By Liam Tunney

The delirium of Pablo Hernandez’ sixteenth second opener last Friday night against West Brom sent even the most nervous of Leeds United supporter (me) into pandemonium.

m. The beauty with which Pablo drew back his cultured right foot to execute the precision finish was exquisite. The speed with which Leeds found the West Brom net is notable not just for its haste, but for the fact that it actually originated with an opposition kick off.

Harrison’s vision to spot the outstretched arms of Hernandez and deliver the ball into his path was rightly praised, but who sent the winger on his way down the left flank in the opening seconds of the game?

The man who had leapt into the cool March air and emphatically stamped his authority on proceedings was the captain. Super Duper Liam Cooper. The man who will tomorrow mark his 100th game as Leeds United captain, joining some prestigious company in Billy Bremner and Lucas Radebe to name but a few. But the journey has not been a smooth one for the man once maligned as ‘League One Liam’.

Perhaps some of the stigma attached to the performances of Cooper stems from the fact that he was among the initial salvo of signings procured by the erratic Massimo Cellino back in 2014. Initial reaction to Cooper was positive as Leeds fans scrambled around for some semblance of reassurance that Cellino’s regime wouldn’t be, well, as chaotic as it inevitably turned out to be.

Among the tentative praise dished out on in the aftermath of his signing, also lay a comprehensive evaluation of Cooper’s height in relation to the other centre backs who, shudderingly, were Wooton and Bellusci.

Cooper made a solid start to life at Leeds and in an extended honeymoon period was handed the captain’s armband for the first time as Leeds fell to a 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Sunderland in January 2015. Then manager, Neil Redfearn described him as a ‘natural leader’ and appointed him captain after the departure of Stephen Warnock.

Despite losing the captaincy to the charismatic Sol Bamba under Uwe Rosler in 2015-16, he remained vice-captain, but the following season under Garry Monk, he found himself playing rhythm guitar in a band fronted by the twin towers of Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson. The two formed such a formidable partnership that, when selected, Cooper’s performances were slightly out of sync with his defensive partner.

As such, Leeds fans developed an image of an error-prone, back-up defender who would be dispensable should the club manage to purchase a more suitable replacement. Perhaps this, coupled with his natural frustration from not being able to break the Bartley-Jansson monopoly, culminated in his indiscipline during the second half of that season.

Sent off in yet another FA Cup humiliation at the hands of Sutton United (see Curses, Cardiff y la Tierra Prometida), Cooper then found himself on the end of a six-match ban for stamping on Reading defender Reece Oxford, and with his contract set to expire, many of the Leeds United fanbase seemed happy for player and club to part ways.

But in the summer of 2017, Liam Cooper signed a four-year contract with the Whites. Not only that, but new manager Thomas Christiansen restored him to the captaincy. Despite turning in a number of steady displays, Cooper still found himself prone to some glaring errors, the kind that led to him being pilloried by a section of supporters on Twitter.

Indiscipline returned to haunt him again and he sat out a further four matches following his second sending off of the season, but off the pitch, the centre-back was exuding the leadership identified by Neil Redfearn back in 2015. His steadfast support of Toby Nye, the six-year-old Leeds fan who tragically lost his battle with neuroblastoma earlier this year, was a mark of Cooper’s integrity and leadership.

However, it was the arrival at Elland Road of Marcelo Bielsa that has transformed Liam Cooper’s performances, as the Argentine has with so many of the Leeds squad.

Bielsa’s belief in his captain has been absolute. Cooper missed six games over December and January, returning in the 2-0 post-Spygate Derby demolition. In his press conference in the lead-up to the game, the Leeds manager heaped praise on his general:

“He played an hour. He is in good conditions to come back to the team. He has a very good first pass, he is good with the aerial balls, he is our captain and he deserves to be our captain. When he’s inside the team he always makes the team stronger.”

Liam is equally effusive in his praise of Bielsa, telling the assembled press before the 2-1 defeat to Stoke back in January:

“It’s the same group of players getting coached by one of the best coaches in the world. We couldn’t believe it when the club went and got him, and he’s been a pleasure to work with from day one.”

This mutual admiration is no doubt a catalyst for the defender’s fine form and leadership in this most remarkable of Championship season for the club.

Cooper has played in 27 of Leeds’ matches this season. Of those 27, they have won 15 and drawn 6. Leeds have picked up points in 78% of the matches in which Liam Cooper has been involved. Although the Whites managed to win 6 of the 8 games the centre-back missed through injury, they conceded eleven goals, including four in defeat to Nottingham Forest.

The statistics back up Bielsa’s assertion that Cooper makes the team stronger. His metamorphosis from a figure of ridicule, an unstable error waiting to happen to the leader and fulcrum of a promotion-chasing defence, has been remarkable. The fact that he has been overlooked for the Scottish national side can surely not continue for long.

Come August 2019, every Leeds United supporter will be hoping that ‘League One Liam’ will be preparing for life in the top flight. There will be many among the faithful who will be eating their words, but as long as the dish is served on a Premier League standard plate it will be devoured with relish.