Liam Cooper described a 2-0 victory over Brighton as Leeds United’s biggest result of the season after making a surprise appearance in place of Pontus Jansson in Saturday’s Championship game at Elland Road.
Cooper, who was last night called into the Scotland squad for the friendly against Canada and the World Cup qualifier against Slovenia, played his part in another telling step towards the play-offs after head coach Garry Monk unexpectedly dropped Jansson from his line-up and named the Swedish centre-back among his substitutes.
Jansson, who has been a fixture in Monk’s defence since signing for Leeds on loan from Torino in August, was consigned to the bench despite being fit as Cooper made only his seventh league start of the season.
Monk refused to explain the exact reasons for his choice of line-up, saying only that he had done “what’s best for the team and the principles we work to”, but the alteration had no negative impact as two goals from Chris Wood in the second half moved Leeds up to fourth and defeated a Brighton side who were bidding to climb above Championship leaders Newcastle.
Wood guided home a 64th-minute header before dispatching a penalty five minutes from time, taking his personal tally of goals to 27 and sealing a win which Cooper felt was a valuable as any claimed by Leeds this season.
The defender was also pleased to exact revenge for a 2-0 away loss in December, a game which saw United play for more than an hour with 10 men after the dismissal of Kalvin Phillips.
“We spoke before the game that we owed them one,” Cooper said. “We got a bad result there and it hurt us. We wanted to go out and get the three points back and we did everything we could.
“I think we wanted it more in the end and the spirit here is unbelievable, one of the best I’ve been involved in. To a man, we’re there for each other and it’s great to be part of.
“The clean sheet was massive, not just for me, but for the whole team. Brighton are a great team and if they get one, they’d maybe go on and get two or three. We did well to keep them at none and then the big man (Chris Wood) came in – two chances, two goals. That’s what he does.”
Cooper said he learned on Friday that he would be replacing Jansson, who Leeds have agreed to sign on a permanent basis at the end of the season.
United agreed a fee of around £3.5m for Jansson when his loan from Italy was first agreed in August and, amid suggestions that Premier League side Southampton were firmly interested, announced last month that they had finalised a three-year contract with him.
Jansson has made 28 league starts this season as part of a regular pairing with Kyle Bartley. He took part in the warm-up and warm down on Saturday but, amid suspicions of a fall-out, Monk, when asked if there had been any fitness concerns, said: “No, not at all. I’ll always do what’s best for the group.
“When I’m selecting teams I try and do what I think’s best for the team and what I feel is best for the game that’s coming up – the principles we work to and who is going to deliver them the best they can. I’ll always do that. It’s the key and I’ll reiterate – the group is most important.”
Cooper said: “The gaffer told me (on Friday) that I was playing and I was obviously buzzing because I’ve waited a long time. I have been professional and always will be but it’s been hard as I haven’t played as much as I’ve wanted to. The gaffer has shown confidence in me and I’d like to think I’ve repaid him.
“Pontus and Barts have been unbelievable and you can’t knock that. We’ve had a lot of clean sheets this year. It is hard coming in as you’re not up to top speed but you can’t moan about that. You have to go and do a job.”
Report and ratings: The Match