Before 2014, Salford City had 35 season-ticket holders and barely registered on football’s radar. Now, they are one of the most controversial clubs in England.
Surviving in the shadow of rugby league’s Salford Red Devils and nearby Manchester United, in a region also replete with non-league and lower-league outfits, used to be commendable enough. From the depths of the eighth tier, a spot on the top four professional rungs of the country’s football ladder wasn’t worth dreaming about.
Then Gary Neville and his brother Phil, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Nicky Butt – famed Manchester United academy graduates commonly referred to as the Class of ’92 – purchased Salford City. Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim bought the other 50 percent of the club shortly afterward.
Their combined financial clout is vastly superior to their National League rivals; summer signing Adam Rooney apparently cost around 15 percent of Wrexham’s annual turnover. After three promotions in four seasons, Salford City are now in the fifth division, just one level below the professional league.
That budget, ambition, and early success doesn’t attract footballers alone. After retiring in 2014, Carlo Nash – a former teammate of Peter Schmeichel, Mark Schwarzer, and Tim Howard – decided Salford City, among the meat raffles and damp dressing rooms of England’s non-league system, was his next step as a goalkeeping coach.
“Obviously the people associated with the club was a big draw because they’re not going to be associated with anything that’s not going to be a success long term. I want to be successful as a coach now and get all the way to the top,” Nash, who worked his way up to the Premier League through non-league football to become a two-time FA Cup finalist, told theScore. At Salford, he’s reunited with former Preston North End teammates Graham Alexander and Chris Lucketti – the club’s manager and assistant manager, respectively.
“Salford have big aspirations for doing well; for first and foremost getting in the Football League, and then kicking on from there. Being a part of that was something that I was really interested in.”
Beyond a wage budget that’s tempted several players from regular action in League One or League Two, Salford’s facilities are the envy of every other team in the National League. The Ammies’ Moor Lane home (currently named the Peninsula Stadium for sponsorship purposes) has been radically transformed from a sagging, rotting den that penned in 1,600 to a slick venue accommodating over 5,000.
“We’ve got all facilities we could wish for – certainly in the National League and on a par with some Championship clubs I would envisage, having experienced that,” Nash explained. “The setup’s all laid on for being successful and for getting the club into the Football League and beyond. That’s only going to get better as we progress.”
Does the Class of ’92 provide an unfair advantage?
Salford City’s shift from consensual anonymity to impatient pursuit of Championship football hasn’t gotten the warmest reception.
Accrington Stanley had the joint-lowest budget in League Two last season, but were promoted as champions and continue to confound expectations in the middle of the third tier. Accy owner and supporter Andy Holt, who made his money selling plastic boxes and bins, doesn’t have the same resources as the Class of ’92; however, in the five months after his 2015 takeover, he reportedly put £2 million into the club, paying off bills and describing his generosity as “community service.” Unlike Salford, Accrington Stanley have scrimped and saved to cultivate progress. They still have no training facility. In July, Holt accused Salford of trying to “steal” a hard-working club’s seat among the country’s top 92 outfits.
Many rivals are also suspicious that Salford’s used the Class of ’92 sheen to gain an unfair advantage with local authorities. Gary Neville and Co. have chaired meetings, and Salford’s detractors say that celebrity’s helped the club strike ambitious deals with starry-eyed council members. The Moor Lane makeover was rubber-stamped amid opposition from the neighborhood, and some sources speculated to theScore that the approval was a result of preferential treatment. Weymouth, Basingstoke Town, and Penn & Tylers Green are three of many non-league outfits that haven’t been able to overcome objections to stadium builds and tweaks in recent years, implying that regular club volunteers (or Lim, who holds the biggest financial stake in Salford) lack the prestige to earn oft-elusive planning permission.
The repute the Class of ’92 enjoys in the English game certainly aids exposure. While other clubs in the busy northwest try to attract match-goers through flyering and word of mouth, Salford City receive extensive coverage in the national and regional press. Some of their FA Cup matches have been shown on TV, and the BBC and Sky Sports broadcasted three series of a documentary about the Class of ’92’s stewardship of Salford.
Not only would that exposure never be afforded to other nearby clubs like FC United of Manchester – a club formed by Manchester United fans in protest of the Glazer family’s takeover – or former EFL mainstays Stockport County, some of Salford City’s contemporaries consider the documentary’s depiction of non-league football to be insulting. Though Gary Neville’s regularly spoken in support of grassroots football, the television program suggested the Ammies were happy to treat the modesty and bedlam of the divisions they’re passing through as light relief.
“The documentary painted a picture of the kitman forgetting the kit, the boiler breaking down at the ground – it kind of painted this murky picture of how a football club lived on the breadline and how it’s quite unprofessional,” Alex Narey, an editor at The Non-League Paper, told theScore.
The changing face of non-league football
Some people prefer that murky picture. The pockmarked pitches, short away trips, and familiar faces selling pies and pouring pints can offer a homespun warmth – a sense of community that’s difficult to find in the leading four leagues. Since the takeover, the Class of ’92 has made an effort to retain the original members of Salford City: in Simon Hughes’ book “On the Brink,” Gary Neville spoke with pride about giving a man named Bill full-time employment as stadium manager after he’d fulfilled the duties free of charge for the previous 25 years. However, as the club climbs, the mud-and-nettles environment of Moor Lane will gradually fade away.
The club’s identity can also change dramatically. One of the early contentious decisions made by the Class of ’92 was to switch Salford’s kits from orange to red with touches of black and white – just like Manchester United.
“I know some of the Salford City fans – the old Salford City fans, when they played in orange – who find it all a bit distasteful,” Stockport communications director Jon Keighren said. “They used to quite like just turning up and having a cup of tea and watching the players. They feel it’s a very different place now.”
But non-league football cannot remain in stasis. With so many business minds viewing clubs higher up the pyramid as viable investments, that attitude will naturally trickle down. The National League’s reputation for being made up of portly postmen, teachers, and firemen hacking at one another is outdated: Only four of 24 teams were considered part time going into the 2018-19 campaign, according to James Kelly of These Football Times. As it fuses into the top four professional divisions, it may be more accurate to think of the National League as League Three.
“It’s a bit lazy for people who kind of just think non-league is there and will mosey along as it used to do. It’s changed. There’s big money to be had,” Narey said.
It’s also hard to blame Salford’s aggression considering the league structure itself deters steady, thought-out advancement and seems to encourage boardroom gambling instead. There is just one automatic promotion place into League Two – for comparison, League Two offers three automatic passages into League One – with the final, vague hope of ascent coming via a six-team playoff system. Whether or not this is a tool designed to preserve the country’s Football League elite, it does mean that hoarding better (and often pricier) players can give a club an extra edge.
“Now that they’re at the bottleneck of the National League, where only the champions get promoted automatically into the Football League, they want to get out of it straight away,” Narey added. “So (Salford City) have gone out there and been spending above the means of what is needed in this league.”
The desperation to secure automatic promotion rather than become embroiled in an exhaustive and likely fruitless clamber through the playoffs, and the growing number of entrepreneurs testing themselves in less fashionable football settings, make an encounter with a heavy hitter inevitable in almost every non-league division. If it’s not Salford, it’s Billericay Town, AFC Fylde, or Harrogate Town splurging cash. Fleetwood Town and Forest Green Rovers have already spent their way into the EFL.
“If the table was turned they’d welcome it. It’s just not happening to their club,” Nash noted of those who besmirch Salford.
Keighren, who is helping drag Stockport from the gutter after years of backroom mismanagement, agrees: “Do I look at Salford sometimes and feel a bit jealous? Well, yeah, of course.”
Lasting imprint on the lower rungs
Salford City’s focus on youth development may become a prominent and lasting legacy of the club’s identity under the Class of ’92. The substantial transfer fees and wages laid down for players like Adam Rooney, Danny Lloyd, Chris Neal, Nathan Pond, and Rory Gaffney overshadow some of the club’s work with aspiring, young footballers north of the River Irwell. Chris Casper, another former Manchester United player, currently serves as Salford’s sporting director, and he recognizes parallels between the approaches of his former and current employers.
“Over the last year, eight or nine lads from our academy have made their senior debuts. … I am excited about our youth development programme, and it is one of the reasons why I took on this job,” Casper told Planet Football in August.
“We are developing youth players, and giving young people an opportunity, just like we had at United.”
And Salford City’s comprehensive outlook is startling some clubs out of inactivity. About 19 miles south of the Peninsula Stadium, Altrincham are devising ways to not only protect their existence, but to improve.
Getting punters through the turnstiles is the most basic requirement, so the club committed to showcasing entertaining football at Moss Lane. Rob Esteva, the director of football operations at Altrincham, claims the team’s attack-minded approach has attracted fans of Manchester City, Manchester United, and even the Manchester Storm, the local Elite Ice Hockey League outfit.
Of course, Alty still need to accumulate points. So, in their bid to function more professionally while still operating as a part-time club, they have brought fitness to the core of the squad’s values. Esteva believes Altrincham’s players are among the fittest in the National League North due to the use of GPS vests and sophisticated tracking data – the latter of which he believes no other club in the division has access to. The technology is attainable through his role as managing director of The Stats Zone, a firm based in Salford’s MediaCityUK.
“We’re trying to make sure we’ve got edges in other areas which don’t just come down to money,” Esteva said. “If it did just come down to money, Leicester would never have won the Premier League.”
Esteva is not threatened by the hustle of football in the northwest, either. He considers the fervent support of FC United of Manchester and the relative proximity of other National League North clubs like Stockport County, Curzon Ashton, Ashton United, Chorley, and Chester FC as positives.
“Building rivalries with teams like that can only benefit us, I think,” Esteva said. “It should lead to bigger attendances. If we get promoted to the National League, there’s a good chance our attendances wouldn’t go up because there’s not as many northern teams in that division and we do rely on other teams bringing a good number of fans as well.”
Altrincham created a quality product on very little cash. Some of that is due to Esteva, who’s gained expertise from serving on the board of Brentford and running his company, but much of it can be credited to the need to stand out in a region infatuated with and well-serviced by football. Though Salford City’s ambition has caused outrage, some of those willing to take inspiration – and salvage the discards – are reaping the benefits.
“We’ve signed several players from Salford City and they’ve done very well for us,” Esteva said. “I guess, from our perspective, if they keep growing and moving on, hopefully, we’ll be able to sign players from them.”