Ex Leeds United and Scotland men back Liam Cooper's Euro inclusion regardless of accent or birthplace

Liam Cooper’s birthplace, background and accent will pale into insignificance for the Tartan Army if he gives Scotland the commitment he gives Leeds United.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 12th June 2021, 4:40 am
DESERVED RECOGNITION - Liam Cooper is in the Scotland squad on merit, say former Leeds defender Dominic Matteo and ex Celtic centre-half Gary Caldwell. Pic: Getty
DESERVED RECOGNITION - Liam Cooper is in the Scotland squad on merit, say former Leeds defender Dominic Matteo and ex Celtic centre-half Gary Caldwell. Pic: Getty

The central defender, born in Hull, qualifies for Scotland through his paternal grandfather, who came from Bo’ness on the south bank of the Firth of Forth.

His accent is East Yorkshire, not the Central Lowlands, but as a Leeds-supporting teenager he threw his lot in with the country of his late grandfather John, representing Scotland at Under-17 and Under-19 level.

A first senior call-up, that failed to yield a debut, didn’t come until 2016, by which time he had fought back from his release by Hull City to earn promotion to League One with Chesterfield and a subsequent move to Elland Road.

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The introduction of Marcelo Bielsa to his life and Leeds’ emergence as a serious promotion candidate put him back on the international radar and he played in two Euro 2020 qualifiers in September 2019.

A year later he pulled on a Scotland shirt again, this time as a Premier League player, in the UEFA Nations League game against Czech Republic and the crucial Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Israel.

Now, with five caps to his name, he heads into a major tournament on the back of a fine season in the English top flight, hoping to play a part and heap further ridicule on critics who questioned his credentials as a Championship player.

“People have doubted him, everyone has probably wondered at some stage if he could do it at the highest level and he’s proven himself this season,” said ex-Whites and Scotland defender Dominic Matteo.

“I never got a chance to play in the Euros or a World Cup and didn’t play enough games for Scotland so I’ll be very proud if Cooper gets his opportunity. I hope he takes it.

“The couple of years Cooper has had, becoming a good Premier League player and now maybe getting the chance to play in the Euros, he deserves it, it’s another step in what is becoming a brilliant career.”

Matteo, although Glasgow-born, also addressed his Scottish international team-mates with a distinctly English accent and had the added complication of having previously been involved in the England set-up, albeit without a senior cap.

“I was born in Glasgow but it was difficult because I was around the England squad and was on the bench against Switzerland,” he said.

“When it came to Scotland, I never got asked at first, so you just go with what’s in front of you.

“It doesn’t matter where Liam was born, his grandad was born in Scotland and that’s the way it works at international level. You want all the best players you can possibly have in your squad.

“The thing the Scottish lads will like about Cooper is that he’ll do what it takes, put his foot in and put his head in. And he won’t take unnecessary risks. You need players who can win their battles and Cooper can do that.

“We know how good the Tartan Army are, they get behind their team so well, they’ll get behind Cooper.”

Cooper now predominantly carries Leeds United’s long tradition of Scottish representation.

Last season the club nodded in that direction with a tongue-in-cheek image of teenage Motherwell native Stuart McKinstry signing his new Leeds deal as Cooper and Glasgow boy Barry Douglas played the part of proud Scottish uncles.

The latter, capped himself in 2018, is over the moon to see Cooper involved in the Euros.

“It’s brilliant and it’s no more than deserved,” he told the YEP.

“It’s all the hard work and sacrifices that make these things happen.”

The Leeds-Scotland connection once sat on the shoulders of giants, men like Billy Bremner and Eddie Gray.

When the legendary attacker made his international debut in a Wembley defeat to England in front of almost 90,000, all 12 of the players wearing dark blue were Scottish born.

“It was the sort of thing you didn’t think about because it didn’t happen at that time,” said Gray.

“But it doesn’t bother me in the least, if they’ve got Scottish heritage and they’re picked, fair enough.

“If you’re playing for Scotland, you’re playing for Scotland and I’m sure Liam Cooper is as proud as anyone to pull on the shirt.

“It’s a great honour for Liam, I’m sure he’ll be delighted to represent the club at the Euros too.”

Once upon a time former Celtic and Wigan defender Gary Caldwell would have disagreed with Matteo and Gray’s opinion on Cooper’s suitability for the Scotland squad.

“When I played I was very much ‘you should be born in Scotland’ and now I think I was wrong to have that opinion and the reason is probably my own family,” he told the YEP.

“My oldest son was born in Scotland and my younger two, my other son and my daughter, were born in England. My little boy loves football and thankfully Scotland qualified this year and he knows them as a team and wants a Scotland strip.

“I think it’s down to the individual and their upbringing in terms of what they feel. In the modern game it’s often about players wanting to play at that level and if they’re committed to playing at that level then they’re committed to playing for Scotland.

“Now, I think there’s no difference if you’re born in Scotland or if you’re born in England with Scottish parents. Do you want to go and play for them and give everything?

“It maybe feels a bit more, for the Scottish-born people who were brought up with it and maybe have more understanding but I might be wrong. I ram it down my kids’ throats and show them Kenny Daglish and Scotland teams of bygone eras. We have a whole generation who have missed that but thankfully we have a Euros coming up where kids can see a Scotland team involved and that’s when the real pride and passion comes out.”

Caldwell, himself a centre-half who earned 55 caps for his country, also backs Cooper’s inclusion on footballing merit.

“I think he’s a very good footballer,” he said.

“Playing in the Premier League is always a massive advantage when you go to Scotland. I played for clubs in Scotland or Championship clubs on loan and then Celtic, but when I went to the Premier League I became a real mainstay in the national team. You’re playing at that high level week in and week out.

“The run Leeds have been on and his influence on that has put him in the limelight, so he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”