Saturday 19 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Pity others don't emulate Salford Six and put their money back into game that made them'

Former footballer David Beckham. Photo: Getty
Former footballer David Beckham. Photo: Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

David Beckham's decision to buy 10 per cent of Salford City is significant because it means the former Manchester United players involved with the club are now, taken together, majority shareholders. Beckham joins his old team-mates, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville at City.

So much emphasis has been placed on the old boys' reunion aspect of the Salford story that it's easy to miss what's happened on the pitch in the five years since the story began. Scholes, Giggs et al, along with Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, who also owns La Liga club Valencia, took over a club which had spent most of its 74-year existence in the lower reaches of non-league football.

Salford began the 2014-'15 season in Northern Premier League Division One North, three flights below the Football League. They'd only been there for five years and never finished higher than eleventh. Yet in the four seasons since then the club has won that division, been promoted from the Northern Premier League and won National League North.

Now they lie third in the National League, just one point behind leaders Leyton Orient. Winning the league would guarantee a place in the Football League proper as would a victory in the play-offs between the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-placed sides. Few non-league teams have enjoyed such a meteoric rise.

So far so fairytale you might think. Well, not quite. While Salford fans are obviously delighted, those of the clubs City have vanquished on their way up are not so happy. There are bitter accusations that the new kid on the block has been buying their way to success.

This is a recurrent theme in non-league football which I can remember from my own days covering the game there as a youngster. Clubs like Colne Dynamoes or Wivenhoe Town would emerge from obscurity and rise quickly through the pyramid before it all went pear-shaped. One memorable ascent was that of Fisher Athletic, based in the South London docks and allegedly owned at one point by figures from the world of organised crime.

The envious complaint of those left behind would be that those involved were spending "silly money," and that it would all end in tears. It usually did, the classic example being Rushden and Diamonds, funded by the lad who owned the Doc Martens shoe company, who rocketed into the league within a decade of being founded before becoming extinct even more quickly.

Will things be different for the team from the place about which native son Ewan MacColl wrote Dirty Old Town? I think so. Unlike some of those who've funded non-league clubs in the past, Salford's owners are unlikely to see the club as a vanity project which can be abandoned if the business climate turns bad. We know where their money comes from and, contrary to what Liverpool fans would tell you, playing for Manchester United doesn't constitute involvement in organised crime.

While I sympathise with the fans of the likes of Workington and Brackley Town who've seen their hopes dashed by the ascent of Salford, the fact is that money has always talked in professional football. This being the case I'd prefer to see it speaking in the voice of former players than that of plutocrats. The Salford Six have made their money in a manner which is remarkably honest and transparent compared to many club owners.

They could, after all, have invested their money in property or stocks or any of the other areas which I'm sure their accountants suggested would be a much wiser punt than a football club. Instead they've put something back into the game which gave them so much. And it surely must be a relief for managers, players and supporters to have people running the club who actually know what the game is all about. The money injected into Salford partly accounts for the club's remarkable rise but the expertise garnered by the owners during their own days in the game must also be a great help to operations.

It would be a much better football world if more former greats did the same thing and replaced the legion of corporate hacks and hatchet men infesting the game. Salford can point the way for others to follow.

On taking over the club in 2014 Giggs said the aim was Championship football within 15 years. It sounded a bit optimistic then. It sounds a bit pessimistic now.

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