On a Tuesday late afternoon outside Salford City’s stadium, awaiting the visit of Hartlepool United, the backdrop has changed more than the people. Tony Sheldon, an impish 79-year-old, is getting ready to sell his football shirts, scarves, pins and matchday programmes, even if the shirts are now red instead of the old tangerine. The no-nonsense Barbara Gaskill, in a black apron with ‘Babs’ inscribed on it, is still getting her burgers and hot dogs ready, just like she has for the past 28 years.
Standing outside her stall for a cigarette break, Babs waves to white-haired long-term president Dave Russell and chairman Karen Baird as they wander past. A few minutes later, the tracksuited Adam Rooney, Salford City’s new star striker, saunters in the other direction towards the changing rooms, making a gesture towards Babs’ cheeseburgers, like a French chef sniffing a Coq Au Vin. “You wish, love,” she says.
For all the cosiness, though, you only have to look around to see that things have changed at Salford City, the local football club in a quiet suburb west of Manchester’s city centre. The shiny new, 5,000-capacity stadium has been renamed as the Peninsula Stadium (it used to be just Moor Lane), and the back of the west stand is daubed with slogans, like “The Welfare of The People is the Highest Law.” Babs and Tony now work in trendy converted shipping containers in a ‘Fanzone’ where you can also buy Grandad’s gourmet hot dogs or Salford Seven Brothers craft beer.
This is a new era at Salford City, as re-imagined by five members of the Class of 92, that now-legendary group of young guns who appeared from the Manchester United academy at the dawn of professional football to form the backbone of the most successful period in the club’s history. The five Manchester-born former stars — Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt — took over ownership of Salford City in 2014 (the other main player, London-born David Beckham, is currently launching his own team, Inter Miami CF). Each has a ten per cent stake in the club, with the other half owned by Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, a silent partner.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride since 2014, documented with fly-on-the-wall honesty in the Class of 92 miniseries, which has covered three football seasons from 2014 to 2017. The most recent, Class of 92: Full Time, shows the club transitioning from non-league amateurs to full-time professionals in the 2016/2017 season, all while building the new stadium and installing a youth academy, Academy 92.
As with previous seasons, there are plenty of dressing-room bust-ups, led by volatile joint managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley. The five chairmen somehow manage to come across as both fiercely driven, and like five old mates trying to learn from their mistakes as they go. It’s a good watch.
Yet what I see this Tuesday night seems altogether more professional than the rollercoaster early seasons shown on the Class of 92 documentaries. After three promotions in four years, the club are now the bookies’ favourites in the Vanarama National League, the highest division outside the English Football League. In the summer, Johnson and Morley were replaced by Graham Alexander, who played Premier League football for Burnley and previously managed Scunthorpe United. I watch his team of full-time pros dismantle rivals Hartlepool United 3-0, with goals from Rooney and Danny Lloyd, who were signed from Aberdeen and Peterborough United respectively.
At half-time I meet Rick Kedzior, a fan who has only missed two games, home or away, since 2007, and has seen attendances here grow from a hundred or so to 3,595 for a recent game against Chesterfield.
“I remember when we heard about the takeover, there were a lot of raised eyebrows,” he says. “But Gary Neville came down and explained it all to us in real detail, and listened to what we had to say. Some people didn’t like the colour change, and have drifted away, but I think most people saw they were in it for the right reasons. They have kept the committee that was there before, and have looked after all the people who were here before. For example, my season ticket still only costs 30 quid.”
I think most people saw they were at the club for the right reasons… they have looked after all the people who were here before the takeover.
If these chairmen aren’t running Salford City like the Glazers, the Manchester United owners that Scholes and Gary Neville have criticised recently, they have installed things that aren’t normally seen outside the Football League: recovery pools, strict nutrition programmes, a sports scientist, a state-of-the-art team bus. “I’ve been at clubs at higher levels that are way less professional,” says striker Rooney after the game, while his young son kicks balls into an empty net . On another side of the pitch, Alexander is giving the kind of quotidian matchday quotes to the club’s in-house TV station that I remember from my days reporting on Championship football.
The Class of 92 mean business, literally — and it’s not just at Salford City. Over my few days in Manchester I stay at Hotel Football, next to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, which is just one of their many business ventures. Opened in 2015, it’s a little like its owners: slick, ambitious but with touches of personality and warmth.
In the Man United Supporters Club bar downstairs, there’s a little stage in the corner reserved for Mr Miyagi, the famously dapper United fan, known for his pre-match singing. On the top floor, there’s a five-a-side football pitch, with a hastily-installed net after their first kick-about, when Ryan Giggs hit three balls into the streets below. At the ground-floor Cafe Football, which also has branches in central Manchester and east London, you can get a ‘Nicky Butty’ club sandwich. In my room, 692, the walls are covered with quotes about Scholes and Giggs, while the minibar is filled with Seven Brothers beer, Space Raider crisps, Fizz Wizzes, Drumsticks and cans of Vimto.
Salford City and Hotel Football, which the team want to roll out near stadiums in other cities, are just the start of the Class of 92 empire, which is set to include a university course and a charitable foundation (see sidebar), all under the umbrella of a group called Project 92.
On top of all that, GG Hospitality, run by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, is busily redeveloping parts of Manchester, including an opinion-dividing GBP200 million plan to build a honeycomb glass skyscraper in the centre of town, and a redevelopment of the old Manchester Stock Exchange, which will open as a 41-room boutique hotel with a high-end restaurant in the spring of 2019.
The one who seems to be involved with it all is Gary Neville. During his playing days, his nickname was ‘Busy’, and he was quietly starting businesses and sitting on company boards by his mid-20s, trying to hide his business calls from Sir Alex Ferguson. He currently sits on more than 30 company boards, and his investments run from digital design agency E3 Creative (who run the slick Salford City website) to The Rabbit in the Moon, a flashy restaurant in the same building as Manchester’s National Football Museum. All the while, he’s become arguably Britain’s favourite football pundit for his work on Sky Sports. Still busy, then.
The morning after the Salford game, he’s been in Ireland playing in a testimonial match, and I call him up in a rare break between meetings. “I’ve been hooked on business since I developed my first house at 22, and have just gone for it ever since,” he says. “I always thought it was madness that a footballer would go home after training and just do nothing.”
I’ve been hooked on business since I developed my first house at 22. I always thought it was madness that a footballer would go home after training and just do nothing.
Neville admits that the range of his business interests can be exhausting. “About 18 months ago, I realised that something had to change,” he says. “I had taken on too much, and it was chaos. The key since then has been getting the best people to run the various businesses. With the university or the Stock Exchange project, we’ve got real industry leaders running things, and I’ve tried to step back.”
His biggest passion, though, is Salford City. “It’s the one business that’s not a business, in a way,” he says. “We are trying to put everything in place to make the club a success, but the beauty of football is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Like all the lads, I’m always thinking about ways we can do things better. And whilst we can’t get involved with decisions about the team, we kick every ball and feel the joy and frustration that any fan does.”
The docuseries was Neville’s idea. “It’s always been the plan that the club would be transparent,” he says. “It was important that the programme felt real, that it wasn’t just some piece of propaganda. I think that’s why people responded to it.”
Certainly, Neville and his Class of 92 cohorts aren’t shying away from the limelight. All of their projects will continue to play out under the full glare of public scrutiny, with a dose of scepticism guaranteed. But Neville is used to that. “The big thing we learned at Man United is accountability,” he says. “If you made a mistake, you put your hand up, and I think all the lads share that honesty. Ultimately, we’re doing all these things in the city we all love, and which gave us everything. Of course we’re responsible, and we should be.”