St Helens v Salford Red Devils – Former Hull KR stand together for Devils’ final day of reckoning

FAMILIAR FACES:  Adam Walker, Ken Sio, Greg Burke, Kris Welham and Tyrone McCarthy. GRAPHIC: Graeme Bandeira.
FAMILIAR FACES: Adam Walker, Ken Sio, Greg Burke, Kris Welham and Tyrone McCarthy. GRAPHIC: Graeme Bandeira.
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AS THEIR charge to Old Trafford certainly confirms, the ‘Salford Reds are rising’ – and with a fair chunk of help from some former ‘Red, Red Robins’ along the way.

Ian Watson’s side appear in their maiden Super League Grand Final tonight.

Salford Red Devils' players celebrate their win over Wigan Warriors.  Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Salford Red Devils' players celebrate their win over Wigan Warriors. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

It is something even their own fans can scarcely believe; they were tipped by many pundits for relegation, have recently been embroiled in financial struggles and have not won a championship title since 1976.

Much has been made of how the wily Watson has assembled a squad of ‘unwanted misfits’ – the players even concur with the tag – to mould together such a resilient, relentless side.

Salford have systematically unpicked so many of Super League’s best on their way to third spot, their highest finish of the summer era, and continued that with their impressive semi-final victory at champions Wigan Warriors.

Now only St Helens – who finished top by a record 16 points – stand in the way of their bid to complete one of the most remarkable odysseys in the sport’s modern era.

We have spoken about Wembley, too, during this season together but we never expected to reach another final. You always believe and want to make finals but who’d have thought it would happen with Salford?

Salford’s Kris Welham

Among all the various individual tales of redemption – sacked Wakefield Trinity prop Adam Walker bouncing back from a two-year cocaine ban, Gil Dudson having the season of his life after relegation with Widnes Vikings, Tui Lolohea thriving after being unceremoniously dumped by Leeds Rhinos – there is an unusual group story, too.

By a real quirk of fate, five members of the Hull KR side who reached the 2015 Challenge Cup final found themselves flung together again in Salford colours.

Walker, Salford captain Tyrone McCarthy, Australian winger Ken Sio, forward Greg Burke and centre Kris Welham – almost a third of Salford’s 17-man squad tonight – were all in the same Robins side that endured a record-breaking 50-0 defeat against Leeds at Wembley.

Speaking with The Yorkshire Post, Welham admitted: “When we all first signed we did speak about how mad it all is.

Salford Red Devils' head coach Ian Watson . Picture: Richard Sellers/PA

Salford Red Devils' head coach Ian Watson . Picture: Richard Sellers/PA

“We were all at KR together and four years later all ended up together here at Salford.

“We have spoken about Wembley, too, during this season together but we never expected to reach another final. You always believe and want to make finals but who’d have thought it would happen with Salford?

“We’ve all had our different stories; Greg Burke got relegated with Widnes, I had had a year in the Championship with Bradford Bulls and saw them go into liquidation. Adam had his drug ban.

“He’s been unbelievable. I travel in with him every day to training as he lives down here in Hull with his girlfriend.

“He’s a credit to himself for sorting himself out and getting himself back on the right track.

“Salford gave him a lifeline (Walker returned to action in March) but he’s taken that with both hands and had a great year.

“He’s been one of our best players and very much rewarded.

“It’s just good that us five can all get back together at Salford and get to another final. Hopefully it won’t go as bad as Wembley did!”

There is no chance of that, not with this Salford side, at least.

“When I first signed three years ago, you wouldn’t have thought that,” admitted Welham.

“But this year when we all sat down together and created our team goals, two of those was to make a final and for people from the outside looking in to have a different perspective of Salford; that when Salford turn up it isn’t going to be a given win; we wanted to be a tough team and make people think differently about us.

“We have achieved both those goals this year.”

Much of that mentality is down to Watson, the former part-time player for the likes of Halifax, Oldham and Swinton who has now established himself as one of the finest coaches in the business.

“It’s definitely instilled by him,” said Hull-born Welham, who scored 102 tries in 191 KR games.

“When I joined, Ian rang me and told me what he wanted in players and what he expects.

“He doesn’t want superstars, he wants people who will graft for each other, work hard and be close mates with each other and this year we’ve really instilled that in the team. We’ve shown it on the field, got our rewards and ground out tough wins.”

The toughest win of all would be upsetting clear favourites Saints tonight.

Welham, 32, said: “We have to defend well as a team.

“Saints have set the benchmark all year; they hammered the league, got to the Challenge Cup final where they fell short but the three games we’ve had against them we’ve run them close all three times.

“I’m confident we can get a win against them but everyone has to do their job right: defend well –and be patient.”

With newly-crowned Steve Prescott Man of Steel Jackson Hastings pulling the strings at scrum-half, Salford undoubtedly have the guile and game-breaking quality needed to cause a shock.

Regardless of the result, former England Knights international Welham concedes he has to pinch himself that he is playing in a Grand Final considering where his career could have gone.

“I honestly didn’t see this happening,” he said.

“Going back to when I left KR and signed for Bradford in the Championship, I thought my chances of even getting close were long gone.

“When I signed for Salford, I knew I’d be playing Super League but didn’t expect to play in any big games so this year has been a surreal journey.

“It’s one that we deserve, though, as we have got a good team and we do work hard for each other and that’s what has got us here.”

Four years ago, Welham was taken by surprise by being released by his beloved Robins and there was plenty of uncertainty thereafter especially after scoring 29 tries in just 30 Bradford games only to see them then go bust.

“It was a mad two years that, from leaving Hull KR,” recalled Welham, whose fellow Salford colleague George Griffin was also a KR team-mate in 2011-12.

“There was a bit of a mess around with the contract - one minute KR wanted me, the next they didn’t - and then me, my wife and little daughter flew out to Australia for a month on holiday.

“While we were there, others were starting pre-season training and I didn’t even have a club; it was a last-minute thing to sign for Bradford.

“A year later they ended up going into liquidation but, luckily for me, I’d had a good season at Bulls and Marwan (Koukash) and Ian Watson were straight on the phone to me to try and entice me down there.

“Luckily, it all went through. And now I’m here and loving it.”