The Willows was an incredible Rugby League venue which stood in the Weaste area of Salford for 111 years. I managed to watch a match at the venue with just four matches remaining before the club moved to the cheap monstrosity that is now known as the AJ Bell Stadium. Despite the fact The Willows was a pain to get to and I was basically labelled a paedophile by the stewards I had a good night at the (then named) City Reds.
The visit was over three years ago, and The Willows is now a distant memory having been demolished in 2012. The Salford City Stadium has since been built, subsequently renamed and has seen Sale Sharks also move into the facility. It isn’t just the stadia that has changed, as Salford City Reds are now called the Salford Red Devils and have a flamboyant new owner in Marwan Koukash. The horse owner has visions of Salford Red Devils taking over the world. If that vision isn’t daft enough, he’s also modelled the clubs new mascot on himself.
I was still at school back in 2011… and that’s where the trip began. Zack and I finished at 15:00 and nipped back to mine before catching the train to Manchester. Unfortunately, public transport was our only hope of getting to the match which had a 20:00 kick off.
En route to Salford, we couldn’t resist a visit to Primark and so did some shopping in there before getting the Metrolink to Weaste. The new MediaCityUK line had just been recently opened so we were a bit unsure on which service to get on, but we guessed right in thinking it was on the Eccles line. I had never heard of Weaste until the day of the match and had to double check the place existed with the bloke at Atherton train station.
Getting off at Weaste I was a bit shocked at how desolate the area was. Nobody was walking around and hardly any cars passed us as we walked over the bridge towards the ground. Some young lads were playing rugby on a piece of grass which had seen better days; vegetation had long disappeared. Carrying on up the road towards the ground it became like an LS Lowry painting. Lowry famous of course for painting landscape scenes in and around the streets of Salford. Terraced housing and alleyways surrounded The Willows and it made for an intimate community around the ground.
Arriving at The Willows you probably wouldn’t even know it was a rugby ground. The unimaginative and basic outside made the venue look more like a bingo hall or supermarket dragged out of the 1970’s. There wasn’t even a Salford City Reds badge outside the ground, the nearest thing being red gates which welcomed you down an alleyway shared with neighbouring houses.
We had reserved our tickets online quite easily and had been told to collect them at the Ticket Office on the day of the match. It cost just £8 as a Junior (those were the days) and we found the office attached to the row of houses. With tickets in hand we turned the corner and walked down the alleyway to our designated turnstile. A mandatory bag search left me regretting our earlier trip to Primark as the stewards rummaged through all of my new purchases.
The ground was completely different on the inside. It was bright, colourful and relatively well maintained. It looked a lot bigger from the inside as well. The large Family Stand at the far end looked impressive, towering above the rest of the ground. Equally as impressive was The Shed which we opted to stand in for the evening. A low roof and large standing capacity made for a fantastic atmosphere during the match.
To the left – looking out from The Shed – was The Willows Terrace, which allowed some fans to stand behind the sticks. This end of the ground also housed the social club and other offices. Directly in front stood the peculiar looking Main Stand, which resembled a Jenga tower. Split into three sections and with a commentary box on top it looked like it had been built without much thought.
It was definitely the oldest feeling setting I had seen a match at, with the first game taking place in 1901 when Swinton came to The Willows and won 2-0 with a drop goal. Previous to that match the club had resided at New Barnes which was close to where Salford Quays now stands.
Walking around the ground taking photographs a group of stewards walked over to me and told me to put my camera away. I explained that I was only taking photos of the ground before it was demolished to which they came up with some smart response. Further discussions followed until one steward said “We have a strict safeguarding policy here at The Willows. There’s been problems with men taking photographs of children.”. Now, this would be an acceptable excuse if we weren’t the only people in the ground at this stage. More importantly however, I was still a child myself. Furthermore, these were the same stewards that just five minutes earlier had rummaged through my clothes.
I carried on taking photographs and the ground slowly began to fill up. The rather attractive cheerleaders began parading around the pitch. Now, despite the fact they were clearly of legal age I didn’t risk taking any photographs of them incase I was accused of being an under age paedophile… if there’s such a thing.
Going into Round 18, Salford found themselves in 9th place with 14 points. The previous week they had beaten league leaders Warrington Wolves 18-16 away from home. Castleford were slightly higher up the table in 5th place with 7 more points, but had been dealt a blow during the week when winger Martin Aspinwall was jailed for four months. This match proved to be a close one, with Castleford clinching the win in the final ten minutes.
Jodie Broughton and Chris Nero both went close for Salford in the early stages, while Daniel Holdsworth went even closer when he was held up over the line.
The deadlock was broken by the City Reds on 33 minutes when Lee Jewitt broke up the middle and found Mark Henry. Luke Patten then fed Broughton into the corner who recorded an unconverted try.
Castleford struck back just before the break when Danny Orr found a gap in the Reds’ line and, despite losing the ball, was awarded a penalty, landed by Kirk Dixon, to make it 4-2 to the visitors at the break.
The half time entertainment at The Willows was nothing short of incredible. Some inebriated fans were invited from the stands with the task of drop kicking a rugby ball into a bin. If the ball landed and stayed in the bin, then they would win a car. Now, I don’t think the competitors in question would have been able to drive their prize home as that would have violated the drink driving law, but it didn’t matter anyway. In fact, the person running the competition was that certain that nobody would succeed that he allowed them numerous attempts at hitting the bin.
In the second half, Castleford’s lead was extended through a converted Jordan Thompson try. Rangi Chase and Richie Mathers created Thompson’s space to score on the left, Dixon converting to extend the lead as the visitors started the half better.
Daniel Holdsworth levelled the score when he gained himself a try to make the scoreline 8-8.
Matty Smith then wasted a fine chance to give Salford back the initiative when he failed to pass to Broughton after making a great break from deep in his own half.
The visitors made a late breakthrough after a 40-20 kick by Chase. Danny Orr capitalised and crashed through on 73 minutes to score, and a drop goal from Chase gave Castleford the points.
I really enjoyed my evening at The Willows and it’s a shame that it is no longer with us. Attending a Salford Red Devils match now will result in spectacular views of the M60 arching over the Manchester Ship Canal, whilst the smell of burgers and pies will be cancelled out by the distinctive aroma of the neighbouring sewage works. In my opinion, a move from The Willows was necessary if the club were to move forward, but it has ultimately killed the fun and romance for spectators.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 11 miles
- ADMISSION: £8 as a junior
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2.50