SALFORD used to be the largest city in England without a Football League team bearing its name. It was also the birthplace and home of some very renowned and influential individuals, such as Shelagh Delaney, the writer who specialised in “slice of life” drama, Albert Finney, punk poet John Cooper Clarke and some members of New Order. But casting aside the Lowryesque landscape of old, Salford has benefitted from a slice of urban regeneration, notably with the BBC moving into Salford Quays’ MediaCity.
Around six years ago, the local football club, Salford City, was taken over by a gaggle of former Manchester United players, all of whom had been part of the club’s glorious era under Sir Alex Ferguson. All of these players – the Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, epitomised local celebrity and were used to getting their own way. They all had glittering careers, all became fabulously wealthy and, above all, they oozed confidence in their own ability. The other member of the tribe known as “the class of ‘92”, David Beckham, joined the project later, when Salford were on the brink of gaining entry into the Football League. Each of the half dozen have a 10% share in the club, with Singapore-based businessman, Peter Lim, holding a 40% stake alongside his other football investment in Spain’s Valencia.
Salford’s roller-coaster progress was the subject of a TV documentary series that provided some insight into non-league football, but also revealed that as well as being all-smiling, flesh-pressing benefactors, the United gang were also ruthlessly focused. Salford won promotion in 2014-15, 2015-16, 2017-18 and 2018-19, rising from the Northern Premier League One North to the Football League in just five seasons. Attendances went from 383 in 2014-15 (which were up from 139 in 2013-14) to 2,509 in 2018-19. During this period, the club dispensed with the services of two managerial duos, the most recent being Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson, who left the club in May 2018 due to “irreconcilable differences regarding performance and contract length”. Graham Alexander took over and led the team to promotion in 2019 via the play-offs.
Inevitably, with their financial backing and ambition, Salford City are not popular outside their own neighbourhood. Some have called the club a vanity project for the Nevilles and their pals, others accuse Salford of spending their way to glory. Salford bought Adam Rooney from Aberdeen for £ 300,000 when they were in the National League, a strategy they said they wouldn’t pursue when they set-out on their ambitious journey. However, there are untruths out there about the club, particularly one that insists that before the arrival of the 92 men, Salford was “on its uppers”. The matchday programme editor revealed that they had never been in the red over a 30-year period. Envy is a very visible part of football, along with hypocrisy – most fans welcome “investors” with open arms yet criticise the practice when it happens elsewhere.
It’s not just on the field where the influence of the owners can be found. The old Moor Lane ground has been completely rebuilt and although it looks decidedly modular and temporary and a little “out of the box”, it is functional, neat and attractively colourful. The catering is a cut above many clubs and the people running the club are friendly, welcoming and clearly enjoying the experience. Some of the old hands probably cannot believe what has happened to their club. Most impressively, prices are incredibly realistic for admission – it cost £ 10 to stand on the terraces for the club’s League Two fixture with Bradford City, less than step three non-league. In fact, for most games, £ 10 is the full-time price for standing or sitting – a certain irony given the tariff at local Premier League clubs.
Salford’s first season in the Football League could still end with a play-off place, but most likely it will be a year of consolidation. Will that satisfy the owners?
Bradford City brought a huge contingent of fans with them, their coaches lining Moor Lane, but their following also included some less savoury characters, a group of which infiltrated the home terrace. Foul-mouthed, they abused their own players while the stewards stood and watched for most of the first half.
Salford took the lead in the 10th minute, on-loan Ashley Hunter scoring with a long range effort after Bradford had started confidently. But the visitors faded after the goal and Salford were in charge for the remainder of the half. Two minutes into the second half, Hunter netted again, running through the middle as a static Bradford defence watched him rifle home a low drive.
The Bradford infiltrators were not happy, but the mood changed for the worse when some Salford fans made their way into the same section. Suddenly, arms were flailing, stewards tried in vain to stop the disorder and the local police waded in. It was the sort of skirmish that epitomised mid-1970s football, but it could easily have been avoided. Quite what Bradford fans were doing in the Salford end was anyone’s guess, but it did hint at a certain naivity on the part of the Salford matchday staff.
Salford deservedly won 2-0, their first victory in seven games, with players like Hunter and Darron Gibson standing out. Bradford’s fans must have been very frustrated as they boarded their coaches back to Yorkshire.
The trouble didn’t spoil the afternoon and broke the very muted atmosphere at the stadium. Salford are, in many respects, a “new” club and the accumulation of new support has still to create that alchemic passion. And let’s not forget that Manchester has two of the world’s biggest clubs just a goal-kick away from Salford. They may have masterminded and funded progress, as well as constructed a stadium that is fit for purpose, but changing mindsets and making curious customers into emotional stakeholders takes time. Even the former Manchester United men in the boardroom will have to be just a little patient.