DENIS Litherland, one the town’s most popular rugby league characters, has the distinction of serving three of St Helens’ most iconic institutions – Pilkington Recs, Saints and Bartons Pickles.

In fact, it is a now 49-year association with the latter of that St Helens holy trinity that saw Phil Veivers nickname this popular 80s wingman “the Flying Popman”.

In a modern era where professional Saints players are groomed through scholarships and then signed up via the Academy, Litherland’s story is a reminder to how the game was played in the decade before the full time Super League - when players combined work with rugby.

St Helens Star:

A three-quarter, he was signed by Saints five weeks before his 21st birthday after impressing for Recs in their John Player Trophy first round match against Wigan at Knowsley Road in September 1979.

The Red, Amber and Blacks gave the Cherry and Whites quite a battle before succumbing 18-9, and a week later the former Central Modern secondary school pupil had signed on the dotted line for Saints chairman Harry Cook.

He joined a Saints team that was in transition, with the legendary 70s double act Les Jones and Roy Mathias still holding down the wing spots at the club.

Nevertheless, the former Pilks man grabbed his early opportunities well and had the distinction of scoring on debut against Leeds at Headingley. That was what would be the first of 38 tries in 142 appearances in the Red Vee.

St Helens Star: Saints class of 1981-82

His final Saints appearance was the victory over the touring Auckland side in November 1987, a victory that bookends his role at centre in the win over the Kiwis in 1980.

But it is a now infamous game against another touring side that he can quickly recall with a smile declaring: “They looked big from behind, because that’s all we saw of em.”

Litherland marked Kerry Boustead that afternoon, with Barry Ledger having his hands full against Eric ‘Rolling Thunder’ Grothe on the other flank.

He continued: “That game was a barometer when we played the Invincibles, and we then knew how far English rugby was behind the Australian game.

“They beat us 32-0 and as I remember, Australia put in a complaint that we had put in a weakened side because we were playing Warrington in the Lancashire Cup final the week after and said that they won't play Saints again.

“Then they went on to thrash even the top teams who playing their full sides.”

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Eric Ashton was coach when Litherland signed, and he went on to play under Kel Coslett, Billy Benyon and Alex Murphy for a team that transitioned in the 80s after the Dad’s Army cup-winning team had broken up.

That Saints transition was given a rocket boost when one of the players they had found hard to handle in that 1982 tour game joined Saints for an eight-month spell.

After seven trophyless lean years, Saints suddenly two pots on the Knowsley Road sideboard to polish.

Litherland said: “When I signed in 1979 there was a lot of players who were coming to the end.

“Saints had had that spell of winning everything in the 60s and then 70s and everybody retired or left and then it was tough.

“That changed in 1984 but for me as a talking point, everybody says Mal Meninga was the best Aussie that he'd ever signed - but for me it was Phil Veivers.

“Mal was a fantastic player – he really was, but what we got out of Phil was four or five times as much as Mal gave us in one season.”

And he explained how it was Veivers who came to give him a nickname that stuck.

“I have been working at Bartons since I was aged 10 and have been delivery man on the same round for a good few years now.

“But in the mid-80s Billy Benyon used to have us training on a Saturday morning ahead of the Sunday game.

“Well, Saturday morning was a workday – so I used to have to park the wagon outside training and as I pulled in Phil would shout, ‘Here he is, the Flying Popman’.

“Trouble is by the time I got back to the van afterwards half the stuff had been robbed by the lads and they had filled their cars!

“They were good times, though.”

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After leaving Saints, Litherland signed for Trafford Borough and then he followed a familiar route back to City Road where he once again donned the famous Red, Amber and Black.

He explained: “After I had about eight-and-a-half years at Saints I could not just stop rugby - you've got to find another outlet to keep your interest and mine was going back to Pilks.

“I still go and watch Pilks now but I'm just a spectator these days, I don't have put the pads away or clean the changing rooms.”

In keeping an eye on the amateur game, Litherland reflects on his rugby own journey – and feels that clubs are missing a trick in the way that pathway from open age amateur to Super League rugby is now largely blocked.

“They don't get many who get signed on now as late as 21.

“It seems to be now that everyone is going through the Academy system to get any chance of being signed on.

“If you go around and have a look at some of these amateur games there are players there who you think to yourself ‘that lad could make it if you gave him the chance’,” he said.