Former Coach, Andy Gregory, Relates, Via David Clegg, His Memories Of Salford’s 1996 Challenge Cup Second Round Defeat Of Wigan
It is now twenty-one years since that famous victory at the Willows, in which mighty Wigan’s forty-three consecutive Challenge Cup wins, spread over a nine year period, was brought to an end by a Salford side, which, at the time, was playing in the second tier. The team that day was coached by a former Wigan player whose father, Arthur, and uncle, Harold, had both played for Salford in the 1950s.
A Wiganer, born and bred, Andy Gregory’s achievements throughout his long and illustrious career with Widnes, Warrington, and Wigan, brought him an affinity with the Challenge Cup, not only being on the winning side on nine occasions, but also becoming the first player ever to be awarded the Lance Todd Trophy, on two of those.
Salford, therefore, could not have had a man more suited to plotting the downfall of their seemingly undefeatable visitors, and now, with the Red Devils a matter of a couple of weeks away from their follow up tie against the Warriors in the semi-final, Andy was only too happy to meet up with me and divulge the background to that remarkable success.
Having won five of those Cup Winner’s Medals in Wigan’s colours, it certainly came as something of a shock for him when the balls came out of the bag, and he was suddenly facing them from the other side of the fence, in charge of Salford, who, despite being underdogs, did at least have home advantage to give them some encouragement.
“We had a home game against Castleford, the week before,” Andy recalls, “and as soon as that was out of the way I told the players we were going to prepare for Wigan as if it were a Test Match, and we did. All week training was really good. No-one was late, and no-one made excuses for any errors such as dropped passes.”
So well did the week’s sessions go that, at one stage, he began to feel that things were going too well, but his confidence in his players, and all they were doing, was unshakeable.
“At the end of the last session, the day before the game, I told our Chairman, John Wilkinson, that I thought we’d win,” he continues. “We had an absolutely cracking squad of players, and though we were still regarded as the underdogs, we had trained better than any other side I’ve ever trained with.
Most importantly all this positivity continued right through, and into, the match.
“On the day everything went perfectly,” he reports. “Walking to the ground, I said to anyone and everyone, ‘Let’s just enjoy the day. We’re going to go out there and we’ll give it our all, so don’t be surprised if we turn them over.
“Then in the dressing –room, in the run up to the kick off, all the players were talking themselves up, and encouraging each other along, and this continued right through the game itself.”
Much was made after the victory of the Salford team’s being comprised of a significant number of former Wigan players, including the likes of Scott Naylor, Sam Panapa, Steve Blakeley, and Steve Hampson, and the final outcome of the game was attributed, by some, to this. Andy, however, begs to differ.
“I don’t think it made any difference at all,” is his considered opinion, “because they all knew what cup ties are about, and you shouldn’t need any additional motivation when you are playing the cup holders.
“It wouldn’t have mattered where they all came from; they were really up for it, and had worked hard throughout the week, in preparation. I’ve been to Wembley, and you don’t need any further outside motivation.”
That Salford team definitely didn’t, and as we all know they carried that work ethic into, and right through the ensuing game, coming out at the end convincing victors.
“Wigan were beaten by the better team, on the day, and there was no fluke about it,” Andy insists. “They were really disappointed, but, full credit to them, they accepted the defeat most graciously, coming up, shaking hands, and wishing us all the best for the next round, which turned out to be against St Helens.”
Unfortunately, this proved to be a bridge too far, and backing up with a second success against another set of such highly talented opponents, so soon afterwards, was, sadly, beyond them.
So, twenty-one years on, how does Andy perceive the forthcoming, possible repeat of that encounter?
“Ian Watson will have the players up for this game in just the same way that we were,” he believes, “but they won’t be thinking about it until the last league game of the regular season is out of the way.
“Then it is a great feeling walking off the pitch knowing that your next game is the semi-final, with the chance then to play at Wembley, for the winners.
“I have coached both Ians, Watson and Blease, and just hope that Ian Watson can go one better than me, and get Salford to the final, because it would be great for the club. Salford have some tremendously loyal fans, and it would be great for them to get some silverware, after all this time.
“Wigan, though, are starting to come good as they get so many of their injured players back, so I believe it will be an absolute classic, but I really wouldn’t know who to back.”