Humber graft and Bo’ness grit have been the making of Liam Cooper. The centre-back, who turned 29 this week, is the latest in a truly illustrious line of Scotland internationals to make an indelible mark for Leeds United. And he cites his father, Dave, whose family hail from West Lothian, as the inspiration for his footballing odyssey.
It is a journey that allowed the Elland Road captain to lead the club he supported as a boy out of the wilderness and into the promised land of the English top flight in July, ending a 16-season exile. Now the Hull-raised performer is desperate to emerge from the international shadows. The former Scotland under-17 international has two senior caps, and was overlooked as Steve Clarke switched to a back three for Friday’s Nations League draw with Israel. It now appears he is in line to face a shadow Czech Republic side tomorrow in Olomouc.
Bridging this international gap is small potatoes compared with the club chasm he has had to close. In his early 20s, Cooper was forced to drop down to the English fourth tier with Chesterfield on the back of failing to make the breakthrough at Hull. Yet, at no stage did he consider he had made the wrong choice in not following in the path taken by his father and brother, Joe.
“They work on the pallet boats on the River Humber,” Cooper said. “They take pallets out to the big ships so they have plenty of cold nights on the river. I’m thankful that my career went in another direction. I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve got a lot of friends who were unfortunate in the game. They had to go and get jobs, get on the building sites.
“I was lucky, I threw all my eggs in one basket but it has paid dividends for me. I’ve had to work hard for it. I was never the most naturally gifted player. But one thing I’ve always had is a big heart, I never give up. Now, I’m here today and I have so many people to thank. I’m just so glad that I stuck at it.”
Cooper’s perseverance is in genetic make-up that his dad can trace all the way back to his forebears in Bo’ness. And it was moulded by the tough love that Cooper experienced from his pater as he worked his way through the youth set-up with Hull.
“That attitude comes from my family as a whole. We’re a working class family who have good morals,” said the player. “I’ve had it instilled in me from an early age to never give up, to give your all by working as hard as you can. My father put that in me since I can remember.
“He was always tough on me as a kid. If I had a good game, he’d pick something up. He always wanted the best for me, which I understand now because I have kids of my own. I had plenty of arguments with him in the car on the way back from games when I was younger. He was super-critical. At the time, it wasn’t the best because no-one likes to get told they’ve played poorly. But I thank him for it now.”
Cooper, though, is a humble Humbersider who doesn’t feel like a made man simply because he wore the armband with distinction as Marcelo Bielsa’s stewardship proved instrumental in Leeds finally cracking the Championship after it had begun to seem they would be trapped permanently in the second tier. There is a now famous picture of Cooper in bed taken at 5am, almost 12 hours after the club’s league success in the Covid-19 interrupted season was confirmed, cosying up to both the league trophy and a beer. He isn’t cosy, though, with the notion that he is all of a sudden guaranteed English top-flight material.
“The fans don’t get to see that side of the players,” he said. “But we’re just normal people like everyone else. I’m sure thousands of Leeds fans would have done the same that night. So I thought I’d share it with them and enjoy it while it lasted.
“I have not played at the top level and I don’t count myself as a top-level player yet. I need to go and prove myself. I have done it at Championship and League 1 and League 2 but Premier League is a whole new world so I am not going to sit here and say I am a Premier League player because nobody knows that yet.
“I have to go and prove myself again like I have done over many years and hopefully I can do that. I will give it everything I have got, I will work hard and hopefully I can. If I can do that then hopefully I will be able to bring that experience to the national team as well.”
Cooper would follow in famous footsteps were that to be the case. Leeds have been acutely well served by Scotland internationals. Their top-flight triumphs of 1968-69, 1973-74 and 1991-92 came under captains from this country in Billy Bremner (twice) and Gordon Strachan. And the litany of tartan legends extends even beyond the most storied that take the form of the Gray brothers Eddie and Frank, Peter Lorimer, Gary McAllister, Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan and David Harvey.
“I do hear a lot about the Scots guys who have gone before, their photos are plastered all over the walls of the stadium,” he said. “To be even mentioned in conversation with those players is unbelievable. I grew up a Leeds fan so I know the Scottish heritage. The guys are legends, not just at Leeds but in Scotland as well.”
The coming months bring the opportunity for Cooper to barrel along towards aping these tartan titans. As well as looking to prove himself in the most glittering league in Europe, the target is ending the coming campaign by participating in the Euro 2020 tournament Clarke’s men will attempt to reach through the play-offs, that will see Israel return to Hampden in three weeks’ time for the countries’ semi-final.
“It would be unbelievable to have a season of Premier League football and an international tournament at the end of it. With Covid, it’s been a weird season. But we came back after lockdown and managed to get the job done.” And that is all now being asked of Scotland in the quest to end a very Leeds-like 22-year wait to return to the biggest stage.
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