JAKE Cooper is reserving his judgement whether this is the best Millwall squad in his time at the club.
“Ask me at the end of the season,” he says.
Cooper, 25, is heading into his fifth full campaign with the Lions after three top-half finishes in the previous four seasons.
Boss Gary Rowett appears to have added astutely to his squad, bringing back George Saville from Middlesbrough and recruiting the talented defender Daniel Ballard on loan from Arsenal.
Shaun Hutchinson, Cooper’s defensive partner from his first season as a permanent Lions player, will once again be a pillar of the defence.
Bart Bialkowski has arguably been the best goalkeeper over the last two seasons in the Championship and if Jed Wallace stays then Millwall have one of the best players in the league.
Put together, and with fans back, there is much promise. But is it the strongest group since Cooper joined in 2017?
“Um…strongest?” Cooper mulls it over. “It’s difficult. We haven’t proven anything, yet. To put that label on it is difficult at this point in time.
“Players have got to prove themselves, again. We’ve got to achieve.
“The club have done their work. They’ve brought in players that are top quality and now we’ve got to give it back to them and the fans that believe in us.
“It’s a tricky league. It’s so tough. If you look at the league, in my opinion, it looks tougher than last season.
“The fans are going to be back, it’s going to be a crazy start to the season. I feel it will be frantic.
“And it’s down to us to prove that we’re a good team.
“Hopefully you’ll be able to ask me that question at the end of the season and I’ll be able to tell you that it’s the best Millwall team that I’ve ever been involved in.”
As well as Saville and Ballard, and the arrivals of George Long to put pressure on Bialkowski and Benik Afobe up front, two crucial pieces of business were completed early in the summer when Millwall agreed new deals with club skipper Alex Pearce and striker Matt Smith.
The Lions released Shaun Williams and Shane Ferguson after last season, but Rowett did not want to lose vast experience at either end of the pitch as well as off it in Pearce and Smith.
“It was sad to see Willo and Fergie leave, they’d been here since I joined the club four-and-a-half years ago,” Cooper said.
“They’ve moved on to new challenges and it’s good to see them both at big clubs in League One.
“Smudge and Pearcey staying is massive. You’ve seen the impact Smudge has had in pre-season already, how important he is to us.
“He doesn’t get the respect sometimes that he deserves but he’s so, so important. He’s a big character in the dressing room and behind the scenes, the way he is and the way he applies himself is phenomenal.
“Pearcey is the same, they’re both similar in that respect. Pearcey is very much a go-to character where the lads can lean on him.
“If either of them had been taken out of the dressing room it would have left a big hole that would have needed filling. So the club made a great decision on them.”
Cooper also backed the return of Saville, after a move materialised in a matter of days in late June.
“I was surprised,” Cooper admitted. “I’d heard about it and literally the next day he was in the door. That did surprise me but it was a great surprise.
“If we could have picked a midfielder to have back at the football club he would have been number one choice.
“He just fits in. You wouldn’t have known that he was gone, it feels like he’s been here since he left.
“He’s a top, top lad and a top player. He’s really going to help us in those midfield battles and controlling the middle of the park this season.
“I’m sure, well I know, he’s going to make us a better team so it’s a great decision by the club and we were all really excited to see him back.”
Rowett wants Saville to be an attacking threat from midfield and add the goals that have been lacking over the last two seasons.
Another area where Rowett demanded improvement was set-pieces. Cooper’s goal against Gillingham last Tuesday week was Millwall’s fifth in pre-season from set routines. Wallace added another against Ipswich.
Cooper scored just one goal last season compared to seven the season before that.
He wants to get back to that latter rate, and cryptically hinted that the Lions have some secret plans up their sleeves for set-plays this season.
“We’ve been a threat from set-pieces which is nice to see,” Cooper said. “I hit the post against Arsenal so it was nice for one to drop in. It was a nice simple one where Smudge did all the hard work and I was in the right place at the right time.
“Yeah…I don’t want to talk too much about it. We’re certainly doing things differently, that’s all I want to say about it right now.
“I’d like to think I’m capable of [scoring five or six goals a season]. My goal is just to improve on the last couple of seasons and get back to the figures I know I’m capable of and have that contribution to the team.
“There’s no set number, I’m just striving to get as many as I can.”
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