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Ammies Have Becks Appeal

By Matt Badcock, 

IF a week is a long time in football, a decade is a lifetime. The ‘Ten Year Challenge’ has swept social media over the last fortnight with people digging out their pictures from 2009 to place alongside one from today.

Clubs and leagues also joined in. Histon were flying high in the Conference and Northwich Victoria were battling away near the bottom. On Saturday they will meet in the FA Vase with a quarter-final place up for grabs. Two clubs testament to the fact a lot can happen in a relatively short space of time.

Ten years ago, Ryan Giggs was 35 and still had three Premier League titles and two Champions League finals between him and retirement. Paul Scholes had three championships and two retirements.

Gary Neville would have an eighth Premier League winners’ medal hung around his neck, his brother Phil was a few seasons from hanging up his boots and Nicky Butt had a move to China to come, while David Beckham still had his final, and 115th, appearance for England ahead of him.

Dreaming

In a different footballing stratosphere, Salford City were struggling in the Northern Premier League Division One North. They would finish the 2008-09 season second bottom having shipped 107 goals.

No one would have predicted then that these two worlds would collide years down the line. Some of the finest footballers produced in England and Wales, who were successful on the biggest stages with the biggest clubs on the planet, and a Step 4 club with an average attendance around 250.

A club that worked so hard to get new people through the gates. Chairman Karen Baird recalls a story of hand-delivering, along with some other volunteers, 5,000 leaflets offering a free pint if brought along to a game. Not one person turned up to cash in their voucher.

But ten years ago, Gary Neville and Giggs hadn’t shared a conversation on a train back to Manchester about an idea to start a football academy. Their stipulation being there has to be an end goal. A first team to play in on a Saturday.

That initial thought has snowballed into purchasing the Ammies and their subsequent rapid ascent
up the football Pyramid.

Because of their links to Salford – Giggs grew up there, Scholes was born there and they all spent their early Manchester United careers training in the area – the club ticked all the boxes.

The ‘Class of 92’ have invested millions – matched by billionaire Peter Lim – to get the team knocking on the door of the Football League inside five years.

The gang is now complete with last week’s news Beckham is finally getting involved. Neville says it was always the intention but England’s most-capped player has had a large amount of time focused on setting up Inter Miami to
join American league MLS.

Such is Beckham’s reach, the announcement generated headlines across the globe. It also stirred up existing
animosity felt by some fans towards the club.

Building

Despite building a new stadium they have promised will stay with the club debt-free – another on record guarantee – should they ever leave, they are accused of ruining Non-League football while looking to make a quick buck. To an uneducated eye, it would seem a risky way to make money and, anyway, that isn’t the motivation.

Neville acknowledges they are both resented and admired. Their involvement comes with absolute clarity. Neville is the driving force. His obsessive personality determined they will succeed. This is a man who would sit in Manchester United board meetings so he could understand the business side.

That’s not to say he is now running Salford. That is left to the original committee – some of who now have full-time jobs.

But Salford aren’t the latest ‘spend-big-now, think of the consequences later’ club of Non-League football. The Class of 92 can’t operate like that. The scrutiny that follows around such a famous bunch of names, there is an extra layer of pressure. That’s not something they will directly feel – after all, these are elite athletes who have performed in the most high-pressure of sporting situations.

A comment from manager Graham Alexander after the opening day draw with Leyton Orient struck a chord.

“People seem to have an opinion of us without actually coming here,” he said. It was a good point so we asked if this paper could delve deeper.

In September they opened their doors for two days.

“They can ask us anything,” came the call from Neville.

It was hard not to be impressed by a lot of what is going on and there was a down-to-earth feel about the place that couldn’t be faked. Sit across a table from a supporter who articulates how the club has changed his life and that’s why they have a responsibility to engage with a community that has deprived areas and well-publicised struggles.

This isn’t a plaything. The fact the Class of 92 were at the training ground for their monthly 7am meeting with Baird shows there is real dedication.

Personality

There is something in their character and make-up, forged over many years under Sir Alex Ferguson, that encourages them to continue to be bold and raise standards. We shouldn’t be scared of that in this country.

They are motivated to give youngsters opportunities like they were given. The whole ethos of the academy is built around ‘character first’.

The young players have to give presentations because there is a belief it is a basic life skill required whether they forge careers in football or not. An important speech at work, or being someone’s best man. Communication among the next generation shouldn’t be overlooked.

It links in to their new University. Neville doesn’t see why there are so many graduates unable to find employment. So they decided to do things differently.

How many other sports people go down that route? Basketball megastar Lebron James has something similar in America, but a group of British footballers?

It’s not something we are particularly good at recognising, as if paralysed by a fear that everything has an underlying motive.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the Class of 92 is a brand and an increasingly growing one at that. Beckham’s involvement in this project only enhances it and its global reach.

Salford is the largest city in England without a Football League club. It’s unlikely people will be
saying that in ten years’ time.

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