Rugby League: Hanley directs Saints soap opera

Rugby League: St Helens and coach forge reconciliation that puts club's football executive in near-untenable position

IT WAS, as the chairman and the re-instated coach kept saying, business as normal at St Helens yesterday, whatever normality means at this stage in its 104-year history. Howard Morris and Ellery Hanley smiled and shook hands as they pledged their futures together, their strife of the last couple of weeks dismissed as a mere tiff.

A tiff, however, that had seen Hanley suspended on full pay for nine days; a bitter two-week slanging match with the club's football executive, Eric Hughes; the board described as a bunch of "dinosaurs" and a sit-in by fans.

The atmosphere at Knowsley Road had become so soured that a compromise seemed impossible yet Hanley reported back for work at 9.30 yesterday, his apology accepted and everything seemingly smoothed over at the Super League club whose proud history boasts eight championships and seven Challenge Cup triumphs. Morris described the reconciliation as "a commercial decision", adding: "Ellery is here because we decided he is the best man for the job. Ellery said some things, we said things; we're back together."

That brought to an end, for now, a story that began last August when Saints decided to pay a king's ransom to persuade the 38-year-old Hanley, one of the outstanding players of his generation and a distinguished captain of Wigan and Great Britain, to come back from Australia to be their coach.

Although Hughes was closely involved with bringing him to Saints on a two-year contract, relations between the two men deteriorated over the question of who was responsible for the ill-fated signing of the Australian, Phil Adamson.

Matters took a further turn for the worse when the team's early season form stuttered into a series of defeats and Hanley, silent and aloof towards the media for years, came out with a string of denunciations of the board's failure to provide him with reinforcements. They were, he said in a magazine article, "disgraceful" and "arrogant and rude".

Hanley and Hughes clashed again over his comments but Hanley had the backing of the fans, so much so that even when Saints recorded their biggest win of the season, 74-16, against Hull last Sunday, 1,000 supporters refused to leave the terraces at the end of the game and Hughes was warned to stay out of sight beneath the stand for his own safety. The animosity spread to Janette Smith, the Saints' physiotherapist and Hughes' girlfriend, who was abused everytime she went on to the pitch. Even the ground announcer became a target after telling spectators that it was "nice to see that the education system is alive and well in St Helens".

"It was a pity the ground reacted the way they did," Morris said, "but St Helens is bigger than the board and bigger than Ellery and will be around for longer than either."

It looked like Hanley was heading for the sack, but on Tuesday came an apology in which Hanley regretted his comments "suggesting that the board is in any way old-fashioned or unprofessional".

Hanley is now eager to move on. "We've all learned lessons. I always learn from my mistakes," he said yesterday, adding carefully: "If you call it a mistake. It's not a climbdown at all. As far as I'm concerned, I never left the club. I was still head coach during my suspension."

He also declared his willingness to work with others at the club, presumably including, although the name did not actually pass his lips, Hughes.

"I'm completely focused on the job I've got to do," he insisted. "I've got a football team I've got to get ready to play on Friday evening. From 9.30 this morning I got on with the job and nothing will distract me at all."

Hanley even said he could come to terms with the lack of money for any immediate team strengthening -- the cause of the original rift between board and coach.

"I'm governed by the Board and what funds are available," he said. "What's happened has happened and we all move on from here."

As far as Morris is concerned "nothing has changed. It's not so much a matter of funds as of timing."

Hanley lost patience with fielding the same inevitable question about his ability to work with Hughes to the extent of hanging up on air to Radio Five Live, but he did pay fulsome tribute to the two sets of people - the supporters and the players, whose support appears to have been crucial.

"The spectators have been fantastic. If I could go now and shake hands with every one of them I would do it," he said.

The support from his players had been equally fantastic, said Hanley as he began preparations for Friday's Super League game against Leeds at Headingley. "I've got to give a special rap to Nigel Ashley-Jones, who held the ship together while I've been away."

Morris, however, pointedly denied that pressure from either source had had any effect on the club's decision to reinstate him. "No disrespect to the fans, but they made no difference at all," he said. "And I haven't spoken to the players about it, although players will always back an incumbent coach."

The fans themselves might not be so easily convinced that they played no part. Ian Burrows pedalled his bike down to Knowsley Road to welcome Hanley back and said: "It shows they bow to the fans' pressure. I think the demonstration on Sunday scared the Board."

One of the men behind that protest during and after the game against Hull, the organiser of the new Independent Saints' Supporters Association, Russel Fairclough, agreed.

"If it wasn't for the strength of feeling shown, I don't think he would have got his job back," he said. "I got home last night and turned Teletext on and thought I was hallucinating. Euphoria was an understatement."

Someone who might have felt less euphoric when he turned his Teletext on that night was Hughes, whose position must be close to untenable now that Hanley is back.

Hughes, who stayed away yesterday "in the best interests of the club to let them get the first part over", said: "I haven't spoken to any of the directors and I need to have a talk with them about the whole situation. Someone had to state the club's case. I took that mantle on, which I don't regret for a minute."

Hughes would not comment on whether he felt able to work with Hanley, but hoped that the board had not been influenced by Sunday's crowd demonstration.

"If you let that type of element make decisions at board level you've really lost it," he said. "There was also a lot of support for our decision from a more thoughtful, intelligent element and it remains to be seen what they will make of it."

Hughes still has a potential libel action against Hanley in the hands of his solicitors but said he would go into work normally today, seeking a meeting as soon as possible with the directors to see "what follow-up action is going to be taken to make it work".

He is unlikely to find a chastened Hanley, or one whose confidence in the strength of his position has been in any way diminished.

There might still be a car parked outside Knowsley Road bearing yesterday's notice: "Justice done. Hanley for king. Hughes for court jester." Suffice it to say that Hughes was not laughing at the latest turn of events in the Saints' soap opera. Whatever the party line yesterday, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Saints board lost its nerve and that Hughes could be the one to pay the price for that climbdown.

"I've never had any drama with Howard Morris," said Hanley, but that does not mean that the drama is over. As they shook hands and grinned for the cameras, there was a ghost at the feast and it is one that can still come back to haunt this turbulent club.

main players in the saga at st helens

ELLERY HANLEY

The former Great Britain captain and coach and arguably the foremost British player of his generation, he was brought back from Australia at huge expense to coach St Helens this season. Famously single-minded and determined, one fear was that the fans would not take to him because of his Wigan connections.

ERIC HUGHES

The tough ex-Widnes and Great Britain player, who was St Helens' last coach but one. His return as football executive paved the way for the departure of chief executive David Howes and coach Shaun McRae. Closely involved in the recruitment of Hanley but destined to clash with him from early in their working relationship.

JEANETTE SMITH

Saints' physio and also the girlfriend of Hughes. If that was not enough to damn her in the eyes of the St Helens militants, Hanley's revelation that she would not speak to him certainly did so. Subjected to fierce hostility every time she went on to the field against Hull on Sunday.

HOWARD MORRIS

A local solicitor and member of the St Helens board for several years. His faction effectively gained control last season bringing in Hughes and shedding Howes and McRae. As chairman, he both brought in Hanley and suspended him.

PHIL ADAMSON

Well-regarded Australian forward who was unwitting catalyst for feud between Hanley and Hughes. Denied the opportunity to wash his hands publicly of a player he did not rate in the club programme, Hanley blamed Hughes for misleading the St Helens public.

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