The club was founded in 1873 by the boys of the Cavendish Street Chapel in Hulme, Manchester. Using a local field, the boys organised matches amongst themselves before moving to nearby Moss Side.
In an attempt to recruit new members, the link with the school was broken in 1875 and the name Cavendish Football Club was adopted. They moved to a new base on the Salford side of the River Irwell at Throstle Nest Weir in Ordsall. Two seasons later, they moved again to the west side of Trafford Road to a ground known as the Mile Field where they spent the 1877/78 season. Their next home was a field north of the former Manchester Racecourse, New Barnes. Their first season there, 1878/79, was the last to be played under the Cavendish name.
Cavendish became Salford Football Club in 1879. The first match as Salford was at Dewsbury on 4 October 1879. The following week heralded the first home match at New Barnes against Widnes, on 11 October 1879. The result was a draw with one try each.
Salford struggled to attract support as there were few local players in the team. In 1881, they almost disbanded but instead merged with the Crescent Football Club. This placed Salford firmly on the rugby map, it was an exciting period and, during the remaining 15 years as members of the Rugby Football Union, seventeen Salford players were selected for Lancashire, three by the North of England and two, Harry Eagles and Tom Kent, for England. Since the 1881 merger, only 62 matches were lost from 263 played in the remaining nine years of the decade.
In 1889, Salford moved their headquarters to the nearby London and North Western Hotel on Cross Lane. Salford switched from their traditional amber, black and scarlet hoops to red jerseys. The club became the first side to win the Lancashire League in 1892/93.
In 1895, the leading Lancashire and Yorkshire clubs formed the breakaway Northern Union (later known as the Rugby Football League), Salford initially remained loyal to the Rugby Football Union.
Salford were admitted to the Northern Union on 2 June 1896. Their first competitive Northern Union match was on Saturday, 5 September 1896, with a visit to Widnes. The Red Devils, competing in the Lancashire Senior Competition, lost 10-0, and only three matches were won in the League that season. Their form improved and they finished third place in 1898/99. In 1900, Salford met old local rivals, Swinton, in the Challenge Cup final at Fallowfield, Manchester. After a keenly fought contest, the result was a 16-8 win for Swinton.
In 1900, Salford received notice to vacate New Barnes as the Manchester Ship Canal Company had purchased the land. Salford’s agreed a 14-year lease on 5 acres (20,000 m2) of land belonging to the Willows Estate Company, named after the abundance of willow trees in the area. Salford made their début at The Willows on 21 December 1901, beating Swinton 2-0, the official attendance reaching 16,981. James Lomas became rugby league’s first £100 transfer, from Bramley to Salford in 1901.
The club continued making progress in the Challenge Cup, reaching the semi-final stages in 1902, 1903, 1906, 1907 and 1910. On three occasions, they succeeded in reaching the final, but lost 0-25 to Broughton Rangers in 1902, 0-7 to Halifax in 1903 and 0-5 to Bradford Northern in 1906. The Championship also proved elusive, the Reds finishing runners-up for three consecutive seasons from 1901/02. In the last of those, Salford and Bradford Northern finished level on points with Salford having the superior scoring record. Despite that, the Reds had to take part in a deciding match at Halifax, which they lost 5-0.
The Kiwis, then known as the All Golds, visited in 1907, and Salford played them on 28 December, losing 9-2 in front of a reported 9,000 spectators. Lance Todd, who was to have such an influence at The Willows 20 years later, was in the New Zealanders’ side. A year later, the Australians stopped off at The Willows on 17 October. The result was a 9-9 draw.
Salford won the Rugby Football League Championship in 1913/14. The club had financial problems and was in the hands of the official receiver but somehow in the Championship final, beat Huddersfield’s “Team of All Talents” 5-3.
In August 1914, the Salford Football Club Company was finally wound up and a new company, Salford Football Club (1914) Limited was formed. During the First World War, Salford continued to function, but it was a struggle. Thirty-two Salford players volunteered for the war, of which seven were killed.
The 1920s was an era of survival, on and off the field, the team opening the decade with their worst ever league placing, finishing last in 1920/21. There was a dramatic change of fortune during the summer of 1928 when Lance Todd became team manager. In his first season in charge (1928/29), “Toddy’s Toddlers” went from 26th to fourth place in the table with virtually the same set of players.
Gus Risman was talent-spotted by Lance Todd, when he was 17 years old. He made his début for Salford on 31 August 1929. Other legendary names included Alan Edwards, John “Jack” Feetham, Barney Hudson, Emlyn Jenkins, Billy Watkins and Billy Williams.
Salford were considered the leading club in the game during the 1930s, winning three League Championships, five Lancashire League Championships, four Lancashire Cups and the Rugby League Challenge Cup.
Salford were invited to tour France in 1934 to promote rugby league in the country. Before going to France, Salford were regarded as a top side by the French and – after their 6-0 whitewash of the tour sides – were given their unofficial nickname; Les Diables Rouges – The Red Devils by French journalists.
Salford’s highest attendance was set on 13 February 1937 when 26,470 turned up to watch Salford versus Warrington in the first round of the Challenge Cup.
Salford beat Barrow 7-4 in the final of the 1938 Challenge Cup at Wembley. A famous photograph was taken of Gus Risman and the cup being carried shoulder high round the stadium by his team-mates, and he the only one without a cigarette in his hand.
On 3 September 1939, the Second World War began and the 1939/40 season was abandoned. A wartime Emergency League was organised but, at the beginning of January 1941, Salford decided to cease play, due to poor gates. In November 1942, Lance Todd was killed in a car crash.
In 1946, Salford appeared to be on their way to a third consecutive peacetime final, but Salford lost, unexpectedly, at home to Hunslet (15-8) at the quarter final stage. In the second post-war season, 1946/47, Salford slid to twenty-second, a dramatic climb followed and the team finished seventh in 1948/49, and fifth in 1949/50. But it was a false dawn and the team fell into mid-table obscurity during the 1950s.
When Gus Risman quit as a player in 1954, he coached Salford for four years, before moving on to Oldham.
Saturday 26 November 1955 saw television cameras at The Willows for the first time when the second half of the match against New Zealand was broadcast live on BBC Grandstand. Salford hosted their first floodlit game, using Manchester United’s ground on Wednesday 5 November 1958 against Leeds. Leeds won 22-17.
On Saturday 1 September 1962, Salford suffered what was then their largest margin of defeat, when they lost 59-0 at St Helens.
Brian Snape succeeded Jim Hammond as chairman in September 1963. Snape appointed Griff Jenkins as secretary-coach in 1964, and the Reds immediately started to climb the league ladder. In June 1967 The Willows switched on its floodlights for the first time in the match with Widnes on Friday 11 March 1966. From that evening, Friday night was rugby league night as the fans flocked to The Willows.
In October 1967 David Watkins joined Salford for £15,000, a then club record. Watkins scored in 92 consecutive matches for Salford from 19 August 1972 to 25 April 1974. He totalled 929 points from 41 tries and 403 goals.
In 1967, the Rugby Football League gave permission for games to be played on Sunday for the first time. The Willows staged its first Sunday fixture, a friendly with French club, Cavaillon, on 5 May 1968. It was not until the following season that the Reds were at home in their first competitive Sunday match, a second round Challenge Cup-tie against Workington Town on 23 February 1969, Salford winning 12-5, destined for their third Wembley final which they lost 11-6 to Castleford.
Salford lost the uniqueness of their red devil nickname when local soccer team Manchester United decided to replace their “Busby’s Babes” nickname following the Munich crash. Matt Busby liked the sound of “Red Devils”, thinking a devil was more intimidating to opponents than angelic babes and Manchester United copied “The Red Devils” nickname.
In October 1972, Salford reached the final of the Lancashire Cup for the first time since 1938, beating Swinton 25-11 at Warrington to win their first trophy in thirty-three years. Salford reached the next three Lancashire Cup finals, but failed to recapture the cup in any of them. They were also runners-up to Leeds in the 1972-73 Players No.6 Trophy. In 1973/74 and 1975/76 the club claimed two Championships and won the 1974/75 BBC2 Floodlit Trophy. Salford’s last major final of the 1970s was the 1976 Premiership Trophy decider played at Station Road, Swinton. Salford conceded three tries in the last 12 minutes to lose 15-2. As the 1970s drew to a close, many star players had retired or were approaching the veteran stage, with no funds available to replace them.
In the 1976-77 season, the Salford versus Leeds match was abandoned just after half-time, after Chris Sanderson of Leeds suffered a fatal injury, after 38 minutes. Leeds were ahead 5-2, but the game was declared null and void and not replayed.
On 3 January 1982, John Wilkinson took over as chairman. Wilkinson inherited a club living above its income, forcing him to make cost saving measures. While the books were being balanced, steady progress was made on it, the Red Devils pulling off a major coup with the signing of Australian full-back Garry Jack in 1988. The Lancashire Cup final was reached in 1988, the Reds losing narrowly to favourites Wigan.
1990 turned out to be his golden year under coach Kevin Tamati. Salford won the Second Division Championship, losing just one game all season. In the Premiership final in front of 50,000 at Old Trafford, the Red Devils beat Halifax 27-20. They also made the final of the Lancashire Cup, losing narrowly to favourites Widnes.
During the 1990s, the team rewarded Wilkinson with five trophies; Division Two Championship (1990/91), Division Two Premiership (1991), Division One (formerly Division Two) Championship (1995/96 and 1996) and Divisional Premiership 1996.
In 1996, the first tier of British rugby league clubs played the inaugural Super League season and changed from a winter to a summer season. Andy Gregory had finished his playing days as player-coach at Salford in 1995. Salford finished with 21 points; six-points clear of Hull and seemingly safe from a drop into the lower leagues. However, the Rupert Murdoch-funded Super League competition proposed, as part of the deal, that some traditional clubs would merge. Salford were to merge with Oldham to form a Manchester club that would compete in Super League. This was resisted but Salford were not included in the new competition. Salford added Reds to their name for the 1995/96 season which was expanded to Salford City Reds in 1999. It would be just 12 months before Salford reclaimed their place in Super League by edging out Keighley to win the First Division.
Gregory left Salford by mutual consent in May 1999 to concentrate on his pub business in Wigan. Steve McCormack became the youngest Super League coach at the age of just 28 in 2001 but was sacked just 10 months later, for his outrageous attacks on the stadium’s grass cutters. He was replaced by Karl Harrison, who had been Assistant Coach to Brian Noble at Bradford.
Salford City Reds struggled in the 2002 season and Harrison was unable to keep the club in the Super League, despite a good end to the season. Indeed, they went into the final match of the season second from bottom (only the bottom club were relegated that season). However, a home defeat to Castleford, coupled with a home win for Wakefield Trinity over Warrington, resulted in relegation for the Reds.
The 2003 season was spent in the National League 1, where the Reds – remaining as a full-time club (most other NL1 teams were part-time or amateur clubs) – performed very well, losing only 2 games all season. On their way to finishing top of the National League 1 table, Salford also won the Arriva Trains Cup beating Leigh in the final. Having finished on top of the NL1 table, Salford entered the NL1 play-offs, needing to win their match to qualify for the final. They beat Leigh in a bad-tempered match, to qualify for the NL1 Grand Final. Leigh were forced into a knock-out semi-final to try to get through to the Grand Final – a play-off match they ultimately won.
Salford City Reds then comfortably beat Leigh in the Grand Final, to gain promotion to Super League after one season out. It was the sixth time out of seven meetings between the two that Salford had beaten Leigh that season (the first match ended in a draw). Leigh would follow Salford into Super League the following season. 2004 was a consolidatory season for the Reds, notably mostly for an impressive home win over St Helens and coming from 12 points behind Castleford in a game three times in the season to win all three games, the third of which – at Castleford’s “The Jungle” ground confirmed Salford’s survival in the Super League and practically relegated “Cas” in the process. In the end the Reds finished 9th.
The 2005 season saw Salford Reds sign Luke Robinson and David Hodgson from Wigan, both of whom performed excellently well for the Reds all season. Although Salford were unable to improve on the 9th place finish of the previous season, they were regarded as one of the most improved teams in Super League, and finished 6-points higher than they had the season before. However, relegation was again a real threat, as – to accommodate Les Catalans from France into Super League in 2006 – two clubs were relegated in 2005 instead of just one. Leigh comfortably finished bottom of the table, losing 14 games in a row. Widnes were also relegated, 6-points behind the Reds.
Salford’s move to the proposed new City of Salford Stadium in Barton was reviewed by Salford City Council’s planning committee on 17 November 2005. While the plans were approved, they were also referred to the Department of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and, in January 2006, it was announced that the Department had ordered a full review, further delaying the start of building. In late November 2006, it was confirmed that the government department now in charge of overseeing the full review, the Office of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Ruth Kelly, had approved the plans for the stadium. Kelly herself, as Member of Parliament for the nearby Bolton West constituency, could not take the decision personally due to what could be viewed as a conflict of interest.
The 2006 Season started with wins at Warrington, and against Les Catalans Dragons at the Willows. Further wins over Wigan and Wakefield Trinity meant that Salford had won 4 of their opening 5 games (losing to Bradford in round 3). Salford in SLXI lost eight games by fewer than 6 points, including 1 point defeats to Leeds, Hull and Harlequins RL and 2 point defeats to Leeds and St Helens. However, Salford’s victory over Castleford on 10 September 2006, ensured that they would play in the Super League play-offs for the first time in their history in a season they had started as favourites for relegation according to most pundits. In their first ever Super League play-off match, Salford City Reds were routed 52-6 at Odsal Stadium against Bradford on Saturday 23 September 2006.
Karl Harrison was sacked as first team coach on 22 May 2007 following a disastrous run of form that saw the Reds win just three games and draw another in the opening 16 rounds of the 2007 Season, and left them languishing at the bottom of the League Table with a meagre 7 points. Team Director of Football, Steve Simms took over in a caretaker role for two games, winning the first against an in-form Huddersfield Giants and only losing by a single point against then World Champions, St Helens.
On 11 June 2007 long-term favourite to take the role, Shaun McRae was announced as the new Head Coach.On 15 June 2007, Salford beat Harlequins 5-2 in the first (and, to date, only) Super League game not to contain a try. On 2 September 2007, Salford were relegated from Super League when Hull KR beat Hull 42-6.
Salford City Reds were then awarded a three year Super League license in July 2008 as the game moved on abandoned automatic promotion and relegation in favour of franchising.