David Beckham will become a part-owner of non-league Salford City Football Club, joining up with his former Manchester United teammates, close friends and co-owners Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.
Subject to English Football Association approval, Beckham will take the same 10 per cent stake as his former teammates, with Singaporean businessman Peter Lim reducing his 50 per cent share by 10 per cent. Beckham was originally asked to be part of Salford when the group became involved in the football club in 2014, but declined to pursue other interests.
Following three promotions in four seasons, Salford now play in England’s fifth tier where they currently sit third and are well placed to be one of the two teams promoted to the Football League at the end of the season. Average crowds have surged from 140 to 2,500 in four years; their Moor Lane stadium has been completely rebuilt and holds over 5,000 – easily meeting the criteria to be admitted to the Football League.
"We all have our own interests and families, but we've stayed close to David," Gary Neville tells The National. "I've seen a great deal of David in the last 12-18 months and we started to talk a lot about the future. We have ownership in Salford and Peter [Lim] with Valencia. David is involved in Miami. There's an interest in all of us shaping our own football clubs, but what should a board of a football club look like? People talk about fan ownership, about overseas ownership, but I think one thing people agree on is that football people should have more influence on boards. At Salford we'll have the majority of the control. Peter still provides guidance and financial stability, which is critical for us. He has given us the ability to be bold and take risks."
As teammates Neville and Beckham won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups as well as the 1999 Uefa Champions League, and Neville believes the new stakeholder has plenty to offer Salford.
“We all offer different things at different times: Ryan is an international manager [with Wales] and his input is now minimal. The same applies to Phil, who is in charge of England’s women’s team and Nicky, who is the academy director at Manchester United. When I was in Valencia I couldn’t offer anything to Salford. So beyond us we have a strong management team and we also have the same committee there who were involved before we became involved.
“We’re still young but we’re five or six years out of playing football and we need more knowledge about what is a complex job of running a football club. David has international experience in playing and club ownership, which we’ve not got; he thinks differently from us. While Peter has international experience in ownership and sport investment.”
What is the ambition for Salford?
“For the first five years it was to get close to the Football League. We’ve done that in four," Neville said. "We thought the Football League would be eight or nine years off and it still might be. We didn’t think we’d have a Football League-compliant stadium and we do. Peter is passive from an operational point of view, but ambitious to push for things like doing the stadium all at once.”
The ex-teammates all grew up Manchester United fans and still attend matches at Old Trafford, yet they also enjoy going to Salford games.
"You get that adrenalin rush which you get from playing football because you don’t know what’s going to happen week to week,” Neville added. “What happens is out of our control. I left the game against Gateshead at home last week [Salford drew 1-1] massively disappointed. The week before, I was on holiday watching a live stream of our game against Leyton Orient throwing water around the room because we were winning 3-0.”
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For Neville Salford City is the glue that binds him and his Class of 92 teammates together. “It lets us still have an influence in football. We still have the camaraderie. We all grew up in Salford football-wise. Manchester United’s training grounds were both in Salford when we started. Salford City’s home is within a mile of these places.”
Subject to approval, Beckham will attend games and be introduced to club staff at the Peninsula Stadium, located in a leafy, residential part of Salford, the city which abuts Manchester city centre a mile away like a jigsaw piece. A Manchester United heartland, the City of Salford has a population of 233,000, making it one of the largest cities without a Football League club.
The catchment area is there, but top end clubs are now less reliant on fans attending matches and stadium size because so much of their revenue comes from television rights and commercial revenues. Bournemouth’s ground is small but more than big enough for the 4,500 who watched them in England’s third and fourth tier before their rise up the leagues.
Neville says Salford City’s board use the South Coast club as an example of what is achievable. “They’re in a 10,000-seater stadium in the Premier League. We’ve gone from 140 crowds to 2,500. There were football clubs laughing at us when we were in tier eight getting 300-400. We’ve now got bigger crowds than some of these clubs.”
Salford City have not been without their critics, be they green-eyed rival fans or people who think non-league football shouldn’t be slick and professional.
“People have a go at foreign owners or the ownership structures in football,” Neville says. “We're six lads who’ve finished playing football and chosen to invest money into a tiny football club. We’ve invested millions of our own money. We could have chosen to put that money into something else. We’ve put it in an academy, into staff, into jobs, into a stadium in our local area. We didn’t have to do that. Of course Peter supports us but we've put our own money in – in significant sums. I don’t get the people who knock us. Fourteen of the original committee members are still here. They’re got the spirit of the club and several of them, who were volunteers, now have full time jobs working at the football club like the secretary, groundsman, chairwomen and others. Andrew who did the PA now designs the programme. There are individuals coming on the journey with us and we try and promote from within, but 'Babs' who sells the burgers is now selling 800 rather than 80.”
Many new Salford fans are watching live football for the first time, disenfranchised Premier League fans or people who watch more than one team.
“We have the cheapest season tickets in our league,” adds Neville. “It’s £10 to get in and there are season tickets which work out at £4 a match. It’s very affordable and that is right in a working class area. People are coming and sticking – they enjoy it. The idea that they’re all Manchester United fans isn’t really true. United were at home at 3pm last Saturday and so were we. Our attendance didn’t suffer.”
Salford are successful and ambitious. Three television documentaries about their rise attracted more fans and helped bolster a fan base which is forging its own identity. Even Liverpool fans have taken Salford's Dirty Old Town anthem and now sing it for their defender Virgil van Dijk.
With Beckham on board, expect the profile to be higher and its rise to continue.