Written by Callum Walker
He’s Salford through and through, but Ian Watson has overseen arguably one of the greatest periods of rugby league in the club’s history. After surviving by the skin of their teeth in the Million Pound Game of 2016, the Red Devils have since established themselves as a stable Super League side, reaching the Grand Final in 2019 and the Challenge Cup Final this year.
There can be no doubting the way in which Watson – with the help of a more secure future for the club off the field – has transformed Salford since he was given the reins on a permanent basis the same year that the club escaped relegation by a Gareth O’Brien drop-goal.
The most-capped Wales player ever, ‘Watto’ – as he is known affectionately by those around him – was promoted to interim head coach with the departure of Iestyn Harris in late 2015 after joining as an assistant from Swinton Lions in July 2014.
Though 2016 may have been traumatic, the Red Devils finished seventh in 2017 – just five points off the play-offs. Possibility of a repeat of the Million Pound Game in 2016 could have been on the cards in 2018 as Salford had to once more fight for their Super League lives in the Middle 8s Qualifiers. But, having already had experience in that position, Watson’s men came out the other side with ease, finishing top of the pile.
It’s those struggles that undoubtedly generated the team spirit and camaraderie which, in turn, paved the way for Salford’s incredible season in 2019. Finishing third, the Red Devils beat Castleford and Wigan on the road to Old Trafford where St Helens proved to be just too good at the showpiece event.
The achievement was there, however, and after the pain of near financial ruin and relegation, it was quite magical to see Watson lead his men out onto the hallowed turf.
Wind the clock forward to 2020 and, although, the Super League season has been far from positive – the Red Devils sit in ninth – a Wembley date awaits them in the Challenge Cup after overcoming both Catalans and Warrington in a much more condensed competition.
1969 was the last year Salford made the cup final. Man landed on the moon that year and most of the Salford faithful would have been having an out-of-body experience when Joey Lussick dived over in the 74th minute to win their semi-final against holders Warrington.
For their much-suffering fans, it is bittersweet; 51 years of hurt has been replaced by despair that they cannot be there to witness their side actually play. It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that spectators – no matter how few – will be given the green light to attend which leaves the television as the only source left.
Whatever the outcome of those debates, Watson has turned his side from perennial basement-dwellers to silverware-hunters. That in itself is a turnaround few ever saw coming – even the hardiest of Salford fans. To win the Challenge Cup would be the icing on the cake, and just desserts for an incredible coach that has done an incredible job.