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Farewell to former Saints coach Joe Coan

It is sad to report the passing of Joe Coan, aged 90. The coach behind Saints’ four trophy success in the 1965-66 campaign was a rugby union enthusiast from Cumberland who whilst never playing rugby league professionally, enjoyed great success as a rugby league coach.

Joseph ‘Joe’ Coan
Born: Bransty, Whitehaven 8th September 1932
Died: Altrincham 18th September 2022

Joe Coan attended Whitehaven Grammar School and went on to do his teacher training at Carnegie and Strawberry Hill College at Twickenham. He began his teaching career in Chesterfield, where he played rugby union, before returning to West Cumberland, where he taught at Workington’s St Joseph’s School.

He spent time in Cyprus during his National Service with the Border Regiment, before moving to St Helens, where he took up an appointment teaching Physical Education at West Park Grammar School, where one of his pupils was Saints Chairman Eamonn McManus.

Chairman Eamonn McManus said: “Joe was undoubtedly one of St Helens greatest and most successful coaches and will always be remembered as such.

“He was also my rugby teacher at West Park Grammar School when I started in 1967 and made a huge and inspirational impression upon me for life. 

“It was great to see him and his all conquering Saints team of 1966 back at the club on Good Friday fifty years on, when we hosted them before the Wigan game. One of our greatest teams led by one of our greatest coaches.”

Joe married his wife, Mary on Boxing Day 1958 and they have two children, Nicky and Chris, together with five grandchildren and one great grandchild.

A PE teacher, sports enthusiast and competitive swimmer, Joe was asked to take training sessions with the Saints’ players during the 1962-63 winter ‘lockdown’ at the indoor gym at West Park and subsequently was offered the job as Head Coach after a spell helping the A team at Knowsley Road. He replaced the previous incumbent, Stan McCormick and was in his early thirties.

Joe turned the training regime at the club on its head. “From pre-season we were metaphorically flogged,” wrote Peter Harvey in his book Redhead with Fire in his Boots. “Joe, with stopwatch in hand had us running in separate sets. Forwards and backs, then in competition, forwards against backs, with forwards getting yards in hand in handicap races. No one complained, though quite a few were physically sick…we learned the lesson with this hard taskmaster – to win we must be fitter than the opposition.” This was reinforced by Tommy Bishop who said of Joe “We had all the talent available in the forwards and backs and he brought in the fitness regime that made us stand out. He was ahead of his time.”

Joe’s emphasis on physical fitness certainly paid dividends, as the team embarked upon a long unbeaten run of 21 matches during the 1964-65 campaign, including a 12-4 victory against Swinton in the Lancashire Cup final. The Lancashire League trophy also came to Knowsley Road. The team won the League Leader’s Bowl by a four-point margin from second-placed Wigan, although the latter dumped their rivals out of the Challenge Cup in front of almost 40,000 fans at Central Park. Another major disappointment came in the Championship final at Swinton when Halifax pulled off a surprise 7-15 victory. They had finished in 7th place in the league.

The 1965-66 campaign saw the Saints once again as major players in the race for honours. They had a formidable pack and a proverbial ‘points machine’ in winger Len Killeen, who could always be relied upon to get the team out of potential strife with his prodigious goal-kicking ability. The team replicated their league successes from the previous campaign and went further with a glorious Challenge Cup final victory over rivals Wigan at Wembley and gained ample revenge by thrashing holders Halifax 35-12 in a marvellous Championship final at Station Road, Swinton.

Joe Coan had laid down the initial groundwork for success, but he was more than just a fitness man, who made crucial coaching decisions during the four cups triumph. They made a great team, with skipper Alex Murphy making on-field decisions, with Ray French the pack leader. It was on Coan’s recommendation that Murphy had been appointed Club Captain, shortly after he took up the coaching reins.

Yet there had been controversy during the campaign surrounding captain Alex Murphy, one of the world’s greatest scrum-halves, who had been asked to play in the centre, with an abundance of halves, like Tommy Bishop and Bob Prosser at the club. “Murphy was the best player we had in any position,” Joe once told me. “If he had been a hooker, he’d have been the best, no doubt about it. He could have played wherever he wanted to….he was the complete footballer, a fine athlete, a tremendous trainer and people didn’t realise how hard he worked.”

It is clear that supreme physical fitness, together with some astute pre-Challenge Cup deadline signings, like Tommy Bishop, Albert Halsall and Bill Sayer, were also instrumental in the club’s four cups success. “I told the Board that Bishop would be a great signing,” Coan recalled. “He could play 95% of games a season. The greatest players are those who also play the most matches.”

Replicating the triumphs of the 1965-66 campaign was always going to be a tall order, however. There were rumblings that the team relied too much on forward power rather than send it out to the threequarters; Murphy was in dispute, too, before joining Leigh, initially as coach and although the team retained the Lancashire League trophy, they were beaten by Wakefield Trinity in a re-played Championship final at Swinton.

Joe went on to coach at Huyton in the early 1970s, [when he replaced Jack Broome] and from January 1975 to September 1976 he was Coach of Wigan. Ironically, he was superseded at Central Park by former Saints’ legend Vince Karalius, with Kel Coslett a later incumbent.

Joe will always be remembered for helping Saints achieve their place in sporting history in 1966 when the team enjoyed a four-cup haul with the Wembley win over Wigan being the centrepiece. And all this during one of sport’s most memorable years. For that he will always have a special place in the club’s history.

A keen golfer, who was at one time Captain of Grange Park Golf Club [1986], Joe went on to become a Deputy Headteacher at a primary school in Birkenhead before taking over as Head at Holy Ghost Primary School in Netherton. After his retirement, he and Mary stayed in St Helens, then moved to Christleton, Chester, before eventually moving to Bowdon, Altrincham.

Everyone at St.Helens R.F.C. send their condolences to Joe’s family at this sad time.

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