First published in Rugby League World, Issue 372 (April 2012)
Ground: Langtree Park
Game: v Salford City Reds
Date: Friday 10 February 2012
Making my way to St Helens, I realised this would be a most unusual experience for me. I must have been to about 200 professional rugby and football grounds around the world, but I can only remember ever seeing one opening game before, and that was the new Wembley. I’d never been at the birth of a club’s new home.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Saints: undoubtedly born of their thrillingly entertaining teams early in the Super League era. Reading the special edition programme, I learned that Saints had only joined the game’s trophy-gathering elite in the fifties and that there was a two-decade silver drought from the mid-70s, a reminder that the top dogs are forever changing, even if it’s so gradual we hardly notice at the time. It is with that potential decline in mind that Eamonn McManus drove this project forward for 12 years, and he is a rightly proud host tonight.
The result is a foregone conclusion: Salford have lost 27 straight away games against St Helens and not won there since 1980 – surely one of professional sports worst records.
St Helens have followed fashion by building their new home on a brown field site in the town centre. America led the way: San Diego and San Francisco both built beautiful baseball parks in post-industrial areas a short walk from their city centres, and out of town stadiums were soon heading out of fashion. Hull, Warrington and Wigan have already done it. The benefits are obvious: the stadium is part of the fabric of the town, a constant presence. As I descend from the north-east through Blackbrook, Langtree Park’s lights are the brightest sight in town. It’s well sign-posted and only half a mile from the A58. Junction 23 of the M6 is only 10 minutes to the east and St Helens train station a short walk away.
There is no public parking at the ground but the club have arranged use of three major car parks nearby for a £1 per car. The vast majority of fans park in town and make the 15 minute walk in. I arrive later than planned and end up parking on the 11th floor of Chalon Way multi-storey and march briskly round the World of Glass, past St Helens Chamber, over the frozen canal and across the new Saints Way Bridge, illuminated pink and red and already a landmark. The excited masses swarm over the footbridge towards the monolithic glass cathedral. There it is, glittering in the dark: Tesco Extra. The queues are for the cash-point, not the turnstiles. We all have to squeeze around the supermarket and along the red path of McManus Drive to the ground itself.
The extensive landscaping – trees planted, lawns laid, stone walls built – will all look far more attractive in summer. It makes me question the decision to stage the opening game on a Friday night in February. Fans won’t get to fully appreciate the stadium and its setting at a daylight game until Leeds visit in late March.
Unlike many new grounds, Langtree Park is designed to be open to the public. All the places to visit are on the South Stand side, with The Founders Cafe Bar’s glass walls declaring it open to all, but with a limited capacity. Most of the hospitality areas are upstairs and out of sight. Inside, there are large loos never further than about 30 seconds away – mind you, there was no running water in one toilet block by the end of the game. Once past the myriad of stewards, the PA man makes us welcome but the team lists are greeted by a strangely-muted home crowd. It is as if they are testing the new place out.
The view from the East Stand is, like everywhere in the ground, unobstructed. The steep steps make for clear sightlines and with 15,000 in it’s not too packed. As is common nowadays, there is a good ten metres beyond the in-goal areas to the fence and more space before the front of the stand. I stand halfway up the terrace and am a good 25 yards from the pitch. It makes identifying the players difficult when they are in the far half and anonymous near the furthest try line. I am hankering for the ‘so close you can smell them’ arrangements at Cas and Belle Vue. Strangely, when Saints play a short passing game attacking the far end, I can hardly see the ball as it pops from chest to chest.
Judging by the lack of chat about the stadium and few people (other than me) wandering around staring at everything, I guess most of the crowd have been here before already. Across the West terrace – home of the season-ticket-holders – the banners synonymous with Saints are there in all their glory: ‘One Love’, ‘In the Red Vee’, ‘Once a Saint’ and my favourite, ‘Come Thrill Me Again’. There are more youngsters braving the cold with their white shirts and red Vs at that end, and they provide the chanting. But it’s surprisingly flat. Salford, ridiculously clad in Canberra green when they could be promoting their Red Devils identity to what turns out to be Sky’s third biggest Super League audience of all time, make a fine start. They may have only brought about 200 fans but they go bananas when Jodie Broughton scores the historic first try here, and out-sing the home fans throughout, underlining the fact that no-one was really at home, yet. Perhaps the Saints fans are spoilt by years of glory? The roar that greets Lee Gaskell’s thrilling second-half break suggests the acoustics will work once Royce Simmons’ team click.
For a brand new stadium, Langtree Park has as much heritage as could be reasonably expected. It starts outside: King Keiron stands on the roof of a jutting turnstile entrance, overlooking his subjects as they descend to worship. The main entrance welcomes all to the ‘Club of Legends since 1873’, each bar named after one of them (complete with mock pub sign), and every few yards of concourse wall hangs a massive pictorial tribute complete with biography and statistics: Kevin Ward, and Alex Murphy among them. It’s great work. There is even a Heritage website, apparently. Inside the club shop is a micro-museum of memorabilia, including the tops of the old Knowsley Road posts. On close inspection, the new posts are like anorexic wedding cakes: three layers of ever-narrowing steel. Perhaps they are all like that these days: make note to self to check at other grounds.
The stadium is unique and Saints know it. Its oval shape, halo roof seemingly floating above the stands but really propped up by towering stilts, the red V walkway and classy cladding all make it distinctive. You will certainly know you are at St Helens RFC (note the specific and much-referenced suffix).
I was surprised that 2,000 tickets remained unsold at kick-off time. Mind you, 15,000 Saints fans was about 50% more than at Knowsley Road over the last decade. Having sold 10,000 season tickets, crowds at Langtree Park should rarely fall below 12,000.
Surrounded by a crescent of Wigan, Salford, Warrington and Widnes, Saints marketing department are targeting their expansion on Merseyside. Judging by the accents in the East Stand on opening night, it is working. There are far more Scousers than I expected and several north Welsh accents: even a couple of Welsh-speaking lads in the loos. The crowd around me is dominated by conservatively-dressed lower-middle class men aged between 25 and 45, which is noticeably different to other crowds I’ve seen on my Secret Speccie tour of duty.
Yes there were a few fireworks but this was all about the people who have made Saints great: the players. After the Band of the King’s Division leave the field, dozens of former players from the 50s to the 90s form a guard of honour. The biggest cheers are for my favourite Saint Tommy Martyn, Paul Sculthorpe and Chris Joynt – there is even a ‘Wide To West’ bar in the West Stand (nice touch). Kel Coslett cuts a ceremonial ribbon held by Keiron Cunningham and Alex Murphy, and with the teams lined up, Tom Van Vollenhoven makes his way to the centre spot holding the match ball to a rousing Abide With Me. It’s a poignant moment: I have a lump in my throat and I don’t even support them! It’s typical Saints: dignified, proud but not flash. It’s a shame that Sean Long’s only appearances are in a XXXXL yellow Trainer T-shirt beneath the posts when Salford have conceded a try. It becomes quite a common sight in the second half.
PLAYER INTERACTION 7/10
It’s too early to see how this will evolve at Langtree Park. With the players further away, it will be harder to develop a personal relationship with the fans from the pitch itself but no doubt Saints will work hard off it to continue to feel like a people’s club. The programme is packed with features about fan involvement: this is clearly a joint effort. The education room doubles up as the media room on matchday and strangely, its floor to ceiling windows along the exterior of the ground. So the fans can stand and watch the media grill the coaches and players post-match. They won’t hear a thing but they could certainly make their presence felt. There could be some fun with opposition coaches in summer when the ale has been flowing.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
My standing ticket was £18.50 in advance, £20 on the night. Ridiculously, they wanted a fiver to post it – hence the huge queues at the ticket office before kick-off – but sent it to me anyway when they had to switch it from the West to East terrace due to capacity restrictions. The large and bright club shop behind the South Stand is a world away from the pokey shop they had at Knowsley Road but then again, most things here are. There should be few complaints from visitors as food and drink is reasonably priced and in plentiful supply (although they don’t do chips). The concourse bars were mobbed before the game and at half-time but when I popped out midway through the first half there was no queue at all. The girl serving told me “I could cry”. I wondered if this was because St Helens were losing but it turns out she couldn’t feel her hands for cold. Fortunately, a colleague handed me my underwhelming Peter’s meat and potato pie and satisfying pint of Robinsons’ Saints Gold - the Fiver Deal, saving 80p, a quid if I’d had Foster’s. Mind you, a bloke was flogging pies for a quid each out of his car boot on the walk in!
As the relentlessly dangerous James Roby drags Saints into the game and the sublime Gaskell ghosts around as if inspired by Tommy Martyn, we all know who is going to win. Saints run in six second half tries to finish 38-10 victors, but it is not the game which will be remembered. With the crowd all seemingly heading over the Saints Way Bridge there is a disconcerting bottle neck that needs managing better by stewards. It takes 15 minutes to get back to the car and another 15 minute to get out of the multi-storey car park. As I make the long drive home, the temperature drops from just above freezing to 12 below. But the thought that ‘I was there’ keeps me warm.
Programme: £4 (special – normally £3)
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 8