ON a weekend that saw the north west take a battering from Storm Callum, James Coppinger proved the destructive force for Doncaster Rovers.
This venerable veteran, 37 years young on this showing, shone on a blustery day with a hat-trick of assists as Grant McCann’s side prevailed in Lancashire.
Ali Crawford, Andy Butler and Jermaine Anderson were the beneficiaries of Coppinger’s vision and pinpoint delivery in conditions made far from ideal by a swirling wind that spent much of the afternoon picking up and then depositing piles of autumn leaves all over the pitch.
No wonder manager Grant McCann was fulsome in his praise of the only man to appear in more than 500 games for Doncaster.
“He has had a special career and is like a fine wine,” said the Rovers chief. “He gets better with age.
“This was probably the best we have seen from him for a while. He was taking a little bit of pressure off us, the ball was being cleared to ‘Copps’ and sticking. He got us up the pitch.
“He is getting to an age where we are thinking he can’t play 90 minutes but he can. He gets better and better.”
Coppinger’s first assist came in the 20th minute, his perfectly weighted pass to Ali Crawford allowing the Scot to strike the ball with sufficient power that Josh Lillis could not keep the shot out despite getting a hand to the ball.
The opener came in between Rochdale wasting two gilt-edged opportunities in as many minutes.
First, Kgosi Ntlhe headed wide from a Zach Clough free-kick after delaying his run long enough that the Doncaster defence failed to pick him up at all.
Another game where we were booed off the pitch. We are creating a reputation for ourselves, we must be doing something right. Or something wrong, depending on how you look at it.Grant McCann
Then, just moments after Crawford’s first goal in English football, Ian Henderson prodded a shot wide following neat build-up play from the excellent Bradden Inman.
It was a bad miss by the Dale captain but nothing compared to the howler that followed seven minutes before the break.
A woefully underhit back pass from Danny Andrew allowed Inman to claim. He immediately squared to Henderson, whose scuffed shot was blocked on the line by Joe Wright.
The rebound fell to Henderson but, despite being just five yards out and having the entire goal to aim at due to Wright being on his backside, he somehow contrived to fire against the crossbar.
Doncaster breathed a sigh of relief and, thanks to Coppinger’s creativity, took advantage to wrap up all three points.
Butler doubled the visitors’ advantage five minutes after the restart by losing marker Ntlhe inside the six-yard box to head Coppinger’s corner beyond Lillis.
Coppinger was at it again midway through the second half, this time his quite splendid delivery from the right flank offering substitute Anderson a chance he simply could not miss.
“When you get to a certain age,” Coppinger said, “people are so quick to write you off. But I love playing football. It is my life. And the lads inspire me every day. As do the people around the club. I want to work hard for them and myself.”
Asked if he had managed a hat-trick of assists before in a career that began as a trainee with Darlington, Coppinger replied: “Probably not since I was five or six.
“I am probably taking that (side of my game) more seriously this season. I am more aware of what my role is. A lot of the time last season, I wasn’t that high up the pitch.
“Whereas this time, the manager allows the front three to stay high and get on the ball, to be in a position to make a difference. Five assists in the last four games and it could have been more. That is pleasing.”
Coppinger’s creativity was enough to bag a welcome victory, though Rochdale did make Rovers sweat.
Henderson converted a penalty just before the hour after John Marquis had clattered into Ntlhe, who then set up a frantic finale by powering an Inman corner beyond Marko Marosi with eight minutes remaining.
Dale threw everything at Doncaster after that but Wright blocked Calvin Andrew’s effort on the line and then Marosi saved from Joseph Rafferty.
After riding out this late storm of pressure, the final whistle brought joyous scenes among the 754 away fans before the Rovers players left the field to jeers form the locals.
A touchline clash between substitute goalkeeper Ian Lawlor and Joseph Rafferty as the Dale man tried to retrieve the ball for a throw-in had seen tempers boil over, while the home supporters also felt Doncaster had feigned injury during the closing stages to eat up a few precious seconds.
Butler treated those shouting abuse in Rovers’ direction to a beaming smile as he walked down the tunnel. McCann was similarly satisfied with not only the result but also a gutsy performance following back-to-back defeats against Accrington Stanley and Fleetwood Town.
“Another game where we were booed off the pitch,” added the Belfast-born 38-year-old. “We are creating a reputation for ourselves, we must be doing something right. Or something wrong, depending on how you look at it.
“Lawsy was trying to get the ball back for the Rochdale boy and he just grabbed him round the neck. I have been in those situations before, just be calm and relaxed.
“I told Lawsy to be calm and he was fine. The main thing is we got the win.”