Of the many things that stick in the mind for Richard Marshall from the 2019 Super League Grand Final – memories honeyed in the elation of St Helens’ first title for half-a-decade – one in particular stands out – the unwavering dedication of the opposition support as they slowly ebbed to defeat.
“The Salford fans were outstanding that day,” he recalls.
“That team – they did a great job in the semi-final against Wigan. I could see that they were really hard-working, that they were dogged. They just didn’t go away.”
The next time St Helens and Salford meet, in the opening match of Super League XXVI on 26 March, Marshall will be on the other side of the dugout, having traded an assistant-coach position at the Totally Wicked Stadium to step into the hot seat twenty miles down the road as Ian Watson’s successor.
For the one-time Halifax coach, who initially linked up with Justin Holbrook almost two years ago and subsequently stayed on to assist Kristian Woolf, it marks a return to head coach duties after back-to-back Grand Final triumphs as a backroom team player – and he says he is relishing the experience.
“The challenges are different, but you still have the same intensity and work ethic whatever your position is,” Marshall says.
“What’s new is that the responsibilities now solely lie with you in the position of head coach.”
Marshall says he has inherited an excellent club infrastructure from his predecessor Watson’s time at the club, suggesting that he has found his feet already just less than a month out from the season kick-off at Headingley.
“We’ve got a top squad, and we’ve put together a really great group of coaching and supporting staff,” he adds.
“Ian obviously did a fantastic job, but he took a few staff and players with him, so we’ve had to do a mini-rebuild and I’m really happy with what we’ve got in place.”
Watson has moved east, close to Marshall’s old stomping ground at The Shay, to take charge of Huddersfield Giants. In his wake, he has left a Salford side that has quietly emerged as dark-horse contenders in recent years, reaching consecutive finals in 2019 and 2020 before coming up just short on both occasions at Old Trafford and Wembley.
Now, Marshall faces the task of ensuring that the Red Devils do not fall at the final hurdle, and he hopes that a combination of big-game experience, including his own gleaned with Saints, can help push the club past that stumbling block, starting with a reunion against his old club later this month.
“We’re undergoing processes in practice and in training to figure it out,” he says.
“We find out what’s worked before. How did they make those finals? Can we replicate that now? I think my experience of those games is invaluable; they’re stressful occasions and you need to learn to deal with the nerves, to live in the moment. We’ll try to emulate that.”
Marshall says that he believes Salford’s own achievements under Watson will help ensure that they retain the hunger to challenge themselves.
“What getting to those finals does is give you the buzz. It gives you the will and the desire to do it again. Whether you’re a player or a coach, you want to be involved in those games.”
Despite their relative successes under Watson, the Red Devils have struggled to shun the tag that they are among the smaller clubs of Super League rather than its heavyweight contenders such as Wigan and Warrington.
They are 50/1 outsiders to win the Grand Final, according to Betfred and Marshall views it as a fair assessment – but drawing from his own time at Halifax, where he coaxed a small-budget team to over-perform, he is out to challenge preconceptions.
“There are similarities between the two,” he offers.
“They’ve both got great tradition and great history. Salford may be in Super League, but I feel the challenges have been the same for both sides. I had a great time at Halifax. It taught me a great deal about being a head coach and the responsibilities that it entails.”
Marshall hopes to replicate a cornerstone of his success at The Shay, in tapping into the power of youth while minimising chop-and-change procedures within his squad.
“We had a reserve grade there that brought through something in the region of fifteen or so players to the senior team. Our turnover of players here is quite high, so we want to stabilise that too.”
Marshall is under no illusions that his side faces a tough campaign, but he remains positive they can challenge once again.
“This competition gets stronger every year. But you’ve just got to beat those teams, the Wigan and the St Helens of this world. You’ve got to do it consistently; if we do that, we’ll reach finals and we’ll win them.”
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