For the past few years I’ve been working on a book. It’s based on myself, my dad, his brother Jeff and their lives involved in the great sport of Rugby League. It’s called Heroes, Heart Break and Hope. I am hoping to have the book finished by the end of 2020.
At this uncertain time in everyone’s lives and their being no Salford matches to write and talk about I thought I’d share a few chapters of the book. I hope you enjoy reading them. Stay safe, see you soon. God bless.
A Fanatical Obsession is Born.
10th of December 1995 Keighley Cougars v Salford Reds.
A Sunday afternoon in mid winter, it was more or less dark when we set off to the match. A cold icy day as my dad drove us up through Littleborough on the scenic route to West Yorkshire. It was an exciting journey full of anticipation knowing victory would put us on top of the League table.
The Cougars had won the previous encounter at the Willows in September.
Arriving in the small town of Keighley we just about made it in to the ground for kick off. The old ground although slightly tired looked fantastic packed to the rafters. In order to get any sort of view we managed to climb up on a wall, the atmosphere was electric, all four corners of the ground were crackling with excitement.
As the teams walked out my heart was beating faster than ever before. The travelling Salford supporters roared the team on. One player who always gave me that little bit of reassurance was Mark Lee. Wise beyond his years he knew how to make a team tick. Looking back now over twenty years later that match is one of the most complete performances I’ve ever seen from us.
I can vaguely remember a Cougar Crawl after the match, tongue in cheek of course! Salford did us proud that day thumping keighley 6-34 and landing a very important psychological blow.
Five wins from the last six games including a rare victory at the Boulevard against Hull 15-20 saw Salford crowned Division One Champions.
17 victories from twenty matches proved Salford were becoming a very solid and talented side under Andy Gregory’s guidance. Finishing seven points clear of second place Keighley we all knew we had to do the business in the up coming summer season of 1996 to gain promotion to the top flight. The razzmatazz of the Super League was about to start and Salford as a club very much wanted to join that party.
I was never really a huge football fan but with my gran being a Manchester City fanatic I always had a soft spot for them. Cast your mind back to 1995 and the blue side of Manchester was definitely light years behind the red side.
City in a funny sort of way always reminded me of Salford with their long suffering supporters and their habit of letting you down and blowing it on the big occasion.
The day after my 13th birthday 23/12/95 my dad took me to Maine Road to watch City play Chelsea. The atmosphere was something I’d not really experienced before. The crowd was huge with police horses charging around outside the ground. It really did remove me from my comfort zone.
At half time two brothers came on to the pitch and were introduced to the crowd. Music was becoming a big part of my life and I was certainly influenced in that department by my dads taste. The announcer introduced the two lads as Liam and Noel Gallagher, it made my day.
Ever since then I’ve been a very loyal Oasis follower. I love their music and won’t hear a bad word said against them. My gran funnily enough liked them to. They were from an Irish Catholic background so that definitely helped their cause!
Growing up around this time me and my sister Louise spent a lot of time with Gran and her Sister Ellie. Sleeping over at weekend and there most days after school for our tea before mum or dad would collect us on the way home from work. We loved every minute of it and those two wonderful ladies have influenced and helped to shape the character of the people me and Louise have become.
At school creative writing was a favourite subject of mine. It was always naturally Salford RLFC related much to the amusement of the teachers who I think enjoyed reading them.
Looking back the mid 90s were a special time for me. A time of Oasis, Paul Weller, a good Salford team, Merlin Sticker albums, scrap books, pint cans of pop, Spira chocolate bars, tangy toms and of course meeting friends at school who I am still in contact with today.
Subbuteo Rugby was another great passion my dad and Jeff shared. My dad had kept their set but now it had quite a few bits missing including the posts and scrum machine. One day walking through Castleton (Rochdale where we lived) their was a second hand shop on the bridge. A subbuteo rugby set sat collecting dust in the window behind a set of Showaddywaddy LP’s.
I asked the old gentleman if he would save it for me and he duly obliged.
Saturday morning after collecting my paper round money I ran round to collect the set with a buzz of excitement.
The Rugby League Challenge cup would be the first tournament to be played on the set. I painted numbers on marbles in permanent marker pen dropped them in an old ice cream tub before conducting the Draw. Hours of fun where Salford would gloriously beat Swinton, Leeds or Wigan. At 13 my dads rugby league obsession had rubbed off on me and reeled me in. Their was now turning back now.
Back to real life Rugby League and The 1996 season began with the Challenge cup. Salford drew Featherstone Rovers at the Willows. Rovers had knocked Salford out in this fixture in the previous season but the Reds gained revenge with a solid 35-12 win.
I still get nervous at matches now but one thing that has me more on edge is the cup draw. I can’t watch the balls come out of the old velvet bag. I usually hide behind the couch petrified.
The draw for the 5th round was made and Salford drew Wigan at the Willows. The tie would be played on the 11th February 1996.
Through the late 80s to 1996 Wigan had built a real dynasty at Central Park. They had won the Challenge cup eight years on the trot coming in to the match at The Willows. With Lancashire cups, League Championships, World Club Challenge victories and a team full of international stars how would Andy Gregory and his men approach this seemingly impossible task.
The week building up to the match was very exciting. The local newspapers were full of stories linking the two clubs especially with the amount of ex Wigan players now at Salford. Some who had great careers with the cherry and whites and some who had been moved on with a point to prove. Salford were coached by a Wigan legend in Andy Gregory and he definitely had a plan.
Arriving at the Willows that day we parked in our usual spot on Josslyn Road and walked the short distance down Gore Avenue. The great North Stand always in view. It really was a magnificent site. I really miss that walk.
The ground was beginning to fill pretty quickly and it was certainly the biggest crowd I had seen there. The Wigan supporters massed in the North Stand making a tremendous atmosphere. A real sea of red and white. God knows how the players felt when they walked out but I was bursting with pride and really quite emotional with a lump in my throat. All this before kick off!
I must of counted every tackle when Wigan had the ball. Making a point of letting the referee know when it was the fifth one.
Salford played so well in the first half taking their chances and tackling like Trojans.
That’s me with the scarf on, my dad on the left along with some great people we’ve met along the way.
The more the game went on the more we believed that perhaps the unthinkable could actually happen. If I shut my eyes now I can still see Scott Naylor roaring over for a try despite losing a boot in the process. Every Salford player put in the performance of their life. Courage, skill, desire and a willingness to chase every lost cause. When the final hooter went my dad beamed with pride. I’d never seen him as happy at a match before. My god he deserved that day. Their was so much elation and joy in the corner where our little gang of friends stood shoulder to shoulder week in week out. We dashed on to the pitch with thousands of jubilant Salford supporters. I can remember getting some tie ups that I think came off Darren Rogers and some electrical tape that dropped off Andy Burgess. They had that lovely smell of winter green on them.
At that time Wigan were one of sport’s greatest clubs and to end their eight year dominance in that fashion is something that will live with me and my dad forever. We stayed in the ground for ages after the match talking to various old faces my dad knew. We didn’t want the magical day to end. Arriving home that Sunday night we sat down for tea with my mum and Louise. No voices left and a complete whirlwind of excitement around us.
Anything now seemed possible and as we held our breathes as the Quarter final draw took place a huge slice of realism landed. Salford Reds would meet St Helens.