James Coppinger and Jon Stead, club legends who deserve utmost respect - Sue Smith

James Coppinger and Jon Stead played their final games as professional footballers last weekend and it was great to see them get the credit for such great careers.

Emotional: Doncaster Rovers' James Coppinger reacts after a guard of honour at Keepmoat Stadium. Picture: Tim Goode/PA
Emotional: Doncaster Rovers' James Coppinger reacts after a guard of honour at Keepmoat Stadium. Picture: Tim Goode/PA

Stead’s final Harrogate Town appearance was the 700th of his professional career, with Doncaster Rovers legend Coppinger five behind. Coppinger is 40 and Stead 38.

To keep going so long not only shows they love the game and their clubs, but they have clearly moved with the times.

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I remember getting into dynamic stretching as I got older. Some team-mates had stretching routines the sports scientists told them were actually detrimental but were set in their ways and I remember the resistance when we worked with a sports psychologist for the first time.

Farewell: James Coppinger waves after his final appearance.

I did everything I could to continue playing, necking cherry juice – which is disgusting! – and taking cumin tablets.

Some players retire at the top, others just try to play as long as possible. Some have retirement forced upon them when their legs go or injuries catch up with them.

What made stopping easier for me was that I had something else to go into. Coppinger is set for an off-field role at Doncaster, Stead starts his coaching A licence in September and I went into the media.

As I have written before, I never actually retired, but having taken time out when my dad died, my love of playing started to go a bit because his presence at games was such an important part of it for me. I began to take on media work which meant I could not commit to playing full-time and full-on and I could never do it any other way.

Trophy triumph: Harrogate Town's Jon Stead celebrates with the FA Trophy.

I would really have struggled not playing regularly or dropping down the divisions, although it is a bit different in women’s football because once you get into the third tier it is part-time.

I would have hated team-mates going out the night before a game.

Only playing 30 minutes here and there because the manager is trying to look after you must be difficult, and Coppinger found his last season tough, particularly under Darren Moore, because he was not featuring anywhere near as much as he would have liked.

Playing football defined who I was. Even now, I am much happier when people refer to me as a former footballer than that girl on Sky Sports.

Early days: Jon Stead, having moved from home-town club Huddersfield Town, celebrates scoring the winner for Blackburn Rovers against Manchester United to help them stay in the Premiership in May, 2004.

I can see why people without anything to go into struggle with mental health or get caught up in drink, drugs or gambling.

It is also important for the game to keep true pros involved, passing on their knowledge. As a former Doncaster player, I hear people speak about Coppinger in particular but never a bad word.

Both players had strong finishes to the season, so you wonder if that might have changed their minds a little. You are always looking for a reason to play another year and they must have been tempted to hang on until fans were back in grounds.

I am sure Doncaster and Harrogate would have wanted to keep them and they would have had offers from elsewhere, too.

Managers appreciate having good pros around because they train at a good level and set an example to younger players. You can see that at Manchester United with how Mason Greenwood is learning from Edinson Cavani.

That Stead’s career took him up to the Premier League then down into non-league – before coming back to League Two with Harrogate – shows he must love football. It is great he achieved so much late in his career, scoring some famous FA Cup goals for Bradford City and reaching Wembley twice with Harrogate.

I can imagine him still playing charity games or in a vets league.

It is the camaraderie you miss most. I mentioned last week Julie Chipchase’s formed Leeds United players set up a WhatsApp group when she died and even though we came together in sad circumstances, the mickey-taking was soon flying about.

That sense of fun from team sport and having a laugh with people you have a lot in common with is why I have loved being able to play five-aside again once the Covid-19 restrictions eased.

The emotions of winning and losing are a big part of it, too. I still get a real buzz when we win and am gutted when we lose. It was difficult when that was taken away in lockdown and it is even harder for retired players knowing they will not get it back.

I am really pleased those two have new things to focus on and would like to wish them both a happy retirement.

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