By Jason McKeown
When judged against pre-season expectations for both clubs, this weekend’s fixture between Bradford City and Salford City was supposed to be a top of the table clash. Bookies and pundits alike were widely tipping the Bantams and the Ammies to strongly push for promotion. Yet, so far, both are well off the pace of runaway leaders Forest Green, and are battling just to stay in the play off hunt.
It was the same two years ago, when both entered into League Two. And, last season, each club also failed to live up to their individual expectations.
The difficulties of Bradford City, since relegation to the basement league, is well known in this part of the world. But it’s worth pondering why – for all the hype, big spending and media attention – Salford have similarly failed to make a stronger push for promotion. And thanks to the high profile, Class of 92 owners at Moor Lane, it is a story that can be closely followed.
The rise and rise of Salford, since they were bought by Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, has been covered up close through a series of behind the scenes documentaries, first on the BBC and more recently on Sky Sports. The latest season of the documentary – covering the 2020/21 season – dropped onto Sky over the Christmas period. It’s an illuminating watch, especially as it shows the realities – and the difficulties – that come from owning a football club.
If you’ve never seen any of these documentaries before there are two things you should know about the Salford owners. Firstly, they are incredibly ambitious. It’s not just their own money that’s funding Salford’s rise up the pyramid, but Singaporean businessman Peter Lim (David Beckham is also now a minority shareholder). Significant capital has been invested over the years, with the objective to get Salford into the Championship.
The second element is the hands-on nature of Gary Neville in particular. The ambition is backed up by their fierce drive to get Salford through the leagues as quickly as possible. Neville and the others appoint managers but spend most of each series making clear their disappointment with their performance. They lead on transfer discussions and it’s clear the manager of the time doesn’t have sole say – if indeed any – over who comes in. They are impatient and intolerant of dips in form. They set very high standards.
Whatever your thoughts on the group – and I’ll admit I’m a big fan of Gary and his punditry on Sky Sports – they are hugely successful. Salford’s emergence is unprecedented in terms of the speed. When they bought the club in 2014, Salford were playing in the Northern Premier League Division One North – the eighth tier of English football – to around 400 fans. Now they’re a full time club, with four promotions in five years.
Yet what’s striking about the latest series of the Class of 92 documentary is seeing how they operate when things don’t go to plan, and the self-awareness of their own mistakes contributing to the team’s struggles. Neville and Scholes in particular are considered the leading pundits in this country. Experts at what they do. Yet they’re making decisions that – were their names Edin Rahic or Ed Woodward – would have then viewed as clueless and heavily criticised by their own fans.
“We are hard on ourselves because it’s not good enough what we’ve done this year,” Neville admits at one point. “It’s not good enough what I’ve done. I’ve got it wrong. The main thing is it doesn’t happen again.”
A tale of four managers
What makes the 2020/21 season especially memorable for Salford was the manager turnover. Over the course of the campaign, Graham Alexander, Paul Scholes (as interim), Richie Wellens and former City manager Gary Bowyer held the reins. The cameras capture the player introduction speeches delivered by Scholes, Wellens and Bowyer – it must have been quite the year to be a Salford player, having so many new gaffers and ideals to get used to.
The hiring and firing approach is a sign of how desperate Salford are to get promotion, having set a playing budget in the summer of 2020 that was by some distance the highest in the league. At one stage Salford Chairperson Karen Baird states, “We can’t afford not to go up this year, we just can’t.”
The sacking of Alexander sets the tone for the desperation of the trigger happy owners. The series begins five games into the 2020/21 season, with Salford 2-0 up at home to Tranmere with 86 minutes on the clock. Rovers come back to claim a 2-2 draw, and the owners sack manager Alexander a few days later. Despite the fact the club were unbeaten. Alexander – who had been manager since the summer of 2018 and who had led Salford into the Football League – had a win record of 48.2%.
It was an eye-brow raising, controversial move at the time – the subsequent events make it even more of a questionable decision. It’s something Neville himself acknowledges, with the show skipping to an end of season interview with the owner. “The domino effort of sacking Graham was just negative after negative, it impacted the whole season,” he admits, before candidly revealing his ambition. “I think Graham would have got us up. But that’s not good enough, we need to aim higher than that.”
There are echoes of Bradford City’s decision to sack Stuart McCall in February 2018 about this. Like Alexander, McCall had a strong overall record, but the belief had grown from the top that the Bantams were underachieving and needed someone with a more proven track record. There were often whispers from those close to Rahic of an unhappiness that McCall was not bold enough. A frustration hinted at strongly in City’s own behind the scenes film, Matter of Heart, where Rahic regularly complains of too many draws.
The problem for Salford, like with City then, was no real plan beyond dismissing the supposedly under-performing manager. Salford have no one lined up, and spend some six weeks with Scholes as interim manager. Results are mixed, and they fall well off the pace of the promotion front runners.
As Salford hunt for Alexander’s replacement, you quickly get to learn the reasons why the Ammies’ owners felt a change was needed. From the fact the budget is so high – Neville claims, “that squad, that budget, they have to win the league” – to a club employee defending the decision on the basis Alexander was not merely sacked because of five games, but for the previous two years in charge.
That seems to be the theme. That however much Alexander had improved the club, it wasn’t by enough of a margin. The football style too safe, the progress slow relative to the resources. And at some stage they felt Alexander’s seemingly limited ways would no longer be enough to take Salford forward. Hence, they pulled the trigger.
There is no doubt it is a decision they regret, and Neville – when talking about Ole Gunnar Solskjær this season – has referred to his own personal experiences of what a bad call sacking Alexander proved to be.
Nevertheless, at the time the narrative was that Alexander had to go, and the perception he wasn’t playing adventurous enough football sets the tone for what happens next. Neville talks about wanting to bring a sense of Manchester United’s culture to Salford. “We want recklessness on the pitch. We want gung ho. That’s not everyone’s style, but we want that madness.”
It’s a viewpoint that leads to the appointment of former Manchester United player Richie Wellens as new manager. A big coup at the time, given Wellens exited League One Swindon to join Salford. In 2019/20, Wellens had led Swindon to the League Two title. He has built a reputation for playing good football, his style even earning the distinct nickname ‘Wellens-ball’.
As Wellens is unveiled, the compliments from the owners all centre on his proven record and playing style. “Talented coach, front foot,” is Neville’s verdict. Scholes adds Wellens is “all about attacking football and that’s what we want to bring here”.
Neville is delighted with the appointment, but wary about the decisions he has taken. “It is a risk. I’m worried to death. Because football has a habit of slapping you in the face and teaching you a lesson.
“We have an ambition to get accelerated promotions to the Championship as quickly as possible… We must get promoted. And that means I’ve got to make decisions that are quite simply in line with what I need to do for this club.
“I’m hoping this is the start of a new era, a new chapter.”
The first episode ends with Wellens’ first game in charge. A dismal 2-0 defeat to Bolton.
The struggles continue
Changing managers mid-season is far from unusual in English football these days. A high percentage of managers lose their jobs during a season. Some swaps work out, with the replacement taking the club onto better things (see Steven Gerrard at Villa). But in the main, mid-season manager changes lead to no great improvement (Dean Smith at Norwich) – and often accelerate a decline (Claudio Ranieri at Watford).
That proved to be the case for Wellens and Salford. The high ideals of playing better football lead to a mixed set of results, as he wins 11, draws 10 and loses 9 of his 30 games in charge.
The subtext of the second episode is of the disparity between the owners’ plans and ideals, and that of the performance of the team. They rejected Alexander’s pragmatism in the belief they could get better results playing better football, but they don’t have a group of players suited to Wellens’ philosophy.
Neville says, “It’s the classic. We change managers midway through the season and give the new manager a group of players that aren’t his. The classic mistake that any owner makes. And you pay for that. You pay for that at the end of the season.”
Results don’t take off at first under Wellens, but Neville remains optimistic they will go on a run and “be in the top three by the end of January”. Meanwhile a December planning meeting between Neville and the club’s recruitment teams focuses not on the upcoming January window, but next summer’s transfer plans – where he believes Salford will have been promoted.
“We need to bring in six players in the summer that take us to the top six in League One. And then that’s the analysis. We need to do analysis of our players versus players in League One.”
Someone makes a valid counter-point. “We have to get there first”. Neville continues, “I know, but remember last time. We got out the National League last time into League Two, we’d not done any analysis of the league and we ended up only in 11th. We’ve got to plan for an analysis of League One. We know League Two now, we know what it is – we don’t know how to win it yet – but we know what it is. League One, we haven’t got a clue.”
The urgency to get promoted in 2020/21 continues to be expressed, with Neville stating. “This does feel like the last season where we have to go up because we’ve got an advantage on budget. But at this moment in time it’s not really bearing fruit. We need to get to League One, but the only way to do it really is by making good, considered long term decisions.”
Meanwhile Wellens is struggling to get a tune out of his players, who are seemingly not buying into his approach. “Any football manager that takes over anywhere, you have to win. But I do want to win playing a certain way, and that might take a little bit of time.”
The documentary shows a later meeting between Wellens and Baird about January signings, and a clash of priorities. Wellens is reading a breakdown of his current squad and the wages each player is earning. “I can’t believe some of these salaries. Even the appearance money as well. It’s massive, I wouldn’t imagine there’d be a League Two budget like this.”
But despite the backing Alexander had clearly received, Baird tells Wellens there won’t be money to spend in the window due to the pandemic hurting the businesses of the owners of the club. Wellens is clearly left frustrated. In a meeting between the manager and the recruitment team, he is presented with four options for a new right back and rejects them all. “It’s my job on the line” he argues as he delivers his verdict.
In the end, he is only allowed to bring in three loan players. And the team’s up and down form continues.
The end for Wellens comes in March and a game at a Cheltenham side who go on to win League Two. We see Wellens preparing for the match by watching footage of recent Cheltenham performances, and he is snobbish about Town’s use of the long throw in from Ben Tozer to score goals.
“Long throws, 80s football,” he says disparagingly, before revealing he is taking inspiration from Man City. Pep Guardiola’s side had recently beaten Cheltenham in the FA Cup, with part of the success coming from making sure they kept the ball well enough to not concede throw ins in an area where Tozer could damage. “We’ve got to do the same,” Wellens states.
Cut to Cheltenham away, and two minutes in Oscar Threkeld – playing in central midfield for Salford – weakly concedes a throw in. Tozer slings it in, and Cheltenham score. They go onto win 2-0. Wellens is sacked, after only one win in eight games.
Whilst Neville’s frustration about Wellens’ performance as manager is evident – watching the Cheltenham defeat, at half time he rings someone from Whaddon Road and angrily states, “They’re bullying us. They’re hungrier, aggressive on second balls. If you’re not hungry you’re dead” – he clearly makes the decision to change managers again with a heavy heart.
“Today is probably the worst day I’ve had in football,” he admits after telling Wellens he is dismissed. Neville is humble enough to blame himself, “It is a reflection upon us as owners. It’s a reflection upon me because I’m the owner who looks after the club more and this is a massive slap round the face for us, it’s a slap round the face for Richie. But you look at the last two months and it’s just not happening.”
It becomes clear that the players just were not responding to Wellens’ ways, and they were not suited to the manager’s ideals. Coming in mid-season, Wellens had no opportunity to bring in his own players and build something truly in his mould. Neville adds, “We’ve got 14 players under contract at this club for next season and they’re just not on the same page [with Wellens] football-wise at all.
“The last five, six weeks have been a big disappointment. The results have been dire. And you can smell when somethings not right. One thing I learned from Valencia [where he had an ill-fated five months as manager] is make tough decisions. I didn’t make enough tough decisions at Valencia. I will make tough decisions.”
There are two owner lessons evident from the Wellens experience. Firstly, sacking managers can be a risky game if you have no clear plan of what to do next – that was what they did wrong with Alexander. Secondly, as we’ve seen at City over many years, going from one extreme of managerial style to another can have an adverse effect when you can’t turnover the players as quickly.
Perhaps if the Salford owners had looked for a similar type of manager to Alexander, only with a higher league pedigree, they could have continued in the right path. But they rejected Alexander’s strengths by focusing too much on his weaknesses – and went for someone completely different.
We see this repeatedly at Valley Parade.
In episode three of the three-part series, we finally get to see Bowyer. He was appointed 24 hours after Wellens’ sacking, initially until the end of the season.
Neville is shown speaking on the phone to Bowyer about the players. “They need someone to come in and connect with them, who bonds with them, who takes an interest in them. We’ve tried to overcomplicate things, we’ve tried to play too much football, we recycle it far too much across the back and midfield. We don’t put the ball in the box enough…if it was decomplicated I think we would do better.”
The irony of this message is that Salford are once again reverting towards the pragmatic approach that did for Alexander. They’re not expecting Bowyer to play Manchester United style football. They just want him to get results.
Bowyer comes across on camera how you remember him at City. A nice man and probably good fun after a few pints, but slightly dour. In his welcome speech to his players, he says, “First and foremost I’m here to help you lads. What you will get from me is honesty, you’ll get passion and you’ll get hard work. And I expect that back. I also want banter. You’re in one of the best jobs in the world so come and enjoy it.”
There are 11 games to go, and Bowyer starts with a 1-0 defeat to promotion rivals Exeter. We see them playing bottom club Grimsby at home, with reality still biting hard on Neville. Before the game he says, “I can’t see anything but a win, not being disrespectful to Grimsby,” before bursting out laughing. The footage cuts to the game, where two minutes in Grimsby go 1-0 up. Salford have to rely on a stoppage time equaliser to scramble a point.
“Worst league you’re ever going to see in your life, and we’ve absolutely f***ed it up,” Neville angrily declares after the game. Yes, but you should probably respect the league a bit more, Gary.
Belatedly Bowyer gets Salford going and they win five out of seven games to climb into the play off spots. This includes a 1-0 win at Valley Parade, thanks to a stoppage time winner. You can see it means a lot to Bowyer to win at his former club, as we see his post-match dressing room talk where he urges his players to crank up their music to full blast so everyone can hear them celebrating.
A few days later, Salford lose 1-0 to Colchester to end their play off hopes.
The final stages of the documentary show the owners debating the future of Bowyer, with lots of data analysing the individual player performances since he took over. Director of Football Chris Casper states, “Gary has got a tune out of the players. He’s got better performances.” He then goes into a full on tactical analysis about how much more effective Bowyer’s football has proved, only stopped in his tracks by a blunt interjection from Nicky Butt.
“So, he’s gone more direct?”
In the end, Bowyer is made permanent manager, with Neville adding, “He’s like a father figure to the players. He really is connected to the players we’ve got. He knows how to get the best out of them.” And as he summarises a season where Salford finished eighth – the highest position in the club’s history – he is brave enough to accept his share of the blame for failing to win promotion.
“This season, through decisions I’ve made, we’re not going to go up again. And I completely take that on board. You make decisions at a football club that you’ll either get the reward for, or you’ll take the criticism for it and rightly so.”
They are refreshingly honest words and you wish more football club owners and chairman were the same. The latest series underlines just how tricky running a football club must be. How even the best of intentions don’t automatically translate into success. But also how merely talking in an ambitious way isn’t enough on its own.
Salford are a club that wants to run before it can walk. Like City, they don’t have their own training ground and have to share facilities with a local school.
Flash forward to the present day, Salford have seemingly gone backwards again and are 11th, having spent most of the first half of the season lumbered in the bottom half of the league. There are signs of improvement of late, but overall they remain a long way short of the owners’ expectations to get promoted.
Yet Bowyer remains in charge at Salford. This Saturday, he will make the walk down the Valley Parade touchline and receive his first proper reception from his former home crowd.
Given the trigger happy nature of 2020/21, it is a surprise to see Bowyer still at the helm when he might have been sacked before Christmas. To an extent, he was protected by the very public Solskjær situation at Manchester United. The Norwegian was under huge pressure, yet Neville – a former team mate of Ole – refused to join the calls for his sacking.
As he argued on national TV that United needed stability and to stick with Solskjær, he would have looked very hypocritical if over the same period he had sacked Bowyer.
Yet there is probably more to it than that. And Bowyer survives in much the same way as Derek Adams remains City manager, despite so far failing to match the high expectations on his appointment.
Bradford City and Salford are two clubs who have churned managers too quickly. The regular rolling of the dice has only caused instability, not progress. And perhaps more than anything these are two clubs run by people who have learned the hard way there are no shortcuts. That to build a successful football club requires an ability to ride out the bumps.
In some ways, Adams and Bowyer are being judged by less harsh standards than their predecessors. Adams, for example, so far has a much weaker win percentage (20.6%) than Trueman and Sellars (45.2%) and even McCall’s last spell (25%). But there is an understanding, at least for now, that we have to let someone build something. The current frustrations are directed more at others than the manager.
Time will tell if both clubs are rewarded for their efforts to build stability, or if it fails to deliver rewards. For now, both clubs remain a long way short of where they want to be. They’re rolled the dice too often and lost. Now they are trying to trust in managers with proven track records, as they look to get back into the promotion shake-up.
And that makes the outcome of this weekend’s fixture all the more interesting.