Had things turned out differently Andy Butler could have had a collar number and been on duty for South Yorkshire police this weekend but after returning to Doncaster Rovers in September his uniform remains familiar. Without a club last summer, Butler was set for a career change but instead of patrolling the streets, on Saturday he will take on West Ham in the FA Cup fourth round hoping to safeguard the Doncaster defence. “I had a literacy exam, then had to do fitness exams and a bleep test but then Doncaster asked me for a trial and I had to put that on hold,” he says. “Luckily, it’s gone pretty well.”
Butler applied for the police after – aside from offers from non-league clubs at the other end of the country – growing resigned to hanging up his boots. He was released by Scunthorpe, who finished 20th in League Two last season, and until Darren Moore handed him a route back in, initially on a short-term contract, was primed for a new challenge. “When you’re 36, nearly 37, people believe the legs have gone and you start to think: ‘Right, it’s another chapter of my life.’ Even before I finished at Scunthorpe, I applied to be a PCSO, as a police special, for volunteer work eight hours a day. But, again, due to not being able to commit the time it was impossible. I did the application process and I went to Sheffield to give in all my IDs, DBS and CRB checks. It was all quite far on and I was willing to step into the police force.”
With that in mind, how would he have reacted in mid-August had someone told him he would be visiting West Ham knowing victory would earn a trip to Manchester United or Liverpool in the fifth round? “I would have said: ‘Am I playing against my little boy on Fifa?’ It has completely tipped on its head, from where I thought I was to where I am now. I had the belief in myself that I could still do it, but I just had to show other people.”
He is speaking the morning after making his 200th league appearance for the club in victory over Rochdale – the League One side’s seventh win in eight matches – but to reduce Butler, who turned 37 in November, to the role of a journeyman defender would be a disservice. He played in the third-round win over Blackburn but took to the dugout for Doncaster’s first-round victory over FC United of Manchester when Moore had to self-isolate and this month Butler celebrated his first anniversary in charge of Doncaster Rovers Belles, a job that fuelled his desire to stay in the game.
“I switched my focus to coaching when I came back to Doncaster [in 2015], worked in the academy for six years, and now I’m with the Belles. We’ve got someone who does scouting now but before that myself and Nick [Buxton, the assistant manager] were scouring YouTube to find out more information on teams, looking for [clips of] Wolves v Solihull or Wolves v Wem Town, to get little bits of information so the players know what they are coming up against. Progressing in football, hopefully in management, is the way forward for me.”
Butler’s skill set does not stop there. He enrolled on a plumbing course while at Walsall and the centre-back is a qualified referee and locksmith. “I did all the locks for houses, internal locks, but I never learned the automotive side and lo and behold a few years later I locked myself out of my car,” he says, laughing. “I called a locksmith and he spent six or seven hours trying to get into my car and at the end of it he went: ‘Sorry, I’m going to have to smash your back window.’ So it cost £250 for the callout charge and £400 for a new window. Looking back, I should have done that course …”
Butler and James Coppinger, who turned 40 on Monday but will miss the trip to the London Stadium with a calf injury, offer priceless experience to a youthful team containing several loanees, many enjoying their first taste of senior football, including Brighton’s Taylor Richards and Ellery Balcombe, Brentford’s England Under-21 goalkeeper. “Myself and Copps are always at the front of the running groups in pre-season and we see it as a bit of a competition. ‘OK, you are 17 or 18, come and beat a 37-year-old and a 40-year-old in the running. Don’t let us beat you.’ Over distances I’m one of the quickest players at the club, which many people don’t realise because they see a big 16st, 100kg lad, but once I get going I’m like a steam train.”
Butler’s last duel with West Ham’s Michail Antonio ended badly – 10 years ago he conceded a penalty and was sent off for Walsall after fouling the then-Colchester forward – but he has fond memories of the Cup. He was part of the Scunthorpe team that gave José Mourinho a fright in his first taste of the competition in 2005, when Paul Hayes opened the scoring for the League Two side before Eidur Gudjohnson sealed a 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge. “In the Sun there was a little head-to-head ‘Butler v Drogba’ and it said Butler came out on top, so I’ve kept that,” he says, smiling.