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Double tops! Turning back the clock to Saints glory year of 1996
It was quite fitting that players from the Saints class of 1996 turned out to give the guard of honour to the teams at the recent Saints and Hull game to commemorate the life of Steve Prescott.
Arguably Steve’s finest hour as a rugby league footballer came on April 27, 1996, when he grabbed two tries in Saints’ 40-32 triumph over Bradford Bulls.
And those teammates, who stood shoulder to shoulder with him in that amazing double winning season, stood there in the rain for the renaming of the Saints Way as the Steve Prescott Bridge.
Saints have had many successful seasons, but 1996 will always burn brightly in the memories of the players and fans who were at Wembley – and Central Park, Paris, Headingley, The Valley, Knowsley Road and all points in between.
The 1995-96 Regal Trophy final ended with what was then the familiar sight of cherry and white ribbons being attached to the pot and Saints going down the tunnel with losers medals.
And yet despite the disappointment of that 25-16 defeat, there was a feeling that a new breed at Saints was emerging and that the team were on the verge of ending all those years of heartache, the last 10 of which had been spent living in Wigan's shadow.
Saints had good cause to be optimistic that the gap was closing ahead of the first ever summer Super League season. Youngsters like Steve Prescott, Keiron Cunningham, Andy Haigh, Joey Hayes and Danny Arnold, who had developed under Eric Hughes, knitted together with the likes of Chris Joynt, skipper Bobbie Goulding, Alan Hunte, Anthony Sullivan, Karl Hammond, Scott Gibbs and Apollo Perelini – players in, or approaching, the prime of their careers.
And just to make sure, the club had gone out and brought ace centre Paul Newlove over, with David Howes using all his PR wizardry to deliver him to Knowsley Road in a Securicor van.
In too came big Aussie Derek McVey, who gave plenty of power in the middle of the park.
The final piece in the jigsaw was the coach, with the team that Hughes had built being handed over for Australian disciplinarian Shaun McRae to add the final ingredients to turn contenders into winners.
And win they did, with McRae’s mob unbeaten in their first 17 cup and league games under the new boss.
Saints bounced through the Challenge Cup, piling 58 points on Castleford and Rochdale before taking care of Wigan’s conquerors, Salford, in the quarter finals.
Steve Prescott took the man of the match award in the 24-14 success over second division Widnes in the semi – and Saints were back at Wembley for the first time in five years!
Then the maiden Super League season started, and win after win followed, starting up at Workington. Saints could have been forgiven for having an eye on Wembley, and that is what it looked like on Good Friday when Wigan took a 16-4 lead.
But with the try of the match coming to Danny Arnold courtesy of a weaving Cunningham run, Saints showed that they were no longer going to play second fiddle in their 41-26 triumph.
But Saints needed to win silverware, and they looked on course to do that beneath the Twin Towers when two Prescott tries opened the scoring.
But, bit by bit, Saints’ early advantage turned into a 26-12 deficit approaching the final quarter, and the cup final misery looked set to continue.
Then Bobbie Goulding put boot to ball, his high steepling kick was left by Bulls full back Nathan Graham and Cunningham sprung into action to touch down.
Saints had found Bulls’ Achilles heel, and boy did they, or rather Goulding, exploit it.
Two more Goulding bombs yielded two further scores, with Simon Booth and Ian Pickavance touching down, and Saints were back in front with Danny Arnold adding his second.
Although Bulls’ Robbie Paul completed his hat-trick to keep everyone on tenterhooks, Apolloe Perelini launched himself at the line to make sure.
Saints had won their first Challenge Cup for 20 years – and the town rejoiced!
But Saints’ class of 1996 was not prepared to settle for one, and their eyes were fixed firmly on the inaugural Super League trophy.
In those first two years it was decided on first past the post, meaning every game counted.
There were real thrills on the way, with Saints neck and neck with Wigan all the way – both sides only lost two games over the course of 22 matches.
Saints’ only losses were at Odsal and Central Park, in a three-week spell in the middle of summer.
Ultimately, the game that settled it was Wigan’s draw at an Australian-packed London Broncos.
All Saints had to do after that was carry on winning – and they did that just, with Perelini’s late try getting the nod off the video ref against London in what was the most crucial decision of the year.
There were no more slip ups, with Saints posting their eighth 50 plus score of the year with a triumph over Sheffield.
The finale was simply perfect, with a crowd of 18,098 filling Knowsley Road on a baking hot August bank holiday.
They witnessed Saints rattle 66 points past Warrington to see them claim their first league title in 21 years.
Suddenly cups were like buses, but nobody was complaining. It was a great year to be a Saint.