Cunningham: We’re close to first piece of silverware

Saints coach Keiron Cunningham
Saints coach Keiron Cunningham

Keiron Cunningham is still to lift a major piece of silverware since becoming the coach of St Helens ahead of the 2015 season.

The Saints’ supremo had to swallow the bitter pill of defeat during his first year in charge against Leeds Rhinos in both the Challenge Cup semi-final and the play-off semi-final and then could only kick his heels in frustration last season as the club bowed out of the cup competition at the fifth round stage to the eventual winners, Hull FC, before their Grand Final dreams were shattered 80 minutes away from Old Trafford by Warrington Wolves.

Rightly or wrongly, it earned them the ‘nearly men’ tag and already some fans have suggested on the Red Vee web site that 2017 is a make-or-break year for the 40-year-old.

It’s a view I don’t share and like the man at the helm I believe he has assembled his strongest squad to date. Yes. he will be expected to deliver the goods on the field by a demanding St Helens public but it won’t be the end of the world if the trophy cabinet remains bare for another 12 months.

The foundations are in place - reflected by the Academy side’s 22-20 extra-time victory over neighbours Wigan Warriors in September’s Grand Final at Langtree Park - and with the recruitment of Matty Smith, Ryan Morgan, Tommy Lee, Adam Walker and Luke Douglas Saints will be there or thereabouts when the trophies are handed out.

It seems the bookies are also thinking on similar lines - and more often than not they are right with their assessments.

They have Wigan Warriors 11/4 to retain their Super League crown with Warrington Wolves 100/30 and Saints 5/1.

St Helens are also quoted at 5/1 to win the Challenge Cup behind joint 4/1 favourites Wigan and Warrington.

But whoever emerges triumphant in both competitions keeping a fit squad will be as vital as ever, even though the Warriors defied the odds by claiming the 2016 title despite the kind of injury list which would have crippled most teams.

“I’m really excited by what lies ahead,” declared Cunningham.

“We stuttered a little bit at the start of last year and then had a dip in form before finishing strongly.

“Consistency is the biggest thing we now need to show and with the durability of the new players we have brought it this can be achieved.”

Despite the signing of five new faces, the Saints’ boss insisted that their recruitment might not be over.

“We are always interested in new blood but at the end of the day it is a question of what’s out there.

“If a player comes available who is better than we’ve got you are never going to say never.’’

But he is more than satisfied with the squad of players under his wings and itching to see how they operate, particularly from one to seven.

“We will pose a big threat with pace in this area and once an opening is created then I’m sure tries will follow.

“Bringing in Morgan, who is a genuine right centre, to play along side Mark Percival will give us striking power on both sides of the field - something we have possibly lacked since the days of Matt Gidley and Willie Talau.

“We can also change the way we play slightly from the past few seasons because we’ve got pace, power and genuine football players.”

Only time will tell whether Cunningham’s confidence will bear fruit.