David Clegg Reports On The Unveiling Of The Commemorative Mosaic To The Willows
One hundred and ten years of service by Salford Red Devils’ former stadium, The Willows, were, yesterday afternoon, commemorated and celebrated by a small group numbering around fifty of ardent fans, club officials, and former players, who gathered outside the appropriately named Willows House, fronted by the shrouded pedestal supporting the commemorative mosaic.
The event was the culmination of eighteen months’ work by the Salford Red Devils Foundation’s John Blackburn, who had been the driving force behind it.
“The mosaic was part of a National Lottery Grant, designed and put together by Rob Lally, of Rialto Ceramics, with the assistance of children from two of our local schools,” John explains. “It formed part of their art curriculum for a full five week period, as they learned how to plan it out on paper and later how to cut tiles. Then, at the end, every child involved had the opportunity to place a piece into the mosaic.
“We had always felt that we needed a lasting monument to The Willows so that people could go there, particularly with there being families of people whose ashes had been spread on the field itself.
“In addition to the mosaic, we are going to put a miniature weeping willow tree there, and hopefully a Blue Plaque, which would give the site National Heritage status.
“The site we have used was designated for that purpose, once I had seen the plans, and although the mosaic has a sheet of plastic over it for protection, I’d also like to put a small roof over it to shield it further from the elements.”
As has been said, responsibility for the production of the mosaic rested with local artist, Rob Lally.
“I was approached by John to become involved, and we decided to include local primary school children from St Luke’s, and Lark Hill,” Rob recounts. “They were asked to come up with ideas for the design of it, and they automatically came up with the obvious items of pitch and rugby posts, which we incorporated into the final mosaic.
“We then came up with an old logo of Salford RLFC, which we put in the middle of the pitch, and is a nice little touch.
“I am really proud of it now that it is finished. It is something I have created, and which, because of the history of The Willows, is going to be here for quite a while for people to remember it by.
“I shall keep coming back to keep my eye on it and make sure it is well looked after.”
The unveiling ceremony was performed by current Chief Executive, Ian Blease, and Head Coach, Ian Watson, both of whom are former Salford players, and both of whom showed their intense satisfaction both with the finished product and the occasion to mark it.
“It’s been really good today coming down here and representing the club and all the other past players,” remarked Ian Blease immediately after the unveiling. “It has been a marvellous event, and to have been involved in unveiling the mosaic has been a great honour.”
Fellow officiant , Ian Watson, was equally enthusiastic.
“I think this is a really good thing for the club,” he maintains. “It will now become a landmark, unlike most other former stadia which were cleared but have no reminder of them. Here, we even have all the streets around named after former Salford RLFC celebrities.
“The Salford Foundation have done really well in bringing it to fruition, and John Blackburn, in particular, has worked tirelessly on it, as he always does in looking after the history of the club. Through this, now, we shall always have something to remember The Willows by.
As might be expected, the ceremony commenced with a small number of speeches, the first of which was delivered by another former player, Paul Highton, who has recently returned to the club in his former role of Players’ Welfare Officer. Indeed, this just happened to be his first event, back.
“It was an honour to be asked to speak at the event, and it brought a lot of memories back driving into Lance Todd Way,” he remarks. “Even the changing rooms have a place in the memory of everyone who ever played there. Cramped under the stand, they may not have been very nice, but they were ours.
“I can still remember my first visit as a player being shown around by Chairman, John Wilkinson, and Head Scout, Albert White, to meet Head Coach, Andy Gregory.
“It felt rather strange arriving this time and not seeing the Family Stand on the skyline, or the Willows Variety Centre in evidence, but the land has been put to good use and people now have really good homes as a result.
“At least we have the names around the area, including Willows House to remind us of the history around it. The mosaic is a really fine centre piece, to set it all off.”
The final word went to longstanding servant of the club and former player from the 1970s, Alan Grice, who took advantage of a general offer to all, to air his thoughts.
“John had asked me whether I wanted to say a few words when he invited me to the ceremony, but I declined at that time,” he recounts, “but then, when I was there, I felt someone should mention that marvellous team of my day, and say what they did and how marvellous things were then.
“We were always in with a chance of winning cups, but we played too much rugby at times when we should have been slowing it down, and consolidating our lead. The BBC2 Floodlit Final replay, at Warrington, after a 0-0 draw which, despite the result had been a really good game, was one of the occasions we did bring home the silverware.
“The conditions were atrocious, but we scored early on and then did hang onto our lead as things developed more and more into a mud bath.
“It is also important to point out the commitment that those players showed to the club, because they stayed for lengthy periods of time, some up to twelve or thirteen years. All they ever wanted to do was play rugby, and they really did that superbly.”
With the mosaic now there for all to admire, it will stand as testimony to all those former players, supporters, and officials, from whichever era, to whom The Willows has meant so much.