THERE was a time when he was lauded at Hull KR following one of the most controversial transfers in rugby league history but Paul Cooke returns today knowing he could threaten his former club’s Super League status.
The boots are now hung up but, as Leigh Centurions’ assistant coach, Cooke’s masterful footballing brain is still being utilised just as it was during an at times stellar and colourful career.
Raised in east Hull and a childhood Robins fan, it was with fierce rivals Hull FC, of course, where he made his name, most notably with the match-winning try in their 2005 Challenge Cup final win over Leeds Rhinos.
The gifted stand-off stunned the rugby league world two years later, though, with a shock switch to Rovers that eventually ended with him receiving a four-month ban after it was deemed he illegally approached the club.
Cooke, now 35, spent three years at Craven Park but this afternoon will be the first time he has returned as either player or coach since leaving in 2010 when, out-of-favour with coach Justin Morgan, he moved to Wakefield Trinity on a six-month deal.
Currently, he is hoping to plot Championship leaders Leigh’s drive for Super League knowing a second victory over top-flight opposition in this Qualifiers tie – they have already defeated Salford Red Devils – would all but seal automatic promotion for 2017.
“It was a difficult time with that cross-city move but I’m really proud of my time at Rovers,” Cooke recalled to The Yorkshire Post. “I felt it was a really bold decision and one which I still stand by; I have morals and belief in it.
“I was part of the team that earned Hull KR’s highest ever Super League finish of fourth in 2009 and had two cracks at the play-offs. I’ve still got a lot of friends there like Neil Hudgell and Phil Lowe.
“I played with some good people there and I’m looking forward to going back for the first time in this sort of capacity.
“If we’re lucky enough to go up then at least one side will have to come down. I hope it’s not Hull KR. I certainly hope they stay in Super League next year – but as long as it’s not at Leigh’s expense.”
After joining Wakefield, Cooke took the following year out of the game entirely before returning at a lower level with Doncaster where, with some success, he later became player-coach.
He parted company with them in May last year, though, and made a brief playing return with Featherstone Rovers while continuing as skills coach with Doncaster Knights rugby union side where he had served since 2013.
Indeed, the former England international helped Knights to the best campaign in their history last season, finishing second in the Championship and only narrowly missing out on promotion.
Rugby league is his first love, however, and he left Doncaster in May to join ambitious Leigh who include ex-internationals Gareth Hock, Harrison Hansen and Mickey Higham today and, remarkably, have won their last 16 games.
Their hosts, meanwhile, crucially won at Salford last time out but have lost at Leeds and know defeat today would leave them likely contenders for the Million Pound Match – a sudden-death decider where the loser is consigned to the Championship.
Leigh are fancied by some to add to their Salford scalp but Cooke insisted: “This will be more difficult than playing Salford at home. Going to east Hull – where I’m born and bred – is very different, a massive test for us.
“They are a good side. Their last win at Salford was sensational given the pressure both were under. It will be difficult but we’ve had a couple of weeks to prepare. We’re not in a bad spot but everything can change in the space of one or two weeks.”
Cooke continued: “KR hardly made any errors at Salford and kicked really well. I’ve seen every KR game this season and Maurice Blair plays well almost every week. James Greenwood’s another threat as is Ken Sio while I think Thomas Minns is playing his best rugby for a long time.
“But we’re still quietly confident of being able to get a result.”
Cooke, whose autobiography Judas! is released next month, was at Wembley a week ago to see Hull lift the Challenge Cup there for the first time with Jamie Shaul scoring the winning try.
“I might not get as many press ringing me in August now,” he joked. “It was brilliant and I’m so glad Shauly, a Hull lad, did that,
“I don’t think he, or Danny Houghton with that tackle, realise yet but their lives have changed forever; they will always be remembered as the side that won at Wembley with Hull. Even in 40 years’ time when they’re walking down the street in Hull, long after the Aussies and Kiwis have gone home, people will still want to buy them a beer. Brilliant.”