STORY SO FAR
Salford Red Devils has been at the heart of the community for almost 150 years. In that time, the Club has seen many changes and created new memories for each generation. Read our story below to find out how the Red Devils you know today, came to be.
Rugby in the city of Salford, has its roots in a rugby union club on the other side of the River Irwell, in Manchester. Cavendish Football Club was founded in 1875, born from its own origins in 1873, with the boys who attended Cavendish Street Chapel in Hulme. With the establishment of the club came the move across the river to the Ordsall area of Salford, which last name was adopted in 1879, to replace ‘Cavendish’ that no longer had the same relevance.
Their first match as Salford Football Club was away to Dewsbury, on 4th October 1879, followed a week later with their first home match, at New Barns near to White City, with Widnes as the visitors, in a game which finished a draw after each side scored one try apiece.
A merger with Crescent Football Club strengthened considerably the foundations of the club, which had now become a member of the Rugby Football Union, and in 1889 their colours were changed from amber, black, and red hoops, to all red. Although not one of the founder members of the Northern Union (later to become the Rugby Football League) when the breakaway came in 1895, they were one of the first clubs to be admitted a year later.
Notice to quit their New Barns ground in 1900, led to their move to Weaste, where a new stadium was constructed, which was to serve as home for the Club for the next hundred and ten years. An impressive row of willow trees to the north of the ground had such an imposing aspect that their new home was named after them.
EARLY YEARS AT THE WILLOWS AND LANCE TODD ERA
Swinton were the first visitors to The Willows, in December 1901, with Salford running out 2-0 winners. At much the same time, the Club was involved in another piece of history by being involved in rugby league’s very first hundred-pound transfer, of star player James Lomas from Bramley.
Financial problems during the 1913/14 season led to the winding up of the existing company, and the establishing of Salford Football Club (1914) Ltd. Despite all this, the team had won its first major trophy a few months earlier, beating the highly vaunted Huddersfield ‘Team of all Talents’ 5-3 in the Championship Final.
The onset of the First World War quickly brought an end to the Club’s on field progress, and it was not until 1928 that it started to move forward again, and at quite some speed, starting with the acquisition of Lance Todd as coach. In his first season in charge, the same squad of players went from twenty-sixth in the league to fourth.
He assembled a team of stars, led by the legendary Gus Risman, and included Barney Hudson, Bert Day, Emlyn Jenkins, Jack Feetham, and Billy Watkins. The reward in the 1930s, was unreserved acknowledgement as being the team of the decade, with their winning the Lancashire League Championship on five occasions, the Lancashire Cup four times, the League Championship thrice, and two Challenge Cup Finals the first of which, in 1938, they won.
In 1934, the team undertook a two month visit to the south of France to help the fledgling game there establish itself, during which tour they were given the nickname of Les Diables Rouges, (The Red Devils). This was the start of a longstanding association with the French Rugby League, which led to Catalans Dragons being invited as the final visitors to The Willows, in the farewell game at the ground in 2011.
Once again, the great heights to which the team had risen were brought crashing down by the advent of World War II, and this time, unlike in 1914, when they had continued playing throughout, the club ceased involvement in fixtures after a short period of time.
THE SUPER SIXTIES & SEVENTIES
In almost déjà vu fashion to 1918, Salford’s resumption in 1946 was from a very lowly base, made all the harder by the death of Lance Todd in 1942, in a motoring accident. In memory of all he had done for Salford, the surviving players set up the Red Devils Association for former players in 1946, which sought to keep his name alive by means of the Lance Todd Trophy, which is presented annually to the Man of the Match at the Wembley Challenge Cup Final.
Just as in 1928, it required the arrival of a certain individual to change fortunes for the better, so in 1964 it required the accession to the role of Chairman, of Mr G Brian Snape, a visionary of similar calibre to Lance Todd, and from that point on history began repeating itself.
From 1966 onwards, star names were recruited from both rugby league and union, including Chris Hesketh, Colin Dixon, Mike Coulman, Bill Burgess, and the renowned Welsh Wizard David Watkins. A return to Wembley in 1969 came just a couple of seasons too early for the still-developing Salford side to lift the trophy against a much more established Castleford side, but for the next decade they were always in contention for every trophy on offer. They won the Lancashire Cup in 1972, the First Division Championship 1973/4 & 1975/6, and the BBC Floodlit Cup 1974/5.
Those heady days of Friday nights under floodlights at The Willows, are well remembered by fans and players who had the privilege and pleasure of being involved, because the entertainment on the field followed by socialising in the Willows Variety Centre, surpassed anything that had been experienced in rugby league, hitherto. Additional star players, such as Maurice Richards, Keith Fielding, Paul Charlton, and Stevie Nash continued to swell the ranks and move the team onwards and upwards, but it was always the quality of the rugby which is first and foremost in everyone’s memory.
The retirement of Mr Snape to the Isle of Man left his brother, Keith, in charge for the next few seasons, and during that time the centenary anniversary of the Club came, in 1979. In replication of their first home game, Widnes were invited to provide the opposition in the commemorative match, with Salford taking the field in their original amber black and red hoops, and unbelievably a draw, this time 16-16, replicated that original result.
THE JOHN WILKINSON ERA
In 1982, the club was taken over by Mr John Wilkinson, who as Chairman proceeded to dedicate thirty years of his life to keep the Club in existence, despite all the changes which were thrown at sports, such as contracts for players and ever-changing health & safety legislation, during that period.
Such was his devotion to the club and the city, Mr Wilkinson still managed not only to keep the Club afloat, but at certain periods to be highly competitive, whilst needing occasional short periods of transition, at a lower level. Involvement at the highest of echelons was usually the format, and on the odd occasion when the club dropped to a lower tier, with one exception, promotion always came at the end of one season.
The late eighties and early nineties was a golden period, with involvement in finals and semi-finals of various competitions. Twice they won through to make appearances in Lancashire Cup Final, firstly against Wigan, and then, heartbreakingly, two years later saw Martin Offiah, then with Widnes, steal the Cup from Salford’s grasp, with a last minute, match winning try.
That same year, with the Reds temporarily out of the top flight, they romped through to the Second Division Play-Off Final at Old Trafford, against Halifax, whom they defeated for the spoils to take a place back in the first division.
The complete upheaval of the game in 1995, with the change to summer rugby found Salford, in similar vein to events a hundred years before, absent from the launch of Super League, as they were competing once again in the second tier. The season was not without its merits, however, for in an almost identical replication of the 1990 season, they not only won promotion via the Old Trafford Premiership Double Header, defeating closest rivals Keighley Cougars, they also shook rugby league to its foundations in the second round of the Challenge Cup, with a home defeat of a dominant Wigan side.
As the one and only fully professional team in the sport, at that time the Riversiders had raised their standards far beyond the reach of the remainder of the sport, and had lifted the Cup on an incredible eight consecutive visits to Wembley, which Salford brought to an end at The Willows, on 11th February 1996. As on many other occasions however, the draw for the following round was extremely unkind bringing a visit from St Helens, and the Salford players were unable to back up with a second giant-killing act.
Two years later, the Reds had their best opportunity for a return to Wembley since 1969, when they won through to the semi-final, matched with Sheffield Eagles at Headingley. With ten minutes to go however, in a most tightly fought encounter, Salford took the lead only for it to be snatched away a few minutes from time, on this occasion by winger Nick Pinkney, who scored behind the posts to give Sheffield a single point victory.
The defeat was exceptionally hard for the team, and the club as a whole to take, especially with the Eagles going on to lift the trophy against a much below-par Wigan side at Wembley, and to a certain extent it seemed to rip the heart out of the team. Indeed, it was not until 2006 that they were able to boast their highest Super League finishing position at the time of fifth, thereby qualifying for their first play-off place, in the top six, going out in the first round, away at Bradford.
Another one season relegation to the second division, for the 2008 season, saw them promoted by means of the newly introduced franchising system, along with the fledgeling Celtic Crusaders, as Super League was expanded by two, to fourteen teams. This made it particularly hard for both clubs, because with no relegation there was no team having to release its players from their contracts, so there were no pickings to be had from this usual source, while in addition there was another club also endeavouring to sign such free players as were available.
The consequence of this was that it was extremely difficult to put together a squad capable of competing at this top level. In 2012, twelve months after leaving The Willows to take up residence at the AJ Bell Stadium, Mr Wilkinson brought his thirty year reign as Chairman to an end, by handing over to Mr Marwan Koukash, who proceeded to endeavour to raise the fortunes of the cub, with mixed results.
THE RISE OF PRESENT DAY SALFORD
In 2017, a six points reduction for breaches of the salary cap pushed the club into having to compete in the aptly titled Million Pound Game, against Hull Kingston Rovers at Craven Park. After suffering past heart-breaking losses of their own, this time it was the boot of the Salford fullback, which determined our survival with a fifty metre drop-goal in extra time, after an incredible eight point comeback in the final three minutes of normal play, to draw level.
Just as the 1998 loss to Sheffield had had such a devastating effect on the club, so this almost miraculous turn-around, boosted the self-image of the club, and within ten months they reached the semi-final of the Challenge Cup, facing Wigan at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium.
A change to a system of shared community ownership brought the Club closer to those it represented once again and with this came a real upturn in fortunes. In 2019, they reached the top five play-offs, and against all the odds, reached the Grand Final at Old Trafford, where they played in their first major final for fifty years against St Helens, having totally overwhelmed Wigan, in the semi-final the previous week.
This was backed up in 2020, with a semi-final victory in the Challenge Cup over Warrington, to return to Wembley for the first time in fifty-one years. The Club now looks to continue with this rise and invites you to be a part of it.