Finally, our opposition fans preview stops at the AJ Bell Stadium, over the road from Old Trafford and home of the team we met their last season – Salford Red Devils.
Paul Whiteside joins us once again, cohost of ‘Devil In The Detail’ podcast and writer (his game preview for Friday can be found here https://paulwhitesiderugbyleague.wordpress.com/2020/01/27/st-helens-v-salford-match-preview-3/), he has seen the ups and downs of Salford for the past 30 or so years.
Our thanks to Paul.
First of all tell us a little about yourself…
I’m Paul Whiteside, I’ve been a season ticket holder at Salford since the 1987/88 season. I went to my first match in April 1983 as a four month old baby. Rochdale Hornets away, Salford won 0-7. My dad inflicted his Salford obsession on me at a very young age. It soon rubbed off on me, it’s definitely a way of life and means so much to me and my family.
Over the last few years I’ve become part of The Devil In The Detail podcast as well as reporting for Salford City Radio. I do quite a bit of writing and media work with the Salford players and coaching staff which I really enjoy.
Sum up last season as a Red Devil.
2019 was a complete whirlwind of a season. No one could have dreamt the way it was going to end up. Going back to May, at the Magic Weekend, our form was very inconsistent. A poor display at Anfield against Hull KR and an early exit from the Challenge Cup, the season looked like it might fade away. Add to that lynch pin half back Robert Lui being transferred to Leeds – most of the supporters feared the worst.
Something very special was happening though. Tui Lolohea – a complete misfit and disappointment at Leeds – came in and under coach Ian Watson’s guidance slotted in nicely with Jackson Hastings at half back. A terrific performance at Warrington seemed to kick start the season. The wins kept coming and the belief and unity in the squad became so powerful week after week. This wasn’t the same old disappointing Salford that the loyal long suffering supporters were used to. Now anything seemed possible. A third place finish in the Super League, our highest league position since 1980, set up an assault on the Super League playoffs.
A close fought encounter saw defeat at Wigan but, a week later, Castleford were floored at the AJ Bell Stadium in a terrific performance. This handed us a second chance away at Wigan with the winner going to Old Trafford. A tremendous away following lifted the whole club, Salford roared past Wigan, destroying the Warriors in their own backyard.
Grand Final week was amazing. The media coverage and buzz of the supporters is something I’ve never experienced before.
Watching my beloved club who given me so much pain and heartache over the years walk out at Old Trafford made me so proud. The result didn’t go our way as St Helens were a class above last year and fully deserved the Super League title. A very brave performance in the Grand Final saw us really push the Saints and we went home with heads held high.
2020 will be tough but with Ian Watson and the fantastic staff around him we will be giving it another almighty challenge.
We welcome Toronto into Super League for the first time, meaning we now have 2 teams from outside of the UK taking part in Super League.
So in three parts: a) What are your thoughts on Toronto’s promotion, b) would you welcome more expansion teams from across Europe and/or North America and c) what would your ideal ‘domestic’ Rugby League competition look like in 20-30 years (e.g. Toronto to still be part of the Super League structure with other expansion teams, all expansion teams to be in their own strong domestic leagues, UK only super League etc.)
Heading in to next year Toronto will be part of the Super League. They were promoted on merit and deserve their chance. A lot of the logistics with teams outside the UK provide clubs and supporters a real challeng,e especially financially. In my view, it would be nice to see these clubs like Toronto and Catalans playing elite Rugby League in competitions in their own countries but it looks like expansion is here to stay.
I’d like to see a good French league and maybe an American/Canadian league in the future and then perhaps a tournament that involves all the domestic clubs across the world. A bit like the Champions League in Football.
One thing I’d like to see in the future is a strong Championship and League One with teams challenging for promotion. Clubs that have been in the wilderness rising up to challenge for honours. Crowds to grow and people falling in love with our wonderful sport.
How do you think Salford will go in 2020?
Expectations for 2020, it’s certainly going to be tough. Salford have lost some quality players and our squad isn’t the biggest. Another top five finish would be amazing and help the club to keep progressing. Every Salford supporter dreams of Wembley having not graced the final for over 50 years.
Are you happy with your recruitment this year – is there anywhere you feel you need to improve?
Ian Watson’s recruitment has been impressive. Watto has developed a knack of signing players with points to prove. Hungry players that want to be needed and want to work hard. There is definitely competition for places and good options in most positions. Speaking to Watto recently he’s always on the look out for players to improve the squad and from a personal perspective I’d like to see another second rower in there.
Golden point was used in Super League last year – what are your thoughts on the system?
I like golden point. We had a terrific match against Hull KR last season that ended in a pulsating victory. Rewind to 2016 and the million pound game. That’s something that will live with all Salford supporters forever – a once in a life time experience.
Which one of your clubs players is the one to watch out for this season?
Niall Evalds was outstanding last season and I thought he was our best player in the Grand Final. He’s got the ability to sniff a chance out, he’s a great support player and his defence has improved out of sight in the last year or so. Chris Atkin looks a very exciting player, Kris Welham continues to be one of the most likeable players at the club with his consistency and Kevin Brown has got unfinished business.
Which of your young players is most likely to make a name for themselves this season?
Joey Lussick is one of the youngest players at the club and his displays last year have made him a real hot prospect. I am expecting really good things from Joey again in 2020.
Right, can you give us predictions…
I am not great at predicting but here goes:
Top 5: St. Helens, Wigan, Warrington, Catalans, Salford
Challenge Cup: Salford
Who will be Man of Steel? Do you agree with the way the votes are given out?
Could it be Jackson Hastings again? If he clicks at Wigan, why not? I thought the concept last season was great.