I’m not generally a sport person. I can’t feign a passing interest in Wimbledon, or the football world cup, or whatever other showpiece sports events people seem able to lock into. Rugby League is the exception to the rule. It’s remained one of my greatest passions for decades.
Wasn’t always the case, I’d been influenced in infant school to support Liverpool in Football, and had got a replica kit and swapped any other Panini stickers to get a full Liverpool set. For an entire season I was taken by some fanatic neighbours to all the home games, even getting separated from them on one occasion and ending up in the home team dressing room at Anfield, whilst a tannoy announcement informed however many thousand people that I’d been found. When I was collected, I was lifted up by a copper (who should have got a police commendation for that strength) so I could touch the “This is Anfield” sign in the players tunnel. As being a lost child goes it really wasn’t so bad. The turning point came though, with the Heisel Stadium disaster. I watched it on TV and decided I would never go to another football match again. I think my Dad saw my declaration as an opportunity to get some company at the rugby.
I’d been to Knowsley Road (St Helens’ former ground) a fair few times with him and never quite gelled with it for whatever reason. There was no Kenny Dalglish or Graham Souness or any other famous name to latch on to, and as my primary school didn’t actually play rugby, there wasn’t that much of a knowledge of what was even going on, but when the time came for me to switch sport allegiance and start going regular, I was hooked in very fast.
There followed a decade of despair as I watched Saints be the nearly men time and time again. I sulked my way through three Wembley finals, each one horrific for different reasons; disallowed scores, nillings, debatable referee impartiality, the lot. It may very well have shaped my continued tendency towards a fatalistic outlook.
Eventually, in a blissful 1996 summer we were finally winners, and the adage that losing makes winning sweeter was crystalised as about as true a life lesson as you can get. I’ve seen them lose plenty of times since, and seen them win everything in a season. I’ve a very good overview of the sport of Rugby League because I’ve experienced it from every angle. As with most of my obsessions I’m an avid consumer of everything around it too, would never be enough to just watch the games, I’ve always had to collect the programmes, the console games, the magazines, everything. I wanted everything at my disposal to promote the game whenever I could, so wanted to be as widely clued up as possible about the sport.
When the magazine Forty-20 launched it quickly became my magazine of choice. It was a bit more considered than the other publications (behind closed doors I’ve heard certain editorial factions declare it to be the New Yorker of Rugby League), a less tabloidy affair (however tabloid a RL publication could get at any rate), and I found I was reading it cover to cover every month. They’d always said they were open to contributors, and in 2015, after getting disproportionately annoyed by the Sky coverage, I sat down and wrote an article which I submitted unsolicited. I wasn’t after a load of cash (which is lucky), nor was I thinking of it as a regular thing, I was just delighted when they accepted it and I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to the reveal of a professional engagement as I did in the run up to that magazine being published.
It’s a difficult thing to crowbar RL into my other work, particularly when you meet resistance to it, but this was an opportunity for me to express myself in a tailor-made environment. I was delighted again when they offered me a regular column – actually, properly delighted – and I still write it monthly to this day. I have a deadline and full freedom to write about whatever I like, and usually leave it months and months to invoice so it seems like I am paid something more akin to minimum wage, but I really like it. One day they may come to their senses and an eagle-eyed editor may spot my column and declare “Is he still writing in this!?”, but for the time being I am very proud to be a Rugby League writer, and very contented to be able to support the one sport and team I love, beyond just being on the terraces.
I appreciate that a regular column may read as nonsense to most on here, so this is an interview I did with Johnny Vegas for the Christmas 2016 issue:
Full article: Ian Boldsworth grills Johnny Vegas - December 2016
Much like prop forwards being said to exaggerate the length of field covered on their way to occasionally crossing a try line, Johnny Vegas steadfastly maintains that the kick for touch he took in Keiron Cunningham’s testimonial game at Knowsley Road 10 years ago was “huge”. Despite the fact the penalty was given right in front of my regular popular side viewing spot and the ball pretty much landed in front of my regular popular side viewing spot. It is one of my favourite things to wind him up with, but it seems that when one has been given a celebrity subs bench spot for the saints, absolutely anything seems plausible.
“It sailed up!” He says as I smirk at him. “I kicked from the right-hand wing over to the left and wowed the crowd!”
For the fourth time this evening I explain to him that he hasn’t even remembered what side of the pitch he was on, he thinks he was in front of the seated stand and eventually a bit of amused resignation starts to creep in.
“Oh don’t take this away from me… I’ve maybe built it up to more than it was”
It’s the only jealousy swipe I can make at him for that night, with his re-imagining perhaps more understandable when you consider the achievement of getting him on the pitch in the first place to do what wild horses wouldn’t stop most St Helens lads doing. What had started as a dream segment for his show, became a far more terrifying prospect after a combination of several mates’ warning, pre-match checks and a producer fearing for the safety of their star after watching his first ever half of RL. Friendly or not, he must have been scrolling the insurance clauses of Vegas’s contract. Add to this, Nick Fozzard giving an “academy award worthy” performance whilst having stitches at half time, explaining to Johnny that the Hull number 11 was gunning for him (“Where can I go where he won’t find me!?”), plus the fact that Vegas was supping Dutch courage in the Bird I’th hand Pub when the game kicked off, and we have an explanation for why, with his first touch of the ball, Vegas threw it over his shoulder as though it were about to explode. It was a surreal and hilarious eight minutes, as entertaining as anything seen on that ground for none of the usual reasons. It was very nearly crowned with a try on 82 minutes, when filling the substituted Darren Albert’s place on the wing he ran at a chip through.
“I genuinely thought I was running like the wind…” He laments. “And when you watch it back it was so upsetting, because all you can compare it to is if you took one of them wind-up toys out of the bath and put it upright. The way my arms were going.”
Neverthess, just a few minutes later he was chucking his number 30 shirt into the chanting popular side having completed his first, and thus far only, match for a team he had watched for thirty years. And not many make debut after being a fan for thirty years. He may well be the only one, but it’s a dream I still cling to. Not going to be at Knowlsey Road though is it? He’ll always have that over me. We start reminiscing about the old ground and I tell him that I personally can’t even turn my head when I find myself over that side of town. If you look down Gladstone Street, with your back to where it was, you can kid yourself that it’s still behind you for the briefest moment of sanctuary.
“You know what, I totally appreciate that. Even the selfish difference of the fact we were just round the corner. I’d get my brothers season tickets for Christmas. Having a pint and walking down, was almost sort of making up for what I didn’t get to do when I was younger. It’s odd now jumping in a cab and jumping out, but we did bemoan the fact that everybody else was getting new stadiums and it was a bit embarrassing peeing against a wall…”
As you may have noticed, there’s a slightly complicated emotional history to his relationship with the club. Before he was old enough his Dad had regularly watched Saints with his brothers, but by the time Johnny (or Michael Pennington as he securely was then) came of age, his dad had been made redundant, a despondent and depressingly familiar experience for many St Helens folk in that period and simply stopped going. We consider this as we talk about our similarities in missing Knowsley Road. Neither of us have any real beef with Langtree Park or…it’s new name, but certainly for me, I didn’t want to leave the other. Too many memories, that our new stadium could never have been expected to evoke.
“I think the difference is, because of the size of the place, it never feels as full as Knowsley Road. Maybe it’s that, be careful what you wish for? but I didn’t have those memories of going to the match with my dad and stuff. It’s bizarre, my dad, for someone who loves his rugby so much, it must be because of the pressures he was under at the time, he just didn’t go. So, we never really had that sitting down and watching the game together relationship, that my brothers’d had. I discovered it myself so it wasn’t the bonding experience that most St Helens kids have with their parents.”
There’s a lot to this, Whilst not from a particularly close family, every text that goes between my dad and myself is related to rugby league. I did go with my Dad, same spot every week. Nowadays he doesn’t consider himself well enough to go, and when I go to Saints, even in a ground he’s never set foot in, there’s certainly something irritatingly missing from the experience. I mean, I’ve seen much sicker than him still making it to the games but that’s a whole other discussion.
“The thing with rugby league, is you can have a person who can be, let’s say emotionally stunted and can’t express themselves, but the one thing they can do, is they can bond over this. We’ve been out of St Helens, off doing stand-up. We’ve had these experiences that our parents haven’t, but the one thing where they can speak with absolute confidence and the one thing they can impart to their kids, is the rugby. Where everyone’s opinion is valid, you know what I mean? Well..unless they’re Wigan but…”
So with his dad staying away from the club, he found his own way to Knowsley Road, taking advantage of it’s easier access in favour of keeping the entrance money for other treats, not always without incident.
“my mam bought us this new Adidas cagoule and I was made up with it. We were climbing in and it snagged on the barbed wire, and one of the guards was coming so I just had to leg it. I jumped off and heard this rip, and as I ran off, the front of it fell forward and the only thing holding it on was the elastic round my wrists, the total back half of it had just come off on the barbed wire. And I had to go home and tell my mum that a Wiganer had tried to pull it off me. Even my mum went “Well it’s just like them innit…”.
The years of being a little St Helens scamp have been set into perspective now, with the adventures that followed. We are both in agreement that we’ve been privileged to have watched the greatest St Helens player of all time in Paul Wellens (“I’ve never known a more dedicated, safe set of hands, just never doubted for a second when he was there just how committed he was, just how much danger he put himself in without a second thought, just…inspiring.”)“ and in 2004 we found ourselves in the players hotel after the Challenge Cup Final defeat of Wigan which, all these years later, still makes us grin from ear to ear. It wasn’t even a celebrity free pass, we blagged in there by saying “Sean Hoppe said it was ok”, which was actually, sort of, a bit, true, in a sense. I told a young James Graham what a brilliant player he was, ruining it slightly by adding “on the Playstation game”, and as I was leaving late in the night Johnny was loudly telling a baffled Stevo that “everyone is clammering for oil but coal is still the way”, of which he insists he still has no regrets.
“We just laughed from start to finish, and then got the result, and ended up in the hotel with the players… to get our picture with the trophy on the day of the match, it doesn’t get any better.”
It really doesn’t. It was some day, and partly explains our conclusion that not carrying on a relationship with Cardiff was a mis-step by the RFL.
“I wouldn’t have gone back to Wembley, I’d have kept it in Cardiff. We all had average tickets and I’ve never known a stadium like it, it’s like a socialist stadium. Everyone is right on top of the game, everyone has such an amazing view, it’s right in the city centre, they want you there. I took my dad to Twickenham and after the match they were like ‘get’em back on the buses quick’. Cardiff was the first time as fans, outside of our own towns where we play each other, where I felt wanted. Rather than suffered or put up with.”
In recent years, the fortunes of our club have been a rollercoaster, with the season just gone being a particularly uneasy ride, and being held up as a celebrity mascot hasn’t always sat well with him. He originally got involved with the club in the showbiz years when Millward was involved, which makes it far clearer why he ended up on the bench for that game, given Basil’s sometimes unconventional selection process. But when Millward was given the boot it left Johnny in a slightly awkward contest of loyalty. Even with the continued glory years that followed, he’s still very animated about how Millward left the club, and the quandary it put him in.
“You’re expected to tow the line, but you go to the sit-in and think ‘well if I’m burning bridges, I’m burning bridges’ but I can’t fathom…this isn’t being explained to us in a way that makes any sense whatsoever. And after that, for a while, I made a very conscious decision to go, you know what, if I go from now on, I pay for my own ticket. I don’t want to feel that I’m bought up. Come back to it as a fan like when I was a kid.”
This crisis of loyalties again comes into play, particularly season’s like 2016, with the difficulties of who Saints Supporter Johnny Vegas belongs to. Whenever he’s tweeted anything vaguely critical of Saints this year, it’s come with the risk of the boo boys appropriating him for their own bizarre foot-shooting proclamations, but he is far from in that camp.
“You know what, walking out before the end of games… we’re not Wigan! I thought there was a bit more to us. And booing? If we’re having a tough time, don’t hand it to the other team on a plate. All go home and shake on your sofas because you’re worried for Saints, but don’t give the visiting fans the pleasure of seeing us bickering amongst ourselves!”
When Keiron Cunningham was booed mid-season on the big screen, it’s the first time in my life I’ve felt any shame in being a Saints fan, to the point where I was going out of my way to defend the club and players, especially those that criticised the use of former players in the coaching staff, as if there is such a chasm of understanding between knowing the game as a coach or a player, but every time I write words for this magazine criticising either my club or fellow supporters, there’s a real concern of being seen as disloyal and I can see that dilemma in Johnny as we discuss this.
“Well, years ago, these would have been all the ones who were moaning “Why are all the coaches Australian?”, “Why are our lads having to go to union?” and you go, right so wouldn’t it make sense as a transition period, to have lads who have been playing, who will have known that younger squad of players coming through, to enable that transition for them of stepping up to the big time? We have got the shortest memories as fans. It beggars belief sometimes.”
He suddenly challenges me with the question that all Saints supporters have fought asking themselves for the last few seasons.
“You know, for me growing up watching them as a kid, they could be terrible one week and another week amazing, so…I’ll ask you…would you trade tomorrow the genius of Saints when they were at their best, for more consistency? If they said to you for your life we’ll give you two more league wins and two more Challenge Cups, would you trade in seeing Saints play their rugby for the heartbreak? Would you trade in for a bit more consistency or is that what made Saints the most exciting?”
I dodge it for a while, but reluctantly agree to the terms. The issue is, I explain, the game has changed. Concessions have to be made to the style of RL we are all now lumbered with until the next shake up. The truth is, there probably isn’t a team in the land that would concede the “Wide to West” try any more, everyone’s clued up. Plus Saints are a marked team for the ‘Get Out Of Jail’ card. So myself and Johnny spend the rest of the evening reminiscing on the halcyon days. He pinpoints the Saints Bradford Final at Twickenham as the beginning of the end, in that it seemed to be the first time defence was favoured over attack. For a while we managed both, but at the time of writing, the “grind” is hogging the stage. We wind down in reflective mood, pondering what the club has meant to us over the years, and what it means today. We’re both exiles now. It’s a long time since I’ve lived in the north west, and Vegas has for the last two years been full time in London, despite much of the St Helens public mistakenly thinking he’d left fifteen ago if the frequent questioning of “what you doing back?” was anything to go by. And watching the Red Vee has taken on more importance than just the rugby these days…
“It’s like a cleansing, going back and just being amongst your own. It’s been a very hard thing to actually in conversation say that I now live in London. I’m not a professional northerner, I don’t get off on slagging off London or anywhere else, but I miss home. Going to the match, is like a quick fix to everything, being amongst them, and there’s never a point where I’ve felt I have to be wary or anything. At the games, you’re back to Mike Pennington, you’re back to people who knew you when, and you’re about to watch a game, it takes me back to a simpler time.”
I nod my agreement and then sincerely say that you’d think with that love he has for the club, and the town, he’d have gotten the ball further up that touchline.
“You know I’m going to watch that the second you’ve gone. You’ll either get a text shouting at you that it clearly went further than you said, or radio silence for three months.”
I’m still waiting for the call.