Bill Cooper was a role model for young Cork hurlers, he gave everything 

Éamonn Murphy pays tribute to an unsung hero for the Rebels, Bill Cooper, who has retired after leaving it all on the pitch in every game
Bill Cooper was a role model for young Cork hurlers, he gave everything 

Bill Cooper and Colm Spillane have both stepped away from the Cork hurling panel. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

BILL Cooper's retirement from the Cork hurling panel removes another link to the Munster winning team of 2017-'18.

In the wake of the departure of Eoin Cadogan and Colm Spillane in recent weeks, the door is now firmly open for the next generation of Rebels, back-to-back All-Ireland U20 champions, to make their mark next season.

Cadogan (35) at least got to leave with a Celtic Cross, albeit as a footballer in 2010, but Cooper and Spillane weren't as fortunate. That duo were undermined by injuries this year, reduced to a couple of cameos, which left them with little choice but to concentrate on club duty from here on.

While it's only three years since Cork were defeated in an extra-time thriller by a Limerick group who have since dominated the hurling landscape, nine of the hurlers who featured that day are now gone. Anthony Nash, Chris Joyce, Daniel Kearney, Conor Lehane, Mark Ellis and Michael Cahalane weren't in Kieran Kingston's panel for 2020, with Cadogan, Cooper and Spillane now following suit. 

Stephen McDonnell and Aidan Walsh didn't hurl for Cork in 2018, but moved on last winter too, having returned for 2019 and '20; quite a turnover but inevitable in a county where All-Ireland medals are the benchmark. It's why, for all the annoyance at Cork being overlooked for an All-Star, the first losing finalist not to be recognised, all that matters is annexing Liam MacCarthy for the first time since 2005.

Cooper never had the natural hurling of a Patrick Horgan or a Mark Coleman, but he was an absolute warrior for Cork, largely at midfield.

His selfless work-rate and control aggression made him an ideal foil for the likes of Kearney and Darragh Fitzgibbon, who landed an All-Star as Cooper's foil four seasons ago. 

The Youghal club man was a classic late developer, that trademark physicality coming from his rugby days as a teen, while his excellence for CIT and the Cork intermediates offered a springboard to the senior squad despite not playing minor or U21 for the Rebels. 

After shining in the 2010 All-Ireland intermediate success, Denis Walsh promoted him in 2011, making his debut and goaling against Laois in the qualifiers. Injuries curtailed Cooper in 2012 and '13 but after captaining Youghal to the PIHC title, he was recalled by Jimmy Barry-Murphy and became a mainstay of the Cork team, blasting a critical goal against Waterford en route to the 2014 Munster triumph.

As Cooper told the Irish Examiner: “I gave everything I had any time I played for Cork and tried to get the most out of myself every time I wore the jersey.”

Of that, there can be no doubt.

Kilkenny’s Adrian Mullen battles Bill Cooper of Cork. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr
Kilkenny’s Adrian Mullen battles Bill Cooper of Cork. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr

Cooper was a county champion with Imokilly, alongside Spillane, and though turning 34 shortly, has plenty more to offer his division as well as his club. 

For Spillane, just getting back to full fitness is his primary focus. At his best, the Castlelyons native was a ferocious man-marker but missed out on a host of big games for Cork and in the club championship due to injury.

Only 29 next July, a clean bill of health will be a significant boost for the player and Castlelyons, beaten in the last two PIHC finals.

He explained: "I’ll take four or five months off. I’ll look after myself and stay in shape but I won’t be doing running, I’ll find other ways to stay fit, and then I’ll see next April or May how I feel.

"But I definitely intend to try to carry on with Castlelyons, absolutely."

While Cooper and Spillane didn't start last summer, and Cadogan made three appearances, missing the wins over Clare and Dublin through injury, the balance for Kieran Kingston and his selectors will be promoting the most promising rookies and keeping a steely spine to the side.

The Rebels' game-plan broke down in the mauling against Limerick but more than that, they were outmuscled by the Treaty's power and confidence. Individually Cork have some tenacious defenders, especially Seán O'Donoghue, unlucky not to receive an All-Star, and size in Rob Downey and Tim O'Mahony, but a more solid structure is essential.

Patience will be needed when blooding precocious youngsters like Ciarán Joyce, who is still U20 next year.

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