If Scotland caps were given out for perseverance, then Liam Cooper might already be close to being a hall of famer. The 28-year-old Leeds United captain is this week in line finally to make a first senior appearance for what he calls “my country”. He speaks with a Yorkshire accent but that should not be taken as diluting the desire to represent a nation where his Bo’ness-born grandfather grew up.
A debut in Friday’s Euro 2020 qualifier at home to Russia would bring the centre-back a first full appearance in Scotland colours, almost exactly a decade since he last played in dark blue, for the under-19s in a 3-1 defeat by Iceland at Forthbank on 9 September 2009, to be precise.
At times in the intervening period it has seemed as if it has been Cooper’s destiny to miss out on a senior cap. In failing to make the grade at Hull City, he dropped off the international radar and it wasn’t until a move to League Two side Chesterfield in 2012-13 that he started to gain regular exposure to first-team football. Two years later, following a successful £500,000 move to a Leeds United side he grew up supporting, his name was soon being suggested to then Scotland manager Gordon Strachan. He gave him a first call-up for a friendly with Denmark in March 2016, only for the defender to be one of just three in a 19-strong squad not to be afforded any game time. On his next call-up, two years ago, he was then one of the few unused substitutes when Scotland played a friendly against Canada ahead of a World Cup qualifier.
The impressive remoulding of Cooper under meticulous managerial mastermind Marcelo Bielsa at Elland Road over the past 14 months had Clarke preparing to pick him when he named his first Scotland squad in May – only for injury to rule out the centre-back.
Yet, however long the road to international recognition, Cooper has never feared he would permanently find himself at a dead end. With Leeds top of the Championship and the defender a lauded figure in their early-season form, it appears now all avenues have opened up for him, especially with Scott McKenna, John Souttar and Stuart Findlay sidelined. In addition, Charlie Mulgrew is struggling for minutes since a loan move from Blackburn Rovers to Wigan Athletic, and Grant Hanley’s deserved recall also comes during a period when he encountered some draining experiences as he reacquaints himself with the English Premier League with newly promoted Norwich City. Cooper’s time has surely come and he puts that down to remaining single-minded.
“You just have to concentrate on yourself. I feel as if I have come into my own over the past two years under Marcelo,” said the player, who Clarke said had impressed him when he watched him deliver a scoring display in a 3-1 victory over Stoke City a month ago.
“If you are doing well at club level then eventually you will get recognised for your country. I’ve got the call-up now so I’m just delighted. It is always an honour to represent your country.
“Every manager has their reasons for not picking you. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready the last times I was called up. And maybe I would have been back in sooner if it hadn’t been for niggly injuries last year. These things happen, that’s football. I don’t think you can get too downhearted. I have started to perform better and more consistently over the past few seasons.
“I’ve always believed I would get back into the set-up. I’m very confident in my ability. I think my game suits international football. In the back of my head I was always confident of stepping up to represent my country.”
His belief has been emboldened through coming under the tutelage of Bielsa, a coach who himself proved he was suited to the international sphere with an outstanding stint in charge of Chile, that followed six years in charge of Argentina, his home nation. His efforts have led to his being regarded as the pre-eminent practitioner in his field by such luminaries as Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino.
“He [Bielsa] has brought my game on in so many levels,” Cooper said. “I’m the fittest I’ve ever been and feel like I’m coming to the prime of my career. Leeds are a very demanding club so stepping up to international football will be nothing new. A lot of the credit for the call-up has to go to the manager and his staff. The way they have brought me on as a player and given me the responsibility of captain has been invaluable.
“Steve Clarke is going to have his own ideas but as a player you have to be adaptable to different styles. At Leeds we play different formations and I feel I can play any position in a three or a four. The biggest thing with the manager is fitness. He wants us to be able to run and make options. We attack, we attack… and we attack. We attack from the back so you have to be on your game.”
Leeds used to be the richest of seams for Scotland to mine, never more so than in the club’s halcyon period of the 1970s, when the club provided the Gray brothers Eddie and Frank, Billy Bremner, Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Peter Lorimer and Arthur Graham at various intervals. Eddie Gray remains an ambassador for the Elland Road institution and a man who has whetted Cooper’s appetite for following in his international footsteps.
“I speak to Eddie all the time and he always has good things to say about the national team,” the player said. “It is good to speak with people who have been there and done it. You learn so much from them. He’s a top lad.”
Cooper, meanwhile, is a lad determined to show he can be a top Scot.