The rise and rise of Salford – sport’s great untold fairy tale
Red Devils have defied all the odds in reaching today’s Grand Final, writes Ross Heppenstall
Talk to anyone about Salford Red Devils’ dramatic rise this season and the sound bites are always the same: the club are admired, but ultimately as a bunch of grafters who have gone as far as they can.
Now, however, they can defy the doubters. Today, they will appear at Old Trafford in their maiden Super League Grand Final against a St Helens side who finished top by a record 16 points.
A win for Salford, in front of 10,000 of their supporters, would be the biggest fairy tale in the history of the league. Ian Watson, the head coach, has taken the unwanted and inexpensive, stirred in a little overseas spice and blended his team into a wellbalanced, highly motivated force punching above their weight.
“We’re a small group, but we’re really committed to each other,” Watson says. “I research players carefully before I sign them and I like competitors rather than egotistical showboaters. Yes, we have players with talent but we’ve been successful because we’ve ran our blood to water.
“People talked about Leicester City winning the Premier League as a big story, but they had money and we haven’t. This is one of the biggest underdog stories you’ll ever see.”
Salford enjoyed a golden period in the 1970s but have generally struggled on and off the field during the Super League era and making ends meet remains a constant battle.
Jackson Hastings, the 2019 Man of Steel, has taken centre stage, but he is emblematic of the squad as a whole, many of whom arrived after being sacked or discarded by previous clubs. The likes of props Lee Mossop and Gil Dudson, who were part of Wigan’s doublewinning side in 2013, have led from the front after Watson rekindled their fire and form.
“After 2013, I had a pretty steep fall,” Mossop says. “I was starting for England at the World Cup but, after eight or nine shoulder reconstructions, I felt dead and buried.
“I was petrified going into games and wanted to retire midway through 2016, but luckily my wife talked me out of it.
“It was a tough conversation and I don’t think she had seen me cry before, so to come full circle now and lead this Salford team out in a Grand Final makes it even more special.”
Dudson’s displays have been no less impressive after he arrived following Widnes’s relegation last season.
The Wales international says: “From getting relegated to being in a Grand Final is pretty crazy, but joining Salford was the best decision I’ve ever made. ‘Watto’s’ attention to detail and work ethic is fantastic. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had.”
There is something of the alchemist in Watson, a 42-year-old Salfordian who grew up supporting neighbours Swinton and counts former Salford prop Adrian Morley among his close friends.
“My dad’s a huge Swinton fan, and I was a ballboy there, but as I got older, ‘Moz’ and I would sneak through the gates at the Willows to try to get in for free to watch Salford,” he remembers. “We would play for Eccles in the morning and then watch Salford in the afternoon.
“Salford’s a big football area and we’re right next to Manchester United, but with them struggling, hopefully we can pinch a few of their supporters. Getting an extra 1,000 fans to our home games next season would be fantastic.”
Watson embodies the local heart of a club for whom former captain Ian Blease serves as director of rugby and lifelong supporter Paul King is on the board.
“We’re all Salford kids – three scallywags really – but people from this city are grafters,” King says. “We’ve always been the underdogs compared to Manchester, which has the bright lights and the trendy nightlife.
“Salford is often portrayed quite badly but it’s full of lovely people and we have some tremendous supporters who do ridiculously stupid things for this club. I’m one of them.”
King came on board last year after receiving a message on
Twitter from Andrew Rosler, who led a community trust that took control of the club from previous owner Marwan Koukash.
“Two years ago I fought cancer and the chemotherapy was horrific,” King says. “I came out of it OK and just decided to live my best life, so when Rosler got in touch I joined the holding board because the club is in my heart.
“My mortgage is a personal guarantee and money remains tight – we still haven’t got a front-of-shirt sponsor for next season.
But to see us in a Grand
Final makes me incredibly proud.” Several players have been sold to raise money and last winter saw a cash crisis which raised fears over the club’s future. Yet that storm was ridden. “We’re the second-lowest spenders in Super League and it remains a struggle, but Marwan wiped his debt free,” Blease says. “There is a CVA which could come back in a couple of years’ time, but we’re doing OK and will get the best part of £200,000 in prize money for making the Grand Final.
“From the cleaner to the captain, all our staff will be rewarded.”
Happy days: Salford celebrate beating Wigan to reach the Grand Final; (inset right) Man of Steel Jackson Hastings