BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Millwall’s Boxing Day trip to Cardiff City could have extra significance for Jake Cooper – and that has nothing to do with the fact that the centre-back will be coming up against former manager Neil Harris.
If the 24-year-old defender can steer clear of suspension and injury then that is when he could rack up 100 consecutive Championship starts for the Lions.
What makes it even more impressive is that Cooper has played every single minute in the league since November 18, 2017. He had also featured for four full matches prior to that before a suspension saw him sit out a home defeat to Burton Albion.
“I want to get to that hundred,” the former Reading man told the South London Press. “ I don’t want to talk too soon.
“I’ve certainly not been 100 per cent all the time for the matches I’ve played. Touch wood [he knocks the table] I’ve been quite lucky with knocks and injuries.
“I’ve certainly had to deal with illness and not feeling great – it’s horrible trying to play when you are unwell. I remember I was feeling awful when we played Ipswich away but you just have to get through it.
“There’s times when you have to switch off from it. It’s 90 minutes and you have the mentality of ‘I’ll get through it and be alright’. Sometimes when you’re not thinking about the game too much it flows naturally. Things just happen as they should.
“I’m happy with how fit I’ve been and I’m just trying to keep it going.
“You learn to cope and know what your body needs. I’ve built up a routine the night before a match of what I feel I need.
“It’s certainly kept me in good shape up until now. If you look after your body then hopefully it looks after you.
“The more I can get out there the better it is for me and the team, I hope they see it that way as well.
“I’m quite proud to say I’ve been involved that much.”
One area where Cooper has not been able to contribute is goals.
Last season he got seven and opened his account in the third fixture.
“It’s a tough subject,” said Cooper, his smile suggesting that it can be discussed.
“I don’t know what is going on. I’m sure it will come. I’m not deflated about it. I’m working on it, I’m not putting it to one side and forgetting about it.
“We’ve scored a lot from set plays and I’ve been involved, I’d like to think I helped in making that happen. I haven’t got on the end of them but other players have – and I’ve taken players away, I’ll try and claim that.
“You see top strikers go through droughts. It’s not the main part of my game but I do look at chipping in. Hopefully when they do come it will be like London buses and we can get them flowing again.
“We’re getting results, especially at home, and scoring from set plays so I’m not too discouraged.
“If you look at my goals last year there is one where Skally [Jiri Skalak] has hit the ball – it’s come off me and gone in the goal.
“The Sheffield Wednesday one just rebounded to me in the six-yard box. I’ve not had that this season – but I got them last season and maybe that helped us stay in the league.
“Maybe I got them when I needed to. I’m thinking that the wait is just until we really need one again.”
How much would he have enjoyed being Matt Smith – heading in a stoppage-time winner to defeat Charlton in the derby clash before the break for international matches?
“I enjoyed the moment nearly as much as he did. It was great to be involved. We would have had as much of a celebration for whoever scored the goal.”
It also maintained Millwall’s record in that local duel – 23 years since they were last defeated.
“We didn’t speak about it,” said Cooper. “I don’t think anyone brought it up.
“Most of us have only been here a maximum of three or four years – half the team has only been here a year or two. I’d never played against Charlton and I’ve been here nearly three years now.
“It wasn’t something in the forefront of our minds. We just got on with the game like it was any other.
“It doesn’t matter who you play – when the Den is like that it’s just incredible.
“When you look around and can barely see an empty seat in the home area you know it’s going to be a good afternoon and normally we rise to that.”
Cooper became a father for the second time last Wednesday – with the arrival of his second daughter, Emelia. Elsie is two and was born the night before Millwall played Brentford at Griffin Park.
“My hands are full,” said Cooper. “I’m now a man-marker, I can’t mark zonally any more – I’ve got them both to look after.
“This time has been a bit more relaxed. It was nice to sit at home and enjoy it.
“The gaffer gave me a day off to spend with her, that was nice.
“My first one was born the day before we played Brentford, so that was a struggle to get out for that fixture.
“I was in the hospital in Reading, so quite local.
“Neil Harris was the manager at the time. I said I’d be available for the game – no matter what. He was happy with that and I turned up at the hotel the next morning – mymum had to take me to the game.
“It’s just part of the job. We all have things going on off the pitch but when we’re on it that is our main focus for that period of time.
“Being a dad has changed me after a game. You don’t have time to dwell on things that have happened – either mistakes or good things. You can’t get caught up in it because you have to be dad again when you get home, you switch roles quite quickly.
“I’m quite involved. I have to be now, with two of them. We have swimming on Sunday morning with my eldest, I love doing that. That’s my favourite part of the week.”
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