BY ALEX JACKSON
This week Salford City jumped the shark. Since their takeover by a consortium of billionaire Peter Lim and members of Manchester United’s much vaunted Class of ’92, the Moor Lane outfit have drawn the attention and ire of many in non-league circles, but this week all of that discussion went mainstream with the signing of Adam Rooney from Scottish Premiership club, Aberdeen. The fee is undisclosed but is rumoured to be in the six-figure area. What is known, however, is his wages: £4,000 a week.
Several outlets rushed to heap scorn on Salford for this move. Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt accused them of trying to ‘buy’ a place in the Football League, while Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson, while not making accusations against The Ammies, commented on how Scottish football was struggling to compete with English money as low down as the National League. And, of course, plenty of National League fans have had their say.
The commentary has drawn a response from co-owner Gary Neville, who criticised Andy Holt’s lack of decorum, claiming he had broken an unwritten footballing etiquette that you shouldn’t comment on another club’s business. Many will retort that Salford have shattered a footballing etiquette of their own with a move like this, but have Salford actually done anything wrong with this move? They are far from the first club to throw money around in pursuit of the Football League. Are they making a mockery of non-league football by spending more than ever before, or just doing it with more scrutiny than past money burners?Embed from Getty Images
Let’s start with the transfer itself. Is it abnormal? Yes, very much so. Rooney was a borderline first-choice player at Aberdeen – one of Scotland’s biggest clubs. While trending downwards at the Dons, he was still on the periphery. National League clubs have been known to take players from SPFL clubs, but they’re usually taken after release by their Scottish club, and certainly never purchased from them. In this respect, Salford have made a mockery of non-league.
Another big bone that other non-league clubs pick with Salford is their media attention. Their ‘Class of 92: Out of Their League’ documentary series, broadcast nationally on flagship channel BBC One, has given Salford City an unprecedented level of media attention, in addition to televised FA Cup runs. The alleged portrayal of Salford as ‘plucky underdogs’ grinds with fans, and it’s easy to see why. Few non-league clubs can boast an actual billionaire as a stakeholder.
But this is something I find difficult to blame Salford for. They do not choose how they are portrayed on TV, no club that has ever been documented has. Furthermore, the trope of the plucky non-league underdog is far from a new thing, and far from a new thing for wealthier clubs either. During their famous FA Cup run where they played Manchester United, Crawley Town were heralded as a little club punching above their weight, when the truth was they were soaring away with the Conference title after constructing a superteam with the highest payroll in the league. Similarly, Forest Green have always had the title of ‘that little team from the Cotswolds’ despite being well-known as ‘green energy industrialist’ Dale Vince’s vanity project.
But perhaps Salford’s crime is spending too much money? While richer teams are begrudgingly accepted, could it be said that they’ve crossed a theoretical line between acceptable and unacceptable? Possibly, but then don’t Fleetwood Town deserve the same scorn? Ten years ago, they were an 8th tier team, and last year they came within a whisker of the Championship. During their Conference title run they assembled a team of top 5th tier players, including red-hot striker Jamie Vardy for an alleged six-figure fee. The result was Fleetwood winning the league with one of the highest points totals ever, and the fact they have only gone upwards since suggests the spending has gone on a similar trajectory. Similarly, AFC Fylde have gone from an FA Vase-winning village team from the middle of Lancashire to a potential Football League side thanks to the investment of David Haythornthwaite.
Another thing that can be said in Salford’s defence is that while they’re spending, they’re certainly not living outside their means. £4k a week is certainly affordable for a selection of millionaires. In fact, I’d go as far to say that they’re probably one of the few clubs in the Conference that don’t spend more than they can realistically afford. This is something I’m acutely aware of as a Gateshead fan: for many years my club was a full-time outfit attracting players from across the country and came within a game of the Football League, all despite having crowds of less than 1,000 even on a good day. Is it really my place to call Salford’s position unrealistic and bought?
So, in summary, do I begrudge Salford for doing what they have done? I guess not. They’ve done it because they can afford it, and they’re far from the first club to have dramatically outspent their opposition. Why is it okay for Manchester City to do it, but not Salford City?
All of that said, acceptance is not the same as liking something. It is indeed hard to stomach watching a plaything of multi-millionaires break non-league transfer records, and the inevitable ‘look at plucky Salford’ articles that will no doubt arise this season from journalists who have no understanding of football beneath the Premier League. Salford are far from the first National League club to go out and spend in pursuit of promotion, but they’re the first to do it without any semblance of subtlety. Whereas Crawley, Fleetwood, Fylde and Forest Green assembled the best 5th-tier players they could lay their hands on to create a Conference dream team, Salford have simply gone out and bought an Scottish Premiership striker.
But all of this is in some way rooted in the jealousy of a fellow National League supporter annoyed that his club is moving backwards while another goes forward. There is one criticism of Salford I have, however, that transcends this.Embed from Getty Images
A few years back I went to watch Droylsden play. I’d always known them from Gateshead’s Conference North days, when they’d been one of the few teams to take six points off us the year we won promotion. By the time of my visit, however, they’d gone backwards, dropping two divisions to play in the NPL Division One North.
My visit there was a pleasant one. Their Butcher’s Arms home is a neat, quintessential non-league ground, located in the heart of the town. The club is an historic one too, founded in 1892, and carved its name in history with regional titles and cup runs in the 1970s and late 2000s. Their most recent achievement was a Conference North title in 2007, which also happened to be their final promotion.
The attendance the night I was there was little more than 100, a far cry from what they used to get and the cup games that occasionally brought in over 1,000. It’s a sad state of affairs, and seeing it happen amidst the backdrop of Manchester’s footballing renaissance is particularly disheartening. As Droylsden lose out, City keep spending money; Salford are elevated to previously unknown heights by billionaires, and FC United build a stadium many non-league teams would dream of having while pretending they’re just like any other non-league, “Anti-Modern Football” club.
What Salford is doing is nothing unique, but where they win others lose, and those losers are historic, storied clubs like Droylsden, surviving on scraps as the new kids on the block spend money and draw the undivided attention of local communities. It’s wrong to hate the player when there are so many, but when it causes damage like this it’s certainly okay to hate the game.