There was a time when Liam Cooper feared his Scotland career might be over before it began.
But the Leeds United captain is now hopeful he might just have timed his re-emergence on the international scene perfectly with an opportunity to establish himself in the squad Gordon Strachan hopes to lead to next year’s World Cup Finals in Russia.
It is eight years since Hull-born Cooper, who qualifies for Scotland through his grandfather from Bo’ness, wore the dark-blue jersey in his solitary appearance for the under-19 side in a friendly against Iceland.
Previously capped five times at under-17 level, he dropped off the radar until Strachan called him into the senior squad for the double-header against Canada and Slovenia in March this year.
Cooper had to content himself with a role as an unused substitute for both games but his form at Championship title contenders Leeds this season has earned him a recall for the crucial World Cup qualifiers against Slovakia at Hampden on Thursday night and Slovenia in Ljubljana three days later.
“There were times when I thought playing for Scotland might have passed me by,” admits the 26-year-old central defender.
“It is in the back of your mind. But as a footballer you’ve always got to be confident in your own ability, keep working hard and hopefully these honours come. Thankfully, for me, it has done and I’m really appreciative of that.
“The aim is now to stay in the squad. It’s not nice when you are in and out. I know I haven’t played yet and if I get my chance this week, I know I’ve got to take it.
“I saw the gaffer said when he named the squad last week that he’d actually made a mistake leaving me out of the previous one. It was nice to hear that but I’m just delighted to be in now.
“Obviously we’ve started well at Leeds and the gaffer there has given me the captaincy this season. I’m enjoying it and have been rewarded by being called into the Scotland squad again.”
Cooper plays in an area of the pitch where Scotland have not been overly endowed with resources for some time now. But he is respectful of the recent form of Christophe Berra and Charlie Mulgrew, pictured, as the country’s central defensive partnership as he looks to force his way into Strachan’s line-up. “The centre halves we’ve got are very good,” he said. “They are established at this level. They’ve all played a lot of games at this level and have proven themselves. Obviously I’ve come into the squad and hopefully I can push those lads to perform better. I think there’s always openings in every team. At the end of the day it comes down to you. You’ve got to work hard and push the others. If we are all going in the one direction, that’s a positive.”
Cooper’s domestic season turned slightly sour last week when he was sent off in a 3-1 defeat at Cardiff City which saw Leeds knocked off the top of the Championship table. He was subsequently suspended for Sunday’s 3-0 loss at Sheffield Wednesday.
“What happened at Cardiff was very sloppy on my behalf,” he admits. “I’d like to say it won’t happen again but we all know the game and there’s a possibility it could. It was sloppy from me but we move on.
“We’ve had a couple of bad results over the past couple of weeks but the Championship is a tough league and we’ll be doing all we can to put it right in the next game.
“There have been a lot of new players coming in and often it takes time for them to get themselves used to the Championship. But the lads have come in and hit the ground running. It’s been great to be part of. Long may it continue.”
Cooper is fully aware of the rich Scottish heritage which runs through Leeds United’s history and is constantly being reminded of it by the presence of former players around the club.
“Eddie Gray is at a lot of the games and I actually spoke to him at the Sheffield Wednesday game on Sunday which I had to watch from the stand,” added Cooper. “Eddie is always asking about Scotland and he certainly told me just how important this game is in Thursday, although I knew that already. There are photos of lots of the famous Scottish players from Leeds’ past all over Elland Road, including the gaffer [Strachan] here. If I can follow in their footsteps, that would be amazing.”