LIAM Cooper’s admiration for Kalvin Phillips has grown exponentially over the years as he has watched the defensive midfielder come through the youth ranks at Leeds United, establish himself in the first team at Elland Road and help the Yorkshire club to finish ninth in the Premier League.

But if the Scotland centre half finds himself squaring up to the England international in the Euro 2020 match at Wembley next month, the high esteem he holds his club mate in will count for nothing. 

“I told him, first chance I get in a game I going to come straight up the back of him,” said Cooper after a training session with the national squad at their camp in Spain on Friday. “If he gets the chance I am sure he will do the same to me as well.”

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The defender, who is hoping to do well enough in the friendly matches against the Netherlands in Portugal on Wednesday night and then Luxembourg in Luxembourg on Sunday to force his way into Steve Clarke’s starting line-up for their Group D matches, fully expects Phillips to be involved.

The Leeds player made his debut for Gareth Southgate’s side in a Nations League match against Denmark in September and his since gone on to make seven appearances for his country. His ball-winning qualities and passing ability will prove invaluable to his country. 

“Kalvin knows exactly what I think of him,” said Cooper. “I remember him as a lad and I have seen his development over his full career. He was a young boy when I finally got to Leeds and to see him improve as a player to the point where he is now, is all credit to himself. He is unbelievable. But, as I say, that goes out the window when we play England.

“I am here representing Scotland, I want to win, I want to make my family up in Scotland proud and the nation proud. I am professional, I am honest and I want to cause an upset. You could say, we want to do a number on them. But my main worry is Scotland. We worry about ourselves, we don't worry about what's going on over there. We'll be ready on the 14th.”

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The five-times capped 29-year-old knows that both he and Phillips owe Marcelo Bielsa, the coach who has transformed the fortunes of Leeds during his three seasons in charge, a great deal for their success at international level. “The gaffer's been brilliant for us,” he said.

He feels that working under the former Argentina and Chile coach, who no less a judge than Pep Guardiola has described as the best manager in the world in the past, has prepared him for life under Clarke.    

He certainly thinks the former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool assistant, who masterminded the country’s play-off final triumph over Serbia back in November and ended a 23 year wait to qualify for a tournament finals, can overachieve at the Euros in the coming weeks just like Bielsa has in the Premier League. He has high hopes. 

"There's a lot of similarities to be honest,” he said. “He wants the session at the highest intensity and he gets that. The boys buy-in to everything he says and everything he wants and he's only going to improve us, we know that.
“We are quietly confident. We have had enough positive results over a period of time to be confident and we want to go and take that into the Euros.

“The excitement is building a lot more now. The boys are all together which is great. It has been a long time coming, but now the clubs seasons are over and we have come over here. We have been trying to get that sort of club mentality for a long time now and it definitely feels that way.

“All the boys are getting on and enjoying themselves. We have had good training sessions, the boys are all looking sharp already and I am sure it will get a lot more real still over the coming weeks.”

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Cooper, who qualifies to play for Scotland through a paternal grandfather who hails from Bo’ness, missed the opening Qatar 2022 qualifiers against Austria, Israel and the Faroe Islands in March after contracting Covid-19. He was grateful to be named in the 26 man squad last week.

“I had to self-isolate and was unable to play as a result,” he said.  “I came back into the team at Leeds, but then I got sent off against Man City and picked up an injury when I was due back. So, yeah, that was a bit of a struggle.

“But I played the last three games and felt fit and strong. So that little break maybe helped me out a bit. I am looking forward to going on a good run now and hopefully we can do well in this tournament.

“There are good defenders in the set up so you never take getting called up it for granted. It was always going to be tough and I thank the gaffer for seeing me as one to take and I am very grateful for that.”

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Now he is part of the Scotland squad, though, he wants to play and is determined to help the national team qualify out of a section that includes the Czech Republic, England and Croatia and reach the knockout rounds of a finals for the first time ever.

“Every player here will be looking to make an impact,” he said. “It is the biggest stage in football, it is the opportunity we dreamed of as kids and we are all so lucky to be here.

“The few lads who have missed out through injuries and what not, we will be out to do them proud and to do the nation proud. We are looking to set our stamp on the Euros.

"It's massive to get off to a good start and that start is happening already, from the first day of training today. There's a hunger and desire to do the nation proud and we carry that on our shoulders.

“We've a willingness to work for each other and a system that works for us. We've got two good warm-up games, different games against different teams, and come the start of the Euros we'll be ready.

“We are not getting too many butterflies at the moment, but we know we are building to something and we have to be in the right frame of mind, the right mentality and we've got to take that with us. The manager's been different-class since we all came in and we know what we are all about and where we need to be.

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"The first game is massive for us, but we are confident we can get results elsewhere. It's going to be good, entertaining and an experience that none of us has lived through before and we look forward to.
"Why not believe? We see how we work every day. Don't get me wrong, it's going to be tough, but we know that. We know how hard we work, we know the system we play, we've been playing it for a long time now and we are confident.”