Doncaster Rovers v Charlton Athletic: We can play with freedom in play-offs, says James Coppinger

DONCASTER ROVERS’ last marquee play-off occasion at the Keepmoat Stadium is one that will always be afforded a special place in James Coppinger’s glorious montage of magical moments.

Doncaster Rovers veteran James Coppinger pictured in action against Walsall in March (Picture: Marie Caley).

It came on a balmy and beautiful Friday night in May 2008 when the twinkle-toed Rovers forward – then a mere slip of a lad at 27 – scored an elegant hat-trick in a virtuoso performance against Southend United to help send Rovers to Wembley for the first time in their 129-year existence.

That pitted Doncaster against Leeds United – and the rest, as they say, is history.

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A leading protagonist in that stellar odyssey 11 seasons ago, Coppinger, now 38 and with the ink still drying on the deal that will see him stride out for Rovers for a 16th season in 2019-20, is now entrusted with helping to sprinkle more stardust in the direction of a club who will always be a part of him.

While there may be differences between Rovers’ class of 2007-08 – gushingly labelled as the ‘Arsenal of the North’ by ebullient former chairman John Ryan in deference to their pure footballing ethos – and the present-day line-up, who are younger and more ‘explosive’ in the words of Coppinger, the veteran spies similarities too.

Then, as now, Rovers line up against a form side who come into the play-offs on the back of one defeat in 15. Then it was Southend and now it is Charlton.

Ultimately waiting in that play-off final of 2008 were Leeds and, should Rovers make it to Wembley again, then their fans will also find themselves outnumbered at the home of football just as they were on the fateful day almost 11 years ago.

This time either Sunderland or Portsmouth, clubs also blessed with formidable support levels, will be the opposition, should Rovers prevail.

Coppinger said: “Wembley would be a one-time occasion. When we played Leeds they were the favourites. Speak to the Leeds players and there was no way they were going to lose that game.

“Whereas if you spoke to us it was like the same. If we can do it over these legs then it is anybody’s.

“We have obviously finished sixth this time, but we could have finished higher with the performances we have had and players. It is exciting and I do feel when you get into sixth there is no pressure on you and you can go in and express yourselves and feel like you can give everything.

“I genuinely think that in these games form goes out of the window to an extent. Yes, you want to go in there with fantastic form. But I also think Charlton got beaten in the play-offs last year and that will be in the back of their minds potentially especially as it’s so soon after.

“You just do not know how a team is feeling. But for us we are on the back of an amazing home performance against Coventry and we have had amazing home form this season and we have only lost one in about 15 or something.”

A repeat of those unforgettable events on May 17, 2008 against Southend, when Rovers finished off the job in spectacular style with a vintage 5-1 victory after drawing the first leg at Roots Hall, may be pushing it a little for Coppinger or his Rovers colleagues ahead of the club’s latest home play-off assignment.

But hopes abound of recording a victory in his 50th appearance of another evergreen campaign and what is likely to be his 621st in Rovers’ colours.

Coppinger, chasing the fourth promotion of his epic Rovers career, added: “I think it was my best (home) moment.

“In 2007-08 we were building up to getting promoted to the Championship and it was a huge game for the club. To score a hat-trick was definitely a real high.

“When we beat Leeds in the final I felt like the club – not just the players – were going in that direction. John was driving it and I got a feel for it being when not if. We were geared towards going to the Championship.

“Whereas when we got relegated and went up at the first time of asking (in 2012-13), that surprised me as well. I do not think we were that strongly backed to go up straightaway, but we had a team of winners and that season was unbelievable with the likes of Rob Jones.

“I have never seen a season like it in my opinion.

“Then from League Two (in 2016-17) we were favourites to get promotion, which was obvious really with the squad we had and the manager.

“This time is different. We were not expected to be competing with ex-Premier League clubs with big budgets and expected to get promoted. But we have performed so well.”

Rovers may lack the resources, fanbase and historical cache of their play-off rivals who have all previously dined at the top-flight table, but when it comes to hunger and desire among their playing ranks their stocks are plentiful.

Coppinger is the first to admit that rubbing shoulders on a daily basis with a youthful crop rich with talent that will only get better in the likes of Ben Whiteman, Herbie Kane and Mallik Wilks has proved a key driver in his decision not to hang up his boots just yet

It has also ensured that those journeys to training from his Teesside home continue to be a pleasure and not a chore, with the last thing that Coppinger wanted to do was fall into a trap of winding down his career – often the preserve of thirty-some-thing footballers.

For him it is all about the next journey – and just as he was energised after signing his last 12-month deal, so he is excited about what lies ahead in the next stage of Rovers’ evolution under an ambitious young manager in Grant McCann.

The hope is that the next full chapter will be played out in the Championship.

“Motivation for me is feeling part of a group that wants to be successful. If I was not and did not feel that then I genuinely would not be playing. I get that here,” Coppinger added.

“The amount of work that goes into this team – not just from the players, but the staff down here at the ground – means there is a real good feel about the club and I have never known a club get involved so much with the community; it is unbelievable. It makes me feel part of something special.

“Whether you are 38 or 18, that is what you want in any job, not just football.”