Millwall defender Jake Cooper on having more league assists than Barcelona star Lionel Messi, why speculation won’t affect his game and Bolton Wanderers test

EXCLUSIVE BY RICHARD CAWLEY can’t have been very often that a Millwall player has led a footballing icon like Lionel Messi in the assists charts – much less a centre-back.

But that’s exactly the situation now with Jake Cooper having set up six goals in the Championship, the latest of those being Tom Elliott’s opener at Norwich City before the international break.
Argentinian superstar Messi is on five for Barcelona in La Liga.

Okay, we’re talking about different levels, but the big Lions defender – who attracted bids from Glasgow Rangers in the summer – has still proven to be hugely effective in the final third.

“It’s good to help the team out with the goals,” said Cooper. “I think I’ve been involved in a few, so that’s great for me as an attacking presence.

“But the defending, I’d have liked to have been a bit better. We need to match that now – getting the clean sheets up as well as helping the lads getting the goals.

“It’s not something I really work on [in terms of assists]. I want to score a few more myself, to be fair, rather than helping the others. But if it means the team get results then I’m more than happy.”

And if Cooper could face any striker in the world, the South American maestro is right at the top of the list.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his sides third goal

“Messi and Ronaldo are the kings of this era, aren’t they? They are the ones you’d like to test yourself against – not that I imagine I would find it too enjoyable.

“They are the best players in my time as a player. One of them would be great to tell your kids or grandkids that you played against them. But I don’t think that’s going to happen unless I’ve got a move to Spain coming!”

And this season Millwall have found a fresh way to push Cooper forward – for throw-ins. Ryan Leonard’s ability to get major distance means the ex-Reading man is able to once again cause carnage in the penalty area.

And he finds it difficult to pick out a toughest opponent when it comes to aerial duels.

“I always feel confident when I go up there,” said Cooper. “I’m going up for a reason, not just to do nothing.

“Teams have put two players on me and there have been loads of fouls – refs are starting to pick up on it more, which is better for me. To pick out one difficult person isn’t right.

“It’s down to me. If I can judge it right then I believe I’ll win against anybody. It’s about me judging the flight of the ball and how I’m attacking it.”

Cooper’s commitment to the Lions cause does not appear to have been affected by the summer transfer speculation.

He has once again been amongst their leading performers. The 23-year-old has already paid back a fee which was thought to be around the £500,000 mark after leaving the Royals in July 2017.

Cooper has no comment when asked about whether he is close to signing a contract extension. But he also points out it should not disrupt displays on the pitch.

“It should never affect you,” said Cooper. “If it does affect someone it is disappointing from them.
“It’s good to have attention – people wanting you. You have got to use that to keep wanting to improve.

“I’m signed at Millwall. It’s a great club to be at and I’ve really enjoyed it. Why wouldn’t I want to try and push on to help the club get better? That helps me get better.

“It’s been great to play all the games this season. Being captain in the cup was a nice touch from the manager.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. We started off well. It’s about getting a bit more consistency to our results – not conceding as many is the target at the moment.

“It’s also about not putting too much pressure on ourselves. We’re not expected to do anything too massive with the clubs in this league. Every week is a tough game and it’s fine margins.”

Manager Neil Harris was scathing of his team’s defending in the closing stages of the 4-3 loss to Norwich – claiming his daughter’s junior team would not have made some of the mistakes on show at Carrow Road.

“You’ve got to expect criticism when you have conceded goals like we did,” said Cooper. “It’s not going to be sun and roses. We’ve got to learn from it and take that into the games going forward.
“We’ve seen things we need to cut out of our game.

“It [Norwich] would’ve been a massive win but it’s still early in the season. We have to cut out the mishaps. We’ve worked tremendously hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Only a superior goal difference keeps Millwall out of the Championship relegation zone yet it is Bolton and Ipswich who are both odds on with the bookies to be making the drop to League One.

Reading, Rotherham and Hull City are also shorter priced to go down.

Does Cooper think it is too early to be condemning clubs?

“Yeah, I think so. You look at the way they [Bolton] performed last season to get themselves out of trouble.

“They started this one really well as well. You can’t knock anyone in this league – it’s tough and relentless.

“I’m sure they’ll come to The Den with a game plan and be well organised. Phil Parkinson is a good manager, we know it will be a difficult one. They made it tough there for us last season, we know what to expect.

“I don’t think we’re too far off where we were last season. It’s always difficult off the back of a great season for the club and the players.

“We’ve had some matches which we should have got more out of. But to say we’re in a relegation battle in mid-November is not the right thing to do.

“We’ve got a great period of games where we need to start picking up.”

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