There’s a whole range of emotions accompanying the news of Keiron Cunningham’s departure from Saints today (April 10). The legendary former player parted company with the club this morning, ending two and a half years as head coach and an association with the club stretching back over 20 years.
The first thing I should say is that I have no problem with the decision to end his reign. Regular readers will remember that I called for Keiron to go after the insipid 16-12 home defeat by Wakefield Trinity on March 3. Since then the side has threatened a brief revival with good wins in Perpignan and at home to Warrington Wolves, but last weekend’s 14-14 draw with Huddersfield Giants at the Stadium Formerly Known As Langtree Park was a return to the very worst of Saints under Cunningham. Stale, petrified tactics and attempting to hold what we have in a sport that just isn’t conducive to that attitude saw Saints let slip a 14-0 half-time lead to just about earn a point against a side that can hardly be considered among the best in Super League in 2017.
And it is far from the first time. Cunningham’s first season in 2015 can perhaps be glossed over as he attempted to settle into his new role, but by now we had a right to expect real progress that we’re just not seeing. Before his appointment he’d been part of the interim coaching set-up with Mike Rush following Royce Simmonds’ sacking in 2012 and had spent two years as assistant under Nathan Brown in 2013 and 2014. Brown’s last year in charge saw Saints carry off the League Leaders Shield and the Super League title itself following a memorable 14-6 Grand Final victory over Wigan Warriors. With Brown already committed to returning to Australia at the end of that season it was thought that Cunningham was ready to take over the reins of the club he served so spectacularly as a player for 17 seasons.
Yet by 2016 the signs that Cunningham the coach was not going to match the exploits of Cunningham the player were beginning to appear. In many ways it was never realistic to expect one of the greatest players in the club’s history to reach that standard as a coach. An early season flogging at Salford saw players played out of position and ended with Cunningham openly admitting that his players were complacent even before a ball was kicked. He was still holding back Theo Fages who he had captured from the Red Devils at the end of the previous season and with only Jordan Turner qualifying as a right-sided centre within the squad at the time Cunningham took the berserk decision to try Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in the role. It all ended in a 44-10 shellacking by a Salford side which would end the year in the Million Pound Game, albeit thanks to some rather fanciful accounting in previous seasons.
Jump forward to May 2016 and Saints’ suffered a quite grotesque 47-18 pounding by Hull FC in a home Challenge Cup tie. Again the tactics were negative and dire, but again I defended Cunningham on account of how little time he had been in the job to that point. Curiously he had been given a new three-year contract at the start of the season despite a par score of a fourth place finish and semi-final exit in 2015. That’s how high the bar is at Saints. Fourth is nowhere if you then fail to negotiate the playoffs. Regardless I just felt that 18 months in the job was no sort of time span to offer a coach, particularly not one so obviously learning on the job. Most successful sports outfits achieve their aims through stability at the helm. The exceptions are often cash-happy football behemoths who scarcely care who is in charge so long as the latest Galactico can be lured to the club. There are no such short cuts in rugby league despite the relative size of Saints compared to some of their domestic rivals. Stability is an important ingredient of success, but as we have seen today it has its limits.
When Saints followed up that embarrassing cup exit with a 48-20 chasing by Huddersfield in the televised showcase that is the Magic Weekend at Newcastle the feeling that Cunningham was never going to turn it around only intensified among much of the fan base, and left those of us defending Cunningham reluctantly seeing their point. By then the tactics had become really dull. One-out runs from prop forwards (when the wingers weren’t being asked to do it instead), inside drop-offs to slow second rowers with little chance of breaking a tackle and early kicking in the tackle count which was nothing more than an admission that in the absence of any real attacking threat we had better play for territory.
“I’m not overly disappointed with the team. There were some good patches.” Cunningham said afterwards, and it was hard not to fear that he was starting to become delusional under the pressure of coaching the club he palpably loves so much. The season ended with another fourth placed finish and another semi-final defeat, this time at Warrington and this time with the face-saving yet undeniable caveat that had Ben Thaler applied the laws of the game on the night Saints would have headed to Old Trafford for another Grand Final despite their obvious shortcomings. That was an indictment on the quality of the league as a whole, a fact which still rings true and is only now starting to be addressed with recent announcements on changes to the salary cap.
Not ready to let go of their man just yet, the board kept faith with Cunningham going into 2017 as no fewer than 12 players left the club and a raft of new signing were brought in to help turn things around. Although Matty Smith was unfortunate to break his leg in a pre-season game the likes of Luke Douglas, Ryan Morgan and Adam Walker have not had the effect that they needed to raise Cunningham’s side to anything like the level that is expected of a Saints outfit. That defeat to Wakefield followed a comfortable loss at Leigh before an away defeat to Hull FC left Saints with just one win from their first five outings. Form picked up with those two wins against the Dragons and Wolves but the loss at Salford coupled with the side’s inability to beat Huddersfield, all due to the same old failings under Cunningham, have sealed his fate.
Sean Long, Jamal Lolesi and under-19 coach Derek Traynor have been placed in temporary charge ahead of this week’s scary Easter double header at Wigan and at home to high-flying Castleford Tigers, which may or may not bring about a change in style. It is unlikely to bring about a change in results however, given that there is now so much dead wood to cut from what is now nothing more than an average Super League squad in terms of depth.
Cunningham has to take his fair share of the blame for that along with whoever else is responsible for recruitment. He has made mistake after mistake in that department. Travis Burns, Lama Tasi and Atelea Vea have all come and gone during Cunningham’s tenure while other signings like Jack Owens, Dominique Peyroux and Tommy Lee have looked like they belong at a lower level. Compounding that was Cunningham’s habit of talking these players up in the press. While nobody wants to see a coach publicly blast players that need to be kept onside he could have stopped short of trying to kid knowledgable fans with talk of ‘fans favourites’ and expressions of disbelief at having been able to make such sub-standard captures from rival clubs. Even Smith, a player who Cunningham continued to insist would make the difference on his return, was basically discarded by Wigan. When your main rival offers you one of its starting players for free alarm bells should ring.
Cunningham’s lack of faith in and willingness to blame youngsters directly contrasted with his constant backing of senior players who were continually under-performing. The way he handled Danny Richardson’s demotion from the first team was met with widespread anger among the fan base and although there was pre-season talk that youngsters would be given their chance we haven’t seen any of Ricky Bailey, Calvin Wellington or Regan Grace even though there have been injuries in their positions. There’s an argument for not throwing them in if they’re not ready but when you see how the likes of Wigan and Leeds have fearlessly used their youth system you start to wonder whether this is another area in which Cunningham could have done better.
Though many will be relieved to see Cunningham go and will be excited about the prospect of a new era at the club we must never forget Cunningham’s contribution to the club these last 24 years. Some of the name calling of this club legend, this absolute force of nature of a rugby league player who gave his all as a player and a coach has been nothing short of disgraceful and quite pitiful. Irrespective of the way his assiciation with the club has ended this is a sad day for the club. Cunningham’s legacy as a player should remain untainted. Suggestions that his statue which stands proudly outside the ground should be removed strike me as intellectually challenged. Keiron Cunningham, still my sporting hero and the best player I have seen in the red vee in the 30+ years I have been following the club.
The top job was just too much, too soon even for him.