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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport -

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

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