No club in Super League can claim to be closer to Old Trafford than Salford Red Devils. Heck, they even have the same nickname... more on that later!
A five-mile trip under Barton Bridge will take you from the AJ Bell Stadium to the Theatre of Dreams and it’s a journey coach Ian Watson and his unfashionable side could be making next Saturday.
Written off as relegation candidates before a ball was kicked, Salford defied expectations and finished third in Super League to secure a place in the play-offs.
In their opening top-five game they narrowly lost 18-12 at Wigan following a titanic tussle, before impressively shutting out Castleford 22-0 last Thursday.
Adrian Lam’s Warriors were thumped 40-10 by St Helens a week ago but stayed alive in the competition having finished the regular season in second. A win for Salford on Friday would take them to their first-ever Grand Final and provide the kind of financial reward which could secure the club’s future for the next 12 months.
In comparison, Wigan, one of the great names of the sport, are old hands at this lark having won the Grand Final five times since it was introduced in 1998. Home advantage could once again prove the deciding factor on Friday, but Salford will take huge confidence from the way they battled at Wigan two weeks ago; they conceded a decisive try on the back of a handling error and were later denied a try of their own by the video ref.
Warriors coach Adrian Lam would have been troubled by the way his side capitulated at Saints last week, though few would argue that their opponents - overwhelming favourites to win the competition - produced a near-perfect performance.
“We’re expecting the best Wigan,” said Watson. “We played them two weeks ago – they’re built on playing play-off football.
“Saints caught them pretty cold at the start, but we've played them four times and come out on the wrong side. It’s up to us to come out the right side this time.”
Wigan themselves did remarkably well to even finish second this year after an indifferent start which was overshadowed by injuries and uncertainty about who would be their coach in 2020. They were also able to capitalise on Warrington’s dismal end to the league season with a string of wins which saw them leapfrog the Challenge Cup winners.
Wigan’s Super League home record against Salford is impressive, with 21 wins from 23 meetings, and they’ve won all three games against Watson’s men this season.
But it’s not Wigan’s involvement which is the story here, it’s the astonishing rise of Salford, a club which has flirted with relegation several times in recent years. Not since the 1970s when their old home The Willows - which doubled as a stadium and cabaret venue - have the club enjoyed life in the spotlight.
A club steeped in history, Salford can trace their famous nickname back to 1934 when they impressed local journalists so much on a tour of France that they were described in print as ‘Les Diables Rouges’. After winning all six games on the continent, the new name stuck and from then on they were known as the Red Devils. It was a nickname so catchy that Manchester United boss Matt Busby pushed its use in the wake of the Munich air disaster, in preference to the Busby Babes. In the 1970s, United even added it to their badge and it remains their emblem to this day.
It is somehow fitting then that the original Red Devils could be playing at Old Trafford against St Helens next Saturday, the kind of pleasing, romantic symmetry with which sport occasionally spoils us.
Main image: SWPix