Keiron Cunningham’s struggles as St Helens coach as the club makes similar appointment ahead of 2023
In 1994 Keiron Cunningham followed in the footsteps of his brothers Eddie and Tommy as he also joined the ranks of veteran professionals and made his debut at St Helens as a teenager.
It was quickly apparent that the young hooker was a star of the future and made his UK debut two years later as the Saints won the domestic double in the Super League’s first year.
Over the years, Cunningham and his St Helens team have become synonymous with success. He led the Saints to four more Super League titles and became the league’s best and most feared number 9.
He was a key member of St Helens’ triple squad in 2006 before becoming club captain as the club kept coming back to Old Trafford. Fittingly, Knowlsey Road’s last game was also his last game before the Saints, who secured their Grand Final berth with a 46-22 win over Huddersfield in the semifinals. He even scored the last try in the closing moments on the famous old turf in a fairytale finish.
He retired a legend of the game, is considered the greatest hooker of all time in the Super League and is a king in St Helens, highlighted by his nickname ‘The King’. If you need further proof of the man’s status in the famous rugby league city, his statue stands proudly outside the club’s stadium with his achievements during his 17 years as a Saints player you will never forget.
Following his retirement, ‘Kez’ became part of the St Helens strength and conditioning team in 2011 before taking over as assistant coach in 2012 following the sacking of Royce Simmons. Saints made a wise decision to give Cunningham time to develop as a coach under the command of Nathan Brown, who restored St Helens to champions for the first time in eight years when they won the 2014 Grand Final. After Brown’s success, Cunningham got into the St Helens hot seat. It was a game made in heaven right?
Now there’s a similar sentiment at St Helens almost a decade later as they appoint another club legend and former Cunningham team-mate in Paul Wellens. So what should Wellens learn from Cunningham’s tenure?
There was a feeling that this was an opportunity Cunningham deserved rather than received due to his reputation, similar to Wellens. He had learned from the best coaches and inherited a champion squad. There was a feeling the club could build a dynasty akin to the one Cunningham played in in the early 2000s. Star players like James Roby, Luke Walsh, Alex Walmsley and Tommy Makinson made Saints favorites for every major trophy in 2015. Chairman Eamonn McManus described Cunningham as “ideally positioned to continue the club’s success for years to come” and it seemed There is no doubt that ‘King Kez’ would live up to expectations.
At first it seemed that the belief was well placed. Yes, beating South Sydney in the World Club Challenge was disappointing, but Cunningham lifted Saints to the top of the earlier-season table with six wins from six in the league. Unsurprisingly, her form at the start of the campaign was being pinpointed by many pundits at two consecutive titles; They were the team to beat and there were few signs of the weaknesses that would show.
But as Easter approached, things started to go wrong. Four out of five losses highlighted some issues and although Cunningham’s side stayed in touch up until the Super 8 stage at the top, they didn’t look themselves. Just before the Super 8 kicked off, they were ousted by Leeds in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup before losing four of their last seven league games. This left Saints in fourth place at the end of the campaign with a disheartening trip to Headingley in the semi-finals. And although Saints was a match for the Rhinos for most of the game, two tries in the final 10 minutes meant Saints missed Old Trafford and ended the season without a silverware.
The excitement that surrounded the club when Cunningham was appointed had now subsided. There was no question of a dynasty at Langtree Park as the club’s supporters questioned not only the results but also a fairly ordinary style of rugby. At the start of 2016, the Saints certainly weren’t favorites, and while they still have a quality squad with an impressive forward pack, many wondered if their young coach had what it took.
And in yet another ordinary season by St Helens RFC’s high standards, there were more questions than answers surrounding Cunningham at the end. Another fourth place was stunning, with the 47-16 defeat by Hull FC in the sixth round of the Challenge Cup being a notable low. Warrington then ensured there would not be another appearance at Old Trafford by sending them in the play-off semifinals to leave the club again without silverware and with a big decision.
After two years in office, Cunningham had yet to reach a final and finish above fourth place. His legendary reputation at the club no doubt bought him more time, but at the start of 2017 the pressure was really on.
A tough win in the opening round against Leeds made fans believe again, but that belief quickly faded as they put on lackluster performances over the next six weeks, losing to Leigh, Wakefield, Hull FC and Salford, with a home draw to Huddersfield denouncing them last nail fastened in the coffin. As a result, club legend Keiron Cunningham was sacked as St Helens head coach on 10 April 2017 after 76 games in charge. Chairman McManus spoke after the announcement about the quality of Cunningham and his service to the club, but this time his words were sad as he accepted Cunningham’s playing legacy didn’t translate into coaching success and described his sacking as “both galling as well as disappointing for all of us”.
McManus’ words were painful but true. Cunningham’s appointment at the end of 2014 promised so much and few could have foreseen the struggles that followed. It came at a time when Saints were losing their mojo, becoming very inconsistent and embracing an inability to get over the line in big games. Cunningham was undeniably unlucky with injuries and players performing below their potential throughout his tenure, but the success that followed under Justin Holbrook left many scratching their heads as to why things had gone so wrong. But despite his tough time in charge, Cunningham’s statue still stands proudly in front of Totally Wicked Stadium as a symbol of his indelible influence on the club and his undying legacy as a saint. Yes it didn’t work for him as a manager but he is still a legend at the club and will always be.
The question now is, will Wellens also be remembered as a legendary player or is he on the verge of re-contextualising his legacy at St Helens and becoming a legendary manager?