Sale’s Alex Sanderson: ‘People have given up a lot to make this special’ | Sale

4 min read

Most people will tell you that winning is everything in a major final. There is scant room for background nuance on the scoreboard or in the record books. Occasionally, though, there is a rare exception and this year’s Premiership final is arguably one of them. “What we’ve built matters,” stresses Alex Sanderson, leaning against the outside wall of Sale Sharks’ training centre this week. “Plenty of people have given up a lot to make this special, important and lasting. That’s the key.”

The 43-year-old Sanderson is as competitive as anyone, if not more so. He is not remotely suggesting Sale are ambivalent about beating Saracens in what promises to be a full-throttle confrontation. But sometimes life really is as much about the journey as the destination. Sanderson’s Sharks are on a spiritual crusade that will not be solely defined by the result of their first Twickenham grand final in 17 years.

Because since Sanderson came home to his old club just over two years ago he has presided over something even more important. A rebirth? A reawakening? Under the banner of “Northern Rugby Matters”, Sale are fully committed to re-energising a region that has not always received its fair share of love from the game’s southern-based mandarins.

Sanderson, above all, has sought to build a club that really cares. Not only about winning but about each other. Among other things the club have sought advice from a top neuropsychologist on the power of togetherness and have installed a “mind gym” on site to help players become mentally more resilient. Individuals are encouraged to speak freely and openly. Sanderson has even gone hiking with Manu Tuilagi to help the England centre feel cared for and rooted in his local community. Can a professional sporting team resemble a new age commune? Sale seem to be giving it a go.

The central tenet is beautifully simple: happy, positive, unselfish players will perform better. It is a variation on the environment Sanderson helped to create during a 17-year stint at Saracens, where the emphasis (salary cap problems aside) was as much on creating great memories as collecting trophies. “The most interesting part of my role there was to continually get a common purpose and to look beyond the obvious material reward for winning,” says Sanderson. “It has to be about something bigger.”

Alex Sanderson, the then Saracens assistant coach, is showered with beer after the 2018 Premiership final. Photograph: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

Having been forced to retire from playing through injury aged only 26, Sanderson always promised himself that if he did ever go into coaching he would not follow the herd. “I said to myself: ‘Right, if I ever get the opportunity, I want to do it this way.’ Because what the fuck have I got to lose? If I’m not getting satisfaction from coaching I’ll just have a happy life doing something else.

“Coaching wasn’t initially what I thought I was going to get into. I had other, more lucrative opportunities – but I don’t think any of them would have been more worthwhile. My brother’s working in the City, drives a Porsche and has a swimming pool. I’m in a 1960s townhouse in Knutsford with a bottom floor that needs converting. There’s easier ways to make money but he’s rather jealous of the situation I’m in.”

At times it has not been easy, particularly of late. The details are sensitive but, suffice to say, Sanderson has been dealing with some serious family distractions lately. Even now, with Sale having finished second in the regular season table, the man who could conceivably be England’s next head coach prefers not to plot his career too far ahead. “Every season – and I’ll ask myself the question again after this one – I ask myself: ‘Is it worth it?’ It takes so much out of you and so much time away from your family. You feel you’re inspiring people but it’s time away, it’s every weekend. Right now it feels like it is all worth it but I’m still on the hamster wheel.

“I think everyone needs to look at their life generally and say: ‘Are you happy?’ For me there’s always a period of reflection and decompression before I steel myself to go again. You can’t be half-hearted. Even 99% concentration equals 100% failure. That 1% of not being fully in it is your downfall as a coach.”

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Concentration, accordingly, has been the main buzzword around the Sale camp all week. It was the key message conveyed by Sir Alex Ferguson when he addressed the squad on Tuesday. “We have a special Man United red phone, like the Batphone, in the corner of the office for emergencies,” jokes Sanderson – but, as yet, the treble-chasing Pep Guardiola has not been approached. “A lot of the boys are Blues here so I’m sure they’d love to get him in but our worlds are ones that rarely collide.” What is the closest they come to intersecting? “Some of the boys run around their training ground, trying not to get electrified by their fences.”

Joking aside, Sale will need to shed any hint of an inferiority complex to beat a team of Sarries’ experience. Sanderson, though, senses his younger players are now starting to realise what they can do. “No one’s truly believed in them and seen their potential. Believing in a young lad with the talent of Joe Carpenter, Tom Roebuck and Arron Reed isn’t hard. Every day I tell them what I think – which is that these guys are as good as anything out there. I think they’re all in contention for international spots.”

And as he prowls the touchline – he finds he has a better feel for a game’s flow at pitch level rather than up in a sealed coaching box – Sanderson will not be allowing his Saracens’ past to get in the way of Sale’s brightening future. “I still have a deep affection for them and that spurs me on to want to win more. They’re the people you want to beat the most, aren’t they? The people you love.”

Above all, though, he hopes the Sharks will win new friends beyond their own northern heartland. “We are not going to go out there trying not to lose. It could be a belter on so many levels. Are we able, through it all, to keep a consistent emotional intensity for 80 minutes? At this stage of the season it’s character that comes through.” Even if Sale finish second, their feelgood story is increasingly uplifting.