Why Leeds United skipper Liam Cooper is remaining so loyal to Scotland, when others might have walked away

When Steve Clarke spoke about wanting only committed players at the start of his Scotland project, he surely had Liam Cooper in mind.

Leeds United skipper Liam Cooper leads the charge at Scotland training yesterday with Nathan Patterson (left) and Che Adams (right) (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

The 30-year-old is the skipper of a Premier League club and yet has no airs and graces. A salt-of-the-earth type from Humberside with a direct link to Scotland through his grandfather, he is the definition of a team player.

Cooper has already made his dad immensely proud by winning one cap for Scotland. He could make it into double figures tomorrow if, as expected, he is chosen to fill in for the suspended Grant Hanley in the vital World Cup qualifier against Israel. As ever, he is ready and willing to do so.

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An ever present in the league for Leeds United this season, it might have seemed easy for Cooper to take some umbrage at being left out of some of Scotland’s higher profile matches in recent times. He started against Czech Republic at Euro 2020 due to Kieran Tierney’s absence and then wasn’t seen again, meaning he missed out on the clash against England at Wembley.

Grant Hanley played all three matches for Scotland at Euro 2020.

He was jettisoned after the Denmark game after an ill-fated team alteration that saw Tierney play at left wingback and Andy Robertson shift to the right. Cooper came in at left centre-half and did as much as anyone to stem the tide after a punishing first half.

He is likely to play in the middle of a back three against Israel tomorrow, as he did versus the Netherlands in the Euro 2020 warm-up draw. He has rarely let Scotland down.

“I have been around the game long enough now, I know what my role is,” he said. “If I am in the team I have to try and keep my shirt. If not, I have to push the lads in front of me. That’s just the way it is.

“I think that is the atmosphere we have to generate around the place. I am one of the older lads in the group now. Hopefully I can use some of that experience and help get the best out of the boys.”

Despite it meaning his own chances of winning a tenth cap are enhanced, Cooper laments Hanley’s absence. “He’s been brilliant, I can’t say enough about Granty. He’s a great lad and he’s a great player. He’s a big miss for us. But it gives someone else an opportunity, whether that’s somebody else or myself.”

Cooper experienced a torrid time alongside his teammates in front of a packed crowd in Copenhagen against Denmark last month. Another capacity crowd is guaranteed tomorrow. The difference is that nearly everyone will be cheering for Scotland.

The partisan nature of the Danish crowd took the breath away and made the visiting team’s task even harder. It’s hoped Israel might suffer similarly tomorrow night and wilt in the hot Hampden atmosphere.

It is the sort of occasion that shows why Cooper had no hesitation to pledge his allegiance to Scotland. He has always been loyal, at under-age levels too. This is no fly-by-night tempted by the thought of collecting a few international caps for the CV. It’s an emotional, serious business that re-connects the Coopers family to their West Lothian roots, where relatives still live to this day. He is relishing the prospect of hearing the Hampden roar at maximum volume for the first time.

“Obviously they (Cooper’s father and grandfather) used to go to the games in the past but I am not sure they have been at a sold-out Hampden,” he said. “We are living that now. It is great to be part of. It shows how far we have come as a group in the last few years and that’s where we want to be, with the Tartan Army right behind us.

“It’s up to us to put on a good performance and try and get to another major tournament. That’s what it is all about. That’s what we set out to do at the start of the campaign and hopefully we can do that.

“We have had a taste of it now,” he added, with reference to this summer’s finals. “We want to go and play in the biggest tournament in the world. We have another big chance.

“It is the first time in a long time that we have managed to sell Hampden out and that speaks volumes about what the lads and what everyone at Scotland has done to get to this point. We have to pay back this loyalty.”

The Scots’ backroom staff has been augmented by the recruitment of Austin MacPhee as coach and Cooper has welcomed someone who shares an obsession for the minutest details with Marcelo Bielsa, his famously meticulous club manager.

Scotland assistant manager John Carver has already described MacPhee’s methods as “very, very impressive” following the first training session on Wednesday.

“John McGinn has said Austin has been very good with them, and I know Stuart Dallas who plays with Northern Ireland, and he said he’s been great to have around the place,” said Cooper.

“He’s someone who the manager thinks can bring an extra bit to us, and when you get to the elite level, it’s about those half percents that you can nick here and there. It will only benefit us. We’ve worked out there on the pitch today and the ideas seem very good. He’ll definitely bring something to our game.

“You go out onto the pitch and you’re fully prepared (at Leeds). It’s the same when I come away with the national team. We’re fully prepared to go out there and do our jobs in the best way possible.

“That’s all you want as a player, to go out with a free mind to do what you do and do what you love and know what the team wants to do,” he added. “I’m lucky that I have that at club and international level.”

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