In my mind I could see only one thing. Saints in their blue-and-white striped centennial kit, a packed Knowsley Road, and the lap of honour as they picked-up their first League Championship trophy for an age.
It was 1996. It was a packed-out Knowsley Road stadium. It signalled the crumbling of Wigan’s stranglehold on rugby league that all but throttled the life from the sport. It heralded the start of a golden age for the Saints. It launched the inaugural Super League with a mighty bang. It was Shaun McRae in his halcyon days.
I think the crowd was entitled to be frustrated and upset
Shaun McRae, Head Coach, Salford City Reds
But here before me now, a decade and a half later, sat a very different McRae; visibly shaken by the events of the previous couple of hours his comments at the press conference were laced with emotion.
That same St.Helens club had just demolished McRae’s current charges, Salford City Reds, 56-22 on their own paddock. It was a shambolic display that roused the crowd’s ire within the first quarter of the game.
By the half-hour mark they were baying from McRae’s head. Passion for your club and your city is an integral part of the sport and one hand it is heartening to know that so many care so much. But it was impossible not to feel for the coach as he made the long walk across the pitch to the chorus of boos and cat-calls at half time and again at full time. Two games into the season it was an indignity and an insult I don’t feel he deserved.
Commenting on McRae’s plight Saints current head coach, Royce Simmons, was empathetic saying:
Been there and done it. In fact at this ground one day I nearly got killed I think (whilst coach of Hull); if it hadn’t been for a couple of big bobbies picking me up and throwing me in a room.
All coaches go through that I think. The great Wayne Bennett lost seven games in a row once and they were calling for his head at the (Brisbane) Broncos.
That’s footy. All coaches go through it at times and he’s going through it now, so I guess I do feel for him, yeah.
As for McRae, he defended his players against some critical questioning:
We’ve all seen what St.Helens can do to sides when they have a lot of ball and momentum. I can’t tell you if there’s an attitude problem or not. All I can say is we practised well and From training I thought we’d come out and put up a competitive performance against a good side; but it wasn’t the case.
I copped it at half time, full time, and that’s fair enough. I accept that. I have a responsibility to the team and to the club and I have a responsibility to everyone involved. That’s one of the hardest things in coaching … that you have to please a lot of people. And I’ve not pleased too many people with those two performances.
I’m at the head of the table I suppose and I’ve got to accept criticism; just as I accept plaudits if we win.
I think the crowd was entitled to be frustrated and upset. There were a lot of things said there tonight that have given me something to think about anyway. I’ve just got to go away and have a think about that. Maybe make some decision in a couple of days time.
Asked what sort of decisions a more composed McRae answered:
Well … decisions about how to get the best out of players. I’ve got to look at our playing group and what were doing, clearly what we’ve been doing in the past two matches isn’t good enough.
If you were thinking about a resignation then that’s not in my mind.
There’s got to be a lot of fight in this organization and I’d like to lead that fight. There’s a personal pride attached to what we do. This is a down time at the moment and we’ve just got to try and come out of it all together.
Although the questioning again turned to the responsibility of players in delivering results, McRae would have none of it, responding again to defend them saying:
They are charged with a game plan, which they accept, but I’m not going to sit here and rubbish players.
Everyone is all accountable. I’ve got staff. We all try to stick together; to come up with the goods.
The reality is that’s my job. The players … it’d be an understatement to say they didn’t get it right tonight … but we still have a responsibility for what we do as coaches. I gotta support my players. I want them to support me.
All in all it was an honest and emotional reaction from a coach who has earned more respect than he was shown that night in Salford … off and on the pitch.
Whether the decision will remain Shaun’s to make is likely to be determined not by the baying fans in The Shed, but by the performances of his players and perhaps more tellingly by the increased need to succeed that on-going development work on Salford’s new stadium piles onto the board of directors.
Salford were one of the most innovative and exciting clubs in rugby league. The game needs them to succeed. Their current woes are less a function of McRae’s coaching as they are of the financial constraints on the mid-teir Super League clubs against which increased fan expectations inevitably flounder.
Whilst the new stadium is no panacea for those woes, the opportunity for increased revenue streams that ought to arise from it certainly could be. For now the passion of the City Reds fans would better serve the club if it were directed outside the tent.