Why Liam Cooper is set to complete full circle at Liverpool with Leeds United
On September 26 2009, a baby-faced Liam Cooper walked out of the Anfield tunnel on his way to his first Premier league start.
As an 18-year-old centre-back turning out for Hull City against Premier League giants Liverpool, Cooper was laden with the task of halting the irrepressible Steven Gerrard and the red-hot Fernando Torres.
The hosts were pushing, once again, for a first Premier League title and the Tigers ended the afternoon on the wrong side of a 6-1 defeat.
It was a baptism of fire for the then young defender, and one he took on admirably, regardless of the final result.
Leeds United's promotion-winning captain hasn't taken the easy route back to the top, loans at Carlisle United and Huddersfield Town were followed by a permanent move to Chesterfield in League Two under the stewardship of Paul Cook.
It took him half a season to find his feet in a demanding division but by the end of the 2013/14 season Cooper’s impressive performances at the back had helped the Spireites to promotion to League One.
He was set up for the challenge of keeping Chesterfield safe the following season when fate intervened.
A pre-season friendly against his childhood team saw Cooper line-up across from a Whites side managed by Dave Hockaday, featuring the likes of Scott Wootton, Steve Morrison and Luke Murphy.
The game ended 2-2 - which would prove to be an indication of how Leeds’ season would transpire - but Chesterfield’s young defender left his mark on the opposition.
Cooper impressed to the extent that Leeds attempted to sign him not once, but twice. And at the third attempt United had their man.
He came into a club that was struggling on and off the pitch as the volatility of the Massimo Cellino era shone through.
New managers came and went in what felt like six week blocks, breeding an environment which would prove impossible to breed any kind of success.
Despite the clubs’ troubles, Cooper settled in relatively well, playing 68 league games in his first two years. His effort on the pitch was never in doubt, but he sometimes displayed a weakness under pressure that brought on a certain nickname.
Cooper, in many fans' eyes, represented the lack of ambition from those running the club, as they aimed for cheaper signings, rather than those who would propel Leeds back into the Premier League.
After Cooper was dropped for much of the 2016/17 season under Garry Monk, playing only 11 games in the league due to the success of a strong partnership between Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley, his professionalism and dedication was still clear.
Cooper's commitment in training was never doubted, and when he stepped asked to deputise, he did his job diligently.
Still, though, there were elements in his game that suggested he had hit his peak in the Championship as he took on a more prominent role under Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom.
Once Marcelo Bielsa arrived, that changed.
The Argentine had told the Leeds executives in his first meeting that he could turn Kalvin Phillips, Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas into the best players in the league, on reflection it's hard to say he was wrong.
In Bielsa's first season, despite all the plaudits that Jansson's brand of tough defending won him, Cooper was by far the most consistent defender.
Jansson's instructions from Bielsa appeared to be to pass the ball over to his centre-back partner, who would then find the delivery that was required.
Criticism remained, after one notable mistake against Sheffield United which gifted the Blades victory. His errors in the play-offs against Derby County, which ultimately helped end the season, brought a stellar campaign to a sour end.
During the season just gone, he bounced back to be one of Leeds' most consistent players once again.
Fans noted early on that Stuart Dallas was one of the most underrated members of the side, and as a result he became favourite for the Player of the Season award.
Arguments, though, could be made that Cooper falls into this category too.
As one half of the best defensive pairing in the league, he was not overshadowed by the often spectacular Ben White.
Cooper led the team on the pitch, pushing himself through injuries and throwing himself at shots.. The 29-year-old stepped into his role brilliantly and now deserves his shot in the Premier League with his boyhood club.
Gone are the opinions that Cooper is 'too slow' or 'not good enough', to put it simply, Leeds are in the Premier League partly because of Cooper's character, leadership and dedication.
He deserves as much adulation as Phillips receives for his meteoric rise under El Loco, or Pablo 'El Mago' Hernandez gets for his trickery and footballing brain.
Cooper is living the ultimate dream, playing for a club he will never stop fighting for.
Following a lockdown period, which saw the untimely passing of two of Leeds’ most legendary defenders in Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton, it is perhaps fitting that the club are led on the pitch by someone who carries the same passion and pride for the badge.
There is little argument to be made that he deserves his place next to them in history at Elland Road after helping end a 16-year nightmare for the club.
In just a few days time, Cooper will be visiting Anfield once again. This time, though, as a veteran and not a rookie. And as Leeds United captain.