Bielsa's prayer

Liam Cooper has had serious fun

Written by: Flora Snelson
A photo of Luke Ayling high fiving Liam Cooper after Leeds had been crowned champions at Derby. Bill is holding a bottle of champagne, Barry Douglas is in the back ground holding a yellow flare

Liam Cooper has been using his international break to feel all the things about his favourite football team, chatting to Sky Sports about his ups and downs at Leeds United, whose goal he’s been defending for nearly ten years. It’s not all been white roses:

“It killed me [getting relegated]. It killed me. I was angry or whatever you want to call it. I had a feeling that people weren’t pulling their weight as good as they should have been. You’ve all seen the quotes.”

Granted, years service to a club you’ve loved since you were a kid gives you greater a sense of wanting to be there when things get tough, whereas others listened to Cooper’s advice in the changing room after defeat to Spurs relegated Leeds — “if you don’t want to be here then fuck off” — and promptly did what they were told. His lifelong affection aside, though, there was the badge, and there was the Premier League status — but those things never meant as much to the players who didn’t achieve it. Still, what about playing for each other? Forget the fans and history, isn’t there something to be said for working toward a common goal, for its own sake?

“We weren’t good enough individually, as a team. There just wasn’t that bonding there. I just don’t think it was there. And I felt like it needed to be said.”

At the end of nine long seasons at Leeds, no one could argue that Coops hasn’t earned his right to say it. He’d seen this before, though. Weston McKennie had barely got over the trauma of saying goodbye to Daddy Jesse when his step-Daddy Javi packed his bags, and before he knew it Sam Allardyce was horse-whipping the tears out of his eyes and telling him to chuck the ball into the fucking mixer. But Allardyce was Coops’ thirteenth boss. Back in 2014, straight after joining Leeds under Massimo Cellino, it took three managers in two months at Thorp Arch for Cooper to learn that chaos and comings-and-goings stop a team from developing the dynamic you need to build a successful team:

“It’s a massive thing, the relationships off the field and what’s expected in the dressing room. And when managers are always swapping and changing hands, it’s difficult to get close to anybody.

“It was a bit of a laughing stock, really. You never knew how long a manager was going to last.”

Coops did his best not to get too disorientated, but it wasn’t until his fifth season at Leeds that he was afforded the kind of stability he needed to climb clear of his ‘League One Liam’ nickname. Much of Cooper’s early days at Leeds were characterised by ‘what happens next’; in the summer of 2018, United appointed a manager with a reputation, that meant that Coops knew what Marcelo Bielsa meant before Marcelo Bielsa arrived.

Bielsa meant respect and Bielsa meant hard work — the two things Cooper later rued were missing from the dressing room that undid Bielsa’s legacy. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Treat people right and put in the hard yards. Bielsa’s thorough and ordered approach gave Coops hope, but he wasn’t sure of the brilliance to come until it smacked him and 34,126 Leeds fans in the face one sunny August day at Elland Road against Stoke:

“We certainly knew how fit we were. We certainly knew we’d run over a lot of teams, because of how we’d worked in the pre-season. I’d never done anything like that in my career, the way it was structured and how methodically we did everything.

“You’re always cautiously optimistic, but this was sort of clarification, this game — especially to the group and to the team. Turning over Stoke at home, who’d just been relegated — we knew we were onto something good.”

Leeds were taking the piss and Liam was at the heart of it. In the first three months of Bielsa’s first season, Coops had scored as many goals as he had across the previous four — and there were clean sheets in those early days, too. After back-to-back mid-table finishes and faltering play-off charges, United were becoming the punchline to a tiresome Championship joke. But Bielsa’s tactical majesty had Leeds fans laughing again — and it was in El Loco’s most solemn hour, with his integrity challenged by Spygate, that Leeds got the biggest laugh of all:

“We were having a laugh and a joke, really. There were a lot of cameras in the woods back there [at Thorp Arch]. A few of the boys in the staff clocked them. We were having a little giggle and giving it the goggles and all that.

“We saw the meeting he did in the media room. We were just amazed. We’d seen a lot of his analysis and stuff like that, but then when he compressed it all on every single team, yeah, it was amazing. I was blown back by it and then I thought, ‘This guy means business.’”

When Derby snatched away Leeds’ fairytale ending and laid bare Bielsa’s imperfection, the despair was serious, but Bielsa met serious with serious and United went again. A manager’s failure, followed by another go — this was new to Coops.

But by Christmas in Bielsa’s second season, Leeds were beginning to look lost again. After defeat at Nottingham Forest, Luke Ayling tried his best to resist despair. As he was giving sombre post-match reflections, captain Coops was rushed back north to the hospital where his newborn son was receiving treatment for bronchitis:

“He was in the ICU, and the club had been in touch — I think we played Brentford on the Tuesday or the Wednesday — ‘do you want to play?’ I was like, “Yeah, I’ll be there’. I’d not trained for two days, but I met the lads on the bus. The little man was getting out the same day.

“Marcelo had actually been, off the cuff, to visit him in the hospital and said a prayer. I thought that was amazing of him to do. He didn’t have to do that.

“He did a speech in the hotel in London, just showing us how much of a good team we really were. And that was one of the best team talks he’d done for me, that night in Brentford at the hotel before the game.”

Bielsa inspired Coops to poke home an equaliser at Brentford, kickstarting the revival United needed to go all the way. Stuart Dallas and Ayling had been with Coops for most of his Leeds career, so it was no surprise they should be the pair wielding the bottles, spraying wine in his face as he celebrated winning the Championship. He chose not to protect himself — his hands were busy lifting the trophy — because when joy comes along, you take all you can get:

“I swallowed about a gallon of champagne. There was no way I was putting my arms down, mind. Bielsa certainly didn’t smile too much, so when he did, you knew you’d got to him.” ⬢

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