As the 1933/34 season drew to a close, stories emerged that the French, trying to establish Rugby League in their own country, had requested Salford cross the channel for a short promotional tour. Having visited England for six matches in March 1934, including appearing at The Willows, the French viewed Salford as `the premier side in the game’. Initially, they wanted the Red Devils to visit in August or September 1934, but with a new season starting, it was agreed the trip would be during October and November. The first club side invited to France , they won all six matches in spectacular fashion, creating a legend.
The opening game was one day after the Lancashire Cup final win against Wigan at Swinton. It was then a frantic dash for the players, who forgot any thoughts of celebration as they changed quickly before boarding a coach to London Road (now Piccadilly) railway station in Manchester . The journey was hampered by the large number of vehicles leaving the Station Road ground and they just managed to catch the 5.45 pm train to London ‘s Euston station. Transferring in London , they arrived at Folkestone harbour for a 1.15 am crossing to Dunkirk .
Two early casualties of the overnight adventure were forwards Jack Feetham and George Harris, who clearly found confronting Rugby League packs less arduous than crossing the channel! Reaching French soil at 5.30 am , a welcome breakfast was served during a four-hour rail trip to Paris . Amazingly, following mid-day lunch at Hotel Bohy Lafayette, Salford fielded 11 players against Paris at La Courneuve that had played 24 hours earlier. It also marked the first time Salford played on a Sunday.
Salford ran into Rugby Union opposition immediately, with sympathisers anxious to strangle French Rugby League at birth. The Stade Francaise club set up a counter attraction, meeting Biarritz in the capital’s main stadium, Salford playing at an old racecourse on the outskirts of the city.
Nonetheless, the Salford Red Devils drew 7,000 spectators curious to see the new game whilst only 300 turned up at the union fixture. Such was the interest in Salford ‘s visit that, during the interval, players were interviewed on radio and some action was filmed for cinema showings
The match programme had announced the visitors as `Les Diables Rouges de Salford’ – the Salford Red Devils. A title the club and supporters have preserved with pride ever since.
The day concluded with an evening of celebration in the company of opponents, club officials and dignitaries, presumably followed by a long sleep!
The following Tuesday, Salford traveled some 300 miles south by train through some breathtaking and historic countryside to Lyon for the next match against Lyon-Villeurbanne, one of the top French teams at the time. After the Paris experience, the ground, just outside Lyon , surprised the tourists with its magnificence, having an adjoining bar and swimming pool.
Another train journey further south to the Mediterranean coast followed. This time it covered 200 miles and ended with an overnight stop in Montpellier , a few miles along the coast from Beziers , where they were to play the next day. Arriving at Beziers by road on Sunday morning, the party was greeted by the French club’s president, after which they were driven through the town in open-top vehicles to publicise the game. The ground was a former vineyard converted into a playing area. It contained no grass, only `white, dusty soil’. An audience of 6,000 turned up, considered a large showing for the small town. In the dressing room afterwards, the Salford players received huge baskets of grapes, which they quickly consumed.
On Wednesday, the intrepid explorers moved on, taking a comparatively short 60 mile journey inland by road to Albi, who Salford were to play on Thursday evening, the first of three matches in four days and a whirlwind conclusion to the tour.
After the Albi game, Salford were back on the road, heading for an overnight rest at Carcasonne before continuing back to the Mediterranean . The destination was Perpignan where opponents XIII Catalan met them in a Friday evening kick-off, a match repeated in 1984 to celebrate 50 years of French Rugby League. Once more, Salford found a ground recently leveled out, but containing no grass.
The final leg began Saturday morning. another road journey taking virtually the whole day, arriving at the Grand Hotel Gacha in Villeneuve-sur-lot in the early evening. The Sunday afternoon fixture at the Sports Athletiques ground against Villeneuve (who would finish the inaugural 34/35 French season as champions) proved the most competitive of the tour.
The long trip home began on Monday and was concluded at Manchester ’s London Road station at 9.15pm on Tuesday. They received an enthusiastic welcome from the supporters and the almost forgotten Lancashire Cup was paraded before thousands of fans.
Paris 36 Salford 51
Lyon-Villerbanne 17 Salford 34
Beziers 8 Salford 41
XIII Catalan 16 Salford 41
Villeneuve 10 Salford 34
The 17 players who made the historic tour of France (21 October – 4 November 1934 ):