How Salford City and the Class of ‘92 altered perceptions in this ‘dirty old town’ - (2021)
There he stood in a corner of the ground, the Salford Warhol in a beanie hat. Paying tribute to the astonishing transformation of his home town club, Charlatans front man Tim Burgess chose Salford City’s Peninsula Stadium to push his Bands FC initiative, a funky project aimed at bringing together through the trading of badges and Panini-style cards the related communities of pop and footie.
I’ll bet you every sticker in your album the Class of '92 would arrive at the Cliff with ‘The Only One I Know’ filling their XR2 speakers. While Burgess remains resolutely faithful to his pop identity, his great chum and Class of '92 grandee Gary Neville has shifted through the gears from professional sixth former to footballing entrepreneur. And a fine job he is doing of altering perceptions in this ‘dirty old town’.
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By mid-November the concrete foundations of Salford’s new changing rooms and clubhouse bar were just visible from club secretary Andy Giblin’s temporary office at the far side of the stadium. The club will cut the ribbon on the final phase of their Moor Lane redevelopment on March 31 delivering a pristine palazzo fit for purpose in the Football League, a future towards which they are galloping at a mighty lick.
The Salford revamp is more rebuild than makeover. The minimalist, red wall sweep of the Main Stand reception reminds this old soldier of an aspiring Seventies nightclub trying to appeal to a broader, more cosmopolitan clientele. Only the chrome and mirrors around the dancefloor are missing. Perhaps they are coming. The anthracite and smoked glass interiors of the executive suites maintain that urban cool vibe.
The sense of rapid upward movement is disturbed only by the slow gait of committee members nursing pints as they make their way along the corridor that runs the length of the stand. The presence of the old guard is significant since it maintains continuity and ensures that something of the past is retained. Props to Neville and his '92 cohort for recognising the importance of that.
My host for the visit of Aldershot in the Conference Premier is Frank McCauley, the club’s former secretary and committee member of 34 years. His first committee meeting was the 1984 AGM. “The meeting took place in the front room of the chairman's house. There were five of us there, including the manager and his assistant. The balance sheet read income zero, expenditure zero. The chairman paid for entry fees into the league out of his own pocket and we were using last season's kit. It was hand to mouth.”
Frank was squinting as he spoke, the winter sun pouring in over over the Nevile Road [coincidence] Stand, the last to be completed before Sir Alex Ferguson gave the stadium its formal birthing in November last year. Every day is a sunny day at Salford under the new ownership. As we spoke a member of the coaching staff passed by carrying fruit to the changing rooms, sliced watermelon and bananas. “If there are any of those bananas leftover, bring them back over here would you,” Frank gently advises, still governed by the parsimony of former regimes.
We are now in the epoch of four grand-a-week strikers at Salford, at least according to mischief makers envious of the leaps made since the takeover was completed in February of 2014. Frank laughs off the exotic figure. “I wouldn’t know, but I’d be very surprised,” he said, echoing Neville’s dismissals of the pay packet awarded to Adam Rooney on his summer arrival from Scottish Premier League royalty Aberdeen.
Whatever they are paying the Irishman he is worth every nickel, and he is joined now by Matt Green, another penalty box predator signed from League Two Lincoln City echoing the power play of a decade ago when, following promotion to the eighth tier of English football, the Northern Premier League, the wage bill temporarily rocketed to £1,200 a week, including management.
Salford City's great escape
“We were really struggling,” recalled Frank. “Back in the Seventies we were one of the strongest amateur sides in Lancashire, but as a semi-pro club we found it harder. We had the odd good season and in 2008 we got promoted. The following season we were 16 points behind the second bottom side in February. We splashed out on a centre forward [Steve Foster from Fleetwood]. The first game he played we won 5-1. He scored all five. We stayed up with a 5-2 win at Garforth Town in the last game of the season. The great escape.”
The club had reached its natural elevation surviving entirely on the good will of volunteers. And then, five years ago, an incoming phone call by a friend of the club who knew the Neville syndicate changed the game. “We agreed to the Class of '92 because we knew we had done well to get the club to where it was but we could not go any further. The season before they came the average attendance was 130. If you didn't know everyone at least you were on nodding terms. If someone didn’t turn up to a game you wondered what might be up with them. Now we are averaging 2,400, sold close to 1,000 season tickets.”
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Frank recalls how when the first contact was made it was thought to be about sponsorship, but very quickly it became clear something else was afoot. “The first meetings took place before Christmas 2013. When they brought it back to the committee at first some members were not so sure. After a few more meetings the deal was signed. And they have done what they said they would do. Their intentions were to redevelop the ground, raise attendances, improve the pitch. Promotion was essential. I don't think they planned on a second the following season. They got it and that pushed the development forward.”
Gary on the line
Neville G is the principal pilot of the Salford starship, the class member seen most about the club on matchdays and point of contact for the administration. The first texts assaulting chairman Karen Baird’s phone can come as early as 5am if he is so minded. “All members of the committee had individual meetings with Gary,” Frank said. “He said there would be a role for us as long as we wanted to stay involved. He has his master plan so we have to fit in with that. But he is very friendly. He might not know everyone’s first name but he knows quite a few.”
There were a few dissenters with a retro sense of belonging who could not bear the changes. “When we changed strip to red from tangerine some thought we were losing our tradition. Some lads didn't want to support a team in red because they were Man City supporters. Others thought the ethos of being non-league would be gone.” Frank chuckles now at those earnest folk attachments. “This is dreamland compared to what we had, Leyton Orient first game of season live on BT Sport. I remember when it was a struggle getting a match report in the Salford Advertiser. If we sent 150 words it would be cut down to 70 when it went in.
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“I don't care what people say. You walk around the city and there are kids in Salford shirts. Over and above what they have done for the football club this has been a fantastic experience for the city of Salford. Ask school kids where the town hall is they would say Albert Square. They didn't realise Salford had its own town hall in Swinton. The positive publicity has put Salford in a different light.”
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