One could be forgiven for challenging my purported love of all things Rugby League and Salford RLFC by pointing out a distinct absence of articles or postings over the year since the formation of this blog. There is a distinct reason behind such hesitancy and my sudden decision to change emphasis. As some will be aware, Salford RLFC fans are themselves embracing (both willingly and reluctantly might I add) a major change, ironically on Sunday September 11th 2011. By 5pm on this guaranteed emotional day, Salford Rugby League Football Club will make that long awaited transition to their new ground; The City of Salford Stadium. The curtain will finally fall on The Willows, a venue that despite its modest appearance by modern templates has served up some of the most fantastic memories and with its impending closure a loss of traditionalist charm.
“Later on in life when I look back on my career it will be good to tell the kids that I played in the very last game for Salford at The Willows.” Luke Patten
Without covering old ground and the reasons for my discovery of Salford RLFC, experiencing the rapturous atmosphere from the Red Army in the infamous Popular Side (Shed) was enough to rekindle the feelings of both passion and belonging that escaped me after witnessing the moral and ideological decline of Football governance in the UK. Standing for the first time, in what has come to be the new home of the ‘Stoke-on-Trent Branch’, and witnessing the incessant, unrelenting and frankly eye opening qualities of the greatest game of all, new die-hard supporters were born on a certain Friday night in 2004.
Along our seven-season journey we have experienced a plethora of both highs and lows with trophies, relegations, historic victories and crushing defeats. New followers, some permanent, some temporary have all experienced The Willows. Some have never quite appreciated either the sport itself or the limitations and frustrations of following Salford RLFC. Some have walked away with good memories, others have admitted that it ‘isn’t quite their bag’. The strange thing about introducing new people to the old lady was the ability for Salford to deliver a piss-poor performance and/or the atmosphere to be markedly flat, only for the complete opposite to happen in their absences. I guarantee that some people to this day believe I am exaggerating when I describe some of the explosive experiences I have had in that ground. Last Sunday proved again to be the case, with over ten thousand supporters watching yet another ‘rabbit in headlights’ performance from a team capable of so, so much more.
The hardest thing for everyone will be the altering of the age-old pre-match routines and the sudden break in familiarity. The usual Friday practice of a swift escape from work in West Bromwich back home to Biddulph, Staffordshire through the heavy traffic of the M6 motorway may all be coming to an abrupt end (dependant on the clubs decision on future gamedays). The subtle nuances that offer such fantastic memories; the arrival at Weaste Lane (in the usual parking space of course), utilising the pre-match hour for fast food or ultimately deciding on death burgers* from inside the ground if time was more pressing. The short pilgrimage to the ground past the converted end terrace acting as our club shop and up the alleyway to our regular turnstile before gaining entry and the resulting utilisation of the beer outlets. The best thing about buying beers from the small vendors inside the ground was their ability to pour six, below average beers in such a short space of time. That would get us through to half time anyway.
*A certain member of the group is ideal for informing us if the so-called ‘beef’ burger was cooked sufficiently with his distinctly higher metabolism. If he had stomach turbulence then the rest of the group could fear the worst on Saturday morning.
I will forever struggle to describe The Shed to someone without painting an image of a small, cramped run-down, half length terrace with a less than average view obstructed by supporting pillars. This particular description has even caused some people to turn their noses up at the prospect of standing in such an environment. To our group and many Salfordians, what The Shed lacks in modern amenities and aesthetics, it sure makes it up with its unrivalled acoustics, intimidating atmosphere and imposing location close to the touchline and players dugouts. Ask any Salford fan of lengthy service and they will recall tales of noise so loud, opposing players have simply given in to the heat (and abuse), playing right into the hands of the Reds. Salford players have on many occasions relayed how motivational and inspirational our verbal renditions are to them, as we will them on to victory with our voices. You could say a very unique atmosphere for a sport literally hell bent on relaying the family image. The heckling of the public announcement “Rugby League is a family game…” portrays the general idea of the Shed dwellers attitudes towards the ever changing face of the sport. Strangely enough I have not heard that message this season? The Shed famously became the focus of the national sporting media when in 2001, Andy Wilson wrote this piece in The Guardian;
“That’s why I love this game,” beamed Adam Thomas, a converted Welshman who joined Salford from the city council as community development officer last year. Thomas is the man with the unenviable task of telling the Shed to watch their language. “I get lampooned, but I don’t mind that,” he said. “The supporters we have coming in are the best in the game.
Savouring The Willows for that final time last Sunday was a strange yet emotional experience, something that honestly I wouldn’t appreciate going through again in my lifetime. Seeing the reactions of fellow supporters, many of which have infinitely more memories and experiences of The Willows than myself, would be enough to provoke emotions within the most steely and hardiest of characters. With the emotion clearly lost on some of the playing staff, it was a day that will definitely live long in the memory as, regardless of certain inept performances, I managed to visit areas of the ground that would normally be out of bounds and walk across that hallowed turf for the first and only time. One particularly peculiar observation is just how easy a forty-twenty kick could be if there wasn’t the small factor of performing it at lightning speed with numerous, seventeen stone athletes running at you, all hell bent on breaking every bone in your body. Sitting in both the dugouts and the hospitality areas evoked a feeling of fascination and belonging as this was true testament of the approachability and accessibility once enjoyed in football yet still apparent within Rugby League.
The final goodbye was without a doubt one the most gut-wrenching experiences a sports fan will ever have to go through. All thoughts of a supposed bright future, in a modern arena were quickly put to the back of my mind. I suppose at this moment I felt an alarming feeling of homelessness, as I still cannot envisage Solly plying their trade in another abode that I could call home. Will all future games at the City of Salford Stadium feel like away games? Only time will tell.
Standing in The Shed for the very last time, saying the usual impermanent goodbyes to the fine friends I had only come to know through my association with ‘the old girl’ and walking out onto Willows Road I could not help to turn around and get one last glimpse before walking away to Weaste tram stop, yet another tradition enjoyed for that very last time. A deep sense of pride seemed to overshadow all other emotions as the memories came flooding back. I felt a certain satisfaction in our decisions to walk away from familiar surroundings all those years ago and walk headlong into the unknown, looking for a sense of sporting belonging. I began to evaluate the person I once was prior to starting my Salford RLFC adventure to the person I see today and concluded that its impact has been nothing short of inspirational. I have come to learn and appreciate that there is life beyond your own geographic and personal boundaries, so unless you get out there into the wide world; events, experiences and chances of self-betterment end up passing you by with each day of hesitancy.
A big thank you to the Red Army and our new found friends. A nod of utmost appreciation goes to our chairman Mr Salford (John Wilkinson) for ensuring a future for Salford RLFC.
And finally, the biggest acknowledgement goes to The Willows for 110 years of thrills, spills and certainly no frills. A true part of Salford heritage and tradition, it has been a pleasure to grace your famous terrace.
Rest in Peace our dearest old girl and many, many heartfelt thanks for the memories.