James Coppinger: Doncaster Rovers legend on 20 seasons in the game

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FA Cup: Doncaster Rovers 2-1 Oldham Athletic highlights
FA Cup fifth round on the BBC
Date: 15-18 February
Coverage of all matches, including highlights, across the BBC Sport website and app; Doncaster Rovers v Crystal Palace live on BBC One; extensive coverage on BBC Radio 5 live and local radio; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

"I left school at 16 and I never wanted to be a professional footballer. It wasn't something I had on my mind - it was a hobby."

Given Doncaster Rovers midfielder James Coppinger had no intention of being a footballer, he's done pretty well for himself.

The 38-year-old made his Premier League debut for Newcastle under legendary former England boss Sir Bobby Robson in 2000 and has played over 600 games for Rovers since joining them 15 years ago.

Before Sunday's FA Cup fifth round tie against Crystal Palace, he told BBC Sport about a career that took him from St James' Park, Newcastle to St James Park, Exeter and finally to South Yorkshire.

'I was never mentally prepared for Newcastle'

James Coppinger
James Coppinger made his competitive debut for Hartlepool against Barnet in March 2000

Coppinger's rise from playing Sunday league with friends at 16 to joining Kenny Dalglish's Newcastle in 1998, via Darlington, just a year later is about as meteoric as they come.

However, looking back, he feels it was not an opportunity he was capable of grasping at the time.

"I went from training with Darlington's youth team one day and then the next I was with John Barnes, Ian Rush, Stuart Pearce, Alan Shearer, Gary Speed and Rob Lee," he said.

"On my first day Pearce was the first person to come over to me and he gripped me by the hand and wished me all the best for my career. I look back now and it was a pinch-yourself moment.

"I never realised the magnitude of where I was and the opportunity I had. I was never mentally prepared for it."

He continued: "I made my Premier League debut at 19, playing up front alongside Alan Shearer (in a 2-0 win over Tottenham in September 2000) in front of over 50,000 people. I thought I'd made it and that was it, but two years later I was with a League Two club getting relegated out of the Football League."

'Michael Jackson came to a game'

The late Michael Jackson and Uri Geller
The late 'king of pop' was invited to Exeter by Uri Geller (right)

With no further first-team chances forthcoming, Coppinger went to Hartlepool for a second loan spell before joining Exeter City in June 2002, despite still having a year left on his deal with Newcastle.

"I was with an agent who was just starting out and he basically admitted to me five or 10 years ago that he couldn't believe he'd sent me down there," he said.

"Maybe a bit naively I thought I'd use it as a springboard for my career, but the first season I was there they had Uri Geller on the board and Michael Jackson came to a game and it was just a car crash."

The Grecians were relegated to the Conference by a point in that first season, leading Coppinger to question his own future in the game, before missing out on a play-off place by the same margin 12 months later.

It was after that second season in Devon that he joined League One Doncaster but, despite things going well for him on the pitch, his life was getting out of control away from it.

'Light bulb moment'

During his time at Newcastle, Coppinger had struggled to deal with the sudden death of his grandfather and his parents' divorce.

In a bid to help him to finally come to terms with both, then Rovers boss Dave Penney introduced him to behaviourist Terry Gormley.

"The scary thing is that I didn't think there was anything wrong with me. I never knew there were things that were preventing me from performing," he said

"Meeting Terry for the first time I was sitting there thinking, 'What is this all about?' And then within an hour and a half I couldn't believe how I'd been thinking previously. It was a real light bulb moment.

"I was grieving over my grandad, I'd never seen my parents' divorce coming and then I was drinking and gambling and I wasn't coping with anything.

"Since that day I've never held anything back and I always get things off my chest."

Thanks to Gormley's help, Coppinger was able to play a major part in a golden period of Doncaster's history.

'Arsenal of the north'

Doncaster Rovers
James Coppinger (left) joins in the celebrations after James Hayter's winner in the League One play-off final against Leeds in 2008

League Cup wins over Premier League sides Manchester City and Aston Villa were followed by victory in the Football League Trophy in 2007 and promotion to the Championship, thanks to a play-off final win over Yorkshire rivals Leeds in 2008.

"We were nicknamed the 'Arsenal of the north' and some of the football we played was sensational," said Coppinger.

"It was a great mixture of chairman John Ryan, manager Sean O'Driscoll and a group of players that were out of the ordinary. We enjoyed playing, we enjoyed training and it was a pleasure to be a part of."

But four years in the second tier ended in relegation in 2012 after a disastrous campaign.

O'Driscoll was sacked in September 2011, to be replaced by Dean Saunders, and a number of high-profile players, including El-Hadji Diouf, Habib Beye and Pascal Chimbonda, were brought in on short-term deals.

"Without doubt that experiment was the hardest, most difficult point of my time with the club. I've always classed myself as a team player, not an individual but we just never mixed and people had different agendas," Coppinger added.

"It was difficult to take because we created something really special over a four- or five-year period and in the space of a few months it was gone."

'My levels are going up as the season goes on'

James Coppinger and John Marquis
Rovers striker John Marquis celebrates with Coppinger after he scored for the club for a 15th successive year in the 5-0 win over Rochdale on 1 January

After a brief loan spell away from the club with Nottingham Forest at the start of the 2012-13 season, he returned to the Keepmoat and scored the dramatic last-minute winner in a final-day promotion decider at Brentford to secure an immediate return to the Championship.

The following three seasons saw two relegations down to League Two before promotion back to League One under Darren Ferguson in 2016-17.

Now in his 16th campaign with Doncaster, and the 20th since his professional debut for Hartlepool at Barnet in March 2000, Coppinger is the club's record appearance maker with 608.

"I collected my PFA pension at 35. I never envisaged that I'd still be going at 38 but I've averaged 42-43 games a season for 17 seasons now.

"I love what I do and I think that's a big part of it. I've got two young kids that keep me grounded and motivate me to do well," he said.

"I don't physically feel any different now to how I felt when I was 23 or 24 in terms of recovery. The sports scientists tell me that if anything my stats are going higher."

Coppinger is the fourth oldest player to have scored a goal in the EFL this season but says his thoughts have not turned to retiring yet.

"I take it a season at a time and have done so since I turned 35. I'll continue to try and play a part in a successful team and hopefully that can get me contracts and I'll be playing until I'm 40 at least," he said.

"I don't want to get too engrossed in what's next after football because then I'll take my eye off what I'm doing and I want to fully focus on performing for Doncaster. I think I'd find it difficult to have 22 years as a player and then transition to coach or manager but time will tell."

A date with the Palace

Sunday's home game against Crystal Palace is Doncaster's first FA Cup fifth-round tie in 63 years.

Coppinger believes Rovers, who are sixth in League One, are capable of causing a shock to reach the last eight for the first time.

"We've got good momentum and we've got good young players who want to prove a point. Games like this propel you to better things and I've experienced that myself," he said.

"We've got a great group and the lads know if they perform and do well it could springboard their careers. It's up to me to maybe rein them in a bit and just make sure they enjoy it. It's a massive opportunity."

He added: "It's a no lose situation for us, they are expected to win and the pressure is on them.

"On our day we can compete with anybody. It's happened before in the cup and it'll happen again and hopefully Doncaster can be one of those teams that it happens to."

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