The inside story of Liam Cooper's move to Leeds United and how Chesterfield could benefit from Whites promotion
On July 26, 2014 Leeds United visited the Proact Stadium for a friendly against a Chesterfield side that included a young Whites-supporting centre-half who was out to impress.
Liam Cooper might have grown up in Hull but he was Leeds from an early age.
And at 22, having had a brief taste of Premier League football with Hull City and then dropping down to League Two to kick-start his career with the Spireites, the pre-season fixture was a chance to catch the eye of his boyhood club.
Those who watched his performance or shared the pitch with him recall his performance as a ‘worldie,’ with Sergio Ramos-style runs into midfield that marked him out as a little more than a solid Football League defender.
It put him on Leeds’ radar, front and centre.
“We played very well, we had a good side at the time and Coops himself was very good,” said ex-Spireites defender Ian Evatt.
Goalkeeper Tommy Lee echoed that: “He played really well and stepped into midfield a couple of times, Ramos-style if you like, and for a centre-back to be able to defend but also have the quality to do that probably sets apart League One lower end and League Two centre-backs and your Championship and Premier League.
Cooper’s agent Steve Blatherwick, himself a former Chesterfield centre-half, told the YEP: “They were really impressed with him that game, he had a worldie.”
Massimo Cellino was abroad when the friendly took place but Nicola Salerno, an advisor to the Whites owner, was sat in the West Stand with club consultant Graham Bean.
“I got talking to Chesterfield CEO Chris Turner before the game about the players Leeds needed and he told me we needed to take a good look at Liam Cooper,” said Bean.
“I told Salerno and within 10 minutes he turned to me and said I’m going to speak to the president, we should sign him.”
Salerno made the recommendation and when Cellino returned to the country Bean followed it up a number of times.
“I kept going back to him and I think he got that fed up of me he said we’re going to sign him, just get the deal done,” said Bean.
It wasn’t that simple.
Leeds initially offered £500k, but Chesterfield told them to double it.
The Whites went back with an improved £600,000 fee, to be paid in two installments, with a number of add-ons.
Chesterfield, again, said no.
“Cellino said tell them we’ll give them £600,000 in one go, plus the add-ons,” recalled Bean.
The Spireites eventually said yes, taking the view that the cash plus the appearance, sell-on and promotion clauses was a good deal that could get even better.
Eighteen days after the friendly took place, Cooper was a Leeds player.
It was a blow for the team-mates he was leaving behind, but it was no surprise.
“He’d got better and better at Chesterfield, we’d done well as a team as well,” said Sam Hird, who was released by Leeds in 2007 and a year later helped Doncaster Rovers to a 1-0 Wembley win over the Whites in the League One play-off final.
“A young left footed centre-back, there were obviously going to be clubs coming in for him. It was brilliant for him personally.
“He had a really good relationship with the fans and the staff but when a club like Leeds United comes in for you – he was excited and he was hoping something would materialise so he could go.
“In football things change quickly and young players who are playing well in a good side are always going to get looked at by teams higher, so in the dressing room there was nothing but support from the players.
“It’s a move nobody in their right mind would turn down.”
A combination of off-field confidence and on-field intensity had made Cooper popular in the dressing room. He was vocal on the pitch, even with more senior players, and trained like he played.
Ritchie Humphreys was one of Paul Cook’s experienced heads in the squad.
“I remember his intensity about blocking things,” he said. “In training, in five-a-side, you throw yourself in front of the ball but you’ve also got to block it.
“You get defenders like that.
“They hate the ball hitting the back of the net, they fume, Liam was like that.”
Cooper was far from the finished article when he made the move from Hull to Chesterfield, having stood out in a behind-closed doors game at the Proact.
Blatherwick says the defender would be the first to admit he didn't live his life like the 'squeaky clean' professional he is today.
But his potential was evident to all.
“He was raw, he was definitely raw but you could see he had all the tools to be a top player,” said Lee.
“He was strong, good in the air, quick over short distances and had a left foot as well, a left foot with real quality. That was really important for us.”
Evatt had played in the Premier League with Blackpool, and was tasked by Cook with mentoring the more junior defender.
“He wanted to get fitter and wanted to learn,” he said.
“He was always receptive to the information you gave him, he’d never push back against it.
“He was always asking questions and he was a leader, for such a young lad. He was demanding of people day in and day out. He had the right attitude.”
Cooper became an integral part of Cook’s defence and played 31 times as they won League Two.
Six years after his departure and with the Whites eyeing a place in the Premier League, Chesterfield stand to benefit from a fee generated by the number of appearances Cooper makes in a promotion-winning season.
His ex team-mates will be delighted if he plays in the top flight, but again, not surprised.
“I think it’ll actually suit him even more and that comes from experience,” said Evatt.
“People said the same thing about me and I ended up winning player of the year for Blackpool in the Premier League.
“It suits his game, because he’s so good with the ball and so comfortable, he reads the game well.
“It’s not necessarily about pace, people always speak about pace in the Premier League but the actual tempo is a lot slower than the Championship.
“It’s more technical, more tactical yes you get punished more for your mistakes, but the actual speed of the game will be slower.”
Scott Boden, who typically of a striker, points out he scored against Cooper’s Hull City in that Proact friendly, said: “You could tell what he’d probably go on to, in all fairness.
“You could see it an absolute mile off.”
“I think he’s matured as a player and a person as well, over the years,” added Lee.
“I saw him a couple of months ago up at Leeds when I went for my A License. He’s definitely a man now, whereas he was a lad at Chesterfield.
“He’s grown into the player we thought he was going to be.”
Hird, a Leeds fan, is willing it to happen.
“We all saw the potential he had, how well he played with us on a consistent basis,” he said.
“Having a world class manager like Marcelo Bielsa, who Leeds are lucky to have really, it has only evolved his game and he’s got better and better.
“He’s gone on to be captain, which is something you could see from a young age, I’m sure it’s an honour and I’m sure he’ll get them to where they need to be.
“It’d be brilliant and every Leeds fan in the country is just waiting for them to get back to the Premier League. If he could be captain and get them back to the Premier League it’s a lifetime achievement, I’d be really happy for him.”