THERE are tough debuts and then there is Liam Cooper’s bow in league football a little under five years ago.
At the tender age of just 18, Leeds United’s new signing was thrown in at the deep end against a striker then considered to be one of the finest in Europe when Hull City visited Anfield.
With the injury-hit Tigers having just lost key defender Michael Turner to Sunderland and struggling for form near the foot of the Premier League, predictably Liverpool and Fernando Torres ran riot in a 6-1 victory that set the tone for a season that saw the East Yorkshire club relegated.
To some debutants, the experience could have crushed them. But Cooper, despite going on to make just nine more league starts for his home-town club before leaving in January last year, has proved himself to be made of sterner stuff.
That move away from the KC Stadium to join Chesterfield has proved to be the making of a defender who this week sealed a dream move to Leeds United.
“It is great to be here,” said the 22-year-old when speaking to The Yorkshire Post about his £600,000 switch to Elland Road.
“I have joined a club where something is being built. The president (Massimo Cellino) and the manager (Dave Hockaday) have big plans and want to get us going in the right direction. I think that is going to happen, which is why joining now is something special.”
The story of Cooper’s career is one that impresses Hockaday, a veteran of 600 or so games in a playing career spent in the lower divisions.
“I like his story, in so far as he was at Hull and got in the first team,” said the Leeds head coach. “He then slipped out of the frame but he showed resilience and bounced back. Liam didn’t just go ‘woe is me’ and felt sorry for himself. Which is great, especially as he did it quickly. I like that about people.”
The resilience and character that has so impressed Hockaday was, of course, needed in the wake of that baptism of fire against a rampant Torres and Liverpool.
In truth, Cooper performed well. He was, for instance, much better at coping with the pace and awareness of hat-trick hero Torres than central defensive partner Ibrahima Sonko, in what proved to be Hull’s heaviest defeat of the 2009-10 season.
The result may not have been what he wanted but Leeds’s new boy is adamant that the day was a special one, even allowing for the result.
“My debut was a bit special,” said Cooper. “I was nervous as anything beforehand. It was a massive game and to play in front of a full Anfield was always going to make it something a bit different, especially with Torres flying at the time.
“My late uncle was a Liverpool fan, too, so it was emotional because of that as well as it being my Premier League debut.
“I thought I gave a good account of myself that day. (Manager) Phil Brown didn’t say anything in particular before the game, it is in the players’ hands after all.
“It is what we are paid to do. It doesn’t really matter what anyone says, you just have to go out and perform. I just prepared myself and went out to give my all. It is the same in every game you play. Then, when the game is over, you have to hope that is enough.”
Cooper’s only other league appearance that season came as a second-half substitute against Arsenal in March, during what turned out to be Brown’s final game as Hull manager before being sacked. Despite that, the Leeds defender has only fond memories of the top flight and hopes, one day, to make a return.
“The Premier League is brilliant,” he said. “Just to be on the same pitch as (Steven) Gerrard, Torres and so on, that was incredible. It is every boy’s dream and I was very fortunate to be given that chance. It was also weird watching myself on Match of the Day that night. But it was part of the experience.
“Having had a taste of the Premier League – or even a little taste, as it really was for me – it is something I would love to do again. What a feeling. Hopefully, I can get back there with Leeds.”
Cooper arrived at Elland Road this week after a hugely impressive 18 months with Chesterfield. Last season, for instance, his performances were so consistent in a blue shirt that he was named in the PFA Player of the Year team.
Now, though, his focus is on Leeds and, hopefully, playing a part in today’s lunchtime showdown. “Middlesbrough will be a huge game,” he said. “We need three points. I am sure the stadium will be rocking with loads of fans there.
“I have only ever played at Elland Road for the reserves and I was also on the bench for Chesterfield against Leeds last year (in the Capital One Cup). So this will be a bit different. I am buzzing to see it.”