First published in Rugby League World, Issue 376 (Aug 2012)
Ground: Salford City Stadium
Game: v Bradford Bulls
Date: Friday 18 May 2012
I epitomise Salford’s challenge to convert the masses to the City Reds’ cause. I spent a couple of teenage years living in Salford but only visited The Willows two or three times. I return to Manchester several times a year but never think of going to watch the area’s Super League club. But I am here now to see how they are getting on in their new surroundings.
Situated a few hundred yards from the M60, which is itself five minutes from the M62, at a glance the £16m Salford City Stadium is ideally placed. Go on a Friday night and you may reconsider. With no signs to the ground, I whizz past Junction 10 and spend half an hour queuing to get back. Traffic is horrendous. The whole stadium is served by one single-carriage road in and out. How they have got away with that is beyond belief. Number 67 and 100 buses go along the A57 Liverpool Road, linking the trains and trams of Manchester, Irlam and Eccles via the nearby Trafford Centre, as do the stadium shuttles. The bus stop is ‘a two minute walk’ from the stadium according to the club website. Make that an eight minute brisk march. One breathless Bradford fan approaching the turnstiles takes a look at Barton Bridge where they’ve spent the previous half hour and declares: “We should have abseiled down.”
Like an American superdome, the stadium is surrounded by car parks, a couple tarmacked, with acres of unmade ones stretching all the way to the bridge, but only cars that booked in advance (at £5 a pop) can park there! I assume this is to manage the size of the bottleneck afterwards. There are a few dozen parking spots off the access road, but the rest of the new arrivals are directed towards Barton airfield, a few hundred yards further west. Parking is residents only in the quiet cul-de-sacs of neat red-painted brick semis along Liverpool Road.
After passing the recycling yard, I circle the ground and gaze across the green wastelands dotted with corpses of post-industrial Salford: polluted becks, sludge-filled ponds, lonely trees, sewage works, derelict warehouses, towering chimneys and container ports. It is the Salford that Morrissey and I knew and loved in our youth. But the stadium itself is isolated from these potentially iconic traditional landmarks, which could symbolise Salford’s past and future. With less than 4000 home fans at each game so far, half the unrealistic break-even figure, I do hope this isn’t a white elephant on a brown field site. On a ridiculously cold May evening, it is bleak. The dozens of black-clad stewards look dauntingly stern but are probably just frozen. But entering via the open south-west corner, there is a relaxed air of freedom, with a friendly welcome from the chaps selling programmes and lottery tickets.
The glass, steel and stone cladding of the main entrance is very corporate but still impressive. The West Stand dominates with its gigantic roof hiding just one tier of seats, a layer of corporate lounges, another of executive boxes and a gantry. From the back of the seats, the cars zipping over Barton Bridge appear to shoot out of the sky and dive-bomb behind the East Stand roof. It is spectacular, like a scene from Blade Runner. Leg-room is generous but the stand is very open and the rain blows in down the front. The North and South Stands are as basic as it gets: 21 steps of terracing under a corrugated steel roof: cheap, effective, and judging by the numbers under them, attractive. The view is unobstructed throughout and watching the second-half from the South Stand is a lively and traditional experience. Wheelchair-using supporters are banished to the corners of the otherwise-empty East Stand. A fine view, but ever so lonely.
Oh dear. Despite a fine history, including a majestic 1930s and the glorious Seventies (when they won two titles and got to seven cup finals, according to the programme), there is nothing here to suggest that Salford RLFC even existed before this year. The hospitality and VIP sections may pay suitable homage to the glory days but there is nothing to see elsewhere. Inside, the only mention of the club are on cardboard signs in the bars, a reminder that, unlike Langtree Park, this is a municipal ground, not Salford City Reds’ home – not yet anyway. And with no social club or supporters’ bar, and Sale Sharks moving in (the blocks of navy blue seats were a giveaway) it may never feel like it either. At least they’ve christened the South Stand ‘The Paddock’ in homage to the popular side at The Willows.
As I shiver outside the ground, the corporate guests file in early for their pre-match meal. Filling tables at £90 a head for dinner and match ticket explains the Friday night kick-offs. The neon Reds signs on the top of the West Stand are splendid, but there is little else promoting the club. It seems SCR are struggling with their identity. The club shop (which has the best range of RL books I’ve seen so far) sells a classy ‘heritage’ shirt, but the team play in a boring red kit at home and ghastly irrelevant green one away. I get the feeling that the marketing budget here is far less than it should be. The stadium is crying out for a naming rights deal.
Outside the ground, kids’ teams play matches on the 3G and grass pitches under the auspices of the SCR Foundation, with dozens of gossiping parents looking on. Inside, pre-match is dominated by a Thin Lizzy session on the PA which drowns out the Bradford chanting and the Reds fans’ chatter, and the debut of a nine-foot high scarlet furry monster, imaginatively named Neville The Devil. The pre-pubescent dance troupe in their spangly leotards try to shrug off the cold with a brief routine. As their mentors, the Red Hot Flames, prepare to make their entrance at half-time, their leader turns to her gang and says: “Remember to smile, girls”. I do wonder why every club is obsessed with this Americana. It just seems wrong at times and in places like this. The rest of half-time is a flashback to Keith Fielding’s days as two teams of fat lads and skinny waifs with long hair in faded cotton rugby shirts play a game of 9-a-side across the pitch.
Credit to Bradford: there are about 200 in the away end watching their U20s getting humped in the curtain-raiser, and that rises three-fold by 8pm. Pre-match fever is dampened not only by the weather but by a half-hearted announcer whose ad-libs are lost on the majority of fans who can’t even see what he refers to.
The acoustics are strange: waiting for a cup of tea under the South Stand I can hear the Bulls fans’ rousing rendition of ‘Come on feel the noize’ 150 yards away far better than when I was up in the stand.
The last 15 minutes, as Salford fail to defend a two point lead, are terrific: the Paddock chants, roars, throw abuse and I see my first ejection of the season. It’s fun and reminds me of one Friday night at The Willows 20 years ago when the half-time entertainment was some unfortunate chap’s welly being thrown around in the Paddock until it lodged itself in the roof stanchions. I wonder if he ever got it back.
PLAYER INTERACTION 5/10
During a frankly dreadful first-half, I find myself watching Salford coach Sean Long more than anyone else. He looks bizarrely different these days, not helped by his yellow Trainer’s T-shirt over a lilac hoodie: he is seemingly several inches taller and narrower than in his pomp. He often looks awkward, like a teenage boy on work experience. His hand’s rarely leave his pockets. He is either frozen or desperately trying not to run on and sort out this mess. At half-time, trailing 6-10, home fans around me remark that their team is “a shambles”, the service at the food bar is “so slow”, and “Palea’aesina’s made two tackles – what more do you want?” All of which is true. These fans love Salford, but not necessarily these men representing their city. After an exciting ending brings a 20-all draw, the Reds do a lap of honour in driving rain as the fans rush home. There is little to wait for around here.
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10
Unusually, tickets are £20 whether you want a seat or to stand. It works well as fans can move between stands, although away fans are allocated the North Stand. Prices are pretty standard but there are some surprising items on the menu: wine at £5 a mini-bottle and cottage pie for £3. I see no takers for the ‘The Paddock Chardonnay’ though. There are no chips or burgers inside and nothing for sale outside the ground – or within ten minutes walk either. I opt for a too-cold pint of John Smith’s and a nuclear-hot but tasty chicken balti pie for £5.30, but the best deal is four pints for a tenner from the beer barrows under each stand.
The Salford City Stadium is a strange place. The main stand is grandiose but every conversion sails out of the ground. I can’t help but think once the original grand plans were watered down, they should have recreated the best of The Willows. We stream out past mounted police (on a training exercise apparently) and a row of black cabs, then spend the next 20 minutes in the car going nowhere as the pedestrians are evacuated. Five more minutes and I am on the M62 and heading home.
There is a large sign on the wall of Your Gym that occupies the north-west corner of the ground. ‘Energy and persistence conquer all things’ said Benjamin Franklin. Well they have both here. Whether it will conquer much I am not so sure.
Burger: n/a Pie £3
Chips: n/a Hot dog £2.80
Based on what it would cost an average fan for a no-frills visit: one ticket, pre-match pint, half-time snack.
(marks out of 10)
Value for Money 7