Fight of Brian takes Sale to the top

Scot's determination has taken the one-time underdogs on an amazing journey
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The Independent Online

Jason Robinson, the captain of Sale and former captain of England, does not much care for a Guinness Premiership that pours a quart into a pint pot. The play-off system not only splits the country but the family, and that includes Sale who have led from the gun, nine hard months ago, but will end up with nothing if they lose to Leicester in the Premiership Final at Twickenham on Saturday. According to Robinson that would be so unfair as to contravene the Human Rights Act.

Not so, says Brian Kennedy, who happens to be the owner of Sale. "I liken it to the heats of an Olympic final. It doesn't matter what your times are, it's the final race that counts. It all adds to the spice and slowly but surely the play-offs are being accepted." Without the extension to the season Sale would not have enjoyed a red-letter day against Wasps at Edgeley Park last Sunday and would not have a Twickenham final to look forward to when they hope to match the Tigers fan for fan.

It was the semi-final victory over triple champions Wasps that gave Kennedy, who has invested a small fortune since 2000, his warmest glow yet. It reminded him of Thomond Park in Limerick, where earlier in the season Munster turned over Sale in the Heineken Cup. "The atmosphere was fantastic," he said. "There was a passion and tribalism that transferred to our players and gave them such energy. You could feel it. It's everything we've been aspiring to for six years."

The transformation of Sale is one of the great success stories in professional rugby. Although the club, founded in 1861, came to prominence in the 1990s, first under Paul Turner and then John Mitchell, Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond, Cheshire, more footballers' wives and rugby league, was not a rugby hotbed. Their old ground at Heywood Road could just about accommodate 900 men and a whippet. Kennedy has changed everything.

"I'm just a big mouth from Edinburgh," he says. But as canny as anything, and he puts his money where his mouth is. His father John, before he went into the industrial cleaning business, was a window cleaner in the Scottish capital. "I used to help him out at weekends and I detested it," Kennedy says.

His "salary" was £1 a week. Today he runs 14 companies ranging from the manufacture of plastic and glass to the retail business of double glazing and kitchens to property. The turnover is £500million a year and Kennedy is said to be worth £250m.

If a club need a sugar daddy who better than one who is into home improvements? What's more, Kennedy was a player, a useful back rower. Through another of his companies, Cheshire Sports, he bought Stockport County FC in 2003 (it was bought back for a nominal sum by a Supporters' Trust last year) enabling Sale to move to Edgeley Park. He then set about not only assembling one of the strongest squads in the country but pulled off two masterstrokes in signing Philippe Saint-André as director of rugby and Niels de Vos, the campaign director of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, as chief executive.

Saint-André became a cult figure at Gloucester but it didn't last and he was diverted to Bourgoin. Kennedy, who was having a meeting with his company heads, met the Frenchman by accident outside a bar in Cheltenham. "Gloucester used to steamroller the Sale pack so I was interested to talk to Philippe and we got on well." Saint-André fell out with Bourgoin so Kennedy flew in his private jet (he also pilots his own helicopter) to France to lure him to the north of England.

"Philippe was tremendous at turning teams around but struggled to sustain it," Kennedy said. "At Sale he is determined to finish the race. It was a good move. He's passionate and honest and the communication between us is crucial."

A few weeks ago the 46-year-old Kennedy turned out at No 8 for Holmes Chapel at Buxton and took along Saint-André, a former captain of France, and Kingsley Jones, a former captain of Wales, and an assistant coach at Sale. Saint-André played scrum-half and Holmes Chapel won. "I got kicked to death and it was freezing but it was a memorable day," Kennedy said. "This game's a great leveller."

Talking of which, Kennedy, a father of five, says that Saturday's final against Leicester is an even-money bet. "They're the two best teams in England. It's who peaks on the day." Quite where this leaves Johnny, Kennedy's 16-year-old son, is not clear. The Tigers have a nerve. Dusty Hare, in charge of attracting young talent at Leicester, only went and poached young Kennedy, a useful centre who made the England Under-16 squad. "They had the decency to phone me up," Brian said. "I didn't object. We're trying to do the same thing."

Kennedy, who is also on the board of the Scottish Rugby Union (don't ask), has been a heavyweight player against the Rugby Football Union in the interminable club v country game. "The system is flawed in that clubs who develop England players are penalised. Everyone recognises that we want a successful England and England want successful clubs and once we sort out the dichotomy the solutions will come fast and furious. I deal with far more complex problems every day. We're in this together and there should be a win-win situation. In the past the two parties haven't trusted each other. I'm confident it will happen in the future."

For all his empire building, one of Kennedy's proudest achievements is turning Sale from a bargain basement club in hostile territory into not only a force in the land but a going concern. Only Leicester and Northampton regularly post a profit and a few years ago Sale were losing £2m a year. "I think this season we'll show a small profit and that's brilliant news," Kennedy said. "We're building a fan base which will allow the club to be self-sustaining. The future for rugby in the North-west is looking good."