With a little over a week to go before he would see the fruits from the first wave of his “Redeviloution”, Dr Marwan Koukash opened the doors of the A.J. Bell stadium to fans old and new to personally present shirts to the squad that he firmly believes are capable of finishing in the top four of Super League XIX and to show off his vision for the Salford of the future.
It was a chance for the fans to not only get up close and personal with the players, but to have a good look around the stadium, with pretty much all areas open to them, from the new gym, put in so that the squad didn’t have to travel to Leigh sports village through to the dressing rooms. Even setting foot on the hallowed turf was not forbidden!
Marwan is a man who divides opinion, and it’s something he revels in. To be fair to him, he’s made certain that Salford have probably had the lion’s share of press during the close season, be it his ideas on the salary cap, or how to move the sport in the UK forward without the perceived interference from Red Hall. One of the first things he said ahead of the shirt presentation was how he felt about undoubtedly his biggest signing, Brian Noble. When Noble said that he needed to bring in about four of five players, Marwan laughed and said in his own unique way, bloody hell mate, we need to only KEEP four or five.
When Marwan says that his relationship is not the usual one of chairman and coach, you believe him. This is a man who has fought tooth and nail to get to where he is today, and will fight just as hard for anyone in his corner as he will argue against anyone he feels is not.
As he says, a 300% increase in season ticket sales may not be as large a number as Saints, Warrington or Leeds, but he understands that the fans have had years of wait and see promises that have gone undelivered and that many will still pay on the day, and (hopefully) many more will buy once they start to see the fruits of his actions on and off the field paying dividends. He has already approached Red Hall to ask for an exemption on the cap to bring in a marquee player who he is confident will be a game changer.
He also says that on paper, there are not many better teams than Salford. Problem is, the game is played on grass and on Sunday, against Wakefield, Marwan started to see his dream become a reality.
I asked Brian Noble just before kick off if he was feeling nervous and he said he was probably more nervous than the players, but they had a job to do and were looking forward to getting it done. With that, Brian shot off to finish his pre match preparation.
As the time for kick off drew ever closer, it became clear that something special was happening at the A.J. Bell, because the press area was rammed with journalists from all forms of media. Not all of them hung about for the final whistle, but they will all have a copy of the team sheet and a souvenir programme to be able to tell their grandkids that they were there…
With all the preseason hype surrounding the club, it was no surprise to see the touchline full of photographers, TV cameras and the entire Koukash family all soaking up the atmosphere. The Red Devil parachute display team were due to arrive at 2.15pm, but were delayed in taking off from Manchester Airport by about 15 minutes, but when they did arrive (bedecked in Salford shirts!) they were greeted with cheers by the waiting crowd, who had just been told that due to crowd congestion outside the ground, kick off would be delayed by 10 minutes to allow everyone to safely get inside.
Once 3.10 arrived, the Devils and Wildcats took to the field and it was obvious that Salford were not about to let the visitors spoil the party, with Gareth Hock going over after five minutes to score his debut try for the club, easily converted by Jake Mullaney to give the Devils a 6-0 advantage.
Wakefield’s first spell of pressure culminated in a goal line drop out after eleven minutes, but that was pretty much it for the Wildcats, who seemed to be getting most of their advantages down the left hand side, where Salford looked a little shorthanded at times. It wasn’t until the twenty fifth minute, when England international Rangi Chase went over in a challenge and hurt his knee, forcing Noble into a few tactical changes that Salford really started to pile on the pressure with Harrison Hansen scoring after twenty eight minutes, again converted by Mullaney, to extend the lead to 12 nil.
Four minutes later, Andrew Dixon also went over, making it 3 unanswered tries, all converted to allow the devils an 18 point advantage at the break.
So far, so good. Brian Noble must have felt like taking the second half off! The only fly in the ointment was the man in the middle, Mr Child, who seemed to not understand the onside at the play of the ball rule meant that the players (on BOTH sides) must retreat 10 meters. To say he looked out of his depth was an understatement. The RFL needs to seriously look at the standard of refereeing in our game. Steve Ganson is now supposed to be in charge, but over the last 5 years, on average the standard of refereeing has slipped in my honest opinion.
After the break, Wakefield looked to really take the game back to Salford and break the hearts of the home crowd, who as Dr Koukash had said have had so many broken promises, he understands that they are wary of yet another promised golden dawn not becoming sunrise.
It took just five minutes for the fears of the crowd to look like coming true as Matt Ryan scored for the Wildcats, and just another four for them to go over again in the guise of Samoan international Pita Godinet, this time converted by Paul Sykes to reduce the deficit to 18-10, the Wakefield faithful really started to make their voice heard. Not to be outdone, the Salford fans found themselves in for a very nervy finish, once Ali Lauititi went over not too long after being held up over the line, a fact coach Agar disputed in the post-match press conference. To quote Richard, ‘I’ve never seen anyone stop Ali one-on-one that close to the line’. He said: ‘Well, he didn’t’.
With Sykes only managing to convert one of his chances, Agar could well rue not coming away with at least a point from the game, if not two.
As it was, Salford got their much anticipated season off to a winning, if nervy start. Coach Noble said post-match that Chase had a muscular knock and at that point it didn’t look too bad and that Junior Sau had tweaked his groin, but that they would both be hopefully fit for Salford’s next game, away to London.
One other thing from Richard Agar was his unhappiness at a four day turnabout for both Wakefield and Bradford, with them playing this Thursday in front of the Sky cameras. Given the lack of preparation he’s had with overseas players, it’s understandable to want to get some good recovery and preparation under their belt before the next match, but it appears that it’s out of both his and the RFL’s hands with Sky making the decision to show games Thursday and Friday, at least until the end of the football season…
Mullaney (3/3 Conv), Johnson, Walton, Sa’u, Meli, Chase, Smith (MOM), Morley, Lee, Tasi, Hansen (T), Hock (T), Puletua
Replacements: Griffin, Dixon (T), McPherson, Howarth
Mathers, Fox, Collis, Keinhorst, Lyne, Sykes (1/3 Conv), Godinet (T), Anderson, McShane, Smith, Lauititi (T), Kirmond, Washbrook
Replacements: Raleigh, Ryan (T), Tautai, Walshaw
Att: 7102 (Stadium record)