FIFTEEN years ago this week the ghosts of 1989, 1991 and 2002 were finally laid to rest at a sun-baked Millennium Stadium with Saints beating Wigan to lift the Challenge Cup.

In front of a capacity 73,734 crowd, tries from Lee Gilmour, Willie Talau (two), Paul Wellens and Paul Sculthorpe, with six goals from Sean Long secured the spoils. 

The road to the 2004 final was a strong story but one with a strange sub-plot as it took place against the backdrop of the betting scandal that eventually saw Sean Long and Martin Gleeson banned.

In many ways that incident made it a season of two halves.

After recognising their shortcomings of the previous year Saints recruited some additional size in the pack, bringing in experienced prop Nick Fozzard and signing Wigan’s Ricky Bibey.

They had also snapped up two Samoan rugby union World Cup stars in big wing Dom Feaunati and Maurie Fa’asavalu.

As important a signing came off the field with Apollo Perelini returning as a strength and conditioning coach which, combined with extra work at the wrestling gym, gave Saints their best preparation for a good while.

They started off with a friendly at Barrow with a team of youngsters plus the Samoan debutants. (Below).

St Helens Star:

After their first year since 1998 without a pot, Saints clearly targeted the cup.

But they were going to have to do the hard way, and were paired with treble winners Bradford, who had just been crowned World champions, in the opening round at Odsal.

Saints did the basics well and took the Bulls apart around the ruck on their way to a convincing 30-10 victory.

When the balls were juggled for the next round it became clear that Saints were going to have to win the cup the hard way, when they were paired at home to Leeds.

But a tough-tackling display saw them off before dispatching another top five side, Hull, in the quarters.

Saints won a thrilling game 31-26 at Knowsley Road – but there was four games until the semi, including the Easter period – which for good or ill – produced two monumental talking points.

The Saints v Wigan match was a stormy affair, with Feaunati pitching into action to escalate a flare up that had begun between Terry Newton and Jon Wilkin.

Saints trailed by a point going into the closing stages, only for talisman Sean Long to poach the match equalising drop goal.

With the semi-final two weeks away coach Ian Millward, for the second time in two years, decided to send a scratch team to Bradford for the Easter Monday game.

Brian Noble summed it up afterwards with the words, “We’d prepared to fight George Foreman and got George Formby.”

That Saints lost 54-8 was not the half of it, with Wilkin sent off after 10 minutes for a high tackle.

It was later revealed that Long, who had not played, and Martin Gleeson had backed Bulls to win by more than nine points and the subsequent furore and investigation hung over the club going into the semi final against Huddersfield.

The team put it to the backs of their minds with an emphatic 46-6 win over the Giants, at that time another top five team, to book a May date at Cardiff.

Saints were on song as they approached the final, beating Leeds 56-10 and overcoming the Wakefield banana skin the week before.

Any thought of what happened at Murrayfield in 2002 were soon dispelled with Saints getting off to a cracking start with a Lee Gilmour try.

St Helens Star:

The game was closer than the 32-16 suggests with Paul Wellens scoring a crucial try before the break to give Saints a 10-point lead.

Long had had plenty of focus ahead of the game, but he did not let that affect him.

The Saints number seven produced an utterly masterful display to collect the second of his Lance Todd trophies.

It was a great day for every one of those players and the hordes who travelled down from St Helens for a massive occasion in the sunshine.

Saints: Wellens; Gardner, Gleeson, Talau, Albert; Hooper, Long; Fozzard, Cunningham, Mason, Joynt, Gilmour, Sculthorpe (capt). Subs: Feaunati, Bibey, Edmondson, Wilkin.

Wigan: Radlinski; Hodgson, O'Loughlin, Brown, Dallas; Orr, Lam; C Smith, Newton, Pongia, Hock, Tickle, Farrell (capt). Subs: O'Connor, Sculthorpe, Cassidy, Wild.

The day produced wonderful memories, but alas, that was as good as it got for the season. The wheels came off spectacularly after that – with the subsequent three-month ban for Long and a four-month suspension for Gleeson contributing to that.

Saints sorely missed Long’s leadership and the team that had been invincible lost nine of the last 14 matches.

A particular low point was the 70-0 mullering at Leeds and Saints did not beat another top six team after May.

Read: Eight Saints in Lancashire squad>

Long returned before the end of the season, but it was hard to put the wheels back on.

St Helens Star:

The curtain came down at Wigan in the play-offs – not just on Saints’ season, but on the playing career of the club’s most successful skipper, Chris Joynt.