St Helens RFC – Langtree Park

We’re all guilty of being jealous about missing out on something that happened before we were born. Even worse, I would argue, is missing an event or being part of ‘a movement’ by a matter of months because you were still just a little bit too young.

For me, the two main things that get me feeling jealous, from a nostalgic perspective are sport and music. From the latter, I would loved to have seen Oasis in their prime. I also would have loved to have attended just one night at the Wigan Pier night club, just to experience it. I missed this by months.

Sports wise, I will always be gutted that I was just four years old when Burnden Park was demolished. I can’t even remember ever seeing the place out of a car window. I am among the first wave of Bolton fans who have no idea what life was like for the club away from The Reebok Stadium. It makes my experience of being a fan feel somewhat incomplete and there’s nothing I can ever do to fix that.

I sound a bit ungrateful now and I’m not. I know I am fortunate to have been brought into this world at a stable time, in comfortable surroundings. But I can’t help but feel envious of those who came before me.  I’m not even talking about wanting to have arrived ten years earlier. Maybe just two – three at a push. The amount of things I could have appreciated more are too hard to quantify.

One thing that I have been annoyed at myself for, for a few years is that I missed out on St Helens old ground, Knowsley Road. Those of you who know me will know I have absolutely zero emotional attachment to Saints, unless you count despising them as an emotion. However, having watched matches live on the TV from there and hearing numerous stories it simply looked like a stadium enthusiasts dream. Proper old school. Seeping with history. I was 15 when the final match was played there and just beginning to travel around to places on my own. 

If I had been born a year earlier, I know for a fact that I would have got to a match there. Not necessarily rugby either. St Helens Town FC played their football matches at Knowsley Road from 2002 until it’s closure in 2010.

The demolition of Knowsley Road brought to an end 120 years of play on the site. It also signalled yet another nail in the coffin for old grounds. If you look at the Super League now only Wakefield and Castleford still play at historical stadiums, with both of them constantly bleating on about how they will redevelop.

Of course, all sports clubs need to evolve and move forward. Especially in Rugby League, a sport that struggles to stand out even in it’s northern heartlands. That’s what St Helens did. The ageing Knowsley Road was replaced with houses and Langtree Park was built on land previously occupied by the town’s historical trade, a glass works. It was opened in time for the start of the 2012 season.

Back in May 2015, my visit to the newest stadium in Super League wasn’t the one I had envisaged when I looked at the logistics of getting to St Helens. I had imaged I would be stood on the terrace behind the sticks, taking in the full matchday experience.

That all changed when minnows York City Knights drew a plum tie away to St Helens. I had watched a handful of Knights matches when I lived up in York and followed their fortunes intermittently. They were going through a rough patch at the time. So rocky were things at the club, I had watched them play a ‘home match’ at Featherstone a few weeks earlier as a public row continued between the rugby club owner, the local council and the football club.

Many Knights fans were becoming disillusioned with their own club, while staff and volunteers were becoming increasingly low on the ground. So, when I was asked if I wanted to be the clubs photographer for the night at St Helens I snapped their hands off. Saints had been such a huge sporting name in my childhood that I was never going to turn down the opportunity of being pitch side.

I was on a break from University, so it was only a short journey over to St Helens for me from Atherton. Knights fan Ben had kindly arranged me a lift with his Dad. Arriving at Langtree Park, we parked up and walked over the Steve Prescott bridge, which had been named in honour of their former player. A man was stood on the left hand side playing bagpipes.

A queue was forming at the Ticket Office as I entered the main reception. For some reason, I began shaking and became really shy. It had just dawned on me that I was going behind the scenes at Saints. Before long I was taken through into a media holding room where I could make myself at home.

What else are you going to do when left in a room full of boxes and cupboards? Of course you’re going to rummage through them. A bit like they do on Come Dine With Me. Other than vast amounts of Typhoo tea, the clubs sponsors, there was one box which caught my eye. It contained an absolute treat.

Boots is one of the Saints mascots and I just couldn’t resist putting his head on before heading out pitch side for the match.

The York fans who had made the drive down to St Helens for this evening kick-off just wanted to see their team come away having grabbed one try. Saints had won the Challenge Cup on 12 occasions, while Knights had reached the final only once and that came back in 1931.

On top of that, League 1 side York were the lowest ranked team left in the competition. The odds were stacked so far against them, you wondered whether it was even worth their time turning up. 

Saints winger Tommy Makinson enjoyed a 22-point haul as the home side ran out victors with a comfortable 46-6 scoreline. Makinson ran in four of Saints’ nine tries, as well as kicking three of the home side’s five goals.

He was almost matched by Adam Swift who grabbed a hat-trick. Centre Mark Percival and forward Mark Flanagan got Saints’ other two tries.

With just three minutes left, York winger Tyler Craig earned the biggest cheer of the night when he went over in the corner, full-back Ben Dent booting the touchline conversion.

The attendance was 3,241, making the crowd less than a quarter of the stadium’s capacity. I fully understand that it was a cup game against part-timers and it wasn’t included in season ticket prices but it was a poor turn out. Standing tickets for adults were slashed to £10 and even then they struggled to shift them.

Perhaps if I ever make the trip back to Langtree Park again, it will feel a bit more like a match the locals truly care about. 

As for Saints, they went on to beat Widnes Vikings in the next round before being knocked out by Leeds Rhinos in the semi-final. In the league, they finished in second place, one point behind the Rhinos who lifted the leaders shield. 

Knights finished the League 1 campaign in fourth place, losing to Swinton in the play-offs. They eventually arranged an amicable ground share agreement with York Council and York City FC for Bootham Crescent. All parties await a time when they can move into the brand new LNER Stadium in Huntington.

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