FLASH FOLLOWS IN FOREFATHERS’ FOOTSTEPS

Son of former Oldham international loose-forward, Terry Flanagan MBE, and grandson of the redoubtable Bill Flanagan, also a former Oldham, Castleford, and Belle Vue Rangers’ loose forward, it is hardly surprising that our own Mark Flanagan grew up steeped in the game.

“I always had a ball in my hands, and the TV was always on whenever there was a game being shown,” he recollects.  “The whole of the family loved it and there was always someone, be it cousins or uncles, to take me to a game, but most of all I remember playing kick and catch with my dad in the back yard.  Later on he started to coach me more seriously.

“I was vaguely aware of the status he held both locally and throughout the game, and, although I don’t remember its being taken, I do have a photograph of myself, aged two or three, watching him playing for Oldham in a match against Swinton.”

Despite his family’s longstanding affiliation with the Roughyeds, Mark found himself drawn, as a fan, by the numerous successes of Wigan, though he compensated for this by joining his local amateur side, Saddleworth Rangers, at the age of five.

Because the youngest side they ran was an U9s side, Mark spent rather more time playing touch and pass in the car park, but once a week he would play among some of the veterans of the club, and it was with them that he honed his many wide-ranging skills, which were to become second nature to him.  They certainly became significant in his, then, role of stand-off half, whilst his regular and frequent recognition as top tackler benefitted him on the occasions he was selected at fullback.

By the time he had reached the age of eight, that whole group of youngsters had become a really good team, and Mark was rewarded for his contribution by not only being selected for, but appointed captain of, Lancashire U9s’ side which included the likes of, equally young, Stefan Ratchford, Sean Gleeson, and Chris Hill.

His big breakthrough came in 2005, when, at the age of sixteen, he was signed up, part-time, to join Bradford Bulls’ Academy.  As the only Lancastrian in the group he felt, very much, an outsider at the beginning, with only one player – a certain Sam Burgess – going out of his way to make him feel at home, but some stellar performances, which included his winning a number of Man of the Match awards, soon changed everyone’s perception of him.

“They all wanted to be best mates, then,” he wryly observed.

Once the season had finished, as part of a long-standing agreement, he returned to his roots by rejoining Saddleworth Rangers for their winter season, which included a trip down under to Perth, Australia, where they played a set of three fixtures,.

His return to Bradford, at the start of 2006, saw him playing in the U21s, of whom, by the age of eighteen, he was to become captain, whilst occasionally training with the first team under the coaching of Brian Noble.  Indeed, it was Noble who gave him the nickname of ‘Flash’, a name initially bestowed upon the former Hull KR hooker of the 1970s, Peter Flanagan, and then respectfully transferred to Mark’s father, in the eighties.

“At least it gives the impression that I’m fast,”  grins Mark.  “Really it is quite flattering to be the latest in the line of such notable players.”

Noble’s move across the Pennines to coach Wigan also initiated not only Stuart Fielden’s transfer in his wake, but also Mark’s, though with somewhat less success, for whilst the former played a significant part in the Warriors retaining their Super League status, Mark was laid low with a succession of injuries.

Regaining his place in the team proved to be a longer process than his physical recovery, as competition for places had increased considerably with the likes of Sean O’Loughlin, Joel Tomkins, Harrison Hansen, and Liam Farrell all in contention for the same places as him, and a loan period with Halifax was the outcome for him.

“It was a totally different environment from the clubs I had always played with, but I really enjoyed my time there, and benefited greatly from the coaching of Matt Calland,” he enthuses.

This is hardly surprising as he was a most prolific try scorer in his nine outings with them, enabled by the fact that, by this time, owing to his attributes of physical size and skilful handling, he had moved from halfback and was now operating at the back of the scrum.  It must undoubtedly have been on account of the quality of rugby he brought to the team that he was particularly well looked after by the older members of the squad.

His promotion to the Wigan first team, in 2009, led to his Super League debut away at Celtic Crusaders, which turned out to be the one and only match the Welshman won, that season.  Mark’s own performance, however, belied that, and he was promptly retained in the side for the rest of the year, making his home debut against Leeds the following week.

The consistency of his performances over that period led to Frank Endicott’s becoming his agent, and he was instrumental in Mark’s making the move down under to join Wests Tigers, after they had witnessed his having what he terms as ‘the game of his life’ in a Wigan v Saints derby, towards the end of the season, in which he set a record for the most tackles in a Super League match, with his tally exceeding fifty.

His NRL debut, the following season, against Manly, turned out to be as short as it was inauspicious, as immediately upon his introduction from the bench, he dropped the ball in his first carry, and then, after only a couple of tackles was forced to leave the field, having split his head open in a collision with Gareth Ellis.

Things could only get better after a start like that, and this they did, providing him with two quite special seasons, before his being enticed back to England, by then coach, Royce Simmons, to join St Helens.  The highlight of his time with the Saints came in 2014 Grand Final, again against Wigan, in which the team was so crippled by injuries, that Mark was named as half back partner to Lance Hohaia, who lasted only a handful of minutes before being stretchered off.

“The loss of Lance was a great loss to us,” remarks Mark, “and it caused a lot of reshuffling throughout the whole team, but we had a massive desire to win, thanks to the really good culture in the club at that time.  Wigan had been red hot favourites, but we had nothing to lose and worked our socks off for each other to come up with the win.”

The move of his former Wests’ coach, Tim Sheens, to become Director of Rugby, here, at Salford, at the end of 2015, paved the way for Mark to follow him here.

“I knew the playing roster here was extremely competitive, and I’d enjoyed working with Tim at Wests,” Mark explains, “so I had no compunction in signing to come.”

Had he known what was in store for them all at the end of the season, in the form of the Million Pound Game, however, he might have had second thoughts, but then the absolute faith the players all had in one another, just as had been the case at St Helens in that Grand Final, came to the fore.

“We left it extremely late, and we were down to only fourteen fit men, by the end,” he recalls, “but our never-say-die attitude got us home.

“Although all the players would have easily found other clubs, the year had been especially enjoyable, and none of us wanted to have to move elsewhere.  Thankfully, we got through it, and then reaped the benefits for having done so with a really strong season on the back of it.  Along with Castleford we played really good rugby, which was enjoyable to watch.”

Two years on, and with Mark a significant part of the leadership team, the club found themselves once more embroiled in the Qualifiers, over the final part of the season.  The fact that he, as one of the leadership group, Mark had already had experience of this competition went some way in helping the group through it., and one could see from the outset, with their performance in the first two or three rounds that there was an absolute determination not to be dragged into the Million Pound Game, once again.

Indeed, finishing top of the pile was a considerable achievement and one in which all of them can take great pride.  We can only hope now that they all take the same positive enthusiasm and motivation into the 2019 season, as they did in 2017, when they finished fourth in the league and progressed to the semi-final of the Challenge Cup, all of which is something else to which Mark can bring his prior experience.