AFTER spending almost all of his adult life with his hometown club Keiron Cunningham admits that leaving Saints midway through the 2017 season was the toughest thing he has ever had to do.

Having enjoyed glittering success as a player, winning a haul of five Super League titles, seven Challenge Cup and a brace of World Club Challenges, Cunningham could not resist the move into coaching after stepping up from assistant after Nathan Brown’s departure in 2014.

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Despite the rollercoaster of two-and-a-half tough seasons, which ultimately ended up with him being replaced by Justin Holbrook, Cunningham reckons if he could turn the clock back he would still have had a crack coaching “the greatest club in the world”.

Now out of the game and building a new career at his MK Electrical Supplies business, Cunningham reflects: “Me and Saints have got a history that goes back forever and a day. It is the greatest club in the world.

“To be at the club from the age of 17 to when I finished 24 years later and you feel part of the furniture. Leaving was the toughest thing I have ever done.

“I was lucky to do something which I loved every day. Coaching did not go how I thought it would go; how I wanted it to go.

“That hurts me because I am a fan. Cut me through the middle and I will bleed Saints forever for the rest of my life.

“Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in a time machine I would probably do things a bit differently but I’d still have a crack.

“My wife would say I am crazy because they lived the emotions of it all – it is tough living in the borough when people are being critical, but that comes with the job of pulling that coach’s cap on.

“I knew that from the start.

"You can’t be as connected to Saints as I was because it meant too much. When things weren’t going well they almost spiralled for me. If I had that detachment I could have dealt with it differently,” he said.

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Cunningham, alongside Mike Rush, had brought energy to a Saints team that had floundered under Royce Simmons at the new stadium in 2012 - and they went within a whisker of the Grand Final. That, plus his two subsequent years as Brown's assistant, was the sum of Cunningham's coaching apprenticeship - although that did come on the back of a stellar playing career.

“If you look back and ask did it happen too soon then I don’t know. I felt like I was ready. I gave it my heart and soul, but coaching is one of the most frustrating things you will ever come across," he said.

"As a player if you are sat on the bench you know where you can influence a game as soon as you come on.

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“I did that a lot – but as coach as soon as they take the field it is almost out of your control. Maybe without the injuries and with a few bounces of the ball things could have been a lot different.

“I am a believer in things happening for a reason and needed to experience those parts. The first couple of years were great but the third year was tough for myself and my family.

“But I was always aware that higher you go up, the closer you are to edge of the cliff, nobody is ever bigger than the club no matter who you are. That is sport – and I am certainly not the first and won’t be the last.

“Regardless of what happened in my coaching I will never lose a day for what I did with the ball in my hand.

“I loved every minute of that and can look back at every trophy I lifted and every moment of greatness and sometimes sadness, with pride at what I did.

"I can’t walk upstairs, now, and my body is smashed to pieces – but I did that for the team, town, and of course myself and family."

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Although no longer involved in the game, he still takes a keen interest in the Saints and was delighted to see them break their big trophy drought last term.

"It has been too long – but nobody is more pleased than me for Justin and the players, particularly seeing some of those boys nurtured here as kids finally blossom.

"You look at Morgan Knowles - he played alongside my lad Jonah from the age of 14, and his family would drive him down from Barrow to play at Blackbrook three times a week.

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"He is an immense talent, but there are a lot of them there, like Matty Lees, but you can go though the squad.

"It was so important to win that trophy because now they know how to win. I am hopeful they will now dominate the comp," he said.