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Comeback Cooper in form for Boro.

Byline: By Jack Pickering

Colin Cooper's remarkable rollercoaster season reached new heights at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

The 37-year-old former England international, recalled from his loan spell at Sunderland to solve a defensive injury crisis, played like a man with eyes focused on the European Championships rather than one recently deprived of Premiership action.

Cooper may not have had a fair crack of the whip at the Riverside in the second half of this season, but he never lets the team down.

In only his second Boro start of 2004, Cooper slotted in alongside Ugo Ehiogu as if he had never been away, and helped nullify the threat of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen.

Cooper is due to sit down with manager Steve McClaren at the end of the season to discuss his future. This gritty performance can only have improved his chances of winning another year's extension.

There is a chance of a coaching role at the Riverside, or even an opening as a player-coach. Cooper is in no doubts that he wants to play on. He said: "I've lost none of the faith in my ability. It was great to have the chance to play at Chelsea and I'd love to stay in the team.

"I don't know what the future holds. It will all be sorted out at the end of the season.

"I've not really thought about stopping playing, and I do seem to have a few options, which is great at my age. But for the moment I'm just happy to be playing."

Boro have operated throughout much of the season without a reserve team coach and this is one job which could be made available to Cooper in the summer. For now Boro desperately need him as a Premiership player, especially while skipper Gareth Southgate and Chris Riggott battle injuries.

McClaren said: "Coops hasn't played for a long time, but he took his opportunity like a true professional. In fact Cooper and Ugo Ehiogu were the bedrock of the side. People tend to forget that Ehiogu missed the first half of the season through injury.

"He did not find it easy to settle straight back into the side, especially as he picked up a couple of niggles, but he has come through brilliantly for us."

Not that McClaren put the emphasis on defence at Stamford Bridge. Considering his list of defensive injuries, which also includes Danny Mills and Andrew Davies, it was surprising to see him operate with three strikers in Juninho, Massimo Maccarone and Szilard Nemeth.

Chelsea may have been surprised, too, because they never really settled into a rhythm. The Champions League hangover has been blamed as the major reason for Chelsea's failure to win and keep the pressure on Premiership leaders Arsenal, but really it was Boro's positive approach and unrelenting determination to push forward at every opportunity which knocked them off the rails.

It was still a cracking game, both sides working hard throughout and passing the ball well. There were chances at both ends, but the finishing was lacking ( the game's only negative aspect.

Frank Lampard missed two golden opportunities for Chelsea, and Gudjohnsen hit a post. But Boro had their moments, and were still pushing forward in the closing minutes. The nearest they came was a terrific free kick from Gaizka Mendieta five minutes from time ( fingertipped away by Chelsea keeper Marco Ambrosio.

McClaren said: "We've got our injuries but there didn't seem to be much point going there to try to sit back and defend. We were brave in our decision, but in any case we've been playing three strikers for some time now and we believe that we can score goals.

"We want to get into the top half of the table and stay there. That's why we tried to win the game."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 12, 2004
Words:638
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