Coach ride to a super future

Dave Hadfield talks to the Salford figurehead aiming to forget his troubles
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The Independent Online
FOR a man supposedly disillusioned with Salford, rugby league and life in general, Andy Gregory sounds alarmingly up-beat when he discusses his side's prospects in Saturday's Silk Cut Challenge Cup semi-final.

It is only a few weeks since Gregory, beset by personal problems, was widely predicted to be on the verge of quitting the game altogether. His troubles off the field - the breakdown of his marriage and a pattern of heavy drinking - had been well documented and, so the story went, he was thinking of throwing away the one thing that was holding his life together.

"I've had a few problems in my life, but the one thing that was constant was that I love it at Salford," he said. "I've never been unhappy here. I don't know where some of these stories come from."

One reason for Gregory's self-proclaimed contentment is the way that his chairman, John Wilkinson, has stood by him through the various upheavals of the last few months.

If he is motivated in the semi-final by a desire to go to Wembley for a tenth time, after his appearances there as a player with Widnes and Wigan, then he also wants Wilkinson to have the honour of leading out a club who have not reached the final for 29 years. "He's a top bloke and I'd just love to see his face if he was walking out at Wembley," Gregory said. "I know how much it would mean to him."

In the way of that vision stand the Sheffield Eagles, whose coach, John Kear, makes this a relatively rare case of two English coaches meeting head-to-head in a semi-final. "I've got a lot of time for John," Gregory said. "I like him as a coach and as a person. There's a lot of coaches in this game that I don't get on with, but I've got the utmost respect for him."

Despite that, Gregory, who knows better than anyone what it takes to get to Wembley, is confident that his Salford Reds will have too much ability for Sheffield at Headingley six days from now. "Players like Andy Platt and David Hulme who have experienced it all before are invaluable on days like this," he said. Both might be past their best in terms of their individual prowess, but their galvanising effect on the younger players around them is crucial.

One intriguing aspect of Gregory's Salford this season is his half-back overload. The most gifted scrum-half of his generation himself, he raised eyebrows over the winter by going out and buying two specialists in the position to add to those he already had at the club.

He has resolved that apparent imbalance by playing the Australian Josh White in his old role and Martin Crompton at loose-forward. Throw in the attacking ability of Steve Blakeley at stand-off and Salford have a creative triangle that is full of options and possibilities.

"What I was looking to do was quite simple," Gregory said. "I wanted to get as many players as possible who could play football. I could play a bit of football when I had the ball in my hands and Salford have always been a side who could score tries. I want to build on that - always remembering that you've got to be able to defend as well.

"I think we've got some great players at Salford. People don't give us credit for that, but I'm glad in a way. I know John Kear will be going through our side, thinking that they only have to stop certain people, but if we play like we can play we'll go through."

For Andy Gregory, John Wilkinson and the whole of a club that comes under scrutiny when others talk about a new Super League franchise in Manchester, it would be a moment of vindication.