When they walked out onto the Old Trafford pitch on Wednesday for their pre-Grand Final visit, the Salford Red Devils squad got an idea of what the atmosphere will be like on the big day.
The club arranged for crowd noise to be piped over the PA as the players made their way out of the tunnel at the Stretford End, mimicking the walk they will make with their St Helens counterparts for real just before 6pm on Saturday night.
Of course, the likes of Gil Dudson, Lee Mossop, Mark Flanagan and Josh Jones know from experiences with their previous clubs what it is like to walk out for a showpiece at Manchester United’s home. So to do Red Devils head coach Ian Watson and chief executive Ian Blease.
The pair were both playing last time Salford were involved in an Old Trafford final – Watson as a wily half-back and Blease as an industrious forward as they overcame Keighley Cougars 19-6 in the 1996 Divisional Premiership decider, with the latter having played in the 27-20 win against Halifax in the same competition five years earlier as well.
“It was different – I wouldn’t survive in the modern game,” joked Blease, looking back on those matches. “But when you walk out on that pitch, it’s an amazing feeling.
“The best way to describe it is it’s like a coliseum. You can’t hear people on the pitch shouting moves and things because of the crowd.
“But Watto has told them already, concentrate on your first efforts, get your head in the right place and you’ll have a good game.
“You’ve just got to work together as a team, and the guys have done that all year, played some tremendous rugby and there’s no reason they can’t do that on Saturday.”
Blease has been back at the club he made 252 appearances for between 1985 and 1997 for nearly three years, appointed as chief executive by former owner Marwan Koukash.
Even prior to his full-time return, the 54-year-old was still lending a helping hand to Salford and it was him who recommended Watson, then player-coach at Swinton Lions, to Koukash when the club were searching for a new assistant coach in 2014.
Now the man in charge, Watson has won plenty of plaudits for his role in guiding the Red Devils from battling against relegation last year to within 80 minutes of lifting the Super League title for the first time and Blease is not surprised to see his former team-mate spearheading an incredible season.
“He’s a genius at looking at mannerisms and personality,” Blease said.
“He’s getting his just rewards and this won’t just end now, this is what we want to do for the next few years – depending on how long we both stay there.
“It’s a happy time to be around the club, it’s a pleasure to work for the club and he deserves all of the accolades he gets.”
Given Salford’s rise in 2019, it is perhaps easy to forget the struggles the club have endured in recent years, not to mention adapting from the big-spending years under Koukash to operating on a restricted budget following a change of ownership.
“The best way to describe it is it’s like a coliseum. You can’t hear people on the pitch shouting moves and things because of the crowd.”
The situation has stabilised off the field now, with the prize money the club will receive just for reaching the Grand Final being an unexpected bonus, and Blease is resting somewhat easier than he had been.
“I remember one year, I think it was 2017, my wife looked at me one day and said ‘you need to get away’ – and I just went away for a week on my own,” Blease recalled.
“I can’t even remember the holiday, I just zonked out for a week on my own, not even playing golf and just sat on a terrace doing whatever it was I did.
“There have been some massive ups and downs in those times and we’ve gone through a change of ownership as well, which affected the club. We just didn’t know where we were going from time to time and it was a day to day struggle.
“It’s a bit less now, but that’s sport, isn’t it? You have ups and downs, you have potholes in the road you’ve got to get over. I think we’ve coped pretty well with it and hopefully it will culminate in a victory on Saturday.”
Whatever happens this weekend, Blease is determined not to stand still and has plans to keep growing the club – including his personal aim of having five players from the area playing for the first team in five years.
The return of reserve-grade rugby next year will help with that aim, giving a pathway through the Red Devils’ academy and College Rugby League sides through to Super League level for talented youngsters in the city.
But the immediate focus is on the Grand Final and defying the odds for one last time in 2019 as Salford bid to cause one of the biggest upsets in rugby league history against the dominant side in Super League this year, St Helens.
“The boys are going to be focused and it’s up to them,” Blease said.
“I can’t do anything on that pitch now, we’ve assembled a team which, credit to them, have made themselves heroes in the city. Hopefully they can be heroes on Saturday night as well.”
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