BY BENEDICT O’NEILL
There’s a particularly eye-opening moment during Class of ’92 Full Time, the Sky Sports documentary that follows Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville on their journey as owners of non-league Salford City F.C. During this particular moment, Butt and Gary Neville are arguing over what kind of food the club should serve in its hospitality suites.
With a shrug, Neville proposes “stew and beer”, arguing that “champagne and lobster” will alienate the people of Salford, whom he describes as “real”. It’s a slightly cartoonish image of the working class, but it’s by no means the strangest part of the exchange. That comes from Butt, whose offhand response — expressed with a degree of irritation — echoes a famous pseudo-historical quotation: “If they want a glass of champagne,” he says, “let them have a glass of champagne.”
In his early playing career, Nicky Butt was compared to Bryan Robson, but never to Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France rumoured to have told her starving subjects to eat cake in the absence of bread. Butt’s opinion that Salford City fans should be able to drink champagne if they want champagne — at best dismissive of the cost of champagne, at worst oblivious to it — is not quite of the same calibre, but its similarity to the famous phrase is not as trivial as it seems.
Butt, Neville and the other homegrown Manchester United legends collectively known as the “Class of ’92” are slowly but surely building their own Mancunian empire. Already it consists of hotels, shops, residential areas, a university and a non-league football club, and its expansion shows no sign of slowing down. Most extracurricular activities of the Class of ’92 have been well documented, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider them as a whole, as an interconnected network of new buildings, renovations and long-term enterprises spanning several areas of Greater Manchester.
Perhaps the largest individual project of them all is Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs’ St. Michael’s development. Still in its planning stages, the £200million project proposes a wholesale renovation of the Jackson’s Row area near Manchester Town Hall. In 2016, the initial plans for St. Michael’s depicted two giant skyscrapers, a five-star hotel, apartments, offices and restaurants. They also tabled the rebuilding of a synagogue and, controversially, the destruction of a handful of historic buildings.
“We’re trying to give something back,” Giggs explained in a 2016 interview, describing St. Michael’s as “somewhere where we would want to go” and then, seconds later, “somewhere you would want to go.” It quickly transpired, however, that residents already had somewhere they wanted to go: the 19th century Sir Ralph Abercromby pub, earmarked for demolition under the St. Michael’s plans. It was one of several sore points for organisations like Historic England, who made formal objections to the plans. Many residents agreed, criticising the scale of the plans and their insensitivity towards listed buildings.
The St. Michael’s project has been rejigged since those early objections. A fresh proposal, containing just a single skyscraper, promises to keep the historical pub intact, and Manchester city councillors approved this new proposal last week. This means the development will go ahead, despite lingering concerns from some councillors, if approved by housing secretary Sajid Javid.
Yet the giant shiny monolith of the St. Michael’s development is just one of several projects helmed by various members of the Class of ’92, whose interests also include a number of hotels, Salford City F.C. and the recently announced University Academy 92, a branch of Lancaster University that will offer sport, media and business courses. Time will judge the success of these various projects, but their scale and scope cannot be underestimated.
The least controversial Class of ‘92 project might be the group’s ownership of Salford City. These are former footballers, after all, so why shouldn’t they attempt to run a football club? The situation seems promising: lots more exposure for the non-league club, lots more money and, perhaps most importantly, the prospect of climbing divisions. But even this project has endured its worrisome moments.
When the takeover was first announced in 2014, Butt made what might be considered a now-broken promise. Rumours circulated that the group would seek to take Salford away from its Moor Lane ground and into the 12,000-capacity AJ Bell rugby stadium, though Butt assured fans that the club’s current ground would be kept: “Moor Lane’s sporting heritage dates back 320 years, the oldest of its type in the Manchester area,” he said in a statement. “This should be safeguarded so it becomes a lasting legacy for future generations.”
It turns out Butt was only referring to the site of Moor Lane, not the ground itself. By October 2016, the Class of ’92 and its associates were filing for the demolition of Moor Lane in order to build the new Peninsula Stadium, which opened last year. And while the Peninsula Stadium looks a great facility and will no doubt help Salford City reach new heights, there was some resistance to the development from locals.
Of the 400 public comments submitted to Salford City council about the stadium plans, 308 were objections, with most worried about potential traffic, parking and noise problems. One of the most damning written comments suggested that the facilities of the club would now be taken away from locals and put behind fences in the interests of “wealthy people”. Of course, a handful of objections doesn’t suggest that the Peninsula Stadium should not have been built, but it shows that the Class of ’92 will plough ahead with its schemes unless faced with insurmountable obstacles.
It’s that Salford resident’s description of the Class of ’92 as just “wealthy people” that may rankle most with the group and its most loyal supporters. Certainly, it’s hard not to think that these ex-players are, despite their financial interests, attempting to make Manchester a better place. After all, there are quicker ways to make money than the routes the group has chosen, which suggests at least a degree of altruism. Yet for all their goodwill, the question remains whether these one-time local lads are as attuned to common opinion as they might feel they are. Don’t like your new skyscraper, Manchester? Pour some champagne and think again.
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