Leeds United: Cooper springs to defence of striker

Leeds United captain Liam Cooper prepares for kick-off against Fulham.
Leeds United captain Liam Cooper prepares for kick-off against Fulham.
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Centre-back Liam Cooper has defended striker Chris Wood’s slow start to the campaign, and feels the team is heading in the right direction under head coach Garry Monk. Phil Hay reports.

Liam Cooper last night defended Chris Wood and said the striker was the victim of “harsh” criticism after Wood’s inspired overhead kick gave Leeds United their first point of the season.

Cooper admitted that United’s squad were “there to be shot at” after a slow start to the campaign but he spoke out in support of Wood amid recent attacks on the forward’s performances.

Wood – Leeds’ top scorer last season – has struggled for form in the opening stages of the term, drawing criticism from the crowd and leading to sarcastic jeers when head coach Garry Monk substituted him during Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Birmingham City.

The former Leicester City player endured another difficult evening against Fulham on Tuesday but came good at the death as an unorthodox finish stole a 1-1 draw three minutes into injury-time.

His goal rescued Leeds and Monk from the unwanted record of losing their opening three league games for the first time in 80 years and Wood reacted by cupping his ear to the crowd in the Kop behind Fulham’s goal.

Vice-captain Cooper said: “It was a great finish from Woody at the end. He deserved that.

“He’s an honest player and what’s been happening to him has been very harsh. But we’re in the limelight and we’re there to be shot at.

“Chris will tell you himself that he’s disappointed to have missed chances but we know he has that sort of finish in the bag. He does it every day in training.

“The goal was very important. He’s come in for a bit of stick but fair play to him.

“We see him bang goals in every day – overhead kicks and good finishes. We know what he’s capable of doing.

“As long as he’s getting chances he won’t be bothered because he knows he’ll stick them in. The goals will come.”

Wood has not been alone in starting the season slowly and while Monk kept faith with him against Fulham, he decided to drop captain Sol Bamba after back-to-back league defeats to Queens Park Rangers and Birmingham in which Leeds conceded five goals.

Cooper stepped in at centre-back and United rode Fulham’s dominance of possession, resulting in two efforts against the post, to fight back from Tom Cairney’s 78th-minute strike.

Cooper said: “The equaliser changed the mood. Football’s a game of goals.

“We conceded with about 10 minutes to go and we could have dropped our heads and sulked but we didn’t let that happen. We didn’t let our heads go down.

“They had a couple of chances in the first half but I thought we got to grips with it after that. It’s hard to press teams when they play out from the back because you can’t get near them. It’s important to save your legs.

“In the second half we caught them a few times and looked dangerous on the counter-attack.

“We have to keep the ball better, we do make it hard for ourselves at times, but we’re getting there.

“I felt we were a lot more confident on the ball and you can see how the manager wants us to play.

“We all want to do the same because it’s the right way to play.”

Cooper’s return on Tuesday – his first league start after a summer disrupted by a calf strain – was a boost to Monk, and United’s team should be strengthened at Sheffield Wednesday this weekend by the inclusion of new signing Liam Bridcutt.

The midfielder joined United on a two-year deal from Sunderland on Tuesday morning but was registered too late to feature against Fulham.

Torino defender Pontus Jansson, meanwhile, has been lined up for a season-long loan, Leeds’ 10th deal of the summer, and could also feature at Hillsborough if international clearance arrives in time.

Cooper and Bridcutt played together while the latter was on loan at Leeds last season and both were called up to the same Scotland squad earlier this year.

“Liam brings a lot of experience,” Cooper said. “He’s played in the Premier League.

“The manager said all along that he’d only bring in players who will improve us and Liam does that.

“He’s a good player and we all saw what he was about last year. He gets stuck in and he will give his all. That’s all we can ask.

“It’s up to the manager how many bodies we need but from the beginning he’s said to us, as well as the media, that he’ll only bring in players who will better us.”

Leeds head to Hillsborough at the end of an unsettled week for last season’s beaten play-off finalists.

Fernando Forestieri, Wednesday’s marquee forward who Massimo Cellino considered signing in last summer before saying he lacked the “right mentality”, was forced to issue a grovelling apology to the club’s owner, players and supporters on Monday after refusing to travel to last weekend’s game against Norwich City. The Italian, who is a target for Derby County, was named on the bench against newly-promoted Burton Albion on Tuesday night but his appearance as a substitute could not avert a surprising 3-1 defeat.

Cooper said: “Sheffield Wednesday are a very good team and it’ll be a great game.

“We just go there to play our game, try and impose ourselves on them and play at a high tempo. We’ll give them a right good game.”