Bradford Three revel in new-found freedom

CHALLENGE CUP COUNTDOWN: Nickle, Loughlin and Dwyer aim to make St Helens rue their departure, says Dave Hadfield
Click to follow
When Paul Loughlin returned to Knowsley Road a couple of weeks ago, he walked instinctively into the home changing-room.

It was an understandable mistake. Loughlin, a Saint for 12 years and more, had never expected to go back to the ground as a member of the opposition.

Nor had Bernard Dwyer, another one-club man who had been there almost as long. Nor had Sonny Nickle - a more recent signing, but one who also assumed that he would be staying at St Helens for the foreseeable future.

But one afternoon in November, all three were told that they were Saints no more. Bradford wanted them in part- exchange for Paul Newlove in the world's biggest transfer deal.

"We could have refused, but it was made pretty clear to us that there was not much future for us at the club if we did," says Loughlin.

Excited as they were with such an acquisition, the price in departed favourites was too much for some St Helens supporters; it would not have been a surprise to see banners at the next match reading: "Free the Bradford Three".

As for the players themselves, they sat grim-faced at their welcoming press conference at Odsal, like kids who had been enjoying themselves playing out and had been dragged off to visit a particularly tiresome maiden aunt instead.

"It wasn't what any of us had in mind," Dwyer said. "But we're professionals. Things happen and you have to make the best of them."

All three have done rather better than that, Loughlin recapturing some of the form that made him Great Britain's regular centre in the late 80s and early 90s and Dwyer and Nickle adding quality to the Bradford pack.

"The difference is that we feel wanted here," says Dwyer, another to benefit from the change of scene once he got used to the extent of that change.

"It was haywire at first," he says. "Every time you came to training there were another couple of new players there. The remarkable thing is how well it has all come together now."

Nickle, a Yorkshireman but one who still lives in St Helens and travels over with the rest of the contingent from the town, is well placed to assess attitudes there. "I don't think people there were right pleased about the way we left - the way it was done," he says. "I think a lot of them are just pleased that Bradford are at Wembley, because that means that the three lads who left are there."

There is, says Dwyer, another reason why Saints' supporters are happy for them to be at Wembley. "The people in St Helens think they've got the cup already. All the pressure is on them, while we're going there under no pressure whatsoever."

Although all three players claim that they will treat Saints like any other opposing side, there is bound to be some extra frisson for them on Saturday; some sense of having something to prove.

All three have the ability to make their old club regret discarding them. "I wish I could do more deals like the one that brought them here," says their coach at Bradford, Brian Smith.

Nickle, provided he keeps his head, can do considerable damage down the right-hand side of the pitch, balancing the destructive work of Jeremy Donougher on the left. "Between us, we can be a handful," he says.

Dwyer, one of just a handful of players in the match with previous Wembley experience, has been given a crucial role at hooker, with Smith reasoning that his know-how will be more valuable than Jason Donohue's sprightly pace.

But the real Wembley specialist is Loughlin, one of the few players in the history of the game with three losers' medals, from defeats there with St Helens in 1987, 1989 and 1991.

"I've got enough losers' medals," he says. "I'm having them melted down to make a couple of rings. But it would be pretty ironic if, after leaving Saints, I finally got a winners' one."

Provided he goes into the right dressing-room at Wembley, a revitalised Loughlin, feeding off a wide-running second row like Donougher, could do Saints as much harm as he did Leeds in the semi- final.

An unlucky player with injuries as well as cup finals, there might even be a few people in St Helens who would not begrudge him a change of fortune this time.