WHY DO SALFORD’S ATTEMPTS TO CLIMB THE FOOTBALL PYRAMID LEAVE SUCH A SOUR TASTE IN THE MOUTH?
Lovers of the computer game Football Manager will know that there is no joy quite like guiding an unfancied non-league team up into and through the EFL before reaching the tip of the football pyramid.
During the halcyon days of lockdown one, I took my local team Bath City from the National League South to the Champions League in the space of 15 virtual seasons enjoying every moment as league titles, domestic cups and a lifetime of memories began to clog up the Twerton Park trophy cabinet.
The excitement comes from consistently challenging yourself at a new and more testing level, forcing you to find new ways to win as club legends from the non-league days struggle to cut the mustard once you qualify for the Europa Conference League.
So why then when Salford City do it does it feel so unsatisfying when they are effectively building something that at the very least shares similarities under the ownership of the Class of 92?
Of course, reality is the starting point. Whilst I was simply replacing computer generated players and staff members for better ones, Salford’s decisions, such as to give manager Richie Wellens the boot after a mere five months in charge, has a real-life impact on the career of a young EFL manager.
Although Wellens will likely walk into another job – potentially even one in the league above Salford - thanks to his fine work at Swindon last season, it can be difficult for managers to be given a second chance at another club with such an emphatic dismissal on their CV, regardless of the lack of time they had to turn results around.
Salford’s ruthless approach to finding success is therefore a threat to the healthy crop of bright young managers in Leagues One and Two – Wellens’ predecessor Graham Alexander was let go back in October 2020 despite being unbeaten in the first four league games of the season.
However, they are not the only side that gets through managers like Priti Patel gets through eyebrow care products, and this does not even feel like the most uninspiring aspect of Salford’s rise.
The Salford ownership group will point to the fact that four promotions were won in their first five years in charge to bring EFL football to the Greater Manchester club for the first time in its history as evidence of their success. There have also been impressive cup runs as well as the introduction of a women’s team and a redevelopment of their Moor Lane ground.
The BBC documentary that has followed the fortunes of the club since Gary Neville and co. became involved has acted as a way of creating some form of likeability towards the project, and if shown to someone with no understanding of how the success has been achieved it would likely have them rooting for the plucky Ammies.
But it is ultimately short on details like the fact that Salford have had the biggest playing budget in every league they’ve been in so far.
Their promotions to reach League Two have felt like an exercise in efficient planning and targeted additions in the transfer market rather than them being built on an innovative playing style or masterminded by a charismatic manager.
There is no real pleasure to be taken from their structured approach of heavy spending and ruthless decision making, it all feels like a bureaucratic approach to growing a Premier League football club rather than a miraculous rise through the divisions for all to enjoy.
Salford won the Papa John’s Trophy just a week before Wellens was sacked, and even though it has become a somewhat redundant competition with no fans being able to enjoy an afternoon at Wembley, it’s hard to imagine many other League Two clubs getting rid of their manager after picking up a trophy whilst also in the top half of the league table.
You even get the feeling it wouldn’t have extended Wellens’ stay at the club even if it had been won in front of a packed-out stadium.
Regardless of how they finish this League Two campaign, the club is still well on track to achieve the owner’s stated aim of reaching the Championship by the 2029/30 season – although the fact they have such a targeted approach to success is arguably another reason why the Salford story struggles to capture the imagination.
There has been a suggestion that Wellens was in fact relieved of his duties because of disrespect shown towards Salford coach Warren Joyce. Joyce worked for Manchester United for eight years during the latter stages of the Class of 92’s time at the club and was criticised by Wellens in the aftermath of last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Cheltenham for providing what he perceived to be a lacklustre pre-match warm up.
The way Salford operate indicates this probably was not the cause of the dismissal, their 52-word statement announcing the departure a further sign that sentiment has very little impact on the club’s hierarchy.
New manager Gary Bowyer tasted defeat in his opening game against Exeter on Saturday, leaving Salford six points away from the final play-off spot with just ten games of the season remaining – the sort of situation where you quit without pressing save and load up a new game.