There’s nothing like a Good Friday derby, especially at home. The sun always seems to shine on that early Spring day and never did it shine more so on Saints, both literally and metaphorically, than on April 5 1996. This was the first season of the fully professional Super League. Sky Sports were footing the bill, able to do so thanks to the huge amounts of money by then being raised by their exclusive rights to Premier League football, which itself had gone through something of a makeover. Rugby league’s new era meant a shift to summer rugby, partly to avoid season-long clashes with the broadcaster’s prize purchase, and partly to discover whether the ability to turn up to games in shorter sleeves would entice more of the paying public through the turnstiles.
As the professional era was ushered in it became clear that the previously all-conquering Wigan side would not have things all their own way any longer. Over time, the extra commitment from rival clubs would see them catch up with Wigan on the field. This was almost unanimously deemed ‘A Good Thing’. Even the Wigan fans seemed enthused by the prospect of greater competition. After all, they had won the title in eight of the previous 10 seasons before 1996, a run only rudely interrupted by Widnes as they carried off the crown in both 1988 and 1989. Saints had gone close since then, famously losing out on points difference in 1993. That season also contained an epic Good Friday encounter between Saints and Wigan, but on that occasion it was Central Park which witnessed the 8-8 draw which just about kept the then champions’ above Saints. The gap was closing and professionalism was about to make it disappear altogether. Yet few could have imagined that it would happen quite so quickly.
I arrived at Knowsley Road late that day in 1996. Being 20 years old I had decided that I might quite like a beverage or two before kick-off. So I spent much of the time before the game in the Bird I’th Hand pub just a short distance from the old ground. Suitably oiled I left the pub in plenty of time for the start of the game but I had reckoned without the farcical and thankfully now archaic system for accommodating fans using wheelchairs. The new era might have been a fully professional one on the field, but Saints still operated a policy of allowing wheelchair users in free on a first-come, first-served basis. They would even let in those accompanying the wheelchair user for a long time during the 80s. My childhood is littered with memories of 17 cousins and friends all hanging on to my wheelchair trying to look as though their help was absolutely vital to my ability to attend the game. The truth is and was that I was perfectly capable of going in alone but you know, you take the perks when something like disability throws the smelly stuff at you so often.
On this day I was not carrying passengers. On this day I was with my friend Paul, a lifelong Wigan fan from Haydock who is I am sad to report no longer with us. He was cruelly taken at the age of just 26, just three years after that sunny April afternoon. Naturally I miss him terribly, and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that I also miss the fact that he has not been around to gloat at during Saints most successful period. But fortunately he was that day.
There was probably 45 minutes still to go to kick-off when we got into the ground but the wheelchair area was already bustling. You know how you go in a bar that is really busy on a Saturday night and you describe the queue at the bar as three or four deep? That’s what it was like in the ground that day. Gallingly, the majority of those occupying the good spots were Wiganers, which didn’t surprise Paul. A regular at Central Park he had a theory that some of the disabled supporters at Wigan at that time never left the ground, instead just hanging around watching the grass grow until the next game was due to start.
So I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. I could stay in the ground with a terrible view, or I could head back to the Bird I’th Hand and have a few more pints and watch it in comfort. So much for summer rugby encouraging fans to attend. For only the second time in my 30-odd years watching Saints I left before the end. I left before the start! The only other occasion I had not remained to the often bitter end was a league game against Halifax around the same time, when Saints had scored 56 points in the first half. It was a procession. Like watching the Australian Test team take on Haresfinch under 12s. Sometimes winning gets boring, which is something that I wish some of the game’s modern day coaches would take on board. Anyway, I went alone. Paul was not moving. He was not concerned about the low quality of his view. He just wanted to be there. It would pay off. Just not in the way that he might have hoped.
Though few of us dared dream that the balance of power would switch from Wigan to St.Helens so quickly, hopes were high ahead of the game. New coach Shaun McRae was instilling a little more discipline in Saints’ style, while still staying true to their traditions as the league’s entertainers. Far too often in the past they had fallen short by not being quite resilient enough. Making the crucial mistake when it mattered or simply being over-run late in games, especially against the old enemy due to their greater fitness. Those days were passing and they were going by faster than anticipated. McRae had carried on the good work started by his predecessor Eric Hughes and with a side boasting the talents of Scott Gibbs, Paul Newlove, Bobbie Goulding, Chris Joynt and a chap named Keiron Cunningham this was a side whose time had come. Saints won the title in 1996 by a single point, suffering only two defeats in their 22 games.
All of which was made possible in part by the events of that Good Friday. Also in the Saints side that day was a winger who had recently celebrated his 19th birthday. Danny Arnold would go on to score 50 tries in 75 appearances for Saints until McRae shipped him off to Huddersfield Giants at the end of 1997. This though, was his day. Arnold was electric, helping himself to a hat-trick of tries. The Wigan faithful may say that he was assisted by the early exit of his opposite number Martin Offiah but he was hardly revered for his defensive qualities. It’s unlikely that he would have done anything to spoil Arnold’s party. As it turned out the Great Britain star went down in a heavy challenge around the 20-minute mark and was duly carted off holding his hip to a total absence of sympathy from the Saints faithful. It left another 19-year-old in Rob Smyth with the task of containing the free-scoring Arnold. It didn’t go all that well for Smyth, who would go on to make 33 appearances in the Cherry and White before moving on to London Broncos, Warrington and Leigh.
Saints had nudged ahead 22-16 when Arnold’s most memorable moment in a Saints shirt arrived. An off-loading, high-risk joy to watch named Derek McVey was Joynt’s second row partner that day, and it was from his initial break on 50 minutes that Cunningham was given the chance to…..well……Cunningham the Wigan defence into submission to create the score. Back then Cunningham was an absolute tour de force of a rugby league player. A freak of nature. He would not turn 20 years old for another six months, but he looked every inch the finished article even then. He managed to be both stocky and supremely strong and somehow wonderfully mobile. Blessed also with an outrageous ability to read the game he had few peers in his position even then. So it should not have surprised us then when he took McVey’s offload and tore off down the field, twisting the blood of no less a light than Wigan’s international fullback Kris Radlinksi. The Wigan man seemed to be taken by surprise at Cunningham’s burst, but to his credit gathered himself to haul the Saints hooker down just short of the line. Yet along with all of his other attributes Cunningham the player had a level of game awareness that Cunningham the coach can only sit and marvel at. Unflustered by Radlinski’s attention he merely flipped the ball inside to the supporting Arnold, who capped his hat-trick with a simple fall and plod over the line. Fast forward this clip to about the six-minute mark and watch the whole thing unfold, including Arnold’s deliciously smug kiss to the Sky Sports camera in celebration. Wigan didn’t go away immediately, closing to within three at 29-26 before further scores from Tommy Martyn and a delirious Andy Northey sealed a 42-26 win.
To some that kiss was an outrage. An unnecessary, cheeky and arrogant piece of showboating from a player who still had a long way to go in the game and would never quite get there. He would add Challenge Cup winners medals to this title in both 1996 and 1997 but after leaving Saints the year after Arnold never hit the same heights again. But his kiss to camera said something beyond displaying his own swagger. It said, we are Saints and we have arrived and we are not going to be bullied physically or psychologically by this lot from now on. Six titles since then have proven that statement correct, especially since our friends in the hoops have only managed to add a relatively meagre four in that time.
My friend Paul came to a few Saints games that year. He would visit Knowsley Road now and again if Wigan were away and I would join him at Central Park if Saints were on the their travels, crossing everything and hoping that the pies would suffer the humiliating defeat that rarely came their way. Although I was once treated to the sight of watching Gordon Tallis and Terry O’Connor go at each other in the kind of punch-up you just don’t see these days. At one subsequent Saints game, probably the next one although the memory does play tricks after 21 years, there was a photograph in the programme of a rather glum-looking man beneath the caption ‘are you the face in the crowd?’ And he was, winning a by now probably archaic and unavailable special issue McEwans Lager t-shirt. He would wear it with pride thereafter too, arguing that it was not official Saints merchandise and therefore not a breach of all that he held dear.