There was no Leicester City-esque climax to this remarkable story, after all. But Salford winning the Super League would have been a bigger miracle than all of the original member of the Happy Mondays still being alive. Like Shaun Ryder’s band, they showed gritty resilience and flourishes of genius, epitomising Salford, the fabled Dirty Old Town. It wasn’t enough to win the Grand Final, but it was enough to lift the hearts of a battle-worn city.
“The players need to be really proud of the journey we’ve been on,” said Salford coach Ian Watson, a local lad who spent much of his career playing for the club. “To create that buzz around the city, where everyone wants to play for Man United, is phenomenal. Reaching a Grand Final has been an outstanding experience. The play-offs were at a different level to what we’re used to, but coming here and finishing second isn’t enough. Losing is not a nice experience.”
True, but the vast majority of their 13,000 fans were still on their feet celebrating long after the final whistle, waving goodbye to many of their unlikely heroes after an outstanding season. In the 50 years since Salford last reached a major final, they have experienced two championship titles, six relegations and several more uncomfortable dices with the drop – two of which have come in the last four years.
Two whole generations of Salford fans have known nothing like this. The crowd of 64,102 on Saturday was the largest at a Salford game since they lost the 1969 Challenge Cup final (97,939); it was bigger than the attendance at their only Challenge Cup win in 1938 (51,243) and the biggest in the twin cities straddling the Irwell since they won the Championship Final at Maine Road in 1939 (69,504).
The noise that greeted Salford’s players when they came out to warm up half an hour before kick-off confirmed we were in for something special. Whatever happened next, this was an evening the fans would treasure forever. Final crowds are different. It took eight minutes for the first chant of “you scouse bastards” to ring down from the Salford end. But when their Jackson Hastings chant finally made an appearance just before half time, it immediately petered out, the loyal fans outnumbered by irregulars unaware of the soundtrack.
There was a brief rendition of “Red Devils rising” in the dying moments. Let’s hope they are right. The shame is this could be a one-off for Salford. It was the last appearance for a dozen players, including talisman Hastings and Josh Jones – whose inside flick to Niall Evalds late on was a contender for pass of the night. Such is the nature of hand-to-mouth clubs who put a new team together each winter: even when the side does well, it breaks up anyway.
“George Griffin and Josh Jones will leave big holes,” admitted the hugely rated Watson. “They’re influential players. We’re devastated to be losing Logan Tomkins, too, but we can’t afford to keep him. The club relies on our supporters and local businesses to compete and we’d like more of them. We’re paying off debts that are three or four years old, debts to agents, local businesses, the local launderette. We had to start recruiting in mid-season to give ourselves a chance next year and we are signing winners: Dan Sarginson, Pauli Pauli, Kevin Brown.”
No one predicted Salford’s third-place finish, as lofty as Kevin Naiqama’s remarkable hi-top. Repeating it would be extraordinary. On Saturday evening, the league table played out on the biggest stage; Saints had finished 18 points in front of Watson’s valiant crew. “Salford till I die” responded the Scoreboard End as they went 22-6 down.
In the words of the late Mark E Smith of epic Salford band The Fall: “These are finest times of my life. These are the biggest times of my life. These are the greatest times of my life.” Or, as the more prosaic Watson put it: “It’s been a right ride.”
Clubcall: St Helens
It would have been understandable if Saints had reacted to ending their five-year famine with a collective sigh of relief. Instead, they went wild with utter delirium, racing 60 yards and more to celebrate with their fans.
Saints were relentless and ruthless, their class shining through. Explosive prop Luke Thompson, as devastatingly destructive as ever, won man of the match but my vote went to his new Great Britain teammate Lachlan Coote. Back to his imperious best, the creative full-back put in the kind of exquisite, error-free all-round display which were weekly occurrences in spring and early summer, his personal omnishambles at Wembley increasingly hard to believe. Coote’s Ryan Giggs-esque left foot also kicked every attempt at goal, sent towering bombs into the Manchester sky (which miraculously held itself in until bursting over the presentation ceremony), and tackled like a little demon.
Old Trafford in October is wresting the role of rugby league Mecca away from Wembley, the pilgrims gathering to end the season with a wanton display of loyalty and devotion to their game, if not their clubs. While Shed Seven’s Britpop drone was lost in a soupy sound system, Laura Wright’s Jerusalem was given an electric reception as the pre-match build-up outshone Wembley’s. The post-match show was clearly lifted from NRL productions. Sorry Chuck D: but do believe the hype.
The big event is not only a magnet for fans of all clubs but also players. Spectators in the central blocks were rubber necking to see who was there. Warrington’s Chris Hill and Castleford captain Michael Shenton were among those enjoying a pint; Salford fan Ryan Brierley and his mates created their own entertainment among the proletariat. Having not won a Grand Final himself, Warrington star Hill stood alone at the end, applauding his England and Great Britain teammates as they collected their medals. What a gent.
Understandably, most of the Grand Final participants are having a week off to recover before the Test season. England go to the World Nines at Parramatta, which start on Friday morning, without their St Helens contingent, and France will miss Theo Fages. But Regan Grace – who provided a memorable moment when he hurdled Salford fullback Niall Evalds like he was a low stile on a cross country run – boarded the flight to Sydney with Wales on Sunday, and Kevin Naiqama will captain Fiji, having missed their defeat to a strong Australian Prime Minister’s XIII in Suva last week.
Suspended by Lebanon RL, Parramatta half Mitchell Moses is in Australia’s squad instead. New Lebanon coach Rick Stone, the former Huddersfield boss, has included USA 7s and XV international Ahmad Harajly, but South Sydney winger Campbell Graham will not be making his much-delayed Scotland debut after all, having been called up by Australia.
Fifth and last
Salford have had their moment but spare a thought for Wakefield, who have now waited longer than any other top flight club to appear in a major final. Before Saturday, only Wakefield (51 years) and Huddersfield (57 years) had waited longer than Salford to finish in the top two, and the Giants have at least had a couple of recent Challenge Cup finals to enjoy. Every other club in the Super League this season has been in the top two since Salford last did it in 1976 (albeit Catalans have multiple French titles). Wakefield are somewhat overdue a big day out.