Leeds United captain Liam Cooper - leading by example, keeping focus and an Elland Road rallying call as Derby County await
Liam Cooper is in the habit of rallying Leeds United’s players in a huddle a few seconds before kick-off but tonight he could say nothing and have the same effect.
Motivation will be everywhere at Elland Road, from the fizz of the crowd to the lure of Wembley and the ghost Leeds have been fighting since Cooper was in his teens.
With all of that around him, he is trying hard not to think too much; not to let his mind stray to Wembley or consider what it would mean to him to be wearing the armband on the day when Leeds’ EFL internment finally ends.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” Cooper said, “so I’ll answer that question in a few weeks. But if you need any geeing up for this game then you’re not up for it already.”
Leeds are halfway towards the national stadium and further again if their superiority over Derby in three games this season is a portent of what Elland Road will see tonight.
Marcelo Bielsa has had the measure of Frank Lampard’s squad and Lampard looked lost again during Saturday’s play-off semi-final first leg at Pride Park, so much so that United’s 1-0 advantage might be stronger than it looks on paper.
Bielsa’s team are as short as 9-1 on to progress this evening.
All the same, Kemar Roofe – scorer of the only goal on Saturday – is out with a calf strain and Cooper did not feel the same level of dominance at Pride Park which Leeds exerted in the two regular league matches between the clubs.
Both he and Bielsa take the view that Derby have improved and improved enough to leave the semi-final on a very fine edge.
“I’d definitely say that,” Cooper said.
“You could tell that from the game on Saturday. That might have been down to the magnitude of the game, I don’t know, but it was certainly closer.
“Derby have a lot of players who can hurt you and we nullified them to zero shots on target but that’s gone now. All focus is on Wednesday and we’ll look to beat them again.”
There was enough in the first leg, and enough control on Leeds’ part, for Bielsa to come away with a wider advantage than he has but his camp has a contented air about it, a feeling of quiet satisfaction at the way they manipulated Derby on their turf.
Should the scoreline have been more comfortable in the end?
“There’s always that but the keeper’s made a couple of good saves and we’ve had to defend well to keep them out,” Cooper said.
“On the whole, we were deserving of the victory but I’ll keep saying it: you put that behind you now. We’ve got a massive game, the prize is there and we can all see it but we’ve got 90 minutes of football, maybe more, to get through.
"It’s so easy to get up for these games. These are the easy ones for all footballers.
"When you start playing as a young lad these are the games you sign up for and we’ve got a great chance now. We’ve got one foot in but there’s plenty of football to be played.”
Leeds benefited on Saturday from the intervention of linesman Eddie Smart, who convinced referee Craig Pawson to overturn a penalty awarded to Derby 12 minutes from time.
The incident was difficult to call in real time and also with the benefit of replays, to the extent that even Lampard admitted he wasn’t sure whether Jack Harrison had brought down Jayden Bogle.
An equaliser at that stage would have changed the complexion of the tie and given Derby sudden hope.
Pawson was a select-group official, called in from the Premier League to handle the first leg of this Championship semi-final. Another top-flight referee, Anthony Taylor, has been given tonight’s return match at Elland Road.
“I thought it was very good from the linesman,” Cooper said.
“It’s strong and it shows the quality of refs in the play-offs. During the season I don’t think a ref in the Championship would have gone and spoken with the linesman like that.
“Fair play to the referee for doing it because, in my eyes, it’s not a foul. Jack’s got no intention of fouling him.”
Leeds and Bielsa know by now that nothing is ever simple. Roofe revived the form he showed in the first half of the season at Pride Park but injured a calf and was promptly ruled out by Bielsa on Monday.
Pontus Jansson could be absent again, Tyler Roberts, Adam Forshaw, Barry Douglas and Gjanni Alioski might all miss the play-off final if Leeds progress and Bielsa has half a team kicking their heels while the chips are down.
The injuries are so severe that his bench away at Derby included three Under-23s who have never kicked a ball for the first team. Forshaw pulled up with a hamstring strain 20 minutes in but Jamie Shackleton stepped up with the most mature and punishing of performances, his first outing for two months.
“It speaks volumes of the belief the manager has in the young lads,” Cooper said.
“I saw our bench had an average age of 19 or something like that but these boys are different class.
“A lot of young boys come up and don’t get it but these boys definitely do. Marcelo demands a lot from them but they always give. They’re a great asset to have and Marcelo can throw him in whenever he wants.”
The Premier League sold itself to Leeds and every other Championship club – as if the division needs selling – with a fascinating end to the closest title race in years on Sunday.
Rather than watch it, Cooper took his daughter to the beach for some peace, some quiet and some fresh air.
It will be different tonight and deafening in a stadium which wants the play-off final and what lies beyond like no other.
Back in 2008, when Leeds lost to Carlisle United at Elland Road in the first leg of a League One semi-final, Dougie Freedman talked about using rudimentary sign language to communicate with Jermaine Beckford in an atmosphere where neither striker could hear the other speak.
“It’s always electric but I’d go as far as saying it’ll probably be the best we’ve heard it this season,” Cooper said.
“We need the fans to be intimidating. It always helps. Even through the bad days they’ve always been there and hopefully we can feed off that energy.
“Obviously we’re not stupid and we know what’s there. It’s a massive prize to go for but as one of the most senior lads in the team it’s down to me to bear away from that.
"We’re 1-0 up, it’s not comfortable at all and we’ll be going to win the game. We’ll commit men forward and attack as we always do. There’ll be no change from us.”