Joseph ‘Joe’ Coan
Born: Bransty, Whitehaven 8e September 1932
Died: Altrincham 18e September 2022
Joe Coan attended Whitehaven Grammar School and later trained as a teacher at Carnegie and Strawberry Hill College in Twickenham. He began his teaching career in Chesterfield, where he played rugby union, before returning to West Cumberland, where he taught at St Joseph’s School in Workington.
He spent time in Cyprus during his national service with the Border Regiment, before moving to St Helens, where he made an appointment to teach physical education at West Park Grammar School, where one of his students was President of Saints Eamonn McManus.
President Eamonn McManus said: “Joe was undoubtedly one of St Helens’ greatest and most successful managers and he will always be remembered as such.
“He was also my rugby teacher at West Park Grammar School when I started in 1967 and left a huge and lifelong impression on me.
“It was great to see him and his 1966 conquering Saints side back at the club on Good Friday fifty years later when we welcomed them ahead of 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, as well as five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
A physical education teacher, sports enthusiast and competitive swimmer, Joe was invited to attend training sessions with Saints players during the 1962-63 winter ‘lockdown’ at the indoor gymnasium in West Park and was later offered the position of head coach after a spell. help Team A at Knowsley Road. He replaced previous incumbent Stan McCormick and was in his early thirties.
Joe has turned the club’s training regime on its head. “From pre-season, we were metaphorically whipped”, wrote Peter Harvey in his book Redhead with Fire in his Boots. “Joe, with a stopwatch in hand, had us race in separate sets. Forwards and backs, then compete, forwards versus backs, with forwards gaining yards in handicap runs. Nobody complained, although a good number were physically ill… we learned our lesson with this hard chore – to win we have to be in better shape than the opponent. This was reinforced by Tommy Bishop who said of Joe: “We had all the talent available at forwards and backs and he brought the conditioning regimen that made us stand out. He was ahead of his time. »
Joe’s focus on fitness certainly paid off as the team embarked on a long 21-match unbeaten run in the 1964-65 campaign, including a 12-4 win over 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 margin of four points over second-placed Wigan, despite the latter knocking out their Challenge Cup rivals in front of nearly 40,000 fans in Central Park. Another major disappointment came in the Championship Final in Swinton when Halifax took a surprise 7-15 win. They had finished in 7e place in the league.
The 1965-66 campaign saw the Saints once again as major players in the race for honours. They had a terrific pack and a proverbial ‘points machine’ in winger Len Killeen, who could always be counted on to lead the team out of potential conflict with his prodigious goalscoring ability. The side replicated their league successes of the previous campaign and went one step further with a glorious Challenge Cup final win over rivals Wigan at Wembley and exacting revenge by beating Halifax 35-12 in a wonderful Championship Final at Station Road, Swinton.
Joe Coan had laid the initial foundations for success, but he was more than just a fitness man, who made crucial training decisions in the Four Cup triumph. They were a great team, with skipper Alex Murphy making the decisions on the pitch, with Ray French the pack leader. It was on Coan’s recommendation that Murphy was named club captain, shortly after taking over as coach.
Yet there had been controversy during the campaign around captain Alex Murphy, one of the world’s greatest scrum-halfs, who had been asked to play in the middle, with an abundance of running backs, like Tommy Bishop and Bob Prose at the club. “Murphy was the best player we had at any position,” Joe once told me. “If he had been a prostitute he would have been the best, there is no doubt. He could have played wherever he wanted… he was a complete footballer, a great athlete, a wonderful coach and people didn’t realize how hard he worked.
It’s clear that supreme fitness, along with a few shrewd signings ahead of the Challenge Cup deadline, like Tommy Bishop, Albert Halsall and Bill Sayer, were also instrumental in the club’s four cup success. “I told the board that Bishop would be a great signing,” Coan called back. “He could play 95% of the games in a season. The greatest players are those who also play the most matches.
However, replicating the triumphs of the 1965-66 campaign was always going to be a tall order. There were rumors that the team relied too heavily on forward power rather than sending it to three-quarters; Murphy was also in contention before joining Leigh, initially as a manager and although the side retained the Lancashire League trophy, they were beaten by Wakefield Trinity in a replayed Championship final at Swinton.
Joe became a coach at Huyton in the early 1970s, [when he replaced Jack Broome] and from January 1975 to September 1976 he coached Wigan. Ironically, he was replaced in Central Park by former Saints legend Vince Karalius, with Kel Coslett a later starter.
Joe will always be remembered for helping the Saints achieve their place in sporting history in 1966 when the team won four cups with Wembley’s win over Wigan as the centerpiece. And all this during one of the sport’s most memorable years. For this, he will always have a special place in the history of the club.
An avid golfer, who was once captain of Grange Park Golf Club , Joe became deputy headmaster of a primary school in Birkenhead before taking over as headteacher of Holy Ghost Primary School in Netherton. After his retirement, he and Mary stayed in St Helens, then moved to Christleton, Chester, before finally moving to Bowdon, Altrincham.
Everyone at St. Helens RFC sends their condolences to Joe’s family at this sad time.