Rugby League: Flak to the board after Hanley's suspension

Dave Hadfield expects the fans to lash back at Knowsley Road
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IT WILL be, by their chairman's admission, "a tin hat job" for the St Helens board at Knowsley Road before, during and after the match against Hull this afternoon. Howard Morris has been the man in the firing line since the decision last week to suspend the club's coach, Ellery Hanley, after his own fusillade against the directors. They have been left in little doubt whose side the supporters are on.

Letters and calls to the club last week have reinforced the conclusion of radio and TV phone-ins that most spectators are solidly behind Hanley. "The silent majority haven't been asked, but it's true that the majority of the letters are against us," says Morris. "There are rumours of something at the match and it will no doubt happen. Nobody mentioned the board when we won nine games on the trot, but now..."

They are certainly mentioning the board now in St Helens, but there is nothing unusual in that. At any stage in the club's recent history, you could have found an enthusiastic quorum in any pub or club in the town for the proposition that the directors did not know what they were doing; it is in the nature of the club's relationship with its public. It is equally inevitable that Hanley, portraying himself as the man who wants to spend, would be more popular in the town than men in blazers saying: "Just hang on a minute."

Although the details of the dispute are now in the domain of both sides' lawyers - and Morris himself is, conveniently, a solicitor - he has some apposite things to say in defence of the board. Saints have, he says, brought in expensive high-profile signings like Kevin Iro and Fereti Tuilagi, not to mention the king's ransom they are paying Hanley.

But the days when clubs can have experienced cover for every eventuality have gone. The salary cap should see to that and when they are limited to 20 players on full-time contracts next year, clubs will have no option but to delve into their junior ranks when their first team is depleted. "We can't keep signing players," says Morris. "Nobody will be able to."

The St Helens board thought that Hanley was taking the job on the understanding that the players he had inherited would be the ones he would have to work with, at least for his first year in charge.

Hence the shock with which they have reacted to his various outbursts about their uselessness in not strengthening appreciably in mid-season - and the irony of him using the media so vigorously in that cause has not been lost on them. "It's strange, isn't it, that a man who hasn't spoken to the press for most of his career should speak out like this?" asks Morris. Strange? This is rugby league, after all.

Morris believes that the board had no choice but to suspend Hanley over his attacks on them. They have now had the chance to substantiate those attacks with audio and video tapes - not that Hanley has denied any of the statements attributed to him.

The key question now is how seriously he has breached his contract; if the answer is sufficiently to be dismissed without having his lucrative contract paid up to the end of the year 2000, then the club will breathe a sigh of relief.

For all that, Morris will not admit to regrets about making the appointment of Hanley as coach in the first place. "It was a commercial decision," he says. "It brought us a lot of good publicity and a lot of good results. Now it's bringing us a lot of bad publicity."

Everyone will be under scrutiny today to see how they react to this bizarre situation. It cannot, despite their captain Chris Joynt's insistence that it is business as usual, be easy for the players; nor is it the scenario that Hanley's assistants, Nigel Ashley-Jones and John Myler, envisaged when they signed up.

You could argue that they are lucky to be playing Super League's bottom club, but that will only accentuate any failings which manifest themselves on the field of play.

Most of all, the pressure will be heaped upon the board. Hanley managed to deflect any blame for deteriorating results away from himself during his reign at Knowsley Road; the directors will certainly take the rap for any misadventures from now on.

They will get little sympathy in St Helens, because not everything that Hanley said about the way in which, what are essentially, groups of amateurs run professional sports organisations was wrong.

The directors do not always give the impression that they know what they are doing. For proof of that look back to last August and the way they appointed Ellery Hanley while not expecting him to act in the way that makes him Ellery Hanley. It is for that mistake that insults will rain down at Knowsley Road this afternoon.