Ahead Of Next Week’s Challenge Cup Semi-Final, David Clegg Meets Up With Four Salford Players, Residents Of Wigan
With only a week now to go to Salford Red Devils’ first semi-final appearance for twenty-one years, excitement has grown among our fans to the extent that barely a conversation goes by without there being some reference to the coming encounter with Wigan.
Whilst among us it is in the main a matter of agreement, spare a thought for four of the youngest members of our playing staff who are surrounded, during their leisure time, by hordes of Wiganers, who are just as eagerly contemplating what they expect to be their next trip to Wembley.
It will not be the first time that Wigan, born and bred, Jake Bibby, Josh Wood, Connor Williams, and Ryan Lannon, have been involved in the Salford camp facing their home town team, and indeed, all four have actually donned the Salford jersey in the past to play against the cherry and whites.
This time, however, it is different in the atmosphere of cut-throat, one-off rugby, and especially with what is at stake in the form of a place in the Challenge Cup Final.  The locals’ placid, general interest in the development of four former Wigan amateurs, now plying their trade with another club, changes somewhat, in the cauldron of desire, which Wembley invokes within the town.
Josh sums it up, thus, “We see a lot of their players around on a day to day basis, and we normally stop and have a chat about a range of things, including rugby, with them.  Strangely enough, I haven’t seen any of them at all, since the draw was made.
“It would be good to get one over on them though, because they’ve won such a lot over the years.”
Those, to whom he is referring, are young Wigan players, such as Oliver Gildart, Jake Sharrocks, and Nick Gregson, but to add even more spice to the situation, another of them, Gabriel Fell, son of former Salford stand-off, David Fell, also turns out to be related, as second cousin, to Jake, who echoes Josh’s remarks.
“We are going to be up against people we know well and have grown up playing against,” he agrees.  “I would really like to be out there facing them because this sort of game is what you go into sport for.”
Being in the early stages of their professional careers, the four of them are fortunate still to have retained their anonymity among the general public, so, on the whole, they have been spared the intrusion into their lives from complete strangers offering comments alongside good, or not so good, suggestions.
Acquaintances, and family members, however, are a different proposition, and as one might expect, these are, in the main, most supportive, as outlined by Connor, “All my mates go watching Wigan but are up for supporting Salford this time around, because they want it for me.  One of my friends has even converted to being a Salford fan, and comes to every game.”
“My dad is a mad Wigan fan, but will be supporting Salford in the semi,” reports Josh.  “I also have an uncle who is just as keen a Wigan supporter, but has been to watch Salford when I have been playing.  I shall be really interested to learn which team he will be supporting next week.”
Ryan’s parents have an even more complex outlook on things.
“My mum and dad have shelved supporting Wigan for this match, in the hope of me having the chance to play at Wembley.  My mum also supports Leigh, but my dad has become an out and out Salford supporter,” he explains.
In fact out of all of them, Ryan is the one who has had the most colourful experiences over the past few weeks.
“Whenever I go into our local pub, I get a load of good natured abuse,” he recounts.  “They all come up to me telling me to make sure I drop the ball over the line, if I get there.  I’ve just had to take it in good part, but I’m not sure what it’d be like if we won.”
As far as the day of the game is concerned, they each have their own individual hopes and aspirations as to their own roles.  As by far the youngest of them, Connor realises that he will be watching on the sidelines but he is as equally keen for Salford to do well, both for the club, and for himself.
“It feels really good that we are playing against my home town club,” he maintains, “and I really want us to get the win against them.  I’d be really happy for all the boys.
“At present I’m on a month’s loan at Oldham, but were Salford to win, it would be good for me and my standing in the club, there.”
Whilst Jake and Josh would both love to be involved in the encounter, both realise that competition for places will be intense, and they could well miss out, but this in no way assuages their enthusiasm for the game or their thirst for a win.
“It should be a really good game to watch but it is going to be pretty tense for us sitting there watching, knowing that we are just one step away from Wembley,” admits Jake.  “It will also feel strange with it being against Wigan, for. having watched them for so long, we have full knowledge, ahead of the game, as to how they play.”
Josh, meanwhile, is relishing Wigan’s tag of being favourites.
“Everyone is regarding us as underdogs,” he considers, “because Wigan have won the trophy so many times before, but that could be very helpful to us.”
Finally, Ryan, without counting his chickens too soon, has a deep-seated  eagerness to be involved in the fray, encouraged by those self same people who have also been goading him along.
“It feels pretty weird at the moment because everyone keeps coming up and asking whether I’m going to be playing or not,” he relates, “but nobody knows what is going to happen yet.
“I like playing against Wigan because whenever I have, I have usually played well, and also being good mates with Ollie Gildart and George Williams, I would dearly love to play in the semi-final.”