Friday 23 August 2019

Class shines through in standards of Salford's famous five

Gary Neville is one of the player's from Manchester United's 'Class of '92'
Gary Neville is one of the player's from Manchester United's 'Class of '92'

Tommy Conlon

In the end there is always something missing, even among men who seem to have everything. The famous Manchester United 'Class of '92' saw it all, did it all, had it all. Beckham, Giggs, Butt, Scholes, Neville and Neville joined Old Trafford as boys and finished as champions, legends, multi-millionaires.

But when it was all over, they found that the void was waiting for them too. They'd banished it for years through the constant addiction of the next match, the ceaseless dramas, the manic hunt for trophies; they'd flooded it with a torrent of adrenaline and buried it out of sight.

Then, of course, the tap was switched off. The flood evaporated and there it was, where it always had been: the chasm that could no longer be ignored.

"If you've had something that's so good," says Gary Neville, "like standing in that tunnel walking out in front of 75,000 people, you've got to fill that hole with something. And it better be good - because that was good."

So, minus Beckham, they bought a football club. In the summer of 2014 they took over Salford City FC, an amateur club in the Manchester area, plying its trade in a league officially known as the Evo-Stik First Division North.

The BBC made a two-part documentary on their first season in charge. The second instalment went out last Thursday, 24 hours before Salford beat Notts County in the first round proper of the FA Cup.

It turned out to be a heart-warming tale, with the Neville brothers, in particular, coming across as thoroughly likeable blokes.

Their decision to buy a tiny grassroots club could be interpreted as five privileged football men looking to re-connect with the game's soul; or indeed looking to find their own soul again after a lifetime spent in the palaces of the Premier League.

But it soon becomes abundantly clear that they hadn't lost that soul in the first place. They were clearly comfortable among the blue-collar volunteers who'd kept the club going, hand to mouth, over many years. They were among their own people. They seemed to relish the authenticity of their new circumstance.

It helped explain, too, why they'd been so relentlessly successful during their time at the fabulous end of the game. These were plainly intelligent, self-aware, grounded sportsmen. They'd had the discipline and work ethic and basic cop-on needed to stay at the top year after year.

In fact this story was another reminder that those who lack the humility, the proverbial 'big-time Charlies', are often found not at the elite end of a sport, but much further down the pyramid. They might've had the talent but they were missing a basic level of personal maturity. True to form, the big-time Charlies at Salford weren't the famous five who'd bought the place, but a few resident players with delusions of their own greatness.

Naturally, the new owners triggered some alarms among the faithful. "These ex-players are hard-nosed businessmen," declared a local reporter. "You expect it at a Premier League club where you get some bloody Russian oligarch, you don't expect it at little Salford City. As far as I'm concerned it's arrogance, it's Premiership arrogance."

But in reality it wasn't a clash of cultures between the haves and have-nots; it was a clash of standards. The Class of '92 had been hardened on the anvil of high-class professional football. They immediately demanded better facilities, better attitudes, better performances - better everything.

As owners they tried to maintain boundaries; they were conscious of keeping a respectful distance from the manager despite their vast store of knowledge and experience. Then last January they sacked him. It wasn't done on a whim; they'd taken soundings and weighed it up. But once the decision was made, it was done as nonchalantly as ordering a pizza; nothing personal involved.

A new managerial duo took over, one a "ceiling fixer", the other an ex-soldier, and they promptly got rid of ten players. Phil Neville emerges from the film as a very nice man. But he's been indoctrinated into the game's casual cruelness too. Non-league football, he says, is even worse in some ways than the pro game, where players at least have the safety net of a contract.

But in non-league, "you can cut people off. If you don't play them, you don't pay them. You don't have to give them contracts. There's no security whatsoever. Unless you've got a contract, you're just a piece of meat."

Then he goes home and helps his 12-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, do her physical exercises with a paternal solicitude that is genuinely moving.

The Class of '92 have big ambitions for Salford City. Last April the club won its division and got promoted. These are players who touched the heavens during their own glory days, yet it was striking to see how immersed they became in a team that couldn't remotely compare. The actual standard of play at Moor Lane didn't seem to diminish their emotional commitment at all.

Nor had it ever bothered the club's hardcore volunteers. Because, of course, it's not really about brilliance on the field, or promotion, or even progress; it's about belonging to something, sharing a cause, finding a like-minded community.

And now they're sharing it with five rich former footballers who are finding consolation, too, in a level of the game more accustomed to the support of one man and his dog.

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