I was born in October 1975. Take a look at the list of honours won by St.Helens RLFC and you will note that throughout my childhood years it was slim pickings in terms of winning trophies. The cabinet was, if not bare, then absolutely not going out looking like that.
Saints were reigning champions on the day that I was born but since I hadn’t actually been around to enjoy that 1974/75 success it doesn’t really count. There were three Premiership wins before my 21st birthday, the first of which was in the 1976/77 season when I was just about grasping the concept of solid food. Another one arrived in the memorable ‘Big Mal’ season of 1984/85 when Aussie superstar and recent World Cup winning Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga trampled on all before him as the Saints beat Hull KR in the final. Yet it was the Robins who carried off the big one, topping the league by three points from Saints in second place. Finally there was 1992/93, a game which produced a 10-4 success over Wigan which I can’t seem to get past being Gary Connolly’s last game in the red vee (or ugly splashed blue paint affair on that occasion) before his putrid seduction to the dark side.
It had been a similar story in the Challenge Cup. One solitary win in 1976 which again I need the aid of YouTube to have any recollection of. Final defeats to Halifax in 1987, and Wigan in both 1989 and 1991 had been endured. The then John Player Special Trophy brought consolation in the 1987/88 season when Paul Loughlin scored two tries and three goals in a 15-14 final win over Leeds which was effectively decided by Neil Holding’s drop-goal. But while these were enjoyable, minor triumphs, they weren’t majors. We needed to win a title. We needed to win a Challenge Cup. Or to put it more accurately, I needed them to do one of the other. In 1996 they did both.
The first season of summer rugby league saw the Challenge Cup final originally stay in its traditional slot in the calendar, late April or early May a week or two either side of the FA Cup Final. A fortnight after Saints walked out at Wembley to take on the marketing machine that was the Bradford Bulls Eric Cantona exorcised the demons of his kung-fu kick at Crystal Palace by scoring the ugliest of goals to beat woeful, cream-suited glory boys Liverpool in arguably the last FA Cup final that anyone can remember really mattering. I’m a Liverpool fan but I didn’t care by then.
No because by then Saints had done what I had been beseeching them to do for my entire life to that point. I wouldn’t turn 21 for another five months but it had still seemed like an interminably long time to wait to see my team carry off some indisputably meaningful silverware. This mattered alright. Everyone wanted to win this trophy. Especially the other lot from you know where. Saints v Bradford at Wembley was a match-up guaranteed to put an end to eight consecutive years of Wigan rule in the Challenge Cup. Added to those two victories against Saints during that run the pie shifters also saw off Halifax in 1988, Warrington in 1990, Castleford in 1992, Widnes in 1993 and Leeds in both 1994 and 1995. They were expected to be strong contenders again in 1996 but fell in the fifth round, losing 26-16 at Salford on a mucky Sunday in February on which future Bull Scott Naylor bagged two tries for the Red Devils. The door was ajar. We would never have a better chance than this. Yet Bradford, led by coach Brian Smith, were probably thinking the same.
Going into the final Saints’ league form had been imperious. The rattled off 12 wins in a row to open the season, thrashing Workington Town 62-0 in Cumbria on the opening day before a Danny Arnold-inspired 41-26 win over Wigan on Good Friday. Leeds, Bradford and Halifax all fell as Saints marched inexorably in, towards what would be their first league crown of my lifetime also. What giddy times these were.
Adding to the giddiness was that, being of a certain age, I was acquainted with some of the players out there doing it. One such was a chap by the name of Steve Prescott, who had gone to school with most of my friends. I went to a different school to all of them, the world not apparently ready for disabled toilets, lifts and people using wheelchairs generally in institutions of mainstream education. But Precky and I would cross paths occasionally through my friends, mostly on some park or bowling green for a hastily arranged football game. I never saw him play rugby as a child, curiously. It was always football it seemed, despite his family connections with the game.
He was playing rugby by 1996, alright. As were two of my college contemporaries, Andy Haigh and Joey Hayes. The latter missed out on selection for this one through injury while Haigh hadn’t quite managed to muscle either Scott Gibbs or Paul Newlove out of the starting centre spots. Both Haigh and Hayes retired early through their injury problems and the tragic fate of Precky is well documented but for a moment, on a sunny day in May at the most famous stadium in England if not the sporting world, his star shone brightly. And we went utterly berserk in response.
He scored two first half tries, which at the time looked like putting Saints on a fairly straightforward and steady path to success. Yet it required the intervention of ‘Bobbie’s Bombs’ as they became known, to help Saints complete a remarkable comeback from 26-12 down early in the second half. Three times the Saints scrum-half launched the ball skywards and towards the Bradford line, and three times Bradford Bulls fullback Nathan Graham flapped hysterically at it before allowing all of Keiron Cunningham, Simon Booth and Ian Pickavance to touch down. Yet Bobbie’s first bomb, and one that is not quite so well remembered perhaps, created the first try for Precky down Saints’ right hand channel. As the ball fell from the London sky it was Arnold who rose for it, tapping it back to Gibbs who spun out of the attentions of a Bulls defender before feeding Precky in support on his inside shoulder. There was a greyhound track running around the old Wembley. I got half way down it before the thought occurred to me that I was not in contact with my wheelchair, hoisted as I was, fireman style, by one of the lads as the unbridled joy took over.
Unbearably for my blood pressure, Precky scored again soon after. Again it was Goulding who was the architect, chipping through the Bulls defence for Precky to volley the ball forward and then dribble it over the line before falling on it. He stood there, arms aloft, accepting the adulation of the crowd in an image forever recreated on the plaque that serves as a memorial on the bridge which currently links the new stadium to the town centre. We didn’t know then quite what an iconic and poignant moment we were in. We were going far too barmy to take in its significance even if we had known then what we know now. Saints were going to win something meaningful and we’d lost it. The plot. The marbles. The lot.
Yet were they about to win? Were we quite sure? Bradford roared back. The ball was shifted left to Jon Scales, who took Loughlin’s pass (he was now wearing the Bulls colours in a huge deal that had seen Newlove arrive at Saints and Loughlin, Bernard Dwyer and Sonny Nickle all head to West Yorkshire at the end of 1995) and squeezed in at the corner before Precky could make the covering tackle. But then, in an encounter that was becoming utterly breathless, Newlove danced through the Bradford line of defence as if he had chosen it as the easier option ahead of taking toffees off babies, and fed the prolific Arnold. He looked like he had spurned the chance when he cut inside instead of driving straight for the corner, but Arnold simply wriggled through a confused bunch of opponents, leaving Nickle prostrate on the ground as he plonked the ball over for Saints third try of the half. Goulding had not managed to convert any of them. He would have better luck with the boot in other ways.
Another amazing effort that often gets overlooked from this classic is Robbie Paul’s contribution. Well before he ruined your pre-match build up by getting in the way of the players’ warm-up trotting out banalities, Paul was a scintillating young starlet who, some even argued, would be even better than brother Henry who had been ripping it up at Wigan since 1994. The younger Paul showed his class to sneak over from Dwyer’s pass for the first of a Lance Todd Trophy-winning hat-trick. Yet it was Dwyer who was next to score, dummying Goulding just enough to create the space to get between the Saints scrum-half and back rower Booth. When the brilliant Paul pirouetted out of a tackle and crashed over for his second try it looked as though what had started out as a glorious occasion was about to turn miserably sour and decidedly Saintsy.
It left Saints 14 points adrift at 26-12. How they could have done with just one or two of those conversions missed by Goulding earlier. The time had come to make amends. On the fifth tackle, around 35 metres from the Bulls line Goulding launched the first of his much-loved, forever cherished bombs at the unfortunate Graham. Wearing number 10 on his back as Super League embraced the concept of squad numbers, Graham dealt with the situation in rather the same way that a prop forward might, wafting hopelessly before actually appearing to pull away from the ball to avoid being hit by it as it was about to bounce. Having made that mistake, what you don’t want to see is Keiron Cunningham steaming at you. With all the momentum on his side Cunningham easily out-jumped Graham for the ball after it bounced, gathering it and placed it down in one movement.
Yet even then at 26-18 the mood was a bit flat. It was still a long way back from here. Goulding’s second aerial assault on Graham started on the Bulls 20. Graham had been in-goal for Goulding’s first, but this time he approached the ball five metres from his own try-line. Again he flapped, again he was out-muscled and out-manoeuvred this time by Booth who arguably knocked on but twisted around to score by the posts. The first season of video refereeing hadn’t sunk to the depths that we get in the modern day. A try like that now would be reviewed and reviewed until the official could find a reason to chalk it off. But referee Stuart Cummins, a man last seen screaming for a Mark Percival try to be disallowed for minimal contact with a Wigan defender, was happy enough and the try stood. Perhaps he was caught in the moment.
He wasn’t about to offer any respite to Graham. Goulding launched a third rocket towards the Bulls line. By now the outcome seemed almost inevitable even before it happened. None of the 78,000 plus crowd would have been backing Graham to catch it, and sure enough he crumbled again. This time it was Alan Hunte who jumped with Graham, again making enough contact to have it disallowed in today’s game, but again encouraged to crack on with it by Cummins. In the chaos, Ian Pickavance became the unlikely hero as he plonked the ball down just before it rolled over the dead ball line. Pickavance had been signed from Swinton three years earlier, going on to make 156 appearances for Saints scoring 24 tries. None were more golden than this one.
Somewhat dazzled, the Bulls allowed Arnold to cut through them before handing on to Karl Hammond. The former Widnes half, keeping no less a figure than Tommy Martyn out of the team at the time, dummied a return to Arnold and looked like he was going to make it all the way to the line before he was dragged down a few yards short by a desperate tackle. Ever the poacher, Arnold’s try-scoring instincts did not fail him as he appeared by Hammond’s side to take his offload and simply fall over the line. As much as he was a great poacher he was an equal showman, so it was no surprise to see Arnold basking in his moment, his second try of the day and one that at last looked like it might finally seal the silverware for Saints. He stood up, arms outstretched and nodded his head, totally convinced of his own magnificence. He may not have had a long career with Saints, moving on after picking up another Challenge Cup winners medal in 1997, but his place in the club’s folklore cannot be denied.
Paul had one more magic spell left in him. He completed his hat-trick in majestic fashion, weaving through the Saints defence, beating four or five players including the unbalanced Prescott before going over untouched. The Bulls were back within touching distance again, just when they thought the game was up. It wasn’t until Apollo Perelini scored Saints’ final try that their indomitable spirit was finally crushed. Cunningham linked up with Goulding who brought Perelini back on his inside for the popular Samoan to plunge over by the left of the posts. Goulding’s conversion gave Saints an eight-point cushion at 40-32, and with time running out they could finally say that they were there. The Challenge Cup was coming back to St Helens for the first time in 20 years. The first time in my lifetime…give or take. The celebrations of the players said it all as they mobbed Perelini, while the fans were going even wilder in the stands. Not only had the wait for a Challenge Cup ended, we had shown we were capable of competing with and beating the coming force in the game, the Bulls. With Wigan’s new vulnerability a first title since 1975 looked possible.
Some months later that came to pass too. It was sealed with a final day thrashing of Warrington, Saints winning 66-14 in a party atmosphere at Knowsley Road. The red vee had followed their Wembley success with another seven wins in a row before losing 35-19 at Wigan in mid-June. Wigan kept pace all the way, missing out by just a point after a costly draw with London Broncos. Meanwhile Saints had just about edged out the same opposition at The Valley, winning 32-28 thanks to a Perelini try given the 2017 video referee treatment yet miraculously approved. That was the key result, although they had a tough 20-16 success over Castleford at Wheldon Road six days later before rather more routine wins over Paris St Germain, Sheffield Eagles and finally Warrington.
Saints were double winners, but it was that Challenge Cup final in May against the Bulls which ended the lean years and arguably changed the culture of the club for the next 20 years.