The odds don’t favour Salford Red Devils this season but Paul Rowley tells STEPHEN IBBETSON why he’s still up for the challenge.
THE more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s a phrase that might just resonate with staff and supporters at Salford, who have endured another uncomfortable off-season.
Recent months have been filled with concern over their financial future, with the club placed under special measures by the RFL.
Only in late December did they secure an extended tenancy to remain at the Salford Community Stadium this year, with more favourable future terms still to be agreed.
Their delicate financial situation has led to the sale of two more star players, Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers, to Leeds.
And the unexpected losses of Ken Sio and Joe Burgess – for personal and disciplinary reasons respectively – has left head coach Paul Rowley with a squad of just 24 players.
Plus ça change indeed for Les Diables Rouges, who are always battling against the odds, on and off the field.
Fans far beyond Greater Manchester will sympathise with Rowley, who would be excused for feeling he has been in the job for much longer than two years.
In that time he has wildly overachieved, leading Salford to a Super League play-off semi-final in his first year and then only missing out on the top six in the final round of 2023, finishing well clear of several clubs with far superior resources.
In both seasons, they have had the lowest budget and the smallest squad, but succeeded in realising untapped potential.
Rowley is partial to a metaphor and he may relate to Sisyphus, who kept pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down before reaching the top. Sisyphus was left trying for eternity – so what keeps the Salford coach going?
“It’s a privilege because I get to work with young, ambitious athletes and we’ve got a common goal and objective,” he says.
“We’re always against the odds. With all these challenges, they’re exciting challenges. It is what it is. It can be hard or tiring or a bit soul-destroying at times, but it’s like anything else, it’s what you do next.
“All coaches work in a trade that’s immensely stressful and difficult. Whilst we have our challenges at the bottom of the resource pool, people at the top have their challenges as well. There’s a pressure which comes with that.
“Some of those coaches get dragged along in those institutions and can’t put their whole stamp on things and shape them. The positive here is that I get a lot of autonomy. It looks like what I want it to look like.
“There are different pressures at the top and it would be interesting to see what that felt like, but there would be no better feeling than having success when you’re an underdog.”
They came close to it in 2022, narrowly missing out on the Grand Final at the hands of St Helens, but several pieces of that thrilling team have since been taken out of Rowley’s hands.
Prop Tyler Dupree, whose stratospheric rise continues with Wigan and England, was sold last summer, likewise now stand-off Croft – that season’s Man of Steel, no less – and rejuvenated hooker Ackers. Sio and Burgess have been two of the competition’s best wingers in recent times.
“It feels like a long time ago now. We’re a pre-season gone without them,” says Rowley of the batch of departures.
“It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, I think that’s the best thing to say about that. Time moves on.
“It’s not a 24-hour thing, but at some point you reset. When you’ve got new characters come in, you learn their nuances and what they’re about. There are an exciting set of attributes that the new characters have brought.
“I guess it’s like being a schoolteacher and having a new crop of pupils every year.
“I talk myself into being positive and talk myself into being challenged and staying proactive rather than worrying about what I can’t control. Control the controllables. I’ll keep saying those things until I’m a beaten man.”
What is in his control is the squad for 2024, small as it may currently be.
Eight new players have arrived, including three new spine players in Cade Cust, Joe Mellor and teen prospect Kai Morgan. Chris Hankinson, Nene Macdonald and Ethan Ryan add to the outside backs while Matty Foster and Joe Shorrocks are the only forward recruits.
But the most focus, following the exits of Croft and Ackers, will inevitably be on the first of those groups.
“They are big boots to fill but I’m more than comfortable that the players who are here will be capable of filling them,” adds Rowley.
“I’m looking forward to seeing them all perform. I know they’ll just be just as competitive, enthusiastic and talented as their predecessors.
“The spine, if they’ve anything about them, enjoy the pressure. This time two years ago, I don’t think anybody would have been getting over-excited about our spine then.
“Two of the important parts of the spine are still remaining in (fullback Ryan) Brierley and (scrum-half Marc) Sneyd. I’m excited to see what they can achieve together.
“I’ve witnessed the relationship and bond they’ve created. They work extremely well together, they’re extremely competent and conscientious about their job and they want to win.”
Cust has the unenviable task of replacing Aussie compatriot Croft at six, after a two-year spell with Wigan in which he showed glimpses of his quality and won a Challenge Cup but lost his place in the team last season.
Rowley says: “Cade will be Cade, it’s as simple as that. He’s his own player. We won’t be making any comparisons at all.
“Brodie was good for us, on the field and off the field. We wish him well, but our attention, focus and energy is on Cade Cust. He’s our player and we love him dearly. As it stands, we wouldn’t swap him for anybody else. He’s exactly what we want and we’re delighted he’s with us.”
So too Mellor, who is now 33 but played a handy role for Leigh last season as their interchange hooker after a long career as a halfback.
“He’s different than Andy (Ackers) but Joe is a player I’ve respected for a long time,” says Rowley.
“He’s a pivot by trade so he’s a smart footballer ultimately. He’s deceptively tough. I think people underestimate how tough he is at times, to their peril.
“Again we’ve swapped one set of attributes for a different set of attributes but, as Andy did, Joe will contribute massively to this team.”
That’s not forgetting young Amir Bourouh, now into his third year as a Red Devil and about to take on a bigger role: “He came to us with a lot of learning to do, by his own admission. He now understands a lot of the nuances of being a hooker. He’s got the number nine shirt so it’s his time to shine.”
Shorrocks, recruited from Wigan, can also play at hooker among a number of different positions but Rowley says: “He’s come to us as a loose-forward. We’ve a couple of loose-forwards there in him and Ollie Partington.
“Joe is versatile, like Chris (Atkin, who has assumed almost every position on the field for Salford in his four years there to date), but ultimately he’s got a good work ethic. His character shines when he plays. He fits what we’re about.
“With a small squad you’ve got to have players who are capable of just turning up and doing whatever is asked of them.
“Versatility is crucial for us. I think the modern game is leaning that way, they’re becoming more valuable, whether that’s sat on the bench or just in the squad to cover positions.
“I wouldn’t call them jack-of-all-trades; I’d call them master of a few. Chris has certainly been that and hopefully Joe can be similar, or he can just master loose-forward.”
They might not be the only ones shifting positions this season to do whatever job is necessary for a somewhat lopsided team.
Salford remain keen to strengthen in the pack while the loss of their two first-choice wingers has left them with just one out-and-out wide man in Hull KR recruit Ethan Ryan.
Rowley says he will bring in “as many as I can”, knowing that the ideal scenario and the reality are often two different things when it comes to the club’s transfer dealings.
“We’ve had six months of negativity, so recruitment is difficult in that respect, and retention to some degree,” he adds.
“But I think word of mouth within the playing group has helped us, in terms of what we’re about.
“We’re a team that competes hard, a team where people play with a smile on their face.
“On the football side of things, players improve. There are good examples of players improving, who had long careers and never looked like internationals but they’ve suddenly become internationals (with us). For us that brings a huge sense of achievement, we’re very proud of the players that do that.
“So it’s a good place to come for opportunity and learning, and to better yourself.”
There is a sense of realism around the camp and, for all their overachievement in recent times, expectation management. Rowley can’t guarantee silverware or play-off campaigns but he can promise this: “We’ll express ourselves and we’ll be brave in how we play, and we’ll guarantee effort and commitment to the shirt every week.”
That is all that a fanbase who truly feel the club’s pains expect: “Our fans have been great. They’ve recognised the effort and commitment of our players, even in adversity, even when we’ve lost.
“A moment that will stick with me for a lifetime is the fans at Catalans away (last July, a 42-0 loss). We were well beaten but they recognised that the players gave 100 percent, and you can’t give more than that.
“We’ll keep doing that because we know our fans appreciate it and they stand alongside us. We need our fans more than ever. We’re proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and we are as one.”
That much has never changed.