THE passing of former Saints coach Mike McClennan, at the age of 75, after a battle with severe dementia is a desperately sad ending for a man whose life brought colour, dedication, integrity and innovation to rugby league.

The outpouring of messages, and those thoughts and prayers from fans and former players during the search for him and upon the sad discovery on Tuesday, underline what an impact the popular Kiwi had during his three-year stay in St Helens.

Many of those expressing their condolences are those who played under him, or took their first fledgling steps on the Knowsley Road terraces during the early 90s.

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And although the coaches who followed added bits to it to complete the jigsaw, McClennan’s work from 1990 onwards arguably laid the building blocks for the Saints team to progress back to being top dogs in the teeth of fierce competition from Wigan.

Although McClennan was a relatively unknown coach on this side of the world when he took on the Saints hot-seat in 1990, he had already built up a strong stock in the game in his native New Zealand.

At international level McClennan played in the Kiwis famous 24-3 win over Australia at Carlaw Park in 1971 and later that year toured Britain with the series-winning Kiwis in 1971. McClennan could play full back or centre and knew where the try line was.

After hanging up his playing boots, McClennan took to coaching where he guided Mt Albert Lions to five Grand Final successes in the 80s and then added another Premiership at Northcote Tigers in 1989. During that time he also assisted Graham Lowe in coaching the rejuvenated Kiwi national side that was giving Australia a run for its money.

McClennan was the man who the Saints board turned to get the ship back on to an even keel again – something he more than achieved in his three years at Knowsley Road, between 1990-93.

Saints, still reeling from the effects of the infamous 27-0 defeat at Wembley, with a hangover that had lasted deep into the following season, were in desperate need of a new direction.

Patchy performances on the pitch, a lack of ambition off it and a growing discontent on the terraces – all played out while neighbours Wigan swelled their gates and became an invincible machine - increased the urgency.

Saints were so far off the pace that the board took the drastic action of sacking legend Alex Murphy in early 1990 and recruited the New Zealander as head coach.

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It did the trick and soon Saints were soon ‘On the march with Macker’s Army.’ There was a bounce that comes with a cup run, alas they suffered a heart-breaking late defeat by Wigan in the Challenge Cup semi-final defeat.

They reached Wembley the following year – beating champions Widnes in the semi and came ever so close to beating Wigan beneath the twin towers, losing 13-8. That seemed to be the pattern – of the era, Saints getting so, so close with the gap closing.

There were landmark games against the Cherry and Whites, like the Lancashire Cup semi win in 1991 en route to picking up his first trophy, and the 41-6 win of Boxing Day 1992 when the crowd volume dial on the Scaff was switched up to 11.

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That season Saints, under the passionate and outspoken McClennan, had regained their verve and vigour, and only lost the league title on points difference. The end of year will be recalled for that compelling Good Friday 8-all draw at Central Park in which Kevin Ward suffered a career-ending broken leg.

It would have been a travesty had that year ended without silverware, so it was pleasing to see McClennan guide the side to the Premiership Trophy Final win over a Wigan at Old Trafford.

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McClennan was different; Saints’ first overseas head coach brought an innovative approach that was ahead of his time.

He immediately struck up a rapport with assistant coach Frankie Barrow and they became close friends – bouncing ideas off each other – quite literally in one instance.

In 6ft 7 John Harrison Saints possessed the tallest man in the game, so the two coaches hatched a cunning plan – even getting the permission off John Holdsworth ahead of the game against Sheffield Eagles.

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Close to the line Harrison propelled the ball forward with his head, with George Mann racing past the baffled Eagles defenders to touch down. The rules were soon changed to outlaw it – but it had done the trick in geeing the team up.

At the time McClennan told the Star: “George’s try resurrected Saints’ confidence when we were on shaky ground – a confidence that must cause some people to question the wisdom of their words when their team had their backs against the wall.

“Cowboys pull out the arrow and bite the bullet. In the face of adversity my team showed some grit.”

His Mike’s Men column in the Star had a certain style that had many a reader seeking out the Oxford English Dictionary – and raised plenty of smiles.

In one of those he used his inimitable turn of phrase to try and boost the crowd for the visit of Wigan by declaring: “It is now important that every Saints supporter brings a friend, a neighbour, wife or someone else’s wife and let the roar at Knowsley Road be heard at Central Park!”

There were other quirks to his game – like introducing the players to royal jelly supplements and importing a cast iron tackling sled to improve their contact.

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The club appeared to regain its ambition and there were some prudent signings while McClennan was at the helm. Whether that was signing up Kevin Ward in the twilight of his career to be the team’s enforcer or bringing in Chris Joynt from Oldham, Anthony Sullivan from Hull KR and Sonny Nickle from Sheffield – players who would bring long service in the glory years that would follow.

And he was instrumental in bringing in a real crowd favourite in fellow New Zealander Jarrod McCracken during the 1992-93 campaign – a player that brought in a real ‘up and at em’ approach.

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But it was nevertheless a tough time – given the strength of the Wigan juggernaut – epitomised by Gary Connolly’s enticement across the lump. Injuries hit a thin squad and form suffered. Consequently, McClennan’s time ended in early 1993.

He returned to England two years later, in charge of the Tonga team that very nearly pulled off a World Cup shock against the Kiwis in 1995.

And he retained an affinity with and affection for the town and rather poignantly was wearing his Black and Red training jacket from his era at Saints when he went missing from the rest home last week.

Once a Saint, always a Saint.

Our thoughts are with Maureen his wife for 58 years and son Brian and the McClennan family at this sad time.

Rest in peace, Mike.