Liam Cooper has just about lived the year of his dreams, from becoming a Premier League captain to helping Scotland qualify for the Euros.
Leeds United captain Cooper led his team to the promised land at the end of the 2019-20 season, winning the Championship title, and remained a key part of Marcelo Bielsa’s plans in the top-flight.
He was also in the team which beat Israel in the play-off semi-finals and travelled with the squad to Serbia for the night to end all Scotland nights.
Cooper was named in Steve Clarke’s squad for the delayed Euro 2020 and now, while he is with the squad at their base camp in Darlington, can afford time to reflect.
“It’s mental,” he summised. “The send-off from my old man – he just said ‘go and enjoy yourself, I’m so proud of you’. This year is one I’ll probably look back on when I’m retired and think ‘what a year that was’.
“Although there’s been a pandemic, I’ve had an unbelievable year. I’m probably the first person to get promoted from the Championship, play in the Premier League and play in the Euros all in a pandemic!
“I can always take that and tell my grandkids that.
“We all dream of going to these major tournaments as kids and we are going to go live that dream now along with a great group of staff and all the fans behind us as well.
“It’s an unbelievable achievement and we don’t stop there. We have ambitions; we have a confidence that we can get out the group as well.”
It has not all been plain sailing for Cooper. He missed the March internationals due to contracting Covid-19 and there was some debate whether he or Aberdeen’s Andy Considine would make the final squad.
“I’m not ashamed to say I picked up Covid; it was rough the first few days, but after that I was pretty fine,” he said. “I wasn’t too sure about losing the smell and taste – that was weird, I was trying to eat all sorts to get that back. It was well and truly gone. But now I feel fit and healthy as ever.
“It was curries, chillies, everything, you name it, vindaloo. There was nothing there. I can taste a few things and the food here is lovely. I’m just thankful I can taste it.
Every kids dream! Let’s go make the nation proud 🏴🙌🏼 https://t.co/30dywJ88G3
— Liam Cooper (@LiamCooper__) May 19, 2021
“I don’t know if I could get it again, but we still follow the precautions round the place. We still wear masks. If you did contract it now, you’d be in serious trouble – that’d be your Euros over.
“We had a few days off there, but I don’t think the lads got up to much, because they knew what was at risk. I had my family tested before I got back from Spain just to be cautious. Speaking to a few of the lads, they’ve done the same.
“I think you’d be stupid to go out there and see people, knowing what’s at risk. You’ve got the chance of a lifetime to go and play for your country in the Euros.
“The lads are pretty switched on and everyone’s PCR tests have come back negative. We’re sticking to the precautions – Doctor MacLean has been unbelievable with us. Nothing is too much to ask.”
Scotland and Cooper need little reminder that Covid remains an ever-present danger. This tournament will be unlike any other, in that any moment huge swathes of teams could be forced into isolation.
Their warning came during the pre-tournament camp in Spain, where John Fleck tested positive and had to be separated from the rest of the squad.
“We had to rally round,” added Cooper. “It was difficult for Flecky because we’d only been there two or three days and he returned a positive test. The first time we’ve seen him was last night, so it’s nice to have him back.
“I’ve been there myself. I spoke to John and luckily he’s not had any symptoms. He looked sharp in training so fair play to him and it’s good to have him back.”
Another midfielder Cooper is close to is England’s Kalvin Phillips. The two have become close comrades during Leeds’ ascension back to the Premier League and could square up to each other at Wembley on June 18 – on opposite sides this time.
“Kalvin knows what I think of him,” said the 29-year-old. “He’s a great lad and we’ve got a great friendship. I love him to pieces. I’ve seen his career go from being a young kid to an established player in the England team.
“It’s pure business now. We meet them in the second game and all that goes out the window once you’re on the pitch. Kalvin is the same – he wears his heart on his sleeve, same as I do. We’ll be going to get the win.”
Scotland’s cause, starting on Monday against the Czechs at Hampden, will be aided by the presence of Clarke, who Cooper feels is capable of getting the best out of this group of players.
“Yeah, he does, 100 per cent,” he added. “He lets us go and express ourselves, but as the same time he has that level of respect which all managers need to have I believe.
“He has been different class with me and he is different class with the group. The group take to him and listen to him and take everything on board that he and his coaching staff are trying to get over to us.”