Formed, oddly, all the way back in 1940, Salford Central FC, now Salford City FC, surely couldn’t have ever imagined that by 2016, they would be owned by a consortium of five former world-leading prodigious talents, who, raised from within the city walls, would’ve gone on to represent both Manchester United and England during their careers. On that basis, you’d also have to think that they never considered the prospect that, alongside this consortium, the other 50% of the club would belong to a Singaporean billionaire. But it’s funny how life turns out sometimes.
Funny for some, maybe. But when you are on the losing end of this side’s incomparable financial might in the Conference North, or rather Vanarama National League North in its new guise, you might not feel so joyous. In fact, you might even feel more than a little peeved that, going against the grain of accepted English non-league club etiquette; this club has transformed itself from ninth-tier, practically amateur, nobodies, into cash-stuffed, ravenous business beasts, willing, under a new badge, kit, and soon enough ground, to ruthlessly buy their way up the pyramid, currently having reached the sixth tier in the matter of a decade. Two of these promotions have come consecutively under the financial stewardship of Messrs Neville, Neville, Butt, Giggs, Scholes and Lim (Gary, Phil, Nicky, Ryan, Paul and Peter), proving no coincidence in the pattern between funds and success.
If these same owners, however, are to reach the target Giggs very publicly set for the club back in 2014, to reach the Championship in the first 15 years of their reign, they will have to see another four, at best, unlikely, promotions in the space, now, of about 12 and a half seasons, with a play-off push their best hope for this season, the club’s first in such a lofty division in its 76-year history. Three consecutive promotions is something unheard of in such an infamously competitive setting as the English non-league sectors, but it would be no secret that if they did achieve it, the praise would lay at the feet of those who bankrolled such efforts, however much such credible pundits and failed coaches/managers as the ‘Class of ’92’, would like to deflect it. It is also well-publicised that they have drastically shaken up the previously small-scale industry of semi-professional football, rapidly exchanging the glass half-empty disposition of the much-maligned but loyal band of a few hundred supporters and tired, yet loved, identity of the club with a high-energy, cash-fuelled, wide scale investment in running each and every area of the club. In doing so, they have formed what is considerably now the most developed set of facilities, footballing or otherwise, in the whole of the non-league scene. Sustainable? It remains to be seen. Risky? Most certainly. A business plan that could shape the future of the way football is run, especially in the lower leagues? Depending on how you view it, of course, but not without its after-effects…
Hold up for a minute though. This is by no means an original concept in the fabric of global football. While in our distorted view in the UK, we may see Salford as a one-off in a landscape of die-hard, if outdated, advocates of the proven plan of small-time, local investment, a hit and hope tactic of build it and they will come. Open your eyes, however, to the world around us, and I’m sure you would’ve read in detail the stories of RB Leipzig in Germany right now, rightfully or wrongfully tarnished by many as an evil force in what, in vast quantities, is otherwise a truly heart-warming tale of German football, a hipster in a world of ruthless commercialism. It is by no means a dramatic jump to make the link between Leipzig, alongside what are effectively sister clubs in Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls, and Salford, despite their dramatic contrast in facilities. The main difference, obviously, is that the trio of Red Bull’s products are headed by a global corporation, not by a collection of reputable, but inexperienced in a business sense, ex-footballers, who have blind ambition, and rely mainly upon a priceless business associate in the one-man brand, Peter Lim.
Franchising techniques are not rare at all in the game outside of Europe though. Well, that depends on your definition of franchising I suppose, as if you prefer the concept that franchise clubs are those which are bought up by big businessmen, rebranded and run to serve as the sole property, and cash cows, of these same magnates, then you’re my kind of person – because that’s what I’m going with here. These are the targets of yet another rant. A different style of rant, I hope though.
So, we’re talking effectively the entirety of the MLS and the Chinese Super League, the representative biggest leagues for the two largest economies in the world, where the capitalists ideals – witnessed arguably more in the latter in this stage of its rapidly developing economy – in the national psyche are displayed more plainly than possibly anywhere else in their respective societies. Maybe this could’ve been implemented by their in-depth study of English football, of owners such as the Allams at Hull – or Hull Tigers as he would’ve had them known -, the Venky’s at Blackburn or Mike Ashley at Newcastle, all three of whom have forced their own agendas and businesses down the throats of both the clubs and their fans, often coming off worse as the repercussions gape. The way in which the MLS is run, confusing and ingenious in equal parts, means that while every club is effectively the property of the league, each of the 20 have individual ‘investor-operators’, usually the owner of a significant national or international business with the funds to bankroll a certain team to success. This money isn’t pumped into the wage budget though – as every side has to follow the same salary caps -, but into off field actions, which shore up finances into transfer coffers for designated overseas players, and for playing chips in the common occurrence of trade deals with other sides in the league, which could be for players or for draft positions.
These financial advantages are vital for success in such a tightly competitive league system, with the ‘investor-operators’ and their business prowess to thank for any potential deposits into trophy cabinets that a club might experience, proving a similar tale to European football in just how immoral you have to be to see success. Is this really a stark contrast to your average football club ownership though? This is what I’m struggling with at the moment. Being, at the end of the line, owned by the MLS itself, its clubs possibly aren’t the true definition of franchises, but when some have titles including ‘Earthquakes’, ‘Galaxy’, ‘Whitecaps’ and ‘Dynamo’, it’s hard to deny they are brands, selling an image to consumers, a large part of that belonging to the ‘investor-operators’ who run them. With China, it appears much clearer, as each club, with the help of state-backed enterprises, real estate companies and retail corporations, can stump up unprecedented fees in order to secure the services of what are largely Brazilian stars at the moment, aiding both the businesses investing, as it increases their presence and notoriety, and the nation’s footballing prowess, as they learn from some of the best. (That said, some of the football played by these sides is absolutely shocking, and not in a good way.)
What does this have to do with Salford though? Through the way I view their actions, as loaded investors picking up a deflated and arguably underachieving club, especially considering their catchment area – with a population of over 240,000, if we’re talking about the City of Salford rather than the town itself – higher in numbers than Barnsley, Portsmouth, Swindon and Reading for example, they are participating in the global swooping action of franchising clubs in order to gain financial success. While all five ex-players are true Salford fans, who have a right to their club as anyone else in the same area does, it does not give them the mandate to run that same club as dictatorial masterminds, with the blind ambition to inject incomparable doses of cash into the club’s coffers, hope everyone is sweetened by this, and announce their intention of being on the precipices of the Premier League within less than two decades. For me, that is not the way to run a football club at that level. That is why it has never been done before – at least on quite this scale – to any extent in the extensive entirety of non-league football.
Is it because, even though as individuals they only own a fifth of what invisible, if ghostly, presence at the club, Peter Lim does, the Class of ’92 stand out there on the terraces with the fans, have local accents and have the footballing expertise to run the shop, that fans, as well as the wider game, trust them? If you ask me, especially considering the evidence presented by the BBC’s peculiar social documentary-turned-personal tribute to such legends in their playing days at Manchester United; Class of ’92: Out Of Their League, I would argue it is. It’s a difficult subject to gauge, as they are proper Salford fans, and as a result are relatable, if *a little* less than the usual fan, considering their celebrity status, to those who have supported the club for decades, and less importantly, those floating fans who have started visiting since (I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who spotted Andy Tate on the last episode of Series 2). If they were from overseas, or outside the parish, like Lim, you can be sure they would be forced out by fans within a matter of years unless they had the unbelievable, bordering on farcical, stickability of a Mike Ashley, a Roland Duchatelet or a Karl Oyston.
While this documentary did cover the controversy of the move on the part of the Class of ’92, as well as their continuing assertions of true devotion to the cause and heart of the club throughout the two series of two episodes each, I personally feel it didn’t quite press them as much as it could in terms of discovering if they felt ethically they were doing the right thing. Sure, the programmes skirted around the edges of this, and maybe it was the wrong time and environment in which to query such challenging journalistic observations, but I felt had they gone past the frilly edges, that of the other side of the club – the volunteers who remain and the management team and players who are under heavy burdens to achieve – they could’ve raised some serious points within the game, and sport as a whole. Admittedly, those frilly edges were important in order to clarify the scale of the famous fivesome’s tide of alterations, and how there has to be a balance between the accepted non-league processes of volunteering and the higher-tiered methods of hefty cash injections, but I just felt it was all a little light – a diet version of what could be achieved as a documentary, providing it wasn’t operated by the BBC – who have the unenviable task of demonstrating impartiality at all times.
This is all so directly linked to franchising ‘evils’ because in order to grow to the levels Giggs, and presumably Scholes, Butt and the Neville’s (or Mitchell brothers as Chris Sutton would refer to them), would expect and target by 2029, they will have to uncover a source of direct, sustainable revenue, not their own pockets then, in order to help them survive at such a competitive stage as the Championship. In reality, if they were to reach and survive at a level where likely, by the time 2029 rolls around, each team will have their playing squads, management teams and boards fleshed out by overseas talent on serious amounts of cash, they would have to equip the club as a serious business, with a sponsored stadium name, high-profile shirt sponsors and providers, as well as recruiting a whole new generation of fans to fill the gates required. How do they do this? Well the easiest option is to franchise the club, merge it into a part-business, part-sporting titan by stripping it of most of its identity, replacing it with the cash of investor-operators, as the MLS likes to have them known, themselves and Lim in this case, who fund the club and promote themselves at the same time, in a self-fulfilling cycle. For this business partnership, their billions would be made through the number of Manchester flats, hotels and restaurants they currently, and will in future, own, very profitably, and reinvest into the club, if they do want success on such a stage at least.
I suppose though; the main issue here is whether, by leading such an unprecedented cause at this level of the game, the Class of ’92 (minus David Beckham, he who is well-publicised to be in the process of launching his own franchise club in Miami) are doing the community around the club, a service, or a disservice. Are they adding to the local identity and unity by pumping money in for the sole purpose of reaching lofty, financially rewarding heights, or are they dividing opinion in a dangerous, selfish and ill-though-out race against time to burn as much money in pursuit of foolish sporting objectives? That’s for you, and more pressingly the people of Salford to decide, really, although if it was me deciding where I stand, I do have to admit it is difficult. Do you sit in the past, happily bobbing along in the depths of non-league football, knowing full well that if your owners were of such a calibre, you could live up to the arguably deserved ambitions of not just professional, but almost Premier League level football, or do you take the leap, despite the painful risks you see clearly ahead? I’ll be honest, my opinions have altered slightly over this writing process, as I started out a complete cynic; bluntly derogatory of the ways of these ex-footballers and billionaires, but over time, research and consideration, I have to say, the temptation of the latter option is, in cases such as Salford’s, irrepressible. Despite my ways as a hardy supporter at Ringmer FC and Lewes FC over my short time on this earth, my battle-hardened experiences, witnessing only lows in my era as a supporter of both clubs, have been challenged at points by the careless, offhand ponderings of what actual promotion pushes would be like, as I imagine have those of the aforementioned Salford supporters, few in numbers but plentiful in experience.
If anything, it is my time spent on Football Manager ’12 to ’17 that has made me so inquisitive of what life as a fan would be like in such circumstances. Perhaps it is no coincidence, that, partly inspired by DoctorBenjyFM’s (a YouTuber you must check out, trust me he’s fantastic) Salford Story save in FM16, I, at this very point in time – maybe even as you are reading this – am in charge of Salford. I know, I may seem hypocritical after all I’ve said throughout this, what, 2,500 word blog (so far), but this is Football Manager. Let me assure you, I have not achieved what Giggseh wants from me yet (in fact I’m currently fighting off relegation in the Vanarama National League in the 2017/18 season), but I aspire to reach the Premier League at least in this save.
Maybe it’s a little experiment of a save, maybe I chose it because I felt Salford were the best bet, with the biggest budget, to achieve such goals (I was also considering Eastbourne Borough and FC United of Manchester before I started the save), or maybe it was just a split-second decision, but it’s irrefutable that it is easy to turn to sides like Salford in FM because their resources are so vast compared to their competitors. If there’s one thing that we can take from that, it’s that the Class of ’92 are arguably running their club like a Football Manager board, who just inject hundreds of thousands of pounds into the accounts to allow the club to remain debt-free, as throughout my save, I have been making monthly losses of around £20,000, despite the fact I am using less than the maximum wage budget, as there simply isn’t enough gate income. DoctorBenjy discovered this too, as during the early stretches of his save, he often lamented and poked fun at the lack of fans in the generically generated ground graphics. But this isn’t a joke. This is the livelihood of such a community-centred club that we are talking about here, that before the high-profile investment of 2014, survived just fine on low running costs, but now enjoys regular financial top-ups, at least if you believe the projections and predictions of reality that FM makes. It is supposedly the best simulator of footballing reality, if that’s worth anything.
We may never truly know what goes on behind the scenes at Salford City though, despite the highly-edited, short snippets of interviews with each shareholder we receive in the BBC’s coverage of the side. Their impartiality may never allow the vital facts and figures to come out, but if the rest of the footballing, and local, press, took more of a prolonged interest in the side, and the unique present and future it has before it, then I feel the factual aspects to this debate could be clarified further, as trusting one source, there seems to be a fair share of oppositions to the plans at the club, notably in the planning permission consultations Neville and Scholes had with local residents earlier this week. It is only fair to have concerns about traffic and litter in the local environment – but through my rose-tinted glasses as a football fan, focusing on the socio-sporting impacts, I worry about the sustainability of the idea, both in a footballing and economic sense. This does admittedly partly include how the city will deal with such a rapid improvement to their local side, and the baggage that comes with it, such as having to expand grounds and attract more fans. Is Salford going to be ready for a Championship-standard club by 2029? More to the point; is Salford City going to be that Championship-standard side by that point? Personally, I doubt it. But Alan Hansen doubted the Class of ’92, and look what that did for him.
Alongside them now, they do have Lim though. He is an unknown quality, if obviously a massive benefit as not only the 854th richest billionaire on the planet according to Forbes, but also as a vital business head, who will know inside-out how to deal with the disapproving public and how to plan out such a meteoric shift in performance and stage. Personally, I don’t feel they can reach that main aim by the required time frame, especially if the FA imposes the suggestions I have made in the past about FFP in Leagues One and Two, rather than just relying on clubs falling into administration to let the issue to sort itself out.
For Salford, their story can surely only go one of three ways; go swimmingly, achieving everything they aim for by 2029, go terribly, falling into debt in the event of Lim’s exit and accepting administration at a professional level, or move, if football was morally correct, patiently, breaking into the Football League at least by that point and passing what should hopefully be FFP rulings by that point. If anything, the latter is most unrealistic at this point in time, unfortunately. Maybe not so for Salford, as their adventure could now go one of two ways, whichever one it turns out to be then going on to dramatically change the face of English non-league football. Who knows, we might even see this brand of diet franchising flourishing on this scale if all goes well in the Ammies’ case. I for one though, would hope that justice is served to all clubs, as I don’t want to see the type of football I love blemished by a band of merry, financially affluent ex-players with their eyes far above this level. If they don’t care for it, why should we care for them? As ever though, I doubt justice will ever be the dish served at football’s establishment.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!