The Salford Red Devils have shown how ordinary people can run a top-level rugby league club free of corporate owners – but to secure its future, the club needs wider support and solidarity.
Salford Red Devils is showing an alternative to millionaire ownership in rugby league.
Since 2018, I have been the Director of Salford Red Devils—a Super-League Rugby League team celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
As we arrive at this milestone, it has to be said that on the pitch, the club is performing better than we have for decades. On the pitch, we’re going toe-for-toe with the best teams in the sport—getting to the Super League finals in 2019, and the Challenge Cup final at Wembley in 2020. Winning the league seems closer than it has for a long time.
These successes are all the more impressive given that since 2018, Salford Red Devils has not had an owner. The previous owner, multi-millionaire racehorse owner Marwen Koukash, passed a bankrupt and indebted club onto a board of fans that year, offloading what had become a liability to both his wallet and his ego during his time in control. Koukash was, perhaps, one of the worst examples of the patrician-ownership model for sports clubs. He leveraged every debt imaginable against the club, interfered where he didn’t understand in player recruitment, splashed silly money on ageing players, and nearly relegated the team in the process.
For those of us who have been lifelong supporters of the team, watching it getting trashed was heart-breaking—an experience shared by so many sports fans in recent decades. Since Koukash’s departure, the club has begun a journey towards a community-ownership model, establishing ourselves as a truly fan-owned club for the first time in our history—and the only fan-owned club operating at the top level of Rugby League.
Saving the Red Devils
In the coming months, we plan to launch our community shares scheme modelled on the pioneering work of FC United of Manchester—the community breakaway team formed in protest against the Glazer’s mismanagement of Manchester United. To do so, we have been consulting with the founders of the club on their model, based around fan engagement, pitch performance and off-pitch community activity.
We’ve cleared almost all the debts left to us by Koukash with both suppliers and HMRC—and achieved success after success on the pitch despite having the lowest salary spend in the league. This has been achieved only through our incredible training and coaching teams, and the belief and motivation of our players.
This year alone, ticket sales have risen 20 percent—the highest of any team in the league. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something huge—the only fan-owned team in Super League, proving that there’s another way for elite sport to operate which doesn’t rely on investor ownership, selling out and forgetting the fans who built the club and make all this possible.
But despite all of these successes, the club has no money. In recent years, we have lurched from cash-flow crisis to cash-flow crisis, planning from one pay day to the next, even (at times) unsure of our continued tenure at our present home, the AJ Bell Stadium.
As I write this article, my own house is sunk as security on a loan which is presently keeping the club afloat. The truth is, behind the scenes, a team of fans and staff alike have been holding the club together, keeping things above water at inordinate personal cost—and the truth is we’ve nearly run out of road.
By the end of this month, the club needs to raise £200,000 if we are to avoid making a series of decisions which will be catastrophic for our future—selling our best players, cutting back office functions, and failing to deliver on rental payments. We’re so close to the launch of our community shares scheme, so close to solidifying ourselves financially and in the league—but the last leg seems the hardest by far.
We have big plans. Working closely with Salford’s elected Mayor, Paul Dennett, we have been modelling the club’s future as the jewel in the crown of the Socialist Republic of Salford. We’re hugely invested in our training and education offer—getting into schools and colleges and getting kids off the streets. We have an incredible heritage and education program—bringing the history of our sport and its cultural legacy to life. We even have an international programme, partnering with the Ghanaian Rugby League training players and—in the future—arranging visits and exchanges.
But right now, it feels that we may simply become the next victim of the commercialisation of professional sport—the use of clubs like ours as investment opportunities and playthings for the super-rich.
When you think back to how this all started, it’s so far away from our roots.
A Working Class Sport
Rugby League began as a response to working class people being excluded from Rugby Union, as a result of their stringent rules against ‘professionalism’.
For the Lord Fauntleroys of Rugby Union, the sport was simply a gentlemanly pursuit that was performed during leisure hours that were unavailable to the working class men and women who made up the vast bulk of the players and enjoyers of Rugby, particularly those in the North of England.
Across the mining and cotton towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, rugby was played avidly by industrial workers, who were expected to lose a day’s income each game, risking injuries which would be catastrophic for their livelihoods.
These rules were maintained by the Southern clubs, who dominated the Rugby Football Union national committee, which held its meetings in London, far away from the majority of its teams.
Rugby League was a break, founded to right the imbalance and through compensating players through loss of work hours and injury, give them a chance to compete on even terms. The new league allowed working class communities to build their own teams, from the bottom up.
Salford Red Devils began as the Cavendish Football Club in 1875, founded by the lads attending Cavendish Street Chapel in Hulme, Manchester. In 1879, the club moved to Ordsall and became Salford Football Club.
Following a merger with Crescent Football Club in 1889, the club’s colours turned deep red. We were one of the first clubs to be admitted to the Rugby Football League the year after its foundation in 1895, and in 1900 were in a position to build our new stadium on the site of a range of willow trees in Weaste. It was at The Willows stadium that the legend of Salford Red Devils truly began.
By the 1930s, the club was at the top of the game. During that decade, we won the Lancashire League Championship five times, the Lancashire Cup four times, the League Championship three times, and the Challenge Cup once.
In 1934, on a tour of the South of France, the team struck such fear and awe into their observers that they earned the nickname ‘Les Diables Rouge’—The Red Devils. Contrary to the belief of many Manchester United fans, it was Salford who were the first ‘Red Devils’, from whom Matt Busby appropriated the name for United almost 30 years later in 1962.
The atmosphere during matches at The Willows was electric, raucous, and anarchic. Standing under the floodlights, the crowd swelled and roared as flesh and bone crunched on the pitch, an awesome spectacle of strength and athleticism. It was at The Willows, as a young working class tearaway, that I found my lifelong love of Rugby League—a part of my heart has been at The Willows ever since.
A Community Club
Every Friday night, I went to the match with my Dad and Grandad. Father Rigby, a Warrington fan, would occasionally bum a lift to the game when Warrington played. removing his dog collar before entering the fray. When times were hard, I would squeeze under the gate by the North stand and wander into the milling crowd. In the High Stand, the Holy Trinity—Bobby Charlton, George Best and Dennis Law—were regular attendees, and as a young boy, I would often gaze over at them in awe as they mingled with the crowds and sat, raptured, watching the games unfold in front of them.
My Grandad was a miner and world war two veteran, and we would stand amongst his colliery colleagues from Agecroft in the North stand—hard men with harder hands, with the quiet dignity and confidence which comes from knowing a life of graft. I can still remember the Gladiators theme booming out as the players exited the tunnel onto the pitch and the smell of wintergreen and burnt potatoes wafting through the air for miles around. The 6,000 fans in the Willows always, somehow, felt like many more.
I always said that Rugby League kept me out of prison—and I believe that. For most of my life, I worked in security—G4s, Securitas, BidVest, and the rest. I had a successful career, setting up my own career consultancy, and making a decent crust. But in 2017, a bombshell hit when I contracted cancer of the oesophagus. Thankfully, we caught it early, but treating oesophageal cancer is a brutal process.
Following nine weeks of chemo, the operation to remove the tumour had me cut completely open: three holes cut into my stomach, two broken ribs, heart and other organs jiggled out of the way so the surgeons could get in to top and tail my oesophagus. Following the operation, I rested in the ICU at Salford Royal, three floors up from where my father had died many years before, watching Salford vs Wigan in the Challenge Semi-Final Cup with my brother Steve and my son, Kieran. Covered in wires and tubes, my insides jiggled and jangled loose inside me. Not far from my maker, I sat and watched the game with my kith and kin. For a second or two, I was back at The Willows with my Dad and Grandad.
Perhaps that’s why I threw away my career, and my business, to take on the Directorship of the club when Koukash stepped down. Perhaps that’s why at every step, with the odds so stacked against us, I’ve always chosen to hope.
When I think of the difficulties we face now, I like to remember the struggles of those who came before us—to build these institutions that have stayed with supporters like me for our whole lives. I think of the miners like my Grandad and his mates, earning a pittance, emerging from the pit to risk injury and pauperdom just to play the sport they loved. I think of the working class people with not a pot to piss in, spending their last shillings on getting into the match, helping to build the teams, the stadiums, and communities that have brought so much joy since. I think back to all those things and can’t help but feel vindicated in my choice—we are doing everything we can to save this club.
Perhaps I am stupid. Perhaps we won’t make the cash this time. Perhaps I’ve bet my house on a lost cause and this is just the last hurrah. Time will tell. But if we make it once more, as we have done so many times in the past, the club will finally be where it belongs—in the hands of the working class people of our city, who built it brick by brick. And that’s where it will stay.
For further information on Reds Rise Together and to get involved visit: www.salfordreddevils.net/owntheclubOriginal post