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A gruesome account of a life spent watching a once great team try to restore itself to former glories.......

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Bradford Bulls - Sunday Service

No excuses, no 'the-dog-ate-its', I didn't write a piece about the Widnes game. It seemed too difficult in the immediate aftermath of that abysmal 35-28 loss and even as time went by and I was reminded that the Super League's berserk structure rendered it pretty much meaningless, I found it hard to relive. To cut a long story short a young full-back named Jack Owens ripped our mediocre troops to pieces, while at certain other points you could almost hear 'Entrance Of The Gladiators', a theme made famous in circuses, as the mishaps piled up. At one point three Saints players seemed to pat a loose ball backwards before it was finally picked up by Tommy Makinson who proceeded to kick it up over his own head towards his own try-line.

Since which farcical flapping Saints have had a week off for the Challenge Cup round, beaten Leeds at Headingley and lost fairly convincingly at Huddersfield. To call this side inconsistent is an understatement the size of Alex Walmsley. As we approached this game, delayed from the Friday night because of our Monday night jaunt to Huddersfield, we found ourselves out of the top eight and in serious danger of not making the play-offs for the first time since the start of Super League. Happily, along came a very ordinary Bradford Bulls side.

Summer rugby has finally poked it's nose through the curtain, so we decided it might be nice to have a walk to the game. We left early allowing time enough to get there and time enough to piss about at our favourite pub lunch venue The Counting House. Actually it is not our favourite. They always mess something up. The truth is that we go there because Wetherspoons is too crowded and full of old men who have slept there the previous night. And because The Counting House offer 10% off food with your match ticket. And so they should, given that a salad consists of lettuce, and the fact that if they don't have the dessert you ordered they find you a 12-month old one which has been festering at the back of a fridge somewhere. In a pitiful attempt at diversion from this they plonk an inappropriate dollop of ice cream next to it. At which point you take it back.

It's good to be back in my spot at Langtree anyway. We haven't had a home game for five weeks which is frankly farcical. After this game we will only have four home games left of the regular season. It is the first week in June and the season continues into early September before the play-offs. Whoever devised our top-heavy home programme must have wanted to keep most of the warmer months clear to go on holiday or something. Not that there is any shortage of sunshine here today. It's cracking the flags, as the older generation used to be fond of saying. A curious saying given that all of the 'flags' in our street and pretty much every other I ever pushed my wheelchair around on were already considerably cracked. I am quite sure I would not have fallen flat on my face and landed on by my holdall in the middle of the road in Swansea some years ago had it not been for cracked flags.

Anyway Bradford have come dressed as Hull FC. They'll argue that their hoops are blue and white rather than black and white but in a certain light you can't tell the difference. Or if you're a man and quite likely therefore to be colour blind. Since we are so desperate to win I'm quite glad that they turn up without Jarrod Sammut and Elliot Whitehead, the latter having handed in a transfer request and been sent to train with the youngsters. On the other hand, season tickets are not cheap and you might make the argument that you want to see all of the best players in action. I'm still a bit peeved that after all the fanfare we never got to see Gareth Ellis playing for Hull. Although in their new strip it is possible that Bradford could have sneaked him in and nobody would have noticed. If Ellis had played for Hull we might not even have managed the 22-22 draw we got away with.

If it wasn't all about winning then it is now. The Hull references keep coming as former Airlie Bird Willie Manu, hitherto a liability in a Saints shirt, plunders over to open the scoring after some great work by James Roby on his first start following his injury lay-off. Already at this point it is obvious that the difference between Saints with and without Roby is a bit like the difference between Victoria Beckham with or without David. He's everywhere today, speeding up everything and making every other player in a Saints shirt look better than they have done in a long, long time. Yet the sponsors still see fit to award the man of the match award to another man returning from injury, Jonny Lomax. He has a hand in setting up the second try of the game for Saints, sweeping the ball out to the impressive Jordan Turner who puts Makinson over in the corner. Gareth O'Brien converts both Saints' early scores and we have an improbable 12-0 lead.

Adam Sidlow hasn't been very noticable in Super League for a while, but his miracle off-load puts Brett Kearney in beside the posts to reduce the arrears to 12-6. No panic, as Sia Soliola crashes through an entire herd of Bulls to score, again goaled by O'Brien for an 18-6 half-time lead. When Josh Jones pounces on a loose ball and scampers away to score the first points of the second half it looks all up for the Bulls at 24-6, O'Brien again tagging on the extras. Jones almost doesn't make it and is clearly looking around for help from around 20 metres out or more, and is reprieved when the last defender fails to effect the tackle leaving him to stroll in. But Bradford are not quite done, with Matty Blythe getting over before Luke Gale's pin-point crossfield kick is gobbled up by Elliot Kear who touches down. Gale's excellent conversion brings the Bulls to within a score at 24-18 and memories of Catalan last year and countless other Saintly implosions of years gone by come flooding back. Enter Jon Wilkin, who crashes over with 10 minutes left to seal the win.

The push home is much tougher than the push into town had been. It's all uphill on the way back, but I'm starting to believe in the power of Sunday afternoon rugby league again. None of this driving straight into town from work, shovelling some food down before making it just in time for kick-off. None of these sub-zero temperatures. The St.Helens public seem to agree, as the gate of 11,300 compares pretty well with the season's average. Particularly when you consider how bad we have been at times this year. Of course, none of this will convince the powers that be at the club to make Sunday a permanent arrangement. There is too much beer to be sold, too much corporate entertainment to provide and make money from for that. So we'll all go on rushing around and having to record the Sky game on Friday nights, even though we are the target audience and the reason why such a broadcast even exists.

What we probably won't do again is go back to the Counting House.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Catalan Dragons - A Changing World

My nephew Joe is 14 at the end of March. According to his mum (though I have never seen any evidence of it myself) he loves going to Saints. Since Emma is now firmly in situ as my companion at Langtree Park he only gets the opportunity around his birthday. Only this year on his birthday I couldn't even get to the game against Salford myself. There was a foot of snow outside my front door which stopped me from getting to work. Going to the game was pretty much a non-starter

So I had told Joe that he could go at the next available opportunity. That turned out to be this week for the visit of Catalan Dragons. I was going out with the lads from work and so meeting up with Emma was complex. She would not want to stick around at the pub with us for the 'banter', and nor did she seem to keen on driving home only to come out again to meet me an hour or two later for the game. Joe was in luck.

The banter from the pub was predictably inane. It veered from the rights and wrongs (obvious wrongs in my opinion) of inflicting physical pain on small animals who have wandered on to your property, to the origins of the Welsh to the UK welterweight boxing division. Half an hour after we all go our separate ways I am on a train back to St.Helens. Sat opposite me are a couple of youngish girls, each with a young baby. One of them looks very familiar but I can't remember why. Her friend keeps calling her Beccy and I spend the rest of the journey trying to figure out where my memory of Beccy comes from. I don't succeed which might be for the best. I probably just chatted a lot of shite to her in a bar and she would have left with the impression that I am mentally ill. On this occasion I limit the potential damage by keeping my mouth shut and my questions about where she might have come from to myself.

Joe arrives fashionably late but I have arranged to meet him 45 minutes before kick-off to allow for exactly that eventuality. On the way from Tesco to the stadium entrance he quizzes me on the possibility of a Saints win tonight. I'm not very confident but I don't want to shatter him too early and so I stick to the favoured response of Saints fans of any vintage, and tell him that 'you never know' with Saints. And you really never do. Especially this year, but historically we are synonomous with our equal propensity for glorious failure and scintillating euphoria.

Equally unpredictable is the standard of the food. He has had his tea but he still has room for more. His choices at our old favourite the 'Marching Inn' consist of either a stake and ale pie or a hot-pot. This being St.Helens I am not entirely sure how much ale is in the pie, so I am somewhat relieved when he chooses the hot-pot. If a little puzzled. I've always thought that hot-pot reminded me of vomit and I'm sure that is not just the way my mum makes it. Other people speak very highly of it.

Food and drinks ordered we head towards our seats, when Joe runs into his friend Andy. He stops for a chat with Andy who, a year or so ago, was the same Andy referred to by Joe on these pages as Ratface. When I enquire as to why he is now Andy when he was Ratface only a year ago I am informed that things change, that it is an ever changing world. Wisdom beyond his years.

The steak and ale pie is a disgrace. It's dry and chewy, like eating the Sunday roast meat without bothering with the gravy. I manage to get through about three quarters of it anyway before kick-off. I wouldn't normally bother. I've had a few beers and I have arranged to go for a few more with another mate afterwards so I need something to stop me from getting too inebriated. The fact that I am conscious of this proves that Joe is right. It is an ever changing world.

What unfolds over the next 80 minutes could go some way to deciding how Joe feels about attending Saints matches in the future. Until now he has never seen a defeat. In fact he has only ever seen one-sided victories, where the only thing flattening the atmosphere is the inability of the opposition to fight back. Not so tonight. From the moment Frederic Vaccari puts the Dragons in front we look in a world of trouble. Morgan Escare scores a second for the French outfit, moments after having one disallowed by the video referee for a knock-on. We turn around 12-0 down and we don't look capable of scoring that many points in the second half, much less holding the opposition scoreless aswell.

At this point I must just mention the disabled toilets. Normally I don't have to bother. I just tie a knot in it. But with so much ale inside me I have to gain some relief. Yet these are the smallest disabled toilets I have ever seen. Tyrion Lannister would be ill-advised to attempt any cat-swinging in here and I'm expected to piss while sitting down within these four walls. What is more, because there is no room to turn around I can't get out. The door is too heavy to ram open, and I can't twist my body to use my arms to do it otherwise I will have nothing with which to push my chair through the doorway. With simultaneous relief and humiliation I am assisted by a female steward who opens the door while I sheepishly leave the cubicle.

As ever with Saints it is the hope that kills you. Sia Solioloa, who has been a beacon of hope in an otherwise stupefyingly unimaginative performance, makes a break and exchanges passes with Jon Wilkin before going over for our first try. Suddenly we are within six points at 12-6 and a Saints-esque comeback could be on.

Even when Thomas Bosc kicks a couple of penalties for the Dragons it is not quite the end of the story. Michael Simon is sin-binned for holding down Tommy Makinson late in the game and Saints take immediate advantage when Alex Walmsley crashes over. In the dying seconds they are camped on the Catalan line. Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook is held just a metre short and when the ball is shifted wide it goes to ground. Former Saint (oh the irony) Leon Pryce picks it up and rumbles downfield, setting up the position for Ian Henderson to score the try that seals a 22-12 win. There's something comical about conceding a match-winning try to a man wearing a giant plaster on a chin wound, but we're not laughing.

So Joe goes home disappointed and I meet my mate Paul. With the Wetherspoons choc full of match-goers we find solace at The Counting House and put the world to rights on a number of issues before my inevitably decreasing sobriety tells us it is time to go home. There is still time to write something incomprehensible on Facebook before I call it a day.

That much has not changed.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Castleford Tigers: Basil, Judas And The Naked Run

First let me apologise. Not for that come-on title, though fuck knows this column needs a boost, but instead for the lack of an entry covering the Salford game. The awful truth is that I didn't go. I was snowed in. I couldn't even get to work that day. And for those of you waiting to judge, salivating at the opportunity to call me a bum and a loafer, ask yourself whether you have ever tried to push a wheelchair through a foot of snow. Thought not. If you have, and you still went to work, I salute you. But I'm sorry your job doesn't allow you this kind of reasonable concession.

Possibly because I couldn't go, and thus because I lost my record of having been to every regular season home game since we moved to Langtree Park, I am firmly of the opinion that the game should have been called off. The paltry attendance of just over 5,000 would seem to back up my view, considering that the average since the move to the new stadium is around the 11,000 mark. Those are what cops in US dramas call ballpark figures. I don't want you anoraks bombarding me with the actual figures, even if any kind of comment or feedback to this column is always welcome. So anyway as Mike Rush and his band of snow-busters marched down to Langtree Park with their spades I sat at home watching it all unfold on Sky Sports News and, shamefully, hoping their efforts would be in vein. They were not, so well done to you if you were one of those who helped get the game on. You twat.

The inclement weather we have been having is just one more factor in the debate about whether we should still be able to watch rugby league on Easter Monday, as we prepare for the day's visit of the Castleford Tigers. Those opposed say it is too much to ask players in the modern era to play on Good Friday and then again just three days later. Those in favour argue that it is the same for all teams, and as Huddersfield Giants coach Paul Anderson has pointed out, it is only one less day's rest than is afforded to teams who play on a Sunday one week and then have to take the field on a Friday night the next. Conversely, London Broncos coach Tony Rae has suggested that only one 'round' should take place over the Easter weekend, with at least one game played each day from Thursday right up to and including Easter Monday. What that fails to take into account is that there are a whole raft of clubs, St.Helens being one, who consider the Good Friday derby match to be something close to sacred. You just can't move it to a Thursday or a Saturday. Who's going to tell Shaun Wane there's no game on Good Friday?

So for now the double header remains in place, and as I say our visitors today are the Castleford Tigers, coached by Ian Millward. I may have stated this before on these pages but I make no apology for stating again that Ian Millward, nicknamed Basil, is the best coach that Saints have had in my lifetime. Others back Daniel Anderson, under whom we won the league and the cup in each of his three seasons, but that ignores the fact that winning the league stopped being winning the league in rugby league (that's a lot of leagues, I know) in 1998 when Super League introduced its Grand Final. Most rugby league fans could tell you the winners of each Grand Final since, but few could tell you who topped the table at the end of what Sky sickeningly call the 'weekly rounds'. This fan couldn't, at any rate. But it is not his failure to win two of the three Grand Finals over which he presided which in my view makes Anderson inferior to Millward. It is more a matter of style. Anderson's Saints were all about the biff and bash and woe did indeed betide you if you got in their way. Millward's Saints were classier, played a more open style and never knew when they were beaten. Millward believes that if you have an overlap 10 metres from your own line you should use it, just as you would 10 metres from your opponents line. He was not the safety first kind of coach we have had since. There was no concept of five drives and a kick under Millward.

And that legendary propensity to come back from the dead. We all know about 'Wide To West' (though we could do without a song about it) but perhaps even more unlikely was the 18-16 win at Warrington in 2005 when we trailed by 10 with just a few minutes left and still emerged smelling like the nice patch of the garden. The trophies backed up the style, with Grand Final wins in 2000 and 2002, Challenge Cup wins in 2001 and 2004 and a World Club Challenge success over Brisbane Broncos in 2001. It all ended against Warrington, which was ironic given the repeated beatings the Wolves had taken against Millward's Saints sides, when after another last-gasp win Millward said something out of turn to the wrong person and was promptly sacked. It was classic Saints. Sacking a coach for something other than what happens on the rugby league field. Ellery Hanley went the same way. Millward tainted his legacy for some by joining Wigan shortly afterwards, but I can happily report that his spell in charge at the DW Stadium was one of the bleakest in the history of their club, and included our glorious 75-0 shellacking of the Warriors in the infamous Challenge Cup tie of 2005. Agent Millward's mission truly was accomplished.

His mission at Castleford looks a difficult one. By half-time they are 26-0 down to a Saints side missing Jonny Lomax, Ade Gardner, Francis Meli, Lance Hohaia, James Roby, Tony Puletua and Willie Manu through injury. Seizing a chance to shine the oft-injured Josh Perry has even managed to crash over for a try. I watched him intently in the few tackles leading up to his score and he looked as determined and enthusiastic as he ever has done in a Saints shirt. I might have been the only one not surprised when he finally crashed over, thus avoiding the ignominy of the end of season naked run. For the uninitiated it is traditional for any player who goes through an entire season without scoring a try to participate in a naked run. At the end of 2012 Perry found himself in trouble with the law for fulfilling his forfeit down Prescot Road. He'll be glad to have avoided a repeat with what is his first try for the club. Thankfully, we didn't have a naked run at any of my old clubs during my wheelchair basketball days. Quite apart from the fact that very few of us could run, there would have been some pretty grim sights on display had that been the case. Joe Greenwood also avoids the nudity with his first two tries for the club in the first half, while Mark Flanagan and Louis McCarthy Scarsbrook also cross in an impressive first 40-minute showing.

Half-time brings the return of one of Saints most infamous villains. There, on the hallowed field, making the half-time prize draw is one Gary Connolly. Now anyone who has ever read Fever Pitch will know that sport doesn't make sensible people cry. The only people who cry about sport are the kind of cranks much beloved by our friends at Sky, who deliberately pick them out, maybe even offer them a few quid to lay it on thick, to prove just how bloody all consumingly vital the so-called beautiful game is. I mention this because Gary's departure to Wigan in 1993 for the princely sum of £250,000 (though many people joked that the fee was actually 30 pieces of silver) was as close as I ever got to having my heart broken by Saints. Or more specifically a Saints player. Oh and by the way if you haven't read Fever Pitch do so as soon as you finish reading this column. It is by far the finest book ever written about sport and one of the finest books every written about anything.

So anyway Judas is back on the pitch at Saints and we're expected to applaud his introduction. Comically, the stadium announcer manages to introduce him without mentioning the decade or so he spent starring for our hated rivals. Even his time in rugby union gets a mention, although I personally find that just as offensive. There's a smattering of boos, which would probably be more significant if the majority of the crowd hadn't sneaked out for a pie and a pint. Nobody had been expecting Judas to turn up. They sneaked him in. Crafty. It's been 20 years, so perhaps it is time to forget that he joined our main rivals at the peak of his powers, causing us to spin dramatically out of title contention for three years afterwards, and helping them to continue their putrid domination of the sport pre-Super League. Perhaps it is not time. Now he says that he told the club he wanted to stay and would take half of what Wigan were offering to do so, but was told he had been sold. I don't know whether that's true, and I can well believe that Saints were tight enough not to pay him a decent wage, banking on the fact that he was a local lad and would want to stay loyal. What I can't get my head round as someone who has never been able to walk, let alone run out in front of a packed crowd with a red vee on my chest, is why one would join Wigan to get a better wage? He and everyone before and since him is and has been privileged to play for us. The trouble is that only us fans believe that. Professionals don't buy it.

The second half brings another Josh Perry try. Should he miraculously manage to negotiate a way to be around the club in 2014 perhaps he might like that one to carry over to avoid the naked run for another year. It is unlikely to be an issue. Adam Swift scored a hat-trick against Widnes in his last home start last season and scores again here, and there are also tries for Jordan Turner and Tommy Makinson, the latter finishing after a wonderful movement involving Greenwood and Mark Percival. The youngsters are looking good. Let's hope they don't all sod off to Wigan at the height of their powers. Millward was bound to have an influence on his side at half-time and to be fair to them they improve in the second half, scoring through Daryl Clarke, Justin Carney and James Clare. The final score of 48-18 gives them some credibility without taking too much from what is an impressive performance from an inexperienced Saints outfit backing up from a tough derby loss.

Our next opponents are Hull KR, who it transpires lost 84-6 at home to Wigan today. Josh Perry will be licking his lips.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Wakfield Wildcats

As has been documented elsewhere (www.steorford.blogspot.com in the event that you missed it) today (Friday, March 15) has been a ridiculous day. The kind of day on which you get to work and realise you have left your wheelchair wheels somewhere outside your house. The kind of day on which you scratch your car by reversing into a bin as you grumpily head back to retrieve said wheels. With all this, something has to go right.

So Saints must win. We are due one anyway. We may have been outstanding away from home but we haven't managed a single, solitary win at Langtree Park in 2013 before tonight. All of which must be a worry for Nathan Brown, with whose appointment as head coach this unfortunate record coincides. He's getting closer. The embarrassing 40-4 blow-out at the hands of Huddersfield Giants on the final day was followed by our inability to hold on to a 10-point lead in the 22-22 draw with Hull FC. Last time out we played pretty well but were beaten 20-12 by an impressive Leeds Rhinos with it's play-off head on. That's how it goes with Leeds a lot of the time. If you catch them on a day when they really want to win then even your best might not be good enough. Far better to catch them on a day when they have all dyed their hair red for charity and aren't too bothered about anything thereafter.

Before the game I'm in the Counting House (where else?) trying to track the progress of my leaving-my-wheels-at-home blog on their allegedly free WiFi. The piece is already written. I'm not playing games. If you are going to do something astronomically stupid then you had better make sure you can get some use out of your mistake. Far better to do so while it is fresh in the mind also. I need the WiFi because I haven't got any credit on my mobile phone. That's mostly because the only people who have credit on their phone are the type of people who actually use it for purposes requiring credit. I don't. I get free texts to a point, and if I want to look something up or read Facebook I'll wait until I get home and do it on my own free WiFi. It's a good deal quicker, I can assure you, than trying to boot up the laptop than I am currently trying to write this piece on. As I write I am already resigned to the fact that it will crash at some point, change the language of the text, make it infeasibly big or infeasibly small, or inexplicably cut out at least one paragraph due to some error or other. It is not as reliable as you might expect for the money paid for it, let's say that.

Anyway I am having the devil's job trying to connect to the Counting House WiFi. It is just not having any of it. It tells me I am connected and then computer says no, or more accurately mobile phone says no. So I have no idea how many people have read about the forgotten wheels. Next thing I know I have downed my pre-match burger and I am helping Emma shift a chocolate fudge cake which comes with strawberry ice cream on the side. We find this peculiar. Strawberry? Surely vanilla is more appropriate?

Inside the stadium we discover that the club have really pushed the boat out financially. The tea I have ordered at the Marching Inn comes in a branded red Ty-Phoo carton, with the Saints logo emblazoned on it for good measure. I'm assuming they have splashed the cash but actually the new merchandise might just as easily be a gift from our sponsors. If we are all going to go around with Ty-Phoo splattered across our chests when we wear our team colours then we might aswell know that we are drinking their product when we are watching our team live.

This column does not contain match reports, so I'm not going to go through it play-by-play. It is sufficient to say that not only does our first home win arrive, but it does so in some style. Jonny Lomax, still operating at full-back in the absence of Paul Wellens, scores a hat-trick of tries. His second hat-trick in four games in that position. His third try tonight is greeted with the music of Jennifer Lopez. J-Lo, if you will. Get it? J-Lo? I'm sure he hates it but it is too obvious a nickname to ignore. Whatever similarities he has with the latin singing siren, he'll do for me if he plays like this every week. It is going to be interesting to see what happens to Lomax once Wellens returns from injury. It is hard to make a case for moving him back to his old scrum half position on this sort of form. Honourable mentions too to Jordan Turner who scores twice, Lance Hohaia who leads us around the field superbly from the hooking position after James Roby's half-time withdrawal, scoring one of our nine tries on the night, and Francis Meli. The giant wing takes time out from being an utter liability to spend 80 minutes running over hapless Wakefield defenders in the manner of Jonah Lomu in his pomp. No, he's better than that. We all know that Lomu wouldn't have lasted five minutes in league.

Other scorers are first-time starter Alex Walmsley, Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Tommy Makinson. The latter grabs the final try of the night, finishing off a bulldozing run down the right centre channel from Sia Soliola. As Sia takes his mark to await the restart the North Stand comedian seizes his moment;

'Sia, give us a shake'

A shake? Sia responds by performing a little dance which I can only summise is a version of the Harlem Shake, much beloved of Facebook posters everywhere at the moment. Apparently it was invented by four young boys arsing around in a bedroom so of course it is now a global craze. Delighted, our man in the North carries on;

'Sia, do it again!'

This time Sia forgoes the dance with the lower half of his anatomy and instead begins shaking his head around rhythmically, his enormous hair wafting around wildly with each shake of the head.

'Sia, show us your arse!' says the North Stander.

Mercifully, Sia does not comply with this request but the man can be sated by the fact that there is a ripple of laughter as audible as any chant or song coming from that area all night. Which isn't saying all that much, actually. In fact, the award for the best chant of the night has to go to our visitors from West Yorkshire who, responding to Ben Cockayne's first half try which keeps his side in the game at that early stage come up with;

'Charlie, Charlie, Charlie'

Reminds me of Gareth Hock, somehow. Can I say that? Just have. When the whistle blows we are all sated by our 52-18 win and by a quality performance of the kind that has been so sadly lacking here so far this term. Though I don't know it yet, I am soon to find out that Wigan have lost to Leeds also. Rugby league weekends don't come much better than that really.

And I remembered my wheels on the way home.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Warrington Wolves - Road Trip

I can't remember the last away game I was at. If I told you it was somewhere around the turn of the century it might make me sound like a wise old sage. Of course, that's only 13 years ago and, while I'm not as young as I was, wisdom has yet to find me.

Back at the turn of the century I was a student in Barnsley, one of very few students who drove a brand, spanking new Motability car around the place. I used this advantage to take in such rugby league hotspots as Gateshead (remember them?), Hull (Boulevard), Castleford (where I had my rear windscreen smashed and no, that is not a euphemism), Huddersfield, Leeds and, naturally enough, Barnsley where the Wakefield Wildcats beat us by two points. A late Tommy Martyn penalty attempt from somewhere near the car park failed to sail between the posts to give us what would have been a scarcely deserved draw.

I also went to Warrington. Now, since I have been back on the road since late September, I have decided it might be worthwhile to make a little more effort to get to one or two away matches in 2013. I lack the commitment to the cause that my 20-odd year-old self had back in the day but to be fair, the team itself lacks the devil-may-care, attack-and-be-damned philosophy of those great days under Ian Millward. This current side is not Saints vintage. Following them is more of an effort nowadays. But Warrington. Well, that's not really that much effort now is it? It's hardly the kind of epic, length of the country journey on a wet Wednesday favoured by fans of Yeovil Town or some such.

So I could see no reason why I couldn't make the short trip to Warrington. Furthering the cause was the fact that Mark, a former basketball team-mate of mine who I had recently been in touch with again following the death of a mutual friend, was now living in Warrington and was interested in going to see the Wolves play. He sorted the tickets (but not the parking but that turned out not to be a problem) and agreed to meet me. I am sure I heard him promise not to shout too loudly for Warrington too, but I could be mistaken.

I go straight from work to home games, and since I was on my own for this one (away trips are not for Emma who, not being a St.Helens girl herself, has no Earthly reason to want to travel outside of the town to watch rugby league in the freezing cold) I decided to drive straight to Warrington from my workplace in Liverpool. Preceding the journey I remember telling a colleague of mine with great excitement that I had found a bonus pastry in my bag. At lunchtime I had been out to Sayers to pick up a couple of sausage rolls and it was only later that I realised that if you buy two, you get one free. Not quite BOGOF, more BTGOF, but a bonus pastry is a bonus pastry is a bonus pastry.

When I get to Warrington my first priority is to sort out what I am expecting to be a problematic parking situation. I turn into the stadium and decide that the best strategy is to just confess straight away to having not been able to get a pass for the disabled car park, but also to point out that I don't mind paying for parking and that I just want to get somewhere as close to the stadium as possible. Somewhere with enough room between parking bays to avoid trapping myself in the car. I'm directed through the big Tesco car park to what turns out to be a phantom car park at the back of the supermarket. Fortunately there is a lady in a luminous jacket patrolling the area. I ask again for advice and she tells me that I can just park in Tesco, that they 'don't seem to bother' about it. So I do. But then when I ring Mark he is still an hour away. He is bringing his son Simon with him and Simon only finishes work at 6.00. It is now 6.15. I head for some liquid refreshment.

A stupid conversation ensues with a man on the door at the main reception. That the Halliwell Jones Stadium is the sort of place that has a main reception surprises me. If Langtree Park has one then I couldn't tell you where it is even after a considerable number of visits. It is certainly not as clearly and proudly marked as that at Warrington. I ask the man on the door if there is anywhere to get a drink and whether, if I enter the stadium and use their bars, I will be able to get out again to meet Mark and Simon in the car park at Tesco. Mark has predictably decided that parking at Tesco is good enough for him if it is good enough for me, and I've agreed to meet him by the car because, at the point of our brief conversation, I have no idea where I am going to be having a drink and I don't want to over-complicate things. The man on the door directs me to the corner of the stadium where I am told that not only are there no bars in that area, but the stadium is not open yet anyway. I ask if there are any pubs in the area and am told that there are two around the other side of the stadium in front of the stand. In completely the opposite direction from that which I have just been directed.

The most accessible of these (not that it is particularly accessible) is Rodney's. I have to ask a kindly Warrington fan to bump me up the step outside. It's that or the rain. Or go back to the car and wait it out there. I accept the help. There isn't time now for a debate about the moral whys and wherefores of accepting help when it suits and not when it doesn't. Take the perks is my philosophy. Enough is taken from you. The pub is absolutely jam-packed. Wetherspoons in town gets a little busy before home games but nothing like this. This is a proper case of sardines but as I look around I see straight away that we are quite well represented. Saints shirts are liberally sprinkled around in among all of the Warrington shirts on view. If indeed a Saints shirt can be liberally sprinkled. I grab a coke at the bar and awkwardly perch myself at the end of a table.

Every Warrington scarf I see has 'Wolves' plastered across it. So what? Well, it wouldn't have when I first starting watching rugby league and as I said before I'm not even that old. They were just known as 'Wire' back then. Before Super League. Before Sky. What is it with nicknames in the Sky era? Saints must be the only Super League club not to have sold it's soul. And this is quite by accident, as we had a cool, marketable nickname all along. I'm so glad that we don't have to name ourselves after some fearsome animal or other which would no more be found in St.Helens than it would be found floating around on the moon. Warrington Wolves? Leeds Rhinos? Castleford Tigers? The only other clubs that can reasonably claim to remain unaffected by this turgid phenomenon are the Hull clubs. Rovers are known as Rovers and also the Robins but it was ever thus while Hull FC, despite an unfortunate dalliance with the name Hull Sharks some time ago, are now just plain old Hull FC or the Airlie Birds. Or the Black And Whites. Come to think of it, they have too many nicknames actually.

It's time to meet Mark and Simon. I direct them to the same man I saw earlier who had told me that the stadium was not yet open, and he in turn directs us to the gate at the disabled entrance. Another stadium employee is standing there at the locked gate, keyless, banging on it hopefully. Nobody is answering. It's not like this at Saints. The slightest tickle on the disabled entrance door leads to it being exhuberantly thrust wide open whereupon your ticket is checked (not scanned, they've given up on that idea to be honest) and you're in. We wait a couple more seconds and then eventually gain entry, only to be directed to the wrong place. Our tickets are for spaces along the side of the pitch, but the steward wants to take us behind the posts. The view is better from the side, but I remember thinking some time later that the atmosphere behind the posts might have been better. All of the Saints fans are housed in that stand and they are not a shy bunch.

By the time we take a 10-0 lead through tries from Jordan Turner and Lance Hohaia the fans at that end are in full voice. They have quite a repertoire. 'When The Saints Go Marching In' and our very own localised version of 'Annie's Song' are standard fare at Langtree, but the travelling support branch out with a few of their own favourites. You know that annoying tune that absolutely all football fans sing their songs to? It's hard to describe it without vomiting but if I publish the words favoured by the Saints fans tonight you might get the drift;

'It's always your year'
'It's always your year'
'Just like the last one'
'It's always your year'.

Warrington are failing miserably to quieten the visiting support and so the songs just keep on coming. To the tune of 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain' (is it really called that?) you get;

'Have You Ever Seen The Wire Win The League?'
'Have You Ever Seen The Wire Win The League?'
'Have You Ever Seen The Wire......'
'....Ever Seen The Wire......'
'....Ever Seen The Wire Win The League?'
'Have You Fuck!'

It's important to shout that last line with venom but totally without melody.

Beside us there are two older gentlemen. They're Warrington fans but, possibly because of their advanced years, they are not the reactionary angry mob that dominate the social networking sites and message boards, and who clog up local radio phone-ins calling for their coach to be sacked every other week. They're a more sensible breed. Still highly critical, but they know how to temper it. They know a good visiting crowd when they see one too....

'They're a good choir, aren't they?' one remarks to the other.

'Aye' he nods. And they both laugh. I try to imagine your average Saints fan chuckling at the away fans' songs when they are trailing 10-0 to a local rival and showing absolutely no signs of recovery. It's too much of a stretch. By half-time we are 14-4 up. Francis Meli has added to the earlier tries and, were it not for a basic error from a scrum in the last minute, Warrington would have turned around scoreless. As it is they get possession from the knock-on and Chris Bridge goes over for his first try of the night. Bridge was turning out for Swinton on dual registration last week. Now he is the standout player in an admittedly uninspiring Warrington side.

At half-time Alex Murphy comes out to help with some half-arsed prize draw. Or something. Murphy is a Saints legend, one of the best players we have ever had. It is with some surprise then that I note that he is also an ambassador for the Warrington club. I can't help but feel a little betrayed by this but then it should not be too much of a shock. After all, for all his greatness on the field Murphy was the sort of player who handed in a transfer request at Saints when he was still a teenager because he was being played out of position, and the sort of coach who transfer listed an entire squad after presiding over a 27-0 defeat to Wigan at Wembley. Nothing has ever been Alex Murphy's fault, and so it is unlikely to be his fault that he now feels more affinity to Warrington than he does St.Helens.

Half-time entertainment is in short supply so I spend the break taking in my surroundings. I have to confess to being a little disappointed by the Halliwell Jones. It's nice enough for a rugby league venue I suppose but it isn't quite what I thought it was. Looking around there are moments when I think it makes Langtree Park look like the fucking Birds Nest in Beijing. It houses about 14,000 fans compared with the 18,000 that can get into Langtree, and the less said about the ground level view the better. Only season ticket holders get to use the wheelchair spaces on the platform at Warrington. All of which takes me back to the bad old days at Knowsley Road, when occasionally you could get within a few feet of the action, but could just as easily miss something completely if it happened to take place in the opposite corner of the field. Not only that, the spaces we are in are not flat, so I find myself having to hold on to my wheels at various points throughout the match to avoid rolling down the slope into the advertising boardings in front of us. Brakes are not for people who push their own chairs around. You'll lose your fingers if you make the mistake of thinking that they are.

Saints are equally solid in the second half. Chris Hill, a man whose muscly frame belies his skeletal facial features and puts you in mind of Frank Langella in that terrible He-Man film of the mid 1980's, tries to off-load the ball in the tackle and only succeeds in presenting it to James Roby. The Saints talisman is not one for requiring second invitations and gallops away for the score which seals the game. At 22-4 it's all up for Warrington and they know it, despite Bridge's second try of the game late on when Saints defenders appear to have already hit the bar. We wait around for a few minutes to applaud the team for their efforts. It's a fantastic 22-10 win. Simon is less happy because he has placed £20 on Warrington to win by between 11 and 15 points. You can't blame him really. Nobody saw this coming. He's a Burnley fan, so perhaps he'll have better luck with their attempts to sneak into the Championship play-offs. I advise him not to gamble on that particular outcome, however.

On the way out of the stadium a man in a Warrington fan shakes my hand and says 'well played, you deserved it'. He's identified me by my hat, a woolly black affair with the Saints' red vee logo emblazoned on the front. It's nice that he congratulates me, and that he is not one of these sore losers who wants to kill me because Joel Monaghan has let him down. But really, well played? I haven't lifted a finger.

As is customary, win or lose, I get back and watch the whole thing all over again on Sky, skipping through any pre-game drivel foisted upon us by any of Sky's array of ex-Wigan dullards. We're just as good second time around and, though you would not know it, my woolly white coat is clearly visible at various points throughout the broadcast. Which is one thing that will never happen from my lofty perch in the North Stand at Langtree.

But that's away games for you. They're just......different.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Leeds Rhinos

We haven't won a game at Langtree Park this season so far. We were unceremoniously dumped on by Huddersfield Giants on the opening day and could only manage a draw with Hull FC. So what we really need now is an easy game. A Salford City Reds or a Wakefield Wildcats. The sort of team who, regardless of form routinely come to St.Helens safe in the knowledge that they will be leaving empty handed.

What we don't need is the sort of team who have just pushed the Melbourne Storm all the way in the World Club Challenge. Leeds Rhinos were slightly unfortunate to lose 18-14 to the NRL Premiers. Premiers is their word not mine but somehow you feel that you have to use it if that is what they call themselves. It's their title. To fail to use it would be the sporting journalism equivalent of all those dunderheads who call me 'Steve', particularly in reply to emails which I have quite clearly and blatantly signed 'Stephen' Hey, it's my blog. If I want to include a non-rugby-related whinge then I will.

So this week I was going to skip the Counting House part of the tale. There's not a lot to say about it. We go for a meal there because it is quite near to where we park in town and it is significantly less busy than Wetherspoons. However, I would not be doing my journalistic duty if I did not report that they again managed to shaft us with their standards of service. You'll remember the 40-plus minute wait we had before the Hull FC game? We were given a voucher as an apology. Two vouchers. One encouraged us to buy two glasses of wine and get the rest of the bottle free. Here's the thing. That's the offer anyway. There is no need for such a voucher. It's like saying if you buy one sock you get the other for free. Secondly, we were given a voucher for a free drink. Here's the other thing. The meals we ordered came with free drinks anyway. The barman took the 'voucher' from us nevertheless. The lesson here is that the Counting House, when they are not busy refusing to serve you, spend much of their time pretending to give you something for nothing.

Inside the stadium it is close to kick-off time. Pre-match entertainment time. A young girl of around 13 is singing 'Make You Feel My Love', most recently made famous by Adele. I swear I hear over the muffled tannoy that her surname is Karalius, which as all Saints fans will know is a name synonomous with the club. Vince Karalius played for Saints between 1951-1962. I never saw him play of course, but anyone who earns the nickname the Wild Bull Of The Pampas must have been quite a sight on a rugby league field. This young lady may or may not be a descendant, but either way and although as I say she is very good and is apparently in the semi-finals of some talent contest or other, it's just not the right mood. 'Make You Feel My Love' makes you want to cry. It doesn't make you want to run out on to the Langtree Park field and squash Rhinos for 80 minutes.

It's not the only dubious musical choice on the night but we have already discussed the rights and wrongs of the team running out to 'Annie's Song' by John Denver. Obviously the powers that be at the club don't read this column as they persist with their choice. The people at Sky are not taking heed either. From my lofty position at the back of the North Stand I can just about make out the animated figure of Phil Clarke. He's doing his piece to camera, wildly gesticulating and no doubt pointing out to those who are still listening to him that Saints are the best team in Super League at wearing a red vee. When the teams finally do arrive on to the turf all manner of confusion reigns. Alex Walmsley has been named in the side by the stadium announcer but he's not on the field. In his place at prop forward is Anthony Walker. Aswell as Walmsley, Saints are without Paul Wellens, Lance Hohaia and Josh Perry. Oddly, Nathan Brown has chosen to give Mark Percival a debut at the left centre position ahead of Josh Jones. At first I think that Jones might be injured but then he is named as a substitute. But I've already learned that what has been announced isn't necessarily correct. It takes me the first ten minutes of the game to actually figure out who is in the side and in which position they are playing. Our new half-back pairing of Gary Wheeler and Jon Wilkin terrifies me.

The first half can best be described as attritional. A couple of Kevin Sinfield penalties are notched in reply to Jonny Lomax's opening score, and we are down 8-4 by half-time after Ryan Hall goes over from Joel Moon's pass. At particularly quiet moments, of which there are many, I can hear some of the amusing things that fans shout during the course of a dreary performance. Aswell as Emma's proclamation that Sinfield is 'boring', one angry chap in the crowd takes a deep breath and just shouts 'let's have half-time', while another pauses for thought before settling simply for 'rubbish!'. Perhaps the best shout though, and the one which displays the greatest lack of understanding of the game and a fine example of letting the emotion of sport consume you and turn your brain to mush is when one fan, having seen a Leeds player penalised for not being square at marker, calls for the referee to 'send him off!'. You could give him the benefit of the doubt and say he is being ironic, but knowing this crowd it is a 50-50 call.

Half-time brings nothing more original than the traditional prize draw, this time conducted by former Saints star Eric Chisnall. As Chisnall makes some sinner a winner, the customary under 7's game is taking place in front of the West Stand. One young man who has been given the dubious honour of acting as substitute has decided that he is going to have his moment in the Langtree Park sun, and so at every available opportunity he runs on to the field of play with a bottle of water, eager to find a team-mate willing to take a swig. It puts me in mind of Eric Cantona's famous 'water-carrier' quote about former France captain Didier Deschamps. I think it is inventive and resourceful. Making the most of a slightly whiffy situation. Emma thinks it's cute.

If the first half was a struggle for the eyes, the second half is even more so. The game goes away from us in the blink of an eye really. Firstly Ade Gardner decides to neither catch a high ball nor tackle the player who does catch it, allowing Kylie Leuluai to crash over. Boring Sinfield converts for a 14-4 lead, and barely a couple of minutes later Rob Burrow is dancing through what my dad calls powder puff defence, handing on to Joel Moon who puts Hall over again. Converted by Sinfield of course. Yawn.

Saints' attempts to get back in the game are fairly dismal. It's not like this is the worst Saints performance I have ever seen, but nor are this Leeds side anything special. Our problem seems to be our conservatism. Time and time again we refuse to pass the ball out wide when there is a man over. When we do pass it, the ball movement is invariably too slow. The good news is I have spotted Josh Jones. In the second row. The bad news is that Wheeler is injured again and it looks like another bad one. With 10 minutes left we suddenly burst into life. Percival, who to be fair has looked like the one bright spark offensively all night, begins cutting a swathe through the Rhinos defence. He sets up two tries for Francis Meli, neither of which makeshift kicker Jordan Turner can convert. That's probably because Turner is infinitely more interesting than Sinfield. Anyway, had he converted the second one we would have been in the hunt for a draw we barely deserved in the final two minutes. But it has been a long time since Saints were a side capable of pulling off unlikely escapes.

As it is we lose 20-12 and we still haven't won at home. I go home and decide that the re-run from Sky will have to wait until the morning. The performance was just too uninspired to grin and bear again so soon. We've got Wakefield in our next home game, one of those teams against whom we routinely win at home regardless of form. Right.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Hull FC - Dr Alban And Marching Inn

After the dismal manner of our defeat to Huddersfield on the opening weekend of Super League, pride had been restored by a hard fought win at Widnes Vikings a week ago. So, it was with some justification that we were a little more optimistic about our chances for the visit of Hull FC on Friday (February 15).

Some justification. A little more optimistic. For it must be remembered also that a slightly better Saints side than this one lost 22-10 on Hull's only previous visit to Langtree Park last March. After that we had the Odsal debacle, the sacking of Royce and then revival under Rushie and Kieron. It was to be hoped that this year's visit form the black and whites would not be the pre-cursor to such upheaval.

Something which might need a bit of a shake-up is the standard of service at The Counting House. I'm reminded of a visit to Blackpool's version some years ago, when Emma and I had a drink with our meal and all was well and enjoyable, only to come back the next night (a Friday when they were busier and so not so desperate for our custom) and have Emma get asked to provide ID to prove she was over 18. Much as I am sure there are certain benefits to dating a 17-year-old, it is not something I am likely to achieve in this lifetime. It gets worse actually. Once she was ID'd for petrol, for the purchase of which you have to be 16. I suppose it is some consolation to note that she was only around 19 when this happened, but still it made me feel rather uneasy, slightly offended.

So where were we? The Counting House in St.Helens. We arrive at about 6.00, fully two hours before kick-off. We order our food immediately, figuring that we need to be away for about 7.15 to give ourselves time to get across the bridge, buy a cuppa on what is another chilly old night, and get in position for the kick-off. Forty minutes later the food has still not arrived and Emma does the decent thing, the thing that I never feel sufficiently motivated to do because I reserve all my angst for the crusade against discrimination. She complains about the service. A man with a suspiciously Wigan-sounding accent assures us that he has just been upstairs to check and our food is on it's way. Fair enough, we'll forget that it is only a couple of sandwiches and not a five course slap-up that could feasibly take so long. We'll wait a bit longer. Five minutes later the Wigan-sounding man is back offering us free drinks (which we won't have time to drink but take anyway, as some kind of defiant parting shot) to compensate us for our inconvenience. Five more minutes elapse, and then five more before the food actually arrives. It is only as worth the wait as a tuna sandwich can be, but the Wigan-sounding man pays us another visit before we leave to hand us a couple of vouchers for free drinks on our next visit. He's assuming a lot, but then again we chose this place because you get a 10% discount with your match ticket and because Wetherspoons is usually packed to the proverbial rafters on match day. We'll be back here then, despite everything. At least they didn't ID Emma.

When we get inside Emma needs a wee. She has just had one but no amount of protesting and indignation on my part is going to change the fact that she needs another one before we go upstairs. While she is gone I notice for the first time that the humble little kiosk nearest to our entrance is called 'The Marching Inn'. Geddit? Did you see what they did there? Oh When The Saints Go.....Marching Inn? Brilliant eh? Underwhelming. So much so that it has taken until my 17th visit to this establishment to notice. Emma likes the hot chocolate, if that makes anyone feel any better, and I suppose it is a small mercy to be able to escape from any stadium kiosk with two hot drinks for less than a fiver these days.

We go upstairs. We have a new musical choice for 2013. The team now run on to the field to the strains of John Denver's Annie's Song. Personally I have always felt that they should stick with the traditional 'When The Saints Go Marching In'. Or Marching Inn. Whatever. But since the crowd have long been belting out their own version of Annie's Song from the terraces (the full lyrics to which can be found on the other Saints related website to which I contribute regularly, Redvee.net) it is not such a terrible choice. It is a good deal better than the days of Dr Alban's 'It's My Life'. No, really. Or was it 'Sing Halelujah'? Anyway, this was when the team was the best around. Perhaps you can't have everything, and that the quality of the run-on music is directly related to the quality of the side. The better you are, the worse your music should be. If we keep deteriorating at the rate we have on the field, then maybe I will get my wish on 'When The Saints Go Marching Inn'. Under such circumstances Dr Alban seems a world away.

We only managed one try in that Giants game two weeks ago, so it is with some pleasant surprise that we get to witness three first half efforts. James Roby's inside ball to Anthony Laffranchi for the first is majestic, and showed us what we were missing in the struggle at Widnes last week, while Jordan Turner's fine jink inside Kirk Yeaman against his old club comes after Francis Meli has squeezed in at the north east corner despite the attentions of several Hull defenders. The trouble is that Hull are looking good in attack too, with Daniel Holdsworth running the show. They cross through Jason Crookes (from a great Holdsworth pass after which he takes a fearful whack) and former Hull KR splitter....I mean full-back Shannon McDonnell. Again it is Holdsworth who is the key, kicking in behind a static Saints defence for McDonnell to react quickest.

And yet when Josh Jones piles over early in the second half we look good for our first home win of the season. Lee Gaskell's conversion has made the score 22-12 and we seem to have momentum. Not for long. It seems like the entire last 20 minutes is spent in the Saints half of the field, much of it in the final quarter close to our try line. Despite Nathan Brown's pronouncements that our defence is solid we can't hold on, with first Tom Briscoe (from another wonderful Holdsworth kick) and then Richard Whiting touching down. Holdsworth makes pretty much his only error of the game when he fails to convert a very kickable opportunity which, in the event, would have won the visitors the game and condemned Saints to a second straight home defeat.

As it is honours are even, the spoils are shared and I get back to watch a re-run of Warrington's 24-16 win over Catalan Dragons. I have managed to avoid the big mouthed old gossips talking about the night's other games, aswell as the unhelpful stadium announcer who normally manages to ruin my enjoyment of the re-runs on Friday nights. So I am particularly entertained by Brent Webb's decision to pick a fight with Ben Westwood. The ensuing melee is just funny, but the ex-Wigan brigade on Sky are quick to condemn it and wax lyrical about how they don't want that in our game. They feel the same way about Wigan not winning. They can't condone it and they want it stamped out of our game. Especially O'Connor. He's fuming.

As am I, or at least I would be if I had the energy for such emotion, when I pull out my phone during the game to find that my dad has texted me to tell me that he is in the Premier Lounge at Langtree Park. My dad, who's last visit to a Saints game probably involved Austin Rhodes, is in the Premier Lounge! An ex-work colleague had paid 'a stupid amount' of money for a box and my dad obviously didn't mind if he did. I wouldn't have either, to be fair. It is the second such unusual sighting of my dad in as many weeks, as last Saturday I spotted him, again with an ex-work colleague, in The Sefton in town.

Next week....Saints win at home and my dad turns up at a Dr Alban gig.....