Liam Cooper approaching his prime in bid to further improve Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United defence
GIVEN his team’s current defensive ways, fit again captain Liam Cooper admits he has no divine right to walk straight back into the Leeds United side.
Even without him, as Cooper nursed a groin issue, the Whites’ impressive defensive record continued with only two goals conceded in four games as Gaetano Berardi came into the side.
No other team in the Football League outside of the Premier Division can boast a tighter back line with United on a par with the top flight’s best three defences of Liverpool, Leicester City and Sheffield United in goals conceded - just eight.
And now the club’s skipper is back hoping to enhance that record further with Cooper hailing continued personal improvement under head coach Marcelo Bielsa with the captain optimistic he is now approaching his prime.
Five years have now passed since Cooper joined Leeds for Chesterfield for around £600,000 in August 2014 with the defender having worked under nine different managers or head coaches since.
As Cooper continues to count down the games towards his Leeds United double century, the defender admits he is now in his best shape yet under a head coach in Mareclo Bielsa who is even teaching Pablo Hernandez new tricks.
Still only 28, Cooper has six years on United’s Spanish wizard who has regularly stated how Bielsa is still unearthing more improvement from a player blessed with four caps for the Spanish national side and with separate spells at Spanish giants Valencia under his belt.
Cooper’s journey, meanwhile, has taken the defender from Hull City to Chesterfield to Leeds via loan spells at Carlisle United and Huddersfield Town with the defender now excited about what lies ahead as he eyes the best years of his career under United’s revolutionary head coach.
Casting his mind back to the player who joined Leeds from Chesterfield and now the Whites captain of 2019, Cooper admitted: “There’s an unbelievable difference - physically, mentally, everything.
“I believe I am coming into the best years of my career, I think they always say a centre half primes in his later years and I certainly believe I am doing that.
“Obviously I had a little setback with the injury but the way we work in the gym when the lads are injured, there’s no laying back.
“The physios are aggressive with us and when we come back we are expected to be on a level with the lads intensity wise, energy wise and fitness levels.
“It’s great to be a part of and I’m enjoying it all. I’m always improving. I think Pablo was a prime example.
“He thought he knew everything he had to know about the game and he’s still learning every day.
“He’s unbelievable to work for, he’s as honest as they come, he tells you how it is, if you don’t like you don’t like it but he’s not going to shy away from that and I think as a professional and as a player for me personally I think this is the best way to be told when you are not doing things and that’s the way it should be I believe.”
As Cooper sat down to face the press ahead of Saturday’s Championship hosting of QPR, Bielsa still hadn’t told Cooper and company who would be playing come Saturday’s clash against the Rs, as is, says Cooper, his won’t.
“I have not got a clue,” said Cooper, asked if he knew if he would be slotting straight back into the starting XI on Saturday.
“The manager will pick his team and I am sure we will have more of an idea on Friday of what the team will be.
“Obviously there are a couple of knocks from the heavy schedule over the last couple of weeks but I am sure we will know more on Friday as a team and we will be working on getting a win on Saturday.
“I just keep pushing the lads in front of me. The lads have got the shirt at the minute and we are all just pushing each other on.
“The competition for places is very good and it’s only ever going to be healthy for the team so I’ll keep pushing the lad and motivate the lads like - like they really need any, they don’t at all but I’ll do what I can and just keep pushing the lads to be better.”
Cooper, though, is raring to go with the defender saying there have been no complications following his return from injury as a late second half substitute in last weekend’s clash at Hillsborough with Cooper then coming through another 45 minutes for United’s under-23s on Monday against Hull at Elland Road.
“It’s just the lungs!” laughed Cooper, whose next outing will be his 172nd for Leeds.
“Obviously a couple of weeks off with the intensity the lads play at it can be difficult to come straight back into but it was another clean sheet for the boys at the weekend for the boys and I thought we defended very well and we have just got to keep going, get some wins on the record and carry on.
"It’s nice to be back. The injury was nasty but I’m a quick healer. I got ahead of schedule which is always nice and I managed to get some minutes on Monday (for the under-23s) which was good for me.
“It’s always good to get some game experience when you are coming back from an injury and I felt good in the game. I have trained hard this week and I am looking forward to the game.”