Scotland’s Liam Cooper vows to ‘wear heart on his sleeve’

Liam Cooper signed for Leeds United in the summer of 2014. Picture: SNS

Liam Cooper signed for Leeds United in the summer of 2014. Picture: SNS

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When a new recruit joins the Scotland ranks, it has become ever more necessary to establish one thing first. “So how do you qualify then?”

But while he might be an unfamiliar face, it is not as if Liam Cooper has been parachuted in from nowhere. The Leeds United centre-half may speak with a north of England accent (he was born and brought up in Hull, and supports the local team, where he started his career).

He might also only have been to Hampden Park twice, most recently when the Scotland squad for this week’s friendly against Denmark trained there on Saturday morning.

But even though still only 24 he can lay claim to having represented Scotland for a long time. Indeed, it is not as if Cooper has opportunistically decided to throw his lot in with Scotland after being ignored by England.

He played for Scotland under-17s, under-19s and then understandably hoped to take the step up to Scotland under-21s. But that never happened.

Cooper moved on to Chesterfield from Hull City, and concentrated on his club career. He admits now he felt his time with Scotland – to answer the question posed at the top of this article, he qualifies because of a grandfather from Bo’ness – had come and gone.

“I definitely thought my chance might’ve past,” he says. “I’d played for the under-17s and under-19s. I wanted to see my international career progressing through with the under-21s. But that wasn’t to happen. At the back of my head I did think my chance of a full call-up had probably gone.”

So what changed? A summer 2014 transfer to Leeds United, a club once deemed to exist to provide players for Scotland, has clearly helped to get him back on the radar. Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, who captained Leeds United to the First Division title in 1991, has retained contacts at Elland Road, where the current manager – at least for the time being – is another Scot, Steve Evans.

While controversial owner Massimo Cellino’s hastiness with the firing trigger means Evans’ tenure seems constantly under threat, Strachan occupies a slightly more 
permanent place in Leeds folklore.

“We have a pre-match meal in the room above the changing room,” explained Cooper. “There’s photos of the manager there, and it’s not hard to notice how short the shorts were back then… plenty of leg on display!

“The team the manager 
was a part of was great, full of legends of football. You can’t get out of the way of the past involving the manager and the other Scots. It’s everywhere.

“It’s not so much at the training ground. But once you 
get to Elland Road, it’s an old stadium, there’s pictures 
everywhere of all the greats.

“We’re always aware of the link and the success they 
had. It helps provide added inspiration for us when we look at the pictures and see the achievements of the 
manager and the other great players from the past.”

Hardest to miss, of course, is a statue of Billy Bremner, someone whose passion burned brightly for Scotland. Cooper might not hail from such a patriotic Scottish heartland as Stirling, but he can promise the same type of commitment.

“I’m a player who will always wear his heart on his sleeve, I’ll always give my all,” he said. “Hopefully that will show.”

Although mid-table in the Championship, things are rarely stable at Leeds, who lost their last match 4-1 at home to Huddersfield Town. Cooper understands why many take an almost ghoulish interest in the goings-on at Elland Road, where Cellino is under such pressure from the fans to 
sell up.

“Of course I understand the level of interest in the club,” said Cooper. “It’s a massive club and obviously the media are interested in everything.

“We just concentrate on what we’ve got to do on the pitch, we turn a blind eye to what’s going on off the pitch. We try to do our best for the club, the supporters and the management staff.”

Cooper compliments Evans, who might, or might not, still be in place by the time he returns from international duty. “He’s just an honest manager, he’s a good motivator,” he said. “He gets the boys up for the game. He’s honest with us, he keeps us going all the time and we just buy into that.”

But he can afford to put Leeds to one side over the next couple of days as he attempts to seize an opportunity to stake a claim for a place at the heart of Scotland’s defence, an area Strachan is always looking to strengthen. He describes himself as a “ball-playing centre-half”. But promisingly, he also relishes the other side of defending – “making tackles and heading”.

As we got to know more about Cooper, this not-so-new Scotland player, he revealed he has a party piece – singing Ben E. King’s classic Stand By Me. It’s hardly a surprise to learn this is the message he hopes to relay to Strachan tomorrow night.

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