What can the Class of 92 teach us about modern football owners?
The BBC’s two-part documentary on the Class of ’92’s foray into football ownership at Salford City has been an eye-opener to say the least.
What comes across clearly in the documentary is that the group of ex-Manchester United players – Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt – came into the endeavour thinking very idealistically.
They speak at length about their own upbringing in the area, and about a desire to give something back and to sprinkle some of the magic they found at Old Trafford on Salford and its Moor Lane stadium. But the revelation for them, one which comes quite early on, if that they aren’t entirely welcome.
The Class of 92 were guilty of falling into the same trap that gets many new owners when they first take on a football club – changing too much too fast.
Salford go from playing in orange, to playing in a Manchester United red, they bring in ex-league players with bigger ego and bigger wages than the fans are used to, and they start to refurbish the ground. In the second part of the documentary there is a particularly poignant moment where Gary Neville – who seems to have taken the most hands-on business role – attempts to relocate the kitchen from the centre of the ground to behind one of the goals, thereby moving a Salford volunteer who has been in the heart of the action for 26 years out from her kiosk and into a van near the car park.
That incident was less an act of malice and more a lack of awareness of the full impact of what the decision would mean. In that case, Neville relented, and the owners spent a little more, but kept Babs and her cafe in the heart of the ground as they rebuilt the clubhouse.
Neville’s brother Phil had similar incidents, becoming frustrated early on at punctuality at training (here are some examples of effective strength-related football training drills) and players and staff missing part of pre-season. Phil had failed to properly appreciate the dual nature of the lives of the people at the club – most of the players were on non-contract terms, and all of them supplemented their income.
They had jobs and families, and these things came first. Gareth Seddon, billed as Salford’s star striker, missed a week of the league run in to do modelling work. For the owners this wasn’t acceptable – but Seddon, on £1,600 a month with a child and a mortgage to worry about, wouldn’t get paid for the off-season – that week’s work in April was worth three month’s pay at Salford.
For the Class of ’92, whose success was the result of a singular dedication to the cause, having multiple priorities was a bit of an alien concept.
Phil Neville soon caught on, saying their first six months were “like kindergarten” – they were too hands-on, they weren’t good owners. But in taking more distance, their frustration grew that they couldn’t get involved in football matters – a common issue for owners, for sure.
In this case, a young player and former Manchester City academy product looked good in training, but wasn’t in the Salford management’s plans. Phil Neville took a personal interest, and lifted him out of Salford, into a trial at United, and into an eighteen month deal at the Premier League club.
A great individual story, and from the way Neville spoke about the player and the opportunity he was giving him, this was the sort of thing he was thinking about when he and his colleagues bought into Salford. They had been kids from Manchester looking for a chance, now they were in a position to give that chance.
But, not sustainable in the long term – and more done in spite of, than because of their involvement with Salford.
By arriving the way they did, and parachuting in former league-level players, the Class of ’92 upset the balance at the club. Much of the documentary became about friction in the dressing room, and with the volunteer committee that ran the club, as they attempted to find that balance again during their first season at the club.
Again, a familiar problem with new owners.
The major lesson to be learned was that experience in football, and roots in an area, don’t make you fit to run a club. The Class of ’92 had stellar playing careers, and were local – but they were so far removed from the day to day experiences of life in Salford, and life in the seventh tier of English football that they found themselves totally unprepared to deal with it.
Luckily for Salford, they are fast learners, and the club won the league and promotion in their first year as owners.
For other sides, perhaps those in league football, where the stakes might be higher and the room for error significantly less, the learning curve must be even steeper.
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