Salford City v Bradford City – a slice of Football League life

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.

Appeal

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?

Matchday

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.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA

Salford City – gimmick or goodwill?

salford city moor laneNon-League football is dramatically different to the big league, although like the Premier, it can delight, infuriate, frustrate, provoke hair loss and send people into a life of alcoholic over-indulgence. Will the “Class of ‘92” still consider their investment in Manchester United’s neighbours, City, in 12 months’ time, when they realise what they have actually bought in to?

By the way, it’s Salford not Manchester City. The “Ammies” of the Northern Premier League Division One North, a club that attracts less than 200 people to its home games.

Now the “Class of 92” seem like a fairly decent bunch, despite their TOWIE tans and suits, and they are making the right noises. Is it just a publicity stunt that tells us, “hey, we’re a bunch of good guys”, or is it a genuine attempt to put something back into the game? We would all like to think it’s the latter.

There are encouraging signs if the early comments are to be believed. A hub for local talent. If that means Salford City will look to develop young players, perhaps boosted by the coaching and advice of the Nevilles, Giggs, Scholes and Butt, then terrific. But it will fly in the face of how most non-league clubs operate when the next purveyor of a snake oil cure rolls into town.

The other claim is that the club will achieve Football League status in 15 years. Does the Manchester area really need another Football League club? No. How can they possibly co-exist with United and Manchester City? Ambition is great, but it has to be realistic ambition that is supported.

Let’s hope that Salford do not get tempted to throw too much money around in anticipation of the United quintet filling the club’s coffers. Too often clubs live beyond their means as they try to give the impression they are “big time”. Fans will, though, expect that in 2014-15, the Ammies will have a bigger playing budget.

Some of Salford’s Northern Premier rivals will doubtless accuse them of having just that because of the club’s association with Giggs and co., but most people haven’t even heard of the club. It’s a 15 minute drive and almost five miles from their Moor Lane ground to Old Trafford, but the difference between the two is a million miles or more.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a place for clubs like Salford, who are hardly uprooting trees this season. They are below mid-table in Division One North and their last home game attracted around 120 people. They haven’t had a home fixture in the league since the United old boys announced their plans, so it could be that in the final weeks, curiosity will bring a few more through the gate.

The cynics might suggest that the involvement of the Class of ’92 could be a statement of dissatisfaction about what’s going on at Old Trafford at the moment. FC United of Manchester is already a rebel breakaway group, could Salford City be another in disguise?

For the time being, it’s worth giving the Class of ’92 the benefit of the doubt. They should be applauded for supporting lower level football. But don’t be surprised that once they realise what what goes on in an industry with a broken business model, it may be short-lived project.