“I went along the terraces before a game,” says John Williams, press officer of Liverpool St Helens, “and asked if anyone knew what league we were in. First time, no one knew. Second time, some said: ‘Oh, we’re in that breakaway league, aren’t we?’
“They don’t know, they don’t care. Some of the lads don’t. All that matters to any of us is that it’s a game of rugby.”
The Liverpool branch of Liverpool St Helens is the oldest open rugby club in the world, formed in 1857. More than a hundred years later, in 1986, they merged with St Helens on the eve of league rugby.
Liverpool St Helens spent two of the first four seasons of the new era in the top flight, giving, among others, Dewi Morris to the world, but in the 1990s professionalism and the realities of life for a club without a sugar daddy started to bite. They loitered at levels three and four in the league structure, before slipping to five and six in the new century, then to level seven in 2014.
“It was a decline,” admits Ray French, the former dual-code international and revered commentator, who has been club president since 2000, “and there was nothing you could do to stop it. But we’ve all accepted it now. It’s a very happy and healthy club, welcoming for kids from six to some players in their 40s.”
Liverpool St Helens have always operated in the shadow of the town’s great rugby league side. French is one of a few stalwarts to have invested modest sums over the years to try to keep hold of a player here, a player there, but he acknowledges that, if anything, such investment only made matters worse.
Andy Northey, who played professional league with St Helens and union with Northampton and Rotherham, came on board as head coach in 2014, after the club had slipped to South Lancs/Cheshire One, their lowest position in the league system yet. They have stayed at that level since.
But the fulfilling of far-flung fixtures in 21st-century society was becoming a burden. In 2018, they joined 23 other clubs from Lancashire in announcing their intention to break away from the RFU league system to set up two divisions of the ADM Lancashire County League.
“It was the threat of Cumbria,” says Northey. “The cost of going there three or four times a season was prohibitive. And you’ve got to set off at 10. Everybody felt we’ve got enough like-minded clubs within an hour of ourselves here. For lads at our level, who work on a Saturday morning and/or have families, it’s a good model.”
Not that this solves the problem for those clubs in more remote parts of the country – like Cumbria, Cornwall or East Anglia – but the shift from the old culture wherein a man devoted his Saturdays to rugby is changing the community game. As ever, clubs are having to respond or die.
“People say to me, we used to love going on a bus trip,” says Northey. “Yeah, but there were only three TV channels then and they were all black and white. Our lads can get to Benidorm in two and a half hours. They don’t get excited about going on a bus.”
Liverpool St Helens have accepted the loss of their preeminent status and are concentrating their energies on the aspects they can control. Their mini rugby section is thriving, and there are hopes that their successful girls’ teams will morph into a women’s side soon.
“Our challenge is to make sure we’ve got the infrastructure. Some of the clubs around here have never tried to climb the leagues.” Northey adds. “And they’re in a fantastic situation, because they’ve spent all their time and money on getting the infrastructure right. They’ve got lovely clubhouses and pitches that are well looked after. They’re sitting pretty now because they haven’t got caught up in the eternal search for league position.”
From that flows everything else. What does it matter, indeed, what league you are playing in? At Liverpool St Helens, as at clubs around the country, they just want to play.