The Grey Neutral: Viral symptoms

FOOTBALL is still living in a surreal world, desperately trying to restart, if only to appease sponsors and backers, but knowing all too well that one setback could derail all plans. While the top clubs will be able to navigate the uncertainty, the situation is very precarious for small Football League members and also the little clubs at the heart of the game.

Non-league’s broken model

We should all fear for non-league football. Unlike big-time clubs that have diverse revenue streams, gate money is a huge chunk of their income – and it has dried up completely. There’s no point whatsoever in playing non-league games behind closed doors, so it would seem likely that it will be a long time before we see a return to action.

Safe distancing should not be a problem for most non-league clubs, but how will anyone justify allowing local football to proceed when most other activities have been curtailed in towns around the country? The reason top flight football has been given the go ahead is an economic decision – broadcasters have paid their fee, they want something back in return. If TV revenues were not at stake, it is doubtful the game would be resuming.

What is non-league to do? It is possible that we have seen the end of non-league as it was – in other words, paying players at certain levels must surely come to an end. Travel expenses are also something that has to be looked at. Greater regionalisation/localisation would surely cut back some of the costs clubs have to contend with. Of course, they can plead poverty and ask for help, but the easiest way to slash outgoings – in future – is to dispense with wages and minimise travel. In the meantime, the damage to non-league football could be vast, with a lot of clubs having to fold.

The return to “amateur” status is something a lot of clubs will fight against, but a lot of detached folk still believe non-league is indeed run on Corinthian ideals. How many times have you heard TV presenters refer to non-league clubs as “amateur”. They look at a club with 350 spectators and find it hard to believe that players are actually getting paid. For too long, too many clubs have lived beyond their means.

Game of the People has long advocated a shift to spectator-owned or genuine community clubs, and by that we mean clubs where the community has a stake and a voice. “Community” should not merely be a way to grab grants or gain easy PR. The coronavirus crisis should be an opportunity to change what is now in danger of being a broken model.

Season tickets – for what?

Clubs selling season tickets may be a little hasty in their bid to raise money. How can a club seriously sell tickets for 2020-21 when we really do not know when the game, as a spectator sport, will return? We are all expecting a second wave of the coronavirus, which will probably mean another lockdown and the suspension of football – if indeed it ever gets underway again in 2020. Understandably, clubs are eager to replenish lost income, but let’s not forget there are thousands of people who have unfinished seasons and are, in theory, owed money for the 2019-20 campaign.

Liverpool and Manchester

According to YouGov, Liverpool are the most popular club in the United Kingdom, followed by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. This sounds quite hard to believe, although globalisation and the cosmopolitan nature of Britain have both contributed to two non-UK teams finishing above everyone bar the Premier champions-elect.

Liverpool’s rise to the top of the YouGov table is down to a number of key factors – their exciting team, their popular manager and the decline of Manchester United in recent years. The fan mood around United is quite negative (a rating of 31%). Only one club, Chelsea, has a higher negative rating (33%). Other clubs who have fallen away and therefore have relatively high levels of negative sentiment are Arsenal (30%), Manchester City (30%) and Tottenham (24%). Liverpool’s negativity runs to 22%. In general, the bigger clubs have more gloom and doom merchants and that’s because of high levels of expectation.

Liverpool may be on the brink of winning the Premier League, which will be something of a hollow triumph without the fans and may yet be a title with an asterisk. The latest news is not good about Liverpool and Manchester. The so-called “R rate”, in other words, the rate of infection, is rising in both cities and there’s talk of a renewed lockdown. If that were the case, will Liverpool be able to play their remaining Premier games? Somebody may be wishing now that they’d called it a day and decided the season on points-per-game.

 

@GameofthePeople

 

Photo: PA

 

 

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