In 1994, Keiron Cunningham followed in the footsteps of his brothers Eddie and Tommy when he too joined the ranks of seasoned pros making his St Helens debut as a teenager.
It soon became clear that the young hooker was a star of the future, making his Great Britain debut two years later as Saints won the domestic double in the first year of Super League.
As the years went by, Cunningham and his St Helens team would become synonymous with success. He propelled the Saints to four more Super League titles, becoming the league’s finest and most feared number nine.
He was a key member of St Helens’ treble-winning side of 2006 before becoming club captain as the club got to Old Trafford again and again. Fittingly, Knowlsey Road’s final game was also his final game in front of the Saints faithful as they booked their place in the Grand Final with a 46-22 win over Huddersfield in the semi-finals. He even scored the last try in the final moments on the famous old turf in a fairytale ending.
He retired a legend of the game, is considered Super League’s greatest ever hooker and is royalty in St Helens, highlighted by his nickname – ‘The King’. If you needed further evidence of the man’s status in the famous rugby league town, his statue sits proudly outside the club’s stadium with his achievements during his 17 years as a Saints player never to be forgotten.
Following his retirement, ‘Kez’ became part of the strength and conditioning team at St Helens in 2011 before taking over as assistant coach in the wake of Royce Simmons sacking in 2012. Saints made a smart decision in giving Cunningham time to develop as a coach under the command of Nathan Brown who would turn St Helens into Champions for the first time in eight years when they won the 2014 Grand Final. Following Brown’s success, Cunningham stepped into the St Helens hot seat. It was a match made in heaven, right?
Now there is a similar feeling at St Helens nearly a decade on as they appoint another club legend and a former teammate of Cunningham in Paul Wellens, so what should Wellens learn from Cunningham’s time in charge?
There was a feeling this was a chance Cunningham had earned rather than been handed because of his reputation much like with 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 during the early 2000s. Star players like James Roby, Luke Walsh, Alex Walmsley and Tommy Makinson made Saints favourites for all the major trophies heading into 2015. Chairman Eamonn McManus described Cunningham as being ‘ideally placed to carry on the club’s success for years to come’ and there seemed to be little doubt ‘King Kez’ would meet all expectations.
Initially, it appeared the faith was well-placed. Yes, the thumping against South Sydney in the World Club Challenge was disappointing, but Cunningham took Saints to the top of the earlier season table with six wins from six in the league. Unsurprisingly, their form at the start of the campaign had plenty of pundits tipping them for back-to-back titles; they were the team to beat and there were few signs of the frailties that would start to appear.
But, as Easter approached, things started to go wrong. Four defeats in five highlighted some problems and although Cunningham’s side stayed in touch at the top until the Super 8s phase, they didn’t look themselves. Just prior to the Super 8s kicking off, they were edged out by Leeds in the Challenge Cup semi-final before losing four of their final seven league matches. This left Saints as low as fourth at the end of the campaign with a daunting trip to Headingley in the semis. And despite being a match for the Rhinos for most of the game, two tries in the final 10 minutes meant Saints missed out on Old Trafford and ended the season without any silverware.
The buzz that had surrounded the club when Cunningham was appointed had now subsided. There was no talk of a dynasty at Langtree Park with the club’s fans not just questioning results, but also a pretty ordinary style of rugby. Going into 2016, Saints certainly weren’t favourites and despite still possessing a star-studded team with a formidable forward pack, many were questioning whether their young coach had what it takes.
And in another ordinary season by the high standards of St Helens RFC, there were more questions than answers surrounding Cunningham by the end of it. Another fourth place finish was underwhelming, with the 47-16 defeat to Hull FC in the sixth round of the Challenge Cup a particular low point. Warrington then ensured there would be no Old Trafford appearance again by dispatching them in the play-off semi-final to leave the club with no silverware again and a big decision to make.
After two years in charge, Cunningham had yet to reach a final and finish above fourth position. His legendary reputation at the club undoubtedly bought him more time, but going into 2017 the pressure was well and truly on.
A tough opening round win over Leeds had fans believing again, but that belief vanished quickly as the next six weeks saw them turn in more lacklustre performances losing to Leigh, Wakefield, Hull FC and Salford, with a draw at home to Huddersfield the final nail in the coffin. As a result, on April 10, 2017, club legend Keiron Cunningham was sacked as head coach of St Helens after 76 games in charge. Chairman McManus spoke about the quality of Cunningham and his service to the club following the announcement, but this time sadness laced his words as he accepted that Cunningham’s playing legacy couldn’t be translated to coaching success, describing his sacking as “both upsetting and disappointing for us all”.
The words of McManus were painful but true. Cunningham’s appointment in late 2014 promised so much and few could have predicted the struggles that would follow. It turned into a period in which Saints lost their mojo, became hugely inconsistent and adopted 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 went so wrong. But despite his tough time in charge, Cunningham’s statue still sits proudly outside the Totally Wicked Stadium as a symbol of his indelible impact upon the club and his undying legacy as a Saint. Yes, it didn’t work for him as a coach, but he’s still a legend of the club and will be forever.
Now the question is, will Wellens also be remembered as a legendary player or is he about to recontextualise his legacy at St Helens and become a legendary coach?