Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 14: Will commercialism spoil all that's good about non-league football?

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 14: Will commercialism spoil all that's good about non-league football?

Even the most casual observer of the current football scene can hardly have failed to notice the impact that the ambitious Salford City are having on the non-league game, bearing in mind the vast amount of media comment (both positive and negative) that the club is currently attracting. Here’s MARGARET BRECKNELL for our 18 for 18 series.

Salford City has become the club everyone loves to hate, the poster boys for the unwanted (in some eyes) commercialism that is creeping into non-league football.  The club is accused of trying to buy its way into the Football League. The summer signing of Adam Rooney from Aberdeen on a reported salary of over £4,000 a week has provoked a huge amount of column inches in the press. This salary has been compared unfavourably, not only with the average weekly salary in the National League of under £1,000, but also the wage structure at the top end of Scottish League football. However, the truth is that Salford may be the latest and most high profile example of the trend towards ever greater commercialism in the English non-league game, but the club is far from being the first and undoubtedly won’t be the last.

It wasn’t ever thus for the north-west club.  Founded in 1940, Salford City’s first 70 years were relatively uneventful as they steadily progressed from playing in local Manchester leagues to competing regularly in the North West Counties League and the lower reaches of the Northern Premier. That all changed in March 2014 when it was announced that five members of Manchester United’s “Class of 92” had agreed a deal to purchase the club.  At the time the news broke, the group of five (consisting of the Neville brothers, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt) portrayed the motivation behind the acquisition as a desire to give something back to grassroots football. They talked of their aim to nurture young, local talent with Salford City becoming a focal point for gifted young footballers that would allow them to follow their dreams in the same way that they had been able to do. 

By the time the deal was ratified by the FA in November 2014, a sixth business partner had come on board – Singapore businessman Peter Lim.  The self-made billionaire had long harboured ambitions when it came to English football, having previously tried to acquire Liverpool in 2010.  The autumn of 2014 proved to be a busy time for Lim, as at the same time he was acquiring his interest in Salford City he was also successfully brokering a deal to obtain a controlling stake in Spanish La Liga side Valencia. 

Lim had a long association with the “Class of 92” too. They had first met when as players they had helped promote the United Red Café Asian franchise which Lim owned. By 2014 their business interests were already interlinked, as Lim was involved in the group’s ambitious Hotel Football project near to Old Trafford. As soon as Lim was announced as the sixth business partner at Salford City, alarm bells began to ring in some quarters despite the businessman’s protestations that his investment in Salford City was purely for philanthropic reasons. Cynics pointed to Lim’s involvement in third-party ownership (a practice banned in England) via his company Meriton Capital, which owned the economic rights of two players on loan at Valencia. Was Lim’s acquisition of Salford all part of his master plan to grow a European football empire?

Whatever the motivation, the impact on Salford’s progress was almost immediate.  Two promotions in two seasons saw the club reach the National League North, the sixth tier of English football, for the first time in its history. With five members of the “Class Of 92” on board, Salford’s profile rose equally quickly. The BBC isn’t usually known for its coverage of the non-league scene, but it wasn’t long before Salford City became the subject of a BBC documentary series.  Progress was so rapid that a semi-final play-off loss at the end of Salford’s first season in the National League North was almost viewed as failure.  There then followed a hugely significant step when it was announced during the summer of 2017 that the players would become full-time professionals from the start of the following season.  The seemingly inevitable promotion to the National League followed in May and with an ever more enterprising attitude towards player recruitment it seems only a matter of time before the progression to league status follows.

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The door was opened for ambitious non-league clubs like Salford City when automatic promotion to the Football League was introduced in 1987.  Before that the Football League was effectively a closed shop, with members voting on whether to re-elect the worst placed clubs or admit instead a non-league side. New entrants were few and far between. Indeed, before the introduction of automatic promotion in 1987, no new non-league side had been admitted to the Football League since Wigan Athletic (at the expense of Southport) in 1978.  The whole re-election system was open to accusations of manipulation and abuse. For instance, it has been long suggested that club chairmen used the re-election system in the 1960s and early 1970s to weed out more remote northern clubs like Gateshead, Workington and Barrow in favour of sides that were located further south.

So, it was largely seen as a positive and long overdue step when Scarborough, under a then little known manager called Neil Warnock, became the first side to be automatically promoted to the Football League at the expense of Lincoln City in 1987. Access to the promised land had become open to all with one proviso – ground facilities had to meet certain criteria. Three clubs were denied promotion on this basis during the 1990s – Kidderminster Harriers, Stevenage and Macclesfield Town – although all subsequently achieved promotion. Ironically, the early years of this new regime saw the likes of Lincoln, Darlington and Colchester United all making swift returns to League Two. Of the new clubs that did make it during the 1990s, Wycombe Wanderers were the biggest success story achieving stability through a combination of shrewd financial management and some inspired managerial choices such as Martin O’Neill. However, promotion proved to be a poisoned chalice for more than one club. Scarborough and Maidstone United both overspent massively in an attempt to upgrade their playing staff and improve facilities to meet league standards. Both ended up going into liquidation.  

Contrary to expectations, therefore, the status quo was initially little changed with only limited fresh blood entering the Football League. Concerns were also expressed regarding the impact on the clubs that were relegated to the Conference, only having restricted opportunity to regain their league status. Eventually a second promotion place was added in 2003 which was to be decided through a play-off system. 

At around the same time as this change was happening, a local businessman called Andy Pilley was acquiring North West Counties League side, Fleetwood Town. Back then, the Fylde club was competing in the ninth tier of English football, but Pilley made it clear he was prepared to spend millions to attain his ultimate ambition for the club of league status.  Through canny investment in the club’s infrastructure as well as the players on the pitch, Fleetwood swiftly made their way up the football pyramid achieving promotion to League Two in 2012.  When the club was promoted to League One two years later, it marked an incredible sixth promotion in ten years.

The manner in which Pilley achieved success at Fleetwood through huge financial investment has proved a blueprint for other ambitious businessmen looking to do likewise.  Southern side Crawley Town provided a similar example. The club is said to have spent more in the January 2011 transfer window than all the then League Two clubs combined. Where the likes of Fleetwood and Crawley led the way, others have since looked to follow.

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Like Salford, AFC Fylde have enjoyed a meteoric rise through the lower reaches of the non-league pyramid over the last few years. The club was known as Kirkham & Wesham and attracted gates of less than 100 when it was acquired by wealthy local businessman David Haythornthwaite in 2007. Like Andy Pilley at Fleetwood, Haythornthwaite has invested heavily in the club’s infrastructure. In August 2016 AFC Fylde moved to a new purpose built ground which forms part of a large out-of-town complex including a hotel and restaurant.  When, back in 2007, the new owner announced his ambition for the then North West Counties side to achieve league status by 2022, it was greeted with much derision. Having reached the Conference play-offs at the first attempt last season, AFC Fylde may, in fact, achieve league status ahead of schedule. 

However, there is one big “but”.  Yes, a second promotion place was added back in 2003, but the way in which the system is structured has seen more than one promotion favourite come unstuck over the years. Only one side is promoted from the Conference automatically and the next six clubs then compete for the other promotion place through a play-off system. As we all know, many a heavily fancied side has come unstuck in play-off matches succumbing to a team which finished way behind it during the league season. 

Take the example of Forest Green Rovers. The club looked set for a bright future when it was taken over by Ecotricity owner, Dale Vince, in 2010. However, despite already being an established Conference side, the club had a frustrating wait of seven years before finally achieving promotion through the play-offs at the third attempt in 2016-17. A recent Price of Football survey estimated that it cost Forest Green’s owner a cool £12million to reach the Football League.

Of course, the same scenario applies to the former league clubs that are looking to return to League Two. Take the case of Wrexham. A club with a rich history (it is the third oldest professional football club in the world), the Welsh side was relegated from League Two way back in 2008. Since then the club has reached the play-offs on numerous occasions, but is yet to regain its league status.  They came closest in the 2011/12 season when they finished a close second on 98 points to big spending Fleetwood Town, only to lose in the play-off semi final to Luton Town. The latter had finished a distant 17 points behind Wrexham in the league table.

Taking into account all these factors, it is no wonder that there is an increasing clamour for the promotion/relegation places between League Two and the National League to be increased from two to three, which would allow for two automatic promotion places. The opposing argument that this would dilute the quality of League Two is outdated, as the quality of football at non-league level has improved immensely since automatic promotion was first introduced in the late 1980s. Nearly all National League players are now full-time professionals and with increased investment, clubs are now able to attract players of a higher calibre than was the case previously. The influx of foreign players at the top end of the English game has reduced opportunities for British born players, meaning they have had to drop down the ladder in a way that simply would not have happened years ago.  Year on year the National League becomes more and more a natural extension of the Football League, effectively a League Three.  All this is reflected in how promoted sides have fared in League Two, with most comfortably holding their own and several achieving promotion to League One at the first attempt. 

If a third promotion place is introduced, it will do little to stem the flow of ambitious investors sniffing around the non-league scene. However, it may result in a more rapid progression out of the National League for clubs such as Salford whose spending power is so much greater than their counterparts. This may in turn lead to a more level playing field for the other sides and help to discourage the kind of spending beyond clubs’ means that we have increasingly seen in recent seasons. When a disproportionate amount of that spending is directed towards player recruitment and salaries and not at developing the club’s infrastructure, it is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.  

Not all wealthy investors achieve their ultimate goal of league football.  Some fall by the wayside, either losing patience or finding themselves unable to sustain the required level of investment. When majority shareholder Glyn Hopkin pulled out of Dagenham & Redbridge midway through last season, the Daggers were forced to offload a number of star players in an attempt to reduce the wage bill and for a while the future looked bleak for the club.  On this occasion, at least, there has been a happy ending with a somewhat unlikely twist in the tale as an American consortium led by Tim Howard successfully completed a takeover of the club.

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Sadly, not all clubs are so lucky.  It must be tough to be a fan of local football in Nuneaton.  The legendary George Best once played for Nuneaton Borough in a friendly during the 1980s. The club was a steady presence around the fifth and sixth tier of English football for many years until severe financial difficulties led to its demise in 2008. From the ashes Nuneaton Town was formed and successive promotions saw the new club reach National League North status. However, the Nuneaton side was once again plunged into chaos when Chairman Lee Thorn decided to put the club up for sale towards the end of last season. The lights literally went out in September, as the electricity was cut off.  It looked like a Nuneaton based club was on the brink of going out of existence for the second time in ten years until local-based businessman Nick Hawkins, a former non-league manager, was named as the new owner.  The club has announced its intention to switch from a full-time to part-time playing staff and the electricity has now been reconnected. However, there is still much to do before Nuneaton’s future is secured.   

Should the unthinkable happen and the Nuneaton club folds for a second time, it would be all too easy to dismiss the news as being of little consequence to anyone outside that particular corner of Warwickshire. However, every time a non-league club is lost, there is an immediate impact not only on the local community but the wider football world. At non-league level it is still possible to feel a connection between player and fan in a way that is now unthinkable at the top end of the football pyramid. To many it harks back to how the game started in a world far removed from the cosmopolitan spectacle that is now top flight club football. It also offers an alternative for those fans who are being priced out of watching the game at a higher level. 

The likes of Salford City with their financial clout and obvious ambition will come and go, but that isn’t really what the non-league scene is all about. It gives the football fan, weary of the direction in which the professional game has gone, a chance to return to grassroots and enjoy an uncomplicated spectacle of good honest football. For all those who cherish that, we need to ensure that it is given a chance to continue to flourish. As well as providing a third promotion spot out of the National League, it is also time for the FA to look again at how the financial affairs of non-league clubs are regulated. The number of supporter-owned football clubs is on the rise and that may well prove to be the way forward. Whatever we do, we cannot let commercialism spoil all that’s good about non-league football. 

MARGARET BRECKNELL - @mabrecknell

margaretbrecknell@hotmail.co.uk