How Leeds United captain Liam Cooper has turned cruel taunt into badge of honour with Premier League form
Liam Cooper’s Premier League form has turned a cruel jibe, once a stick to beat him with, into a badge of honour.
If anything, the moniker wasn’t even particularly accurate because, while the Whites bought Liam Cooper from League One Chesterfield, he only played one game in that division.
Under Paul Cook’s management he and Chesterfield had just won League Two, a league in which he made 41 appearances, so ‘League Two Liam’ might have been more appropriate.
In any case, the suggestion was that Cooper’s ability was more suited to life below the Championship and the nickname was dragged out every time he made a mistake.
Cooper is not ashamed of where he’s come from. Being released by Hull was a bitter blow, as it would be for any youngster, but Chesterfield, relatively unfashionable as they might be in the grand scheme of football as Cooper currently experiences it, represented a route back to where he evidently belonged.
“I went into an unbelievable club - Chesterfield was great for me,” Cooper was quoted as saying in the programme for Monday’s game against Crystal Palace.
It was a game that showcased exactly how far Cooper has come.
He was a major factor in the shutting down of the Eagles attack, en route to a victory that took Leeds to 10th in the Premier League.
His performances this season have been perfectly adequate for a side hoping to stay up and, on numerous occasions, better than even his greatest admirers will have expected.
The discussion on Leeds’ fragility from corners has mostly ignored how good Cooper has been in the air generally, often against strikers with a height advantage. The 64 aerial duels he has won puts him 12th in the Premier League, fifth among defenders. And, perhaps due in part to the absence of 2019/20 defensive partner Ben White and in part to the chopping and changing of centre-backs owing to injuries, Cooper has increased his responsibility.
He is joint sixth in the division for interceptions - something White did expertly and with great frequency for Leeds - he’s taking players on successfully more often and passing the ball more often and more accurately than ever, while matching the number of completed long passes he contributed in the Championship - it’s not all safe, sideways passes, some of his diagonal balls to the flanks have been razor sharp and allowed Leeds to bypass the opposition attackers and midfielders entirely while still playing to feet.
For a player who was playing 27 passes per game at 70 per cent accuracy in his first season at Leeds to be making 71 passes with 88 per cent accuracy says much about how the player and the role he plays has developed under Marcelo Bielsa.
It’s unsurprising that the step up to the Premier League has made him busier, defensively, necessitating more tackles and blocks than at any other point in his Whites career.
But, being in the right place to make those interventions, and making them as well as he is against elite attacks, will have raised a few eyebrows. Where he’s come from will make his current reality all the sweeter, says former Scotland and Wigan Athletic centre-half Gary Caldwell.
“I was 28 when I made my Premier League debut and it makes it all-the-more special when you’ve been on that journey and that tough road,” he told The Yorkshire Evening Post.
“You haven’t been handed it easily. For him the reward will be so much greater because of the hard knocks he took.”
And Caldwell believes the EFL background that allowed critics to try and chip away at Cooper has helped build a coping mechanism for when life isn’t this sweet.
“It makes him a mentally stronger player for it,” he said.
“He can cope with any set-backs in the Premier League better because of the career he’s had.
“He’s come a long way, he’ll be loving every minute and looking forward to what is, hopefully, a magnificent summer.”
European Championships Liam? It’s a far more believable story than the one he’s put together so far.