Keiron Cunningham deserved more support instead of the sack, according to Super League’s longest-serving head coach.
Cunningham, 40, became the first Super League coaching casualty of 2017 when St Helens announced his departure eight matches into the season.
The former Saints and Great Britain hooker, who is immortalised in a bronze statue outside the club’s ground as a testimony to his 24 years’ service, has paid the price for his team’s disappointing start to the season.
St Helens go into their Good Friday derby at Wigan in seventh place after winning just three of their opening eight matches.
Cunningham, who made 496 appearances for his home-town club from 1993 to 2010, joined their backroom staff initially as assistant strength and conditioning coach and, after serving as right-hand man to Australian Nathan Brown for two seasons, was appointed his successor following the 2014 Grand Final win over Wigan.
Warrington boss Tony Smith, the former Leeds and England coach who has been in charge of the Wolves since 2009, has much sympathy for Cunningham, arguing he was not given enough time to develop as a head coach.
“I had the pleasure of watching a lot of his career,” Smith said. “He was a fantastic player for that club.
“That doesn’t necessarily means it qualifies you to be a great coach and sometimes those players need time to be trained to be great coaches.
“In coaching terms, he only served a reasonably short apprenticeship.
“Somebody alongside Keiron with more experience might well have helped him through the next phase of his development.”
Cunningham came under pressure last season after Saints won just nine of their opening 18 matches, but looked secure after they rallied to reach the play-off semi-finals.
However, chairman Eamonn McManus issued a warning after they suffered three consecutive defeats in the first month of the season that only winning a trophy would be good enough for a club of the stature of St Helens, and last Friday’s 14-14 home draw with Huddersfield was the final straw.
Cunningham has also come in for criticism from fans for the team’s style of play since the departure of Brown, but Smith, whose Warrington team are currently four places below St Helens in the table, insists the blame should not fall solely on the coach’s shoulders.
“I think there’s a certain style that some clubs prefer and whether that style has been fulfilled there, I’m not so sure, but sometimes the administrators have got to be strong and stick by their coaches and help them develop and develop the style their club requires,” Smith said.
“They should help educate and be supportive of their young coach until they get the whole buy-in. I often feel the people that make the appointments need to take some responsibility for the appointments rather than scapegoat on coaches sometimes.”
Cunningham’s assistants Sean Long and Jamahl Lolesi will be joined by Under-19s coach Derek Traynor to form an interim coaching team until a new head coach is appointed.
McManus said: “Keiron has been with the club for 24 years as man, boy, player and coach. The commitment that he has shown to the club throughout, and in every capacity, has been without equal.
“It is both upsetting and disappointing for us all that it has ended at this point in time.
“Keiron nevertheless understands the position and, as a mark of the man that he is, wishes only well and good to the club, its players and everyone associated with it.
“His statue outside the ground is a deserved reflection of his immense contribution to the club. That is clear, obvious and permanent.
“We will now look to move the club forward and will immediately commence the search for a new head coach. St.Helens is a world-class club with a great squad of players and its only objective will be continuous success at the highest level.”
Meanwhile, Smith says he intends to get in touch with Cunningham to encourage him to stay in the game.
“I certainly hope that Keiron gets an another opportunity at some stage to develop and prove himself,” he added.