Matthew Shaw speaks to the former Salford Red Devils coach Ian Watson about why he has switched clubs to Huddersfield Giants for next season.
Ian Watson is the first to admit he cannot resist a challenge.
Throughout his time in Rugby League, it has been the opportunities to achieve what people believed was unachievable that have given him the most motivation and satisfaction.
That’s why, amidst so much interest from other clubs, he decided to join Huddersfield Giants.
Watson’s wonders at Salford had seen his stock elevate to a point he was the most sought-after coach in the British game. A little known fact is that he came incredibly close to becoming the St Helens coach last season. He was on a two-man shortlist before Saints eventually went for Kristian Woolf instead.
Hull came knocking last month. There have been ongoing rumours that Wigan and Warrington have been keeping tabs on his progress too.
But none of those clubs were as appealing to Watson as Huddersfield, a club ironically chastised within the sport for being the exact opposite.
Watson disagrees. Strongly. With the Giants, he believes he can break the stranglehold of the big clubs.
“I don’t want to build on the dominance of the top clubs, I want to break it,” says Watson.
“I want to challenge the dominance of Wigan and St Helens. Generally, it’s easier to sit and wait for a club already in the top four, but what’s exciting for me is that Huddersfield aren’t in there and the challenge is to get them there and win.
“My mentality is that this is a great challenge, to take a club nobody identifies as a top-four club but build it properly so it can break the monopoly at the top of the game and I think I can do that at Huddersfield.”
In some ways, Watson doesn’t think it will be hard to do.
“I don’t think it will take long, to be honest with you.
“The setup and youth system, it doesn’t get the credit a Wigan or a Leeds does, but over the last few years a lot of players have chosen to go to Huddersfield at Youth Academy level over Wigan and Leeds.
“Two players I played with, I know their sons had options to go to Wigan and Leeds and they chose Huddersfield, thanks to Andy Kelly and his coaches.
“They’ve brought Kim Williams in for guidance and it’s proven there are players coming through in the first team. Leroy Cudjoe, Jermaine McGillvary, Joe Wardle, they all came through. More recently you’ve got McIntosh, English and players below that too.
“The club has everything, the owner has consistently backed the club and is wealthy, the stadium speaks for itself, the youth setup is superb, and the location is ideal. The one thing they’ve haven’t got is the results on the pitch. But that’s up to us now.
“The players have to further their own expectations. Most players want to play because they want to win, but Huddersfield aren’t winning, so the players have to have a little think about the way we’ll approach and attack it.”
Watson was credited with making Salford greater than the sum of the parts at his disposal. Despite working with a smaller budget than every other club and, in the words of the players themselves, working with a team of misfits, he guided them to back-to-back major finals.
The same can’t be said about Huddersfield. It is a squad filled with internationals, headed by Man Of Steel contender Aidan Sezer, and with a full cap spend.
But they haven’t made the play-offs for five years. What they don’t have as a collective is the culture Watson built at Salford. That, in Watson’s eyes, is his biggest challenge.
“They have to understand it’s a team sport. You’re not going to win anything on your own, you have to do it collectively. And that’s not just players, but staff too and everyone striving to get the same level of success.
“In many ways it’s similar on the playing side to when we went into Salford. It’s really exciting to get in there, have a look at what’s working and what’s not. I’ve done a lot of work with Luke Robinson already on that. He’s the fabric of the club and will be massively involved moving forward. It’s our team and we’ll work side by side.”
Watson’s quench for success doesn’t need further motivation. But in long-serving club owner and benefactor Ken Davy, the 44-year-old has more reason to bring the club success.
“I’ve seen coaches speak before about doing it for Ken and I can see why they talk like that.
“He used to do motivational speaking years ago, he knows what to say and when to say it.
“It’s his passion that comes through, there’s a sense of belonging. It’s funny, you’ll talk to all the other owners and they’re the same in that they’re passionate about their club and what they want to achieve. Ken was no different but it was the emotion he stirred into me, his response mattered a helluva lot and he draws you in. He’s the kind of person you want to work for and want to do well for.”
Talk inevitably turns to Salford. Watson knows that his decision to leave for what many perceive to be a sideways move has upset fans and staff alike.
However, he believes it was the right time.
“Coaches can be worried about how long they stay at the club,” he says.
“After the last two years we were comfortable with where we are at Salford, but the one thing I was educated to understand was that after comfortable comes complacency, so moving now means I won’t get anywhere near that.
“I’m not saying I would have got there at all, but the timing of Huddersfield coming in, and looking at the club and what you can potentially achieve, it outweighed the reasons to stay at Salford.”
There’s also the prospect of taking the Red Devils as far as he could.
“I don’t know, that’s the honest answer,” he insists.
“I was really happy with the squad that’s going to be there next year. But it’s where we go again after that, and how we sustained it.
“If I tell you how it panned out; after the Challenge Cup and the talks with Hull falling away, we spoke about coming back and winning it next time.
“We spoke about how we could build and sustain it, and then we played St Helens.
“Saints put a decent pack out, with Walmsley, Graham and all those guys, but they had young outside backs, and the speed of that game was equivalent to a play-off game for the first 30 minutes. We thought 70 per cent of teams in the competition wouldn’t have been able to handle them on that day.
“For kids to be coming in and playing at that intensity shows who they are training against day in, day out, and shows also that the Saints first team are coming up against a team that can hold their own in training and that’s why they’re in front. That’s what we need at Huddersfield and at Salford that was the talk, but we didn’t have a big enough squad, the finances and the youth academy to do it, so you’re always going round in circles.
“It’s a great club and I’ll always be grateful. I’m proud to say I coached Salford.
“But it was the bigger picture view. Is it as far as the club can go? I don’t know.”
Watson won’t be able to get to grips with his new squad until they return for pre-season training next month. Before then, there is plenty of leg work to be done, including recruitment.
“We’re coming in late this year so there might not be loads of turnaround in players.
“But there are a lot of players off-contract next year so we’ll discover who wants to be winners to go forward with the club.
“We have to be smart with what we recruit. It has to be quality and people who are going to challenge the status quo of the players at Huddersfield. Bringing in people we know are top quality will force even the stronger players down a little bit, but they need to be challenged and accept the challenge.
“This is where Richard (Thewlis) and I will work closely together, as well as Luke and Andy. We’ll make sure we get the right person, not necessarily the best player, but the person. They have to be of a certain quality and they have to mould into the team ethic.”
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.