1976: The year Dad's Army taught the Chemics a lesson

George Nicholls, Tony Karalius and Peter Glynn with the Challenge Cup

Derek Noonan and Tony Karalius

Jeff Heaton touches down

John Mantle cools down

First published in Sport
Last updated
St Helens Star: Photograph of the Author by , Senior Sports Writer

It was pleasing to see Saints legend Kel Coslett awarded with a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Coslett switched codes and came north in July 1962, and has fulfilled many roles – player, captain, coach and football manager – in the past 52 years.

A club record holder with the boot, Coslett played his last game in the red vee back in a landmark treble winning season in 1976.

The likeable Welshman skippered the side dubbed Dad’s Army to a famous Wembley win over the then Challenge Cup holders Widnes.

Saints had battled to Wembley after a surprisingly tough 5-4 semi-final win over Keighley at Fartown.

Anybody who does not remember how tough that game was can find it on YouTube – and there is some classic old school third man play from well-travelled Yorkshire hard man John Burke.

The final was a fascinating encounter, with Saints fielding a team featuring a number of old heads. Coslett and compatriot John Mantle were both aged 34. In between them packing down was Tony Karalius, who was also no spring chicken, making it a combined age of 99 in the front row.

Starting half backs Billy Benyon and Jeff Heaton, full back Geoff Pimblett and second rower George Nicholls were all in their 30s.

But they all still had at least one more big stage game in them, and although the pitchside temperatures soared it was Saints who kept their cool in a very tactical game that was closer than the final 22-5 margin suggests.

Saints opened the scoring in the 12th minute when powerful centre Eddie Cunningham – older brother of Keiron – scored a try beneath the sticks, which Pimblett duly converted.

The Chemics, as they were still known then, responded with two Ray Dutton penalty goals.

The tactical nature of the game, in which every yard was fought for in the blistering heat, was epitomised by the number of early drop goals.

Pimblett dropped one to give Saints a 6-4 interval lead, before the half time break was illuminated by the traditional marching band and an unorthodox goalpost scaling streaker.

Widnes hooker Keith Elwell snatched a one-pointer, but that was cancelled by Pimblett’s second.

With the game finely balanced entering the last quarter, it was thought that the old legs of the Saints would begin to wilt.

But it was Saints who grabbed the crucial next score, with Karalius’ craft creating room for Heaton to dart over.

The Chemics folded in the face of Saints’ late flourish, with the coup de grâce provided by two tries from born and bred Widnesian Peter Glynn, who had entered the fray at half time.

The nippy stand off crossed in the 74th and 78th minutes, bashing it down to the delight of commentator Eddie Waring.

Pimblett added the goals to make it 20-5 and, as was the norm in those days for Wembley kickers, went home with the Lance Todd Trophy for the man of the match.

It was left to veteran Coslett to scale the steps and collect the big silver trophy from then leader of the opposition Maggie Thatcher.

Reflecting on that some years later, Coslett said: “Our ’76 side was very good, a difficult one to beat. Although I think Widnes did us a good turn really by calling us the old men or Dad’s Army.

“The game was a tremendous battle and was not as easy as the scoreline suggests. And with it being such a scorching hot day, getting back in front was so important.

“But there were good players about – whether they were old or not, they were capable of playing one good last game.

“Communication and experience were very important. Players talked to each other and helped each other a lot!”

It was the swansong for that side, with Coslett, Mantle and Heaton all moving on.

But they had a small matter of wrapping up the Premiership with a victory over league champions Salford first, followed six weeks later the by first unofficial World Club Challenge game against Eastern Suburbs in a three-game tour Down Under.

Remarkably, it would take another 20 long years for Saints to regain that Challenge Cup – and as a result it was always looked on fondly by a generation of fans.

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