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"You honestly have to see it to believe it - It's something I've never, ever, been involved in before," exhales Liam Cooper with a look of pain but satisfaction on his face.
The Leeds United captain is telling SPORTbible about the infamous 'murderball' training sessions run by his manager Marcelo Bielsa. The drill is a hyper-intense, fast-paced practice match with no referee and no let-up, as the ball is constantly in play.
"It's just 100%, very chaotic," adds the defender. "We do four or five minute segments, maybe four or five times, with staff outside throwing the ball back in as soon as it goes out. It's all man-for-man, there's no escape. But the numbers the lads are putting up in these sessions are ridiculous.
"The games almost seem easier than the training is! And it's not just the murderball, the tactical sessions are so in-depth. We always go on the pitch knowing exactly what rival teams are going to do - and if they were to change, we'd be have that covered as well."
:heart_eyes: Training steps up a gear! pic.twitter.com/sBBX70rSTm- Leeds United (@LUFC) June 12, 2020
Bielsa's obsessive attention to detail, his pushing players to the limit in training, is new to the Premier League if not the wider football world. Cooper admits that when the Argentine cult hero, an idol to the likes of Pep Guardiola, arrived in Leeds in 2018 it still came as a shock to the system.
"You try and prepare yourself mentally for how difficult it's going to be, but I don't think you can," says the 29-year-old. "You can't be ready for how hard it actually is. It took the lads four, five, six months to get up to top speed; to really think: 'Yeah, this is us now, we can do this.'"
"I've never met anyone in football like him," Cooper adds. "It was a complete change for me. I knew, by reading about him, how his teams played - Athletic Bilbao and the intensity they played at. And you think: 'Wow, are we going to be able to replicate this?' But we've reaped the rewards."
Leeds as a club certainly have: from agonising play-off defeat in 2018-19 to promoted as champions in 2019-20 to two seven-goal thrillers marking their Premier League return. Now Leeds face a top-tier Yorkshire derby against Sheffield United on Sunday.
For Cooper, as well as for his club, it's a long-awaited return to the top flight. As an 18-year-old, he made his Premier League debut with his boyhood club Hull City. It was a fiery baptism: the thankless task of facing Liverpool, fielding Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres at their peak, in a 6-1 defeat.
"I had a taste of Premier League football almost 11 years ago," he says. "That was my only ever action really - and when you have to drop down the divisions to League One and League Two afterwards, those Premier League dreams and aspirations become distant. You don't even think about them. You just need to crack on, get your head down and hope that one day you can get back."
Cooper may be the rock in Leeds' defence now, but it's been a hard road. The player was briefly given the derisory nickname 'League One Liam' after signing for the club in 2014, following spells in the lower two tiers of the Football League with Chesterfield. But he finished last season in the PFA Championship Team of the Season. Does he enjoy proving people wrong?
"It's more I feel I have to prove it to myself; that I'm good enough to play at this standard," says Cooper. "I know as an individual - and we know as a team - that we can't drop below 100%. We've got to be at full tilt every single week.
"There's teams in this division that can play at 90% and still beat us. But we know as a group, we can't do that. Otherwise we'll get found out. That's my message to the lads: we need to approach it like it's our last game, every single time. And hopefully that's enough to consolidate us in the Premier League."
Cooper and his teammates may be relishing the challenge of finally being back in the top flight but he's clear-cut when asked which attacker he feels is the toughest possible test a centre-back can face here.
"The biggest for me would be Sergio Aguero," he says firmly. "He's injured at the minute and we play Manchester City next week, so I don't know if he'll feature. He may make a miraculous recovery!
"But that's the great thing about the Premier League: you get to test yourself against the best in the world. Harry Kane at Spurs, Son Heung-min as well - players like that are the best in their field. My last taste of Premier League football was more than 10 years ago, so now I've got to show I can play at this standard."
Before City or Spurs, it's the Blades and that Yorkshire derby, which should mark Cooper's 200th appearance in a Leeds shirt ("An amazing feeling, I have to pinch myself"). But he admits it will be particularly bizarre playing a game like this in an empty stadium.
"It is difficult, although some players seem to be OK with it generally," he says. "Me personally? I don't enjoy it at all. It's a different feeling on a match day and it's going to be even stranger on Sunday.
"Bramall Lane is a great stadium to play at usually. I'm sure the game will have the same spice it always has: two rivals going at it. But it will feel very different.
"We've just got to remember all our fans who would usually be there backing us will still be watching. At home, probably screaming at the TV screen! So it's our job to go out there do them all proud."
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Imagery: PA Images/BT Sport
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