FORMER Saints full back Phil Veivers has paid a warm tribute to the coaching genius Mike McClennan, who passed away last month aged 75 after suffering from dementia.

Veivers played a number of roles under the innovative Kiwi, who coached Saints between 1990-93, and reckons McClennan’s time at the club should be judged on more than the pots that he won.

Coming in when the club was in the doldrums and very much in Wigan’s shadow, McClennan put in place the first building blocks that saw Saints being competitive again – rewards they would reap at the start of the summer era.

But as a man, Veivers described his old boss as a “father figure” who looked after his men and helped them play for each other.

St Helens Star:

Veivers said: “Mike was a complex character and he definitely ate, drank and slept rugby league that is for sure. It was never off his mind for a second.

“But he was a fair coach with us – he told us what he wanted each time and if we went out and did it, he would pat us on the back. But if we didn’t he’d tell us exactly what he thought.

“He was way ahead of his time as a coach.”

McClennan came to St Helens in early 1990 when the mood at the club was still at a low ebb following the previous April’s 27-0 Wembley humiliation by Wigan.

The Kiwi – Saints’ first overseas coach - brought a different approach, which Veivers felt was important in taking the club forward.

“It was off the back of Alex Murphy being there for five years,” he said.

“Alex had done what Alex could do and it had got to the stage where the club needed structure.

“We were renowned for playing off-the-cuff football but we needed a little bit of structure to go with that as well.

“That is something that was not implemented until Mike arrived. We then got a bit more complexity in what we did then, especially in defence.”

It was a tough job for any incoming boss, given that Wigan from 1987 onwards had become virtually untouchable – with the Riversiders’ board bringing in the best players money could buy, backed by massive crowds.

Veivers explained the difficulties the rest of the rugby league world faced and how McClennan’s new approach dealt with it.

“Wigan were a juggernaut at the time – they were the full-time outfit in the competition.

“It did not matter which club was chasing a quality player, if Wigan were in for him then Maurice Lindsay would go out and raise a few more funds to sign them which made them even bigger.

“It was a tough time for Mike to come in up against such a formidable opponent, but to be fair, he had a good go at it,” he said.

It was not simply tactics and defensive structure that he fixed, he was instrumental in some shrewd recruitment and then allowing those players to gel.

Veivers explained: “He had a pretty good general in Shane Cooper who he knew for a long time, and with Tea Ropati and George Mann, it was a trio of Kiwis to supplement the local talent.

St Helens Star:

“He was shrewd; he made some quality signings and brought in the likes of Anthony Sullivan, Chris Joynt and Kevin Ward who made a massive impact upon the team.

“We started gelling together and then playing as a team – and that is what he was trying to do – team came first.”

Tactically there were some masterstrokes with more hits than misses, including the famous head-the-ball try from 6ft 7 John Harrison’s noggin against Sheffield.

“We had fun trying to work out what Mike was thinking.

“Every time he came up with a play you could see the players faces change, we’d laugh and eyes would roll.

“He was off the wall with some of his ideas on how he would break down the opposition’s defence – none more so than Big John Harrison’s head the ball over the line.

“I can remember that plain as day – and him walking up to the referee and asking: ‘Can we do this?’

“His other little one was the player turning their backs in the wall and chip kicking back over his head and one where he split the scrum and the loose forward would peel off.

“He was always thinking of ways to break down the opposition – and it worked.

“Everything prior to that was very English and set in stone – but he did not take the offload game out of the Saints play and we did not become five drives and a kick. He carried on with that flair that we had.”

St Helens Star:

McClennan introduced something else that had not been tried before – giving the players ginseng royal jelly supplements.

“It tasted horrible. Everyone of us was swilling it before the game – he had this belief that herbal extracts could make us perform better and we all bought into it. He come around and said ‘Get this down you’ but it tasted awful.

“There were some benefits, but there was also psychological effect of him saying what it was going to do and away you go,” he said.

Some of McClennan’s ideas also saw him moving players around for the benefit of the team and Veivers himself played in a number of positions for Mike and there were some others who could adapt.

He was happy to do that – even if it meant he started on the bench quite a few times – revealing that prior to McClennan’s arrival he had thought about moving on – describing the coach as a father figure.

“Mike kept a tight unit; we ate together, had a beer together and hung around each other a lot. You get a bit frustrated and bored with the environment you are in.

“Prior to Mike coming in that is where we were at, I was contemplating leaving, things just weren’t right.

“Mike came in like a big father figure and give us a sort of collective big cuddle that said we are family and we look out for each other.

“We worked hard for each other and that is where the camaraderie came from – that is what he brought to the field.

“And he remembered us, too, and I bumped into Mike four or five times after he had left the club and had a great hour with him taking coaching and rugby. I valued his opinion because it was high calibre information that the guy could give.

“As I said at the start – he was ahead of his time when he was coaching.

“His info was still valuable. And a lot of his old players would still get in touch with him – that is how highly regarded he was by the players he inherited and the team he put together.”

And that team did challenge Wigan, being unfortunate to lose the title to Wigan on points difference in 1992 after an 8-8 on Good Friday, but beating them at Old Trafford the following month to win the Premiership.

“We had a run in the cup and lost 13-8 at Wembley, but won the Premiership and the Lancashire Cup.

“People remember the trophies but the biggest thing from the period under Mike was the calibre of blokes he brought together and forged into a quality outfit

“What I loved about Mike was that his players were his family and he didn’t take too lightly people criticising them.”

Veivers gave examples of how McClennan responded to criticisms of his team – including the one that possibly contributed to his final departure in early 1993.

“Mike used to sit in the sponsors box in the restaurant end and just below him, during the game against Warrington, a supporter was giving out some grief. Mike ended up pouring a pint of beer over his head just so he would shut up.

“Another time previously there was another bloke in the clubhouse who was having a go at Tea Ropati and so Mike clammed his hands round the kid’s ears a few times - we nicknamed the kid cymbals because that’s the way it looked. It was like he was playing cymbals with his head.

“That’s the thing with Mike – he was very loyal to his players and he treated them like family.

“That’s the biggest thing you remember from those time – how he thought of you as an individual.

“Wigan may have had the money and quality players, but we had the camaraderie and a group of blokes who wanted to play for each other. And it was a team that Wigan were pretty frightened of at times.”