whoever picks up between now and the end of the season will get in the play-offs.”