Doncaster Rovers legend James Coppinger ready for more than a farewell tour

FOR James Coppinger, the fire in his footballing soul burns as brightly as ever.

James Coppinger: Ready for promotion push.
James Coppinger: Ready for promotion push.

It will be there when he watches the forthcoming World Cup and his mind subconsciously drifts towards thoughts of his 15th successive season at Doncaster Rovers; his club.

It will be there when he starts the gruelling grind of pre-season at Rovers’ Cantley Park training base in mid-summer, as it will be when he makes the daily three-hour commute from his Teesside home to his place of work in Doncaster and back up the A1 again.

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As it will also be there when the pre-season friendlies start and then when the serious stuff begins in early August for Rovers, who finished a commendable enough 15th place in League One in an injury-disputed 2017-18 campaign.

The club’s record appearance holder – 574 in all – has seen it, done it and got the Rovers’ T-shirt since arriving in 2004.

Part of the fabric at the Keepmoat Stadium he may be, but Coppinger’s decision to stay put and sign a new one-year deal was nothing to do with extending his grand farewell tour for another season.

His manager, Darren Ferguson, plainly does not strike anyone as the sentimental type. Coppinger earned his new deal and the midfielder would most definitely not have it any other way, club legend or not.

Still full of zest on the pitch, Coppinger’s competitive juices are also flowing at the age of almost 37-and-a-half with his motivation being team gain as opposed to self-aggrandisement.

He spies considerable potential at Rovers under a group of young players who, in his view, have the wherewithal to push on next season under a manager he holds in the highest regard.

A play-off push should be the aim in 2018-19, according to Coppinger, with the passion in his words detectable and his conviction clear.

It is thoughts of that which persuaded him to sign on for another year. Rovers to be next season’s Shrewsbury Town and be League One’s surprise packages? Stranger things have happened, according to Coppinger, promoted on three occasions with Doncaster.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “I have been at the club for a long time, but don’t want to just fizzle out and be clinging on. It is nothing to do with why I signed.

“I do not think that the manager or the club would have offered me anything if they thought that was the case and I definitely did not want to stay just for the sake of it.

“Some people said we under-achieved last season, but I genuinely believe those seasons can define how successful you can become.

“No-one ever looks back on these sort of seasons as the ones which get you success, but I remember before we got promoted under Sean O’Driscoll that we had a couple of those sort of seasons.”

Reflecting on last term, Coppinger added: “I think as we got into the season, the young players started to think: ‘this league is not as hard as we thought.’ The likes of Niall Mason and Ben Whiteman got stronger as the season went on.

“I think we can build on this season and look to get in the play-offs. Look at Shrewsbury, they were the team who had momentum early on and hit the ground running and that is what we will be looking to do if we can keep people fit and have a good pre-season.

“Anything is possible if you start the season well and people are confident and flying and we add one or two.”

Being able to contribute and play a meaningful role next season was also a key driver for Coppinger in his decision to remain.

Form and fitness levels remained consistent last season, aided by some astute management of his game-time by Ferguson, a tailored fitness regime and a lifestyle which avoids any excesses.

“Winning player of the year, players’ player of the year and fans’ player of the year last season made it one of those where I thought I must be doing something right,” observed Coppinger.

“As you get older, I find it hard to evaluate my own performances and genuinely never expected any of those awards. It gives me that motivation to keep going.

“I just want to enjoy it, that is the biggest thing.

“I do not get anywhere near as stiff as I used to in terms of recovering after games. I have just got to take it a year at a time. Last season, I played 42 games and was available for probably more. For the last 16 years, I have averaged 42 games a season.

“I genuinely think it is about understanding your body and what to do and what not to. I don’t do anything crazy and have a quite structured lifestyle and don’t really drink. I think it plays a massive part as you get older. The physios who work at the club are really good in terms of how we work and recover. It is run well, as well as I have seen it.

“The gaffer also gives me time to recover. He does not give me as many minutes as I have had in the past. I am 37 and sometimes forget that.”

Working with a manager who he respects fully and rates in Ferguson is another reason for Coppinger to stick around for a wee while longer.

He added: “I do not think he gets as much credit as he should. I would say only Sean O’Driscoll has worked as hard in terms of what he does on a day-to-day basis.

“Him, Gavin Strachan and all the staff have been working so hard for the club and want it to do well, which is a massive part. You would be surprised how many don’t and who are just there; not to just pick up a wage, but progress for themselves.

“The gaffer does not want to be in this division with this club, just as he did not want to be in League Two. We did so well to bounce back at the first time of asking (in 2016-17) and after doing what we have this season, next season is a big one for everybody. No doubt, he will be as fired up as everybody else.”