Cooke free to concentrate on right recipe for classic

Hull's stand-off is fired up for tonight's finale at Old Trafford after a heated episode off the field, writes Dave Hadfield
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When Hull beat Bradford to reach today's Super League Grand Final, there was more than one wave of emotion that swept over Paul Cooke (right). The game was the first since Cooke had pleaded guilty to assault charges that had been hanging over him for 10 months - he avoided jail but was ordered to do 100 hours' community service. At the end, he was celebrating not just reaching a final but also ending a dark period in his life.

"I don't know what hit me after the match on Friday night, but something hit me," he said. "It was the first time I've allowed myself to think about off-the-field activities overspilling from my personal life on to my football life.

"There is no more, and that's great for me and my family. The people that are nearest and dearest to me have no threat of any trial hanging over me, and wondering what's going to happen to their boy or their loved one. I feel in myself that a massive weight's been lifted off my shoulders, and I'm just looking forward to the Grand Final."

Cooke's problems began when he became embroiled in a fight in Hull city centre last December. "I was unfortunate enough to get caught up in an incident which involved family members and friends and I deeply regret getting involved.

"I'll have to learn to walk away from those incidents, whether it's family or not. I've learned over the last 10 months that if you sneeze wrongly you're scrutinised. It's a goldfish bowl."

It is a bowl that sometimes distorts the view, as it did a couple of weeks ago when a whisper swept through Hull that he had done something even worse and had been sacked by the club. It was groundless, but all grist to the rumour mill.

Cooke says that his own problems have been nothing compared to those of his former team-mate, Steve Prescott, who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. "There's worse things in life than what's happened to me. Look at Steve Prescott and a friend of mine who contracted cancer at 27 last year. What's happened to me is nothing by comparison to that. We've all spoken to Steve. We got a letter from him the day before the St Helens match, although we didn't get to read it until afterwards, when it was pinned up in the dressing-room."

That message from a stricken colleague took emotional precedence over even the result that night two weeks ago, although the narrow defeat by four points at Knowsley Road has given Hull confidence that they can beat Saints in the game that matters this evening.

"The players feel that we belong at the top of the sport, contesting these finals. Everybody at the club feels we belong here, and we've shown throughout the year that we do. We were ready for a challenge at St Helens; we threw that down and lost by four. That was worthy of a Grand Final at Knowsley Road.

"I think this will be a classic match. Weather permitting, it will be very expansive and it's the best two teams in the competition fronting up against each other. As a spectator, you can't ask for much more."

If Hull are to go one better than at Knowsley Road a fortnight ago, they need Cooke's match-winning instincts to be at their sharpest. In matches like last year's Challenge Cup final victory over Leeds or this year's regular-season win at Saints - they remain the only team to have won there this year - he is the man who can come up with the crucial score.

Failing that, his skill with the ball is always capable of opening up a gap for a team-mate. The television pundit Mike Stephenson recently described him as the best passer of a ball since the legendary Wally Lewis. Others argue out that, for all his other qualities, he has not always been the most reliable of defenders.

That might be one of the reasons why it has taken Cooke time to win any hint of Great Britain recognition, although he is now in Brian Noble's stand-by squad for the Tri-Nations.

Given the international side's luck with injuries, there is some chance that one or other of them could be required, so a reminder of Cooke's game-breaking abilities today would be timely. Otherwise, he is destined to be a local hero - one of eight Hull-born players in today's squad, although one from the wrong side of the city.

Although he has always worn the black-and-white irregular hoops of Hull FC, he was born in East Hull and still admits to being a closet Hull Kingston Rovers supporter. He watched the NL1 Grand Final victory that won Rovers a place in next year's Super League from his bed, tired out after a hard training session, but is already looking forward to the revival of Hull derbies.

"I was born and bred there, so it's difficult for me, but the job comes first," Cooke says. "It's going to be one hell of a game. I'm very glad that they're up and I'm sure everyone in the city is looking forward to the derbies."

In an ideal world, Hull would welcome Rovers back to the top flight as Super League champions. Cooke will relish that intensification of a traditional rivalry. He will just be a little more careful on his nights out.