There is a wry grin on Ian Blease’s face as he looks out at the Old Trafford pitch and takes in the enormity of what is happening: and why not.
Manchester born-and-bred, as well as serving Salford Red Devils with distinction over a decade-plus stint with the club, it is only when you speak to someone like Blease do you truly understand the significance of what one of Super League’s smaller-spending clubs are on the brink of achieving.
“Nobody, not even me, could look you in the eye and say I fancied us to finish third,” smiles Blease as he tries to describe his emotions ahead of the Super League play-offs this weekend.
Most of the experts and pundits had Salford down for another season of struggle. To many, they have defied expectations on an extraordinary scale – but not Blease, the man who has helped mastermind a rugby revolution at the AJ Bell Stadium in the last couple of years.
Three years ago, this club was on the brink of relegation. With that came likely devastating consequences amidst huge drop-offs in funding and support. “The feeling couldn’t be more different to then,” Blease admits. “I had a five-year plan for the club when I arrived a few years ago, and when Marwan (Koukash) left, it did set us back a bit. It’s a come a bit earlier than I thought, all of this – but we’re going to grab it with both hands.”
Given the way they have earned so many admirers this season – not only for their on-field performances, but because of the underdog tag they possess which most British sporting fan adores – Salford are being fancied by many to upset the more established sides in the play-off race and reach the Grand Final.
“I’m a boyhood Manchester United fan, so any time I come here I get a special feeling,” Blease says. “I never let myself get carried away with things but when you come here and think about Salford being involved in a game here.. how mad would that be? It would be the most incredible thing.”
Salford may well be the underdogs to some – but to others, they are dangerous. Few sides will fancy taking on a team who have won their last eight games, including their opponents on Friday night, Wigan.
And Blease admits: “We’re playing an attacking-style of rugby and there’s a real collective for this group to try and finish on the absolute highest of highs. There’s a real team spirit we’ve worked hard on, we made changes that caused people to raise their eyebrows but we believe we were right to do the things we did. The guys will be up for it, it’s a massive task to pull it off but we’re confident. Our form, if nothing else, suggests we should be confident.
“I guess a few people might fancy playing against us, because we’re not experienced at this level, and I mean that with no disrespect intended to our club of course. But I like being the underdog, I like what comes with that. It’s just great to be involved with this set of players and the club at this time.”
Blease has already mentioned the collective drive behind this squad: namely the imminent departures of key men such as Jackson Hastings, Josh Jones and Jake Bibby. But as well as that, there is a determination to reward the small, yet ultra-loyal, fanbase who are likely to be boosted by extra numbers as play-off fever hits Salford this weekend.
“We’ve been saying all year how important supporters are for us, but the away following has been incredible all year and I’m hoping we can take a few thousand to Wigan on Friday night,” Blease insists. “The boys appreciate it, they truly realise how good the supporters are – and wouldn’t it be great for us all to go there and do something special.”
Given what they have managed to achieve so far this season, who can rule that out.