Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 29 January 2020

The sporting read: How a Manchester United tinted revolution sparked at Salford City

SALFORD, ENGLAND // The taxi carrying Salford City’s chairwoman Karen Baird passes slowly through packed rush hour Salford streets two hours before her non-league team’s FA Cup second-round tie against Hartlepool United, who play three leagues and 52 positions above.

“I was brushing up leaves around the pitch before the first round against Notts County, so I’m determined to enjoy this a little bit more,” explains the accountancy boss who has spent the afternoon with a friend and the team at Hotel Football opposite Old Trafford.

Gary Neville, one of Salford’s co-owners along with four other former Manchester United players from the “Class of ’92” and the Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, popped into the hotel on a brief trip back from Valencia, the club he starts to manage on Sunday. It is a shame Neville cannot see Salford’s cup run continue in person, but Valencia are now his absolute priority. Besides, it is on national television.

Baird’s taxi passes foreboding tower blocks, one named after Eddie Colman, a local boy who played for Manchester United until he lost his life in the Munich Air Crash. The car also goes close to United’s former training grounds by of The Cliff and Littleton Road, beyond the digs where the young United players used to live. Salford is a United heartland, but on Friday night the attention switches to the biggest game in Salford City’s 75-year history.

Read more: Check out the rest of the features in our sporting reads series

The taxi turns into Nevile Road (not named after Gary and Phil, but give it time) behind the club’s tiny’s six-step main stand, which has had the words “Integrity” and “Industry” painted on the rear with the club badge featuring a lion.

“The police have put more cones out tonight than last time,” Baird says of the parking restrictions in a residential area by the football ground. She’s excited, busy and nervous: “I just hope we do well and everything goes OK.” She hopes for a good game and no trouble on the pitch but concedes: “One of two of our lads can be a bit of a handful.”

“Hope you’ve got your hat, it’s cold and windy,” a friendly man says on the gate as Baird walks into Moor Lane, past a lady selling match day programmes for £1.50 (Dh8.30). Salford’s average crowd over the decade before the “Class of ’92” took control was 140. On Friday night, a similar number are present from the media, most of them BBC staff as the game is being televised live on BBC 1, Britain’s most important channel.

The fee for televising will swell club coffers by a further £72,000, that’s on top of the £67,000 they received from their first-round game being shown. Then there are gate receipts and prize money of £45,000 accumulated from the cup run so far. A further £27,000 is at stake if they can beat Hartlepool. Given clubs in Salford’s division can operate on a £100,000 per year, the riches are sizeable for one of the two lowest ranked teams left in the competition.

As Baird mixes with fans and some of the fellow volunteers who run Salford, Darren Webb keeps a watchful eye outside the changing room area.

“I’m here to stop any blaggers getting in there,” says the security man who used to work with United players. “But if they win again I’ll probably be in there celebrating.”

Salford is a hard, predominantly working-class city sharing most of its border with Manchester and the metropolitan borough of Trafford. The southern end of Salford goes within 200 metres of Old Trafford. Hartlepool is hardly an enclave of wealth itself, but a hard-bitten town on England’s north-east coast. The Hartlepool kitmen and physio waiting for their team have a formidable presence and do not look in the least bit intimidated.

“This is all part of their pre-match psychology,” a Salford player explains. “Their staff are showing that they’re not scared of coming to non-league Salford.”

Hartlepool do not want a repeat of exactly a year previous when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans in front of the BBC cameras. The National was there that night too. Maybe this is an omen.

As Babs – who is enjoying her 15 minutes of fame after a two part BBC documentary on the club she has served so well – and her staff sell pies, Salford’s joint managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley survey the scene. They see the FA Cup trophy sitting on a plinth, while former Arsenal player Ian Wright stands nearby in flat cap that would have looked at home in a painting by on of Salford’s most famous sons, the artist LS Lowry.

“We’ve done our homework and watched them on DVDs,” Johnson says about their preparations. “We went to watch them at Accrington last week but it was postponed.” Salford are part-time, Hartlepool full-time, yet the minnows are fancied.

“More people want us to win and that doesn’t make you an underdog,” Johnson says. “But we’re playing a full-time team whose top earner will be on the same as our whole budget. They’ll be preparing as if they are the underdogs by coming to a non-league ground, but they saw what we did to Notts County and there won’t be a surprise factor for them. They also have a wily, experienced, manager in Ronnie Moore.”

Notts County’s manager had been chided by the crowd in the previous round for dressing a little too fancily for local tastes.

Like Babs, Johnson is also getting used to be recognised in the street.

“It showed a two-minute clip of me ranting and raving in the dressing room so people come up to me and say ‘You’re mad’ but I’m not like that 90 per cent of the time,” he explains. “The cameras just caught me in the heat of the moment, but then I’m not here to be liked, I’m here to be a good manager.”

As he talks, the Hartlepool players walk behind him into the away dressing room. They are a physically big side who look like they mean business.

With an hour to kick-off, former Manchester United player Daniel Webber talks to a member of his family. For the first time in a career which spanned 15 years as a professional, all his five siblings will watch him play. He is Salford’s top-scorer, but he is uncertain if he will start.

Read more: Andy Mitten writes Phil Neville still on coaching course at Valencia with their hire of Gary

“The side has not been named yet,” he points out. Webber, who will travel through the night to London after the game to be on a morning television programme, need not have worried. He is on the team sheet as Salford ready themselves to play their 30th competitive game in 14 weeks, five of them in the FA Cup.

In the concrete main stand, a group of nine 12 and 13 year olds from the nearby Prestwich Arts College wave Salford flags. Seven support United, two City. They speak enthusiastically about Salford under the new ownership.

Hallelujah by local band the Happy Mondays plays on the public address. The increasing crowd spread around the sodden pitch, with 400 Hartlepool fans behind one goal. A television reporter walks through the crowd being filmed, asking the nation: “Will there be another upset?” Within minutes, fans are receiving calls and texts to say: ‘I’ve just seen you on television.’

The people are locals, the conversations familiar.

“I’m sorry to hear about your brother,” a man says to a friend near the changing rooms. He nods solemnly. The area smells of Deep Heat, a rub footballers use on their legs. The whirr of a drone carrying a television camera can be heard as it struggles against the high winds. On the ground, the surface is wet after a bout of heavy rain. Mats and sand have been put down to absorb the water.

“This is a bit posh,” a local says of the green mats, but the area around them turns to mud. The former United player Nicky Butt wonders how he is going to negotiate the mud on crutches after picking up an Achilles injury in a recent charity match. Another, Paul Scholes does a television interview before standing with friends by the side of the pitch.

They love watching Salford, love being football fans after two decades being players. Of the other owners, Phil Neville watches at home in Valencia while Ryan Giggs is in United’s team hotel as they prepare for their game against West Ham United.

Five minutes before kick-off, a teenager jumps over the fence to join the sell out 1,400 crowd, then two men hang a flag emblazoned with “Broughton Ammies” (the club’s nickname Ammies comes from a former name, Salford Amateurs). The flag carries the words to Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, written about Salford, was the subject. The third verse is printed:

I heard a siren from the docks. Saw a train set the night on fire, I smelled the spring on the smoky wind. Dirty old town, Dirty old town.

The game starts.

“Wem-ber-lee, Wem-ber-lee, We’re the Famous Salford City and we’re going to Wem-ber-lee,” an optimistic local sings with distant dreams of a final appearance at London’s Wembley Stadium. More join in a primal scream of “Salford! Salford! Salford!”

The game does not settle on a blustering night. Hartlepool take the lead through Rhys Oates, scoring an eighth-minute penalty on his 21st birthday. Salford equalise after 23 minutes when Stephen O’Halloran shoots through a crowded area. Though the Hartlepool manager later lambasts their team for their “unacceptable” first-half performance, it is an even contest, the non-league team again doing themselves proud and even dominating for large periods. The atmosphere is raucous, the comments harsh.

Talk of United and City pepper half-time conversations.

“I’ve heard Rooney and that Aguero are out tomorrow,” says a man who is well protected against the elements. “That” Aguero implies the speaker is a United, not a City fan.

Both teams have chances but Salford cannot repeat their first-round victory. Word goes around about a bus to the replay in Hartlepool and a man called Sam canvasses opinions for numbers. Few say no. They can always pull out of a midweek trip to Hartlepool when they are not in front of all their mates.

Word spreads that Scholesy might be on the bus with fans.

The game ends in a draw, a hugely creditable result for Salford, who will now face another of their league games being postponed to fit the replay in on December 15. It is bittersweet, as a fixture backlog looms, but the result means another share of substantial gate receipts and they are also still in the cup.

“Congratulations Karen, you’re now in the FA Cup third round,” a fan says to Salford’s chairwoman. “You can get Manchester United or Manchester City!” She smiles, it has been a good night. Not as good as winning and manager Johnson claims the draw “feels like a defeat”, but that is how far Salford’s expectations have risen.

sports@thenational.ae

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Updated: December 5, 2015 04:00 AM

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