Scotland and Leeds United defender Liam Cooper on his unique status, Covid recovery and 'mental' year

He might have been struck down with a bout of Covid-19 but that hasn’t stopped Liam Cooper enjoying the time of his life in the last 12 months.

It is a paradox that he admits is sometimes tough to reconcile, particularly when so many have been so gravely affected by the pandemic. One year ago this month Leeds United’s season re-started following football’s shutdown with a defeat against Cardiff City. Fears they might suffer a post-lockdown collapse were firmly shelved when they won their next six games to seal the Championship title with two matches to spare.

Cooper lifted the league trophy and then distinguished himself as Leeds retained their top flight status in some style. He also helped Scotland qualify for the little matter of their first major finals in 23 years. Although on the bench when the place was secured in Belgrade, he was in the team for the play-off semi-final win over Israel.

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The Hull-born defender has certainly played his part and could well start in Monday’s opening Euro 2020 game against Czech Republic. His father’s family hail from West Lothian. It has proved an emotional few weeks for Cooper after, first, being called up for the squad and then starting the warm-up draw with the Netherlands for his sixth cap.

Scotland defender Liam Cooper: happy to play anywhere in defence (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

“It’s mental,” he said. “The send-off from my old man – he just said ‘go and enjoy yourself, I’m so proud of you’. This year is one I’ll probably look back on when I’m retired and think ‘what a year that was’.

“Although there’s been a pandemic I’ve had an unbelievable year. I’m probably the first person to get promoted from the Championship, play in the Premier League and play in the Euros all in a pandemic! I can always take that and tell my grandkids that.”

Strictly speaking, the ‘playing in the Euros’ claim remains subject to the Scotland manager’s decision. The grace of god also has something to do with it.

Liam Cooper (left) and Che Adams during yesterday's Scotland training session at Rockliffe Park (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Cooper knows as well as anyone the dangers of playing football in the midst of a pandemic having contracted the virus in the Spring. The squad are also alert to the dangers having observed – from a distance – John Fleck’s frustrations following his positive test at the start of the camp.

“I’ve been there myself,” said Cooper, who missed several Leeds games as well as three World Cup qualifiers with Scotland after being diagnosed in March.

He has not spoken much about it. Indeed, Steve Clarke only referred to Cooper being “unavailable” for the international games. “I’m not ashamed to say I picked up Covid; it was rough the first few days but after that I was pretty fine,” he said. “I wasn’t too sure about losing the smell and taste – that was weird, I was trying to eat all sorts to get that back. It was well and truly gone. But now I feel fit and healthy as ever.”

His taste returned after some culinary coaxing. “It was curries, chillies, everything, you name it, vindaloo!” The defender was extra cautious earlier this week when Clarke permitted his players to return to their families for a couple of days’ break on their return from Luxembourg, where Scotland played their last warm-up match. Cooper knows what is at risk.

In a way Fleck is fortunate in that he has returned with no ill-effects and is now free to play a part in Scotland’s group games, although Clarke has already stated that the disruption to the midfielder’s preparations all but rules him out of Monday’s clash. A positive test now would prove catastrophic for a player’s ambitions of representing Scotland at a major finals.

“I don’t know if I could get it again but we still follow the precautions round the place,” said Cooper. “We still wear masks. If you did contract it now you’d be in serious trouble – that would be your Euros over.

“We had a few days off there but I don’t think the lads got up to much, because they knew what was at risk. I had my family tested before I got back from Spain just to be cautious. Speaking to a few of the lads, they’ve done the same.”

Cooper was careful to remain in his bubble. “I think you’d be stupid to go out there and see people, knowing what’s at risk,” he said. “You’ve got the chance of a lifetime to go and play for your country in the Euros.

“The lads are pretty switched on and everyone’s PCR tests have come back negative. We’re sticking to the precautions – Doctor MacLean has been unbelievable with us. Nothing is too much to ask.”

Some believe Cooper is the best bet to fill the middle centre-half position, as he did against the Netherlands last week. Although left-footed he is happy to play wherever he is asked along the backline.

He has been tackling some of the world’s best strikers all season, often getting the better of them. One occasion when he did lose out cost him a suspension and meant he briefly lost his place in the Leeds side.

He had only just returned after being sidelined due to Covid-19 when he was sent off for what was interpreted as a high challenge on Man City striker Gabriel Jesus. He sat out five games – three because of suspension. As seems the case with Clarke, Cooper describes Marcelo Bielsa as firm but fair.

“They’re both demanding managers and bring out the best in you,” he said. “They leave you to express yourself and it’s been great for me. When you’ve worked with Marcelo you can work with any manager!”

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