FOR the past week Liam Cooper has been “the new boy at school”: a fresh face at a club he doesn’t know, in amongst players he has never met.
There are many in his shoes at Leeds United but to Cooper’s credit he hasn’t looked like a lost soul. A consummate debut against Middlesbrough on Saturday and a respectable performance in Tuesday’s loss to Brighton broke the ice in quick time.
Cooper is young at 22 but a sizeable investment at £600,000 and Leeds did not waste time blooding him. His debut came three days after he joined from Chesterfield – hastened by Giuseppe Bellusci’s wait for international clearance – and he already seems like a defender with 40 games in him this season. His appearance against Boro last weekend was a lesson in monopolising a shirt.
“If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect to play straight away,” Cooper said. “I’m very fortunate that the manager put me straight in. I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of a crowd as loud as Saturday’s and it was hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff.
“I feel like one of the lads now, which is good because when I came here it was all brand new. I knew Scott Wootton and I knew Billy Sharp a bit through a lad I was with at Chesterfield but that was it. It’s a bit awkward for the first few days, like being the new boy at school, but everyone’s been very welcoming.”
Leeds were under-cooked at centre-back before Cooper and Bellusci signed last week but that position is now the source of difficult decisions for head coach David Hockaday.
Jason Pearce, United’s captain, moved to the right of the two central defensive slots before the Middlesbrough game to accommodate the left-footed Cooper, and either Pearce or Cooper will lose their place completely if Hockaday decides to give Bellusci his debut at Watford tomorrow.
The 24-year-old Italian is yet to feature after a delay in registering him but he is highly rated by Leeds and their owner, Massimo Cellino - so much so that United took the unexpected step of signing him permanently yesterday.
Bellusci joined Leeds on a season-long loan from Catania nine days ago, with United negotiating an option to take him permanently next summer, but that option has been rapidly exercised and Bellusci is now tied to the club on a four-year contract. The range of options put Hockaday in a situation where he is obliged to disappoint someone. Cooper spoke highly of Bellusci’s performance in training and said: “Competition’s always good. There’s always been competition wherever I’ve played and it keeps you on your toes, no matter what anyone says. You should welcome it.”
Cooper did himself no harm on Tuesday, despite Leeds capitulating to a Brighton team who outpassed them and outplayed them. Albion’s possession climbed to 70 per cent in the first half but their shots on target numbered only one before half-time - a goal scored on five minutes by Joao Teixeira. Hockaday praised the “defensive shape” while criticising other aspects of United’s performance.
“Sometimes it’s not your day and I don’t think we played great,” Cooper said.
“We couldn’t deal with their formation in the first half-hour and it got to us. They didn’t have many chances, they had one shot in the first half, but it felt out there like we were under the cosh. It wasn’t a great result, obviously, but hopefully we can go to Watford and get a good one.”