Doncaster Rovers: ‘It’s one of the best memories of my career’ - James Coppinger looks back on the last meeting with Arsenal

James Coppinger during Rovers' last meeting with Arsenal in 2005
James Coppinger during Rovers' last meeting with Arsenal in 2005

Whatever happens on Wednesday night at the Emirates, it is certain to be a memorable one for Doncaster Rovers.

When the dust settled on an outstanding third round Carabao Cup draw, thoughts quickly turned to the last meeting with Arsenal.

And what a memorable night that was – one still talked about regularly 12 years on.

All bar one of the Rovers side from that night has moved on. All bar James Coppinger.

And that night under the lights at Belle Vue is as memorable for the Rovers skipper as it is supporters.

“It’s one of the best memories throughout the 20 years I’ve been playing,” he told the Free Press.

“Belle Vue was always such a special place for me, especially those nights when it was packed out for that cup run.

“And to be 2-1 up in extra time, so close to the semi-finals, was massive.”

That December night will forever go down as a ‘what if’ for Rovers.

With a matter of seconds to go in extra time they led 2-1 thanks to Paul Green’s strike.

What will be put down to a rush of blood to the head, striker Paul Heffernan tried to win a corner to run the clock down for Rovers.

But the ball ran through to goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, Arsenal broke and Gilberto Silva equalised. The Gunners then went on to win 3-1 on penalties.

“Heff is the nicest lad you’d ever meet,” Coppinger said. “It’s hard to give someone stick because he was trying to do the right thing to a point.

“He was just unfortunate that it didn’t hit the defender.

“If it had hit him, we’d have been through to the semi-final.

“We should have won that game without a doubt.

“Ask Arsene Wenger and he’d probably disagree.

“He would have come to Belle Vue thinking there was no way it would happen. I was told he booked a flight back a bit early, not even anticipating extra time.

“It was definitely one we should have won and then gone on to the semis.

“At that point, who knows.”

Coppinger was a fresh-faced 24-year-old back in 2005. But even as a 36-year-old who has seen almost everything the game has to offer, he still admits to having been excited by being drawn against Arsenal again.

He said: “I was excited. Even more so with my kids now.

“My kids are eager to watch it and they’re at an age where they can really get into it. They can come down to the Emirates which they’re looking forward to.

“It’s something you dream of as a professional to play in games like that.

“They just love football. With the Premier League so high profile, with Fifa, they will be coming down with their autograph books and loving it.

“They’re getting a couple of days off school which I’m sure they’ll enjoy.”

Rovers are priced at 16/1 outsiders to cause a cup upset next week.

But after coming so close more than a decade ago, Coppinger says this Rovers squad must have confidence that they can go one better than their predecessors.

“You have to believe it as a player,” he said.

“The atmosphere, the pitch, everything around it, the game itself.

“As a professional, if you can’t get motivated for a game like that then you shouldn’t be playing.

“We’ll go with confidence, knowing it’s a one-off, a cup game, and anything can happen.”