If Salford Red Devils go on to lift the Challenge Cup for only the second time in their history on Saturday, head coach Ian Watson would find himself in illustrious company.
Salford’s only previous success in the competition came back in 1938 when they edged out Barrow 7-4, with the team being managed by the man whose name now adorns the match of the match trophy, Lance Todd.
The New Zealander’s 12 years at the club saw them become arguably the leading team of the 1930s, winning the Championship final three times and the Lancashire Cup four times along with their Wembley triumph, and was honoured for him contributions to rugby league by having the Cup final’s individual accolade named after him following his death in a car accident in 1942.
Watson is fully aware of the history and would see it as particularly fitting if one of his players was to be named winner of this year’s Lance Todd Trophy, which is owned and presented by the Red Devils Players Association. However, he is not thinking too much about potentially emulating one of his predecessors.
“For me, you don’t kind of get caught up in everything else,” Watson said. “You’re in your own bubble and preparing your team.
“You don’t get loads of time to spend thinking about what you’ve done or what you could possibly achieve and I kind of like that as well because you can’t get caught up in anything.
“The people who deserve the credit on the back of it are generally the staff members who work day in, day out and put a lot of effort in, and the players who commit to what you’re speaking about.
You don’t get loads of time to spend thinking about what you’ve done or what you could possibly achieve and I kind of like that as well because you can’t get caught up in anything.
“They hold each other accountable within the group and they’re the guys who deserve credit for getting to a Challenge Cup final and hopefully being able to win it – and maybe we can get a Salford player picking up the Lance Todd Trophy.”
Having grown up in the city and started out playing for amateur club Eccles – now Salford City Roosters – who are based barely one mile from what is now the Red Devils’ home of the AJ Bell Stadium, Watson is fully ingrained in the area’s rugby league culture.
He knows how long the club’s supporters have waited to see the club appear in a Challenge Cup final too, with Salford’s last appearance at Wembley in the 11-6 defeat to Castleford in 1969 coming seven years before Watson himself was born.
It is not lost on him or anyone associated with the club that their first trip to Wembley for 51 years comes in a year when the final will be played behind closed doors as a result of coronavirus restrictions either, but that does not diminish the occasion or what it means to them.
“It’s amazing that we’ve got there this year and people can’t go,” Watson said. “I know people who’ve been going to Wembley for 30-odd years in their Salford shirts.
“My old coach, he was one of them guys who goes every year with his family and this year they can’t, so that’s going to be strange.
“But the Challenge Cup is special, no matter who you speak to. You remember all of the Australians who’ve come across and they used to say that’s what they’d always get up for back home, to watch the Challenge Cup because they don’t have that kind of competition over there.
“For people who live in the UK, whether you’re amateur or professional, that’s always been one of the pinnacles of the game.”
🗣️ "The Club belongs to the community"
🙌 Ian Watson stressed that the team know just how much the city will be cheering for them on Saturday, despite supporters not being inside the ground.
📺 WATCH the full video on RDTV👉https://t.co/SnzBzIBsRJ pic.twitter.com/NFpCERrahJ
Watson and chief executive Ian Blease, another former Salford player who hails from nearby Swinton, have done much to try to bring the club and community closer together and the former feels they are starting to see the benefits of that.
Reaching two major finals in as many seasons has helped rekindle an interest in rugby league in the area too and Watson knows what beating Leeds Rhinos to lift the Challenge Cup on Saturday could do for both the Red Devils and the sport at grassroots level.
“Hopefully with last year getting to the Grand Final, that kind of reignited that bit of fire with the youngsters that rugby league is a possibility and you can win things playing at Salford,” Watson said.
“Getting to the Challenge Cup final hopefully cements that as well and gets more guys out there playing rugby rather than football.
Hopefully with last year getting to the Grand Final, that kind of reignited that bit of fire with the youngsters that rugby league is a possibility and you can win things playing at Salford.
“Obviously, we have massive competition with [Manchester] United and City, everyone wants to go there because they see the limelight, the money and everything else.
“But over the last couple of years Salford within the community, and becoming more of a community team as well and community owned by supporters and local businesses, I really think it’s generated a better feel to it.”
Although he did not get to experience a Challenge Cup final during his playing career, Watson has graced the Wembley turf as part of the Wales team which played New Zealand there during a Four Nations double-header in 2011.
Even so, the ex-Salford half-back will be leaving it to former finalists in the squad like Kevin Brown and Tyrone McCarthy to prepare the rest of the Red Devils squad with their experiences.
“It’s completely different, playing for Wales to a Challenge Cup final,” Watson said.
“I’ve never been lucky enough and was probably never good enough to play in a Challenge Cup final either, so we’ll leave that to the players.
“The guys who’ve experienced it have already spoken about what it means to them, what it’s like going out there and we’ll rely on those experiences rather than any of mine.”
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