James Coppinger interview: '˜I hit rock bottom - but what I went through made me the person I am today'
James Coppinger is in a good place right now, in every sense.
His almost unique blend of loyalty, professionalism and, at times, downright outrageous skill has earned him the respect of his peers and the hearts of his supporters.
At the age of 37 he shows few signs of slowing down either.
Yet again, last month at Cantley Park, he could be spotted leading from the front during the pre-season running drills as he embarks upon his 15th season at Doncaster Rovers.
He feels good, in body and mind.
But life has not always been this good for Copps. He has not always been in such a good place.
Coppinger almost quit football shortly after he arrived at Doncaster from Exeter City in 2004, although he has never gone into any great detail about his off the pitch troubles which resulted in him hitting rock bottom. Until now, that is.
In essence it’s a riches to rags tale, one which saw the Rovers legend playing non-league football just a few years after appearing in the Premier League for Newcastle United, one that led him to a self-confessed ‘dark place’.
But Rovers’ all-time leading appearance maker insists what he has been through, along with the valued support of his mentor and friend Terry Gormley, has made him into the man he is today - a strong character capable of dealing with adversity and one constantly pushing his own boundaries.
“I’m from a small town so I had a small town mentality,” said Coppinger, who hails from Guisborough.
“So I was always brought up not believing that I could do things and that it was a dream to do things.
“To become a professional footballer never entered my head.
“I was 17 when I signed for Newcastle.
“I was playing Sunday League when I was 16 and never went to an academy or a school of excellence. I’d had opportunities but never really fancied it.
“Then to make my Premier League debut when I was 19 - Sir Bobby Robson gave me my debut - it was like I was never ever mentally prepared for any of it.
“I was at Newcastle for four years. They were a top three team playing in the Champions League and I just never felt anything.
“My dad used to say ‘James, do you realise what’s going on? Do you realise where you are?’ and I just used to think ‘what is he talking about?’
“I never took it as seriously as I should’ve done.
“And then I moved from Newcastle, with a year left on my contract, to Exeter in League Two. I’d had two loan spells at Hartlepool [when I was at Newcastle] and really enjoyed them.
“In my first season at Exeter we got relegated out of the Football League.
“I was living away from home for the first time, 340 miles away from home, and my grandad had just died.
“So I had a lot to deal with in a short space of time.
“I was drinking, I was gambling, I was basically doing everything that I shouldn’t have been doing at 21 years old. I was experiencing all these things for the first time.
“It was a bad time for me.
“I went back to play in the Conference for a season, under Eamonn Dolan who died two years ago with testicular cancer. He believed in me and that’s when I got a move to Doncaster.
“But I was in a dark place. It was a really bad time.
“I was writing letters to my family, to my mum, my dad, my sister, telling them how much I love them. I’ve still got them.
“Looking back now I can sort of empathize and see where I was. But at the time I just came massively close to packing football in.”
Coppinger credits Gormley, a motivational speaker and life coach who worked with the Rovers squad during Dave Penney’s reign, with changing his life.
“That whole experience of what I’ve been through has shaped who I am now, without a doubt,” said Coppinger.
“But meeting Terry was the change.
“He made me aware that I could change how I think and I could change my mentality by doing certain things that he taught me.
“From then on I’ve gone from strength to strength every year.
“It’s about self-talk. You’re constantly telling yourself ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that. You’re rubbish at this. What if he thinks that? “What about that? What about that?’
“Being able to change that and being able to understand that you can change it, it affects how you do things.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and getting the same result or expecting a different result.
“But you’ve got to change how you look at things and change how you think.
“That’s what I did, and the proof is in the pudding.
“I think it is 13 years I’ve worked with Terry and they are the 13 most successful years of my life.
“We’ve formed our own company now, ProMindset. We’ve worked with players and the results are massive.
“There’s a lot about mental health at the moment and people are becoming more aware of it.
“It’s how you can instantaneously change the way you do things by taking action and changing the way you think.
“But I was never aware of that when I was younger.
“People just tend to say ‘that’s the way you are’ or ‘you’re brought up like that’. But that’s not necessarily the case.”
That Coppinger, who is always a joy to interview, is able to talk so openly, eloquently and thoughtfully about his experiences and feelings is testament to not only his own personal development but his total buy-in to Gormley’s methods.
It also arguably reflects how society, and football, has changed over the last 20 years.
“People are more aware of these things now,” said Coppinger.
“I think in this country society wants to see people fail, which is a shame.
“People are so happy to see people fail to make themselves feel better, whereas in other countries they help each other and they want to see people do well.
“In America, for example, they’ve been using psychologists in sport for years to enhance performance.
“It’s come more into this country now, in the Premier League people are using them and getting great results with them.
“I think it will filter down and eventually I think you’ll see a massive change in the way people are doing things.
“I think clubs are looking for individuals that have got strong characters. You need strong characters and you need strong mentalities.
“There are that many disappointments in football and in life. More disappointments than highs. There are so many things thrown at you that you have to deal with.
“It’s easy when everything is going well for you because everything just falls into place. Everyone likes you and everyone wants to be you.
“But as soon as you hit a disappointment and you have to deal with something that is difficult you need to have something in your mind to be able to deal with it.
“That’s what working with Terry has given me.
“That’s why I’m still playing at 37.
“And that’s why I’m getting Player of the Year awards at 37.
“It’s got nothing to do with my technical ability or the way I play.
“It’s all down to my mental strength, without a doubt.
“If you ask the players here what are my strongest attributes I would hope that they would say that, based on just being around me.
“I have to deal with things in a certain way.
“At 37 you do get a lot of stick. You get a lot of stick in football no matter who you are.
“I’ve got three kids, I travel, there’s a lot to deal with.
“I’ve been able to cope with it because of what I’ve learned and what I’ve been through.
“You just get stronger.
“When you have little dips, you know how to deal with it so they’re not as bad.
“I never have a bad day. But I do, if you know what I mean.
“I used to have bad days all the time.
“I probably have the same days as I used to have but I just look at them differently.
“So I don’t have bad days.
“People say ‘how are you doing?’ and I’m always brilliant. I’m never not brilliant.
“People say ‘he’s having a laugh, he’s just taking the Mickey’ but that’s just way I look at it and that’s what keeps me going.”