Liam Cooper reveals Leeds United play-off huddle message and lingering 2020 regret ahead of Wembley

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Liam Cooper knows deep down that perfection is not probable this weekend but that's always been the way of it at Leeds United.

The club captain will lead his beloved Whites to Wembley for Sunday's Championship play-off final, seeking a second promotion to the Premier League, yet in all likelihood he will not lead them out onto the pitch before kick-off. That honour will almost inevitably fall to Ethan Ampadu, as it has for the vast majority of this season. Boss Daniel Farke has played the £7m summer signing in Cooper's spot, at left-sided centre-back, and handed him the armband. So this season, unlike the last time Leeds fought to escape the second tier, has forced a very different role on the 32-year-old.

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"Yeah, it's been difficult," he told the YEP. "Obviously at the end of the day, I want to be playing as many minutes and as many games as possible. But you've got to get your head around that. Obviously I got injured at a difficult time in the season, first game of the season, after having a strong pre-season. It was always difficult to get injured like that. And obviously then the lads come in and do well and then you sort of try to force your way back into the team. So it's been difficult, but you have to take on a different role, I think. Obviously, keep the lads motivated, try to lead by example, keep the standards in training and off the pitch and I think I've done that quite well. We're lucky now, we've got plenty of leaders, so it's obviously not just left to me. Ethan has been brilliant, Stuey [Dallas] has been about the place. Obviously Luke [Ayling] was there at the start of the season and even young Archie [Gray] leads in his own way. So it's been difficult, but one I've enjoyed. Obviously, we've done very well this season. And then we're into the final push now."

Farke has made a point, throughout the campaign, of namechecking Cooper as Leeds' leader. When asked about the leadership qualities of Ampadu or Pascal Struijk, who also wore the armband at times, Farke first paid Cooper his dues. The role he has played, more often off the pitch than on, has been an important one in the manager's eyes and he's helped Cooper to feel that way.

"I've always felt like I have [a part to play], whether that is in training, or coming in having to say a little bit at half-time, before the games and things like that," he said. "And we've got an amazing group who just want to learn and focus and want the best for the club. And so that suits me fine."

Cooper did make it onto the pitch for the final minutes of the play-off semi-final second leg against Norwich City. With a contract that expires this summer and the game won comfortably inside the first 45 minutes, the thoughts of fans began to turn to their skipper. When his warm-up runs began to take on more urgency, the West Stand responded and his dart back to the technical area to get ready was cheered to the rafters. On he came, Ampadu put the armband on him and Cooper was, once again, the captain he wants to be for Leeds United. What everyone in the ground wanted was a goal to cap it off, as the mock boos for Daniel James’ wayward set-piece deliveries proved. Perfection as evasive as ever. No one, least of all Cooper, is under any illusions that it might have been the last dance, at Elland Road. "I was buzzing," he said. "I got told five minutes before, go have a good run and warm up. Just delighted to come on, to play in the atmosphere, to hear the fans cheering your name. It's a special feeling and one that you can never take for granted, especially in this day and age because you never know what's around the corner. But yeah, it was a special moment for me, it was a special moment for my family and one I take a lot of pride in. Think there was a few tears from the family. I managed to keep myself together. The lads were brilliant. And fair play to the manager as well for bringing me on he didn't have to do that, so thankful to him as well."

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Any talk of personal career developments or possibilities is not the sort of thing you'd expect from Cooper, not this week. He straight bats a question that strays near that area with: "Obviously those conversations haven't happened yet. I think we can all see a lot bigger things going on than to worry about things like that." That's why, at full-time last Thursday night, he was keen to impress just how big those bigger things are, to the huddled squad and staff members around him.

"[I wanted to say] that result means nothing if we don't turn up in the final," he told the YEP. "We've got one massive step to go, one big push and this week the focus is all about that. End of the day the play-off final games, the best team usually comes out on top and we've got to go there and get a strong performance from every player, everyone who is involved and the thing for me is, whether we get 90 minutes, 120 minutes or two minutes we all just want what's best for the club. And whether you play a bit part or wherever you're lucky enough to lead the team out and be lucky enough to play in the game, we all want one thing and that's to be promoted with this club and hopefully we can do that. I've been fortunate enough to have been promoted before and there's no feeling like it. The satisfaction you get out of it, the pride you get out of it. And I think it's an amazing repayment for all the hard work and all the sacrifices you make throughout your career for moments like that. And that'll be my message this week to the boys."

That previous experience, as one of Marcelo Bielsa's history boys, was incredible to behold. A slumbering club taken by its very shoulders and shaken back to life, pushed in the direction it should always be facing. Cooper, who has started eight league games this season, started 36 times as Bielsa steered Leeds to the second tier title. But even that career highlight was imperfect and still holds a little disappointment for those involved, because it came with a pandemic and all its restrictions. There was an open top bus but it went nowhere. And it became a symbol of bitterness for those who had to, or felt they had to, stay away from Elland Road on the night the trophy was lifted. This promotion, should they pull it off, would help to fill in some blanks.

"I think we all do [harbour disappointment], especially the players who are left, and from still speaking to the old folk from before," he said. "We never got to really celebrate how every other club does when they get promoted, but that's the way it was. Don't get me wrong, we celebrated the best we could but to be able to celebrate with the fans that would be unbelievable. But there's a massive task in front of us first and  we've got to put all our eggs in that basket and like I said, get a big performance and hopefully that's enough to get us back."

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Cooper arrived from League One in 2014 and, almost 10 years later, is more likely than not just one game away from an emotional departure. If Premier League status is restored, a year on from its loss, and he says goodbye on the highest of highs - even without playing in the final - it would bookend a decade at Elland Road. Not perfectly, but unforgettably all the same.

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