Salford sign off at The Willows in desperate need of new start


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The Independent Online

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Salford had set their hearts on leaving The Willows, their home since 1901, on the back of a successful season.

Instead, they play their last game there, against the Catalan Dragons today, in 10th place in Super League at the end of another disappointing and often disrupted campaign. It will be a sentimental rather than an uplifting occasion. "It's been my home as chairman for 30 years and it means so much," said John Wilkinson, who has bankrolled the club for the last three decades.

One part of his ambition was to leave The Willows as a winning side; the other was to make a smooth move to a new stadium besidethe motorway at Barton. Having failed in the first aim, it is imperative that they succeed in the second. "You can feel the excitement," Wilkinson said. "All Salford fans will embrace what we have done at Barton."

Maybe, but to make it work Salford need to attract a new audience as well. The vision is that the City Reds, in a conveniently sited stadium with modern facilities, will attract rugby league fans from the whole Manchester conurbation, much as Sale have tried to do in rugby union.

Wilkinson also takes Warrington's success in their new stadium as a template. "I watched them play Wigan at the weekend, at a packed ground. If we can get it right on the pitch, we can do the same."

Their historic home, in one of the more notorious parts of Salford, has become a millstone around their neck. It is in an area where spectators are wary of parking their cars and it costs about £1,000 a week to try to keep The Willows secure from vandals and intruders.

As for visiting players, they will not miss the pokiest dressing rooms in rugby league – so small that a couple of players from each side have to change in the corridor, alongside the washing machines.

As a venue it is not so much tired as exhausted. But it has been the base from which they have launched successful innovations that deserve to be remembered as Salford leave. They were the pioneers of Friday- night rugby in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when The Willows became the place to go for local celebrities. There were celebrities on the field too, with players such as David Watkins, Maurice Richards and Keith Fielding lending the club a glamour that pulled in the crowds.

Today's opponents also bring with them a reminder that Salford were the first club to nurture the game in France by playing matches there in the Thirties. They are still known across the Channel as Les Diables Rouges, and were dubbed the Red Devils before Manchester United.

Sadly, French gratitude for that trailblazing work is unlikely to extend to giving them a winning send-off from The Willows this afternoon. The Catalans need the points; Salford, more than most clubs, need a fresh start.