They have invested millions into a failing football club, done the fly-on-the-wall documentary, enjoyed the euphoria of promotion to the English Football League (EFL) and then had a “slap in the face from reality.” If Wrexham owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney want a glimpse into the future, they should reach out to the Manchester United Class of ’92 stars who are now nine years into their own project at Salford City.
Salford could yet face newly promoted Wrexham in League Two next season, but they are desperately trying to avoid an encounter with the Hollywood-owned National League champions. Two wins from their final two league games will secure a League Two playoff spot for Salford and keep alive the prospect of a fifth promotion in nine seasons.
Five promotions in nine seasons would represent an incredible run of success for Salford, who were playing in front of average crowds of just 138 in the eighth tier of English football when the Class of ’92 arrived in 2014. But having been promoted to the EFL in 2019, the club’s upward momentum has stalled. They have employed four different managers in four seasons and finished 11th, eighth and 10th respectively, and while they still pay some of the highest wages in League Two, their recruitment is now a mixture of more affordable free transfers, out of contract players and loan signings.
Class of ’92 teammates Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and David Beckham continue to help fund Salford, alongside majority owner Peter Lim, the Singaporean billionaire, but life in the EFL has been tough. Saying that, Salford are now sixth with two games to go and face fifth-place Carlisle on Saturday.
Butt, who was appointed as chief executive last October, told ESPN that Salford have learned the hard way that celebrity and financial resources aren’t enough to earn success in the EFL.
“At the start [at Salford], it was very much ‘throw a bit of money at it and you can get the best players in the league and you can fly up.’ That’s what we did if we’re honest,” Butt said. “We threw a lot of money at it, blew a lot of clubs out the water at that level.
“But we realised that that’s not how we were brought up. That’s not the way we want to have a football club. You have to do that sometimes to get the top: the striker that’s going to get you 30 goals to go up or the best goalkeeper in the league. You have to throw some money at it.
“But we have become sustainable over the past few years — if there’s such thing as sustainable in football, I don’t think there is, but as sustainable as you can get — and we got to a point where we realised that no matter what you throw at it, League Two is a tough league. You can get beaten by the bottom team, you can win against the top of the table. It’s a really difficult league to get out of and we’re finding that out year-on-year.
“It was a really great start for us with promotion, promotion, promotion: the dream’s coming and then we got slapped in the face from reality and that’s what it is. It’s a tough league to get out of.
“If you look at Wrexham coming up now, they’ve got obviously great big backers who can throw money at it, but it’s [about] more than just money.”
While following in many of Salford’s footsteps by investing heavily into the club and generating huge media interest beyond the team’s local fanbase, Wrexham owners Reynolds and McElhenney have helped secure promotion for their side without the depths of football knowledge that the Class of ’92 had built up during the careers at United and elsewhere. Butt admits he has been impressed by the success generated at Wrexham and he says that they could sustain their momentum as long as they are aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead.
“You have to get some continuity in your squad,” Butt said. “We shouldn’t really say it because we have swapped managers quite a bit, but you have to get continuity in any successful sporting team. But Wrexham is a big club, isn’t it? I mean, you don’t get away from it, it’s a big club. If they go up again, they’ll fill 18,000, 20,000 seats easily.
“The owners have gone in there and from what I can see outside looking in, they aren’t just going to throw money at it. You can see them involved in the club, you can see them with the fans, you can see them in the community. I think that’s massive, so fair play to them. They have done a great job.
“Right from the start, for whatever reason, we got a lot of stick around [owning Salford]. I found it a bit harsh because we were putting money — our own money — back into a football club that was close to our heart. We know we’re never going to get anything out of it, so it’s not like we’re borrowing some money for a while and taking loans out. We never do. We never will. But with Wrexham obviously getting all the profile, they’re taking a bit of heat off us if you like. So hopefully we can go a little bit more under the radar, try and get promotion in the way we want to.”
Despite aiming for a less visible approach at Salford, with their focus on winning promotion to League One and then dealing with those challenges, Butt and his former United teammates continue to ensure that Salford have a much greater profile than their size — their average crowd of 2,800 this season is the second-lowest in League Two — would ordinarily command. They are not Hollywood A-listers like Reynolds and McElhenney, but the Class of ’92 remain stellar names in English football and Butt says there has always been an acceptance that their fame must be used to help drive Salford’s growth.
“We knew what we had to do to get the spotlight on Salford,” Butt said. “We’re not daft. We knew what we had to do: we had to get a documentary, we had to get the hype up, get the fans up and try and move forward with that.
“We did that and we want to become our own identity. We want to be Salford. We want to be a hard-working, working-class team for the people. We want to be different. We want to be edgier. We want people to not like coming to Salford.
“Wrexham have got the Hollywood owners, that’s great. It works for them, but it doesn’t really work for us in the demographic we’re in. We want to be different. We want to be doing it our way, really.”
Salford’s way has now been finessed by Butt since he stepped up to the CEO role in October, with Gary Neville stepping aside to focus on other projects, while retaining a reduced involvement in the club. With Phil Neville and Beckham working together at Major League Soccer team Inter Miami CF, Butt, Scholes and Giggs now have a more hands-on role at Salford, with Butt leading the day-to-day running of the club after leaving his post as United’s head of first-team development in Oct. 2021.
“Being a CEO is not something that I set out in life to become,” Butt said. “I was always very much looking towards the football on the grass kind of direction after my playing days, but things work out differently in life, don’t they?
“I did my CEO course probably four years ago now, just to try and get another string to my bow, try and have some empathy for what people do in that role so you’re not all about football. You can have a bit of a line to how businesses work, how a club works and runs, so that you become better at your own role.
“The plan with Salford was always that one day we would all work together in the club that we own, or part-own, and it has probably come around a bit earlier than we expected. But the vision was to get us in and work full time and try and show the outside world how serious we are about the football club.”
So will Salford collide with Wrexham next season? Butt and his club are firmly focused on their playoff push, which continues at Carlisle on Saturday.
“It’s a big final, isn’t it? We have to win this game. I’m pretty sure they’re saying the same. If you want to go up or you want to win anything, you look at any successful team, you have to beat your rival.
“I think if we go up, our fan base will start growing again. It’s stagnated because number one, people haven’t got all the spare cash at the minute. We accept that. We know the demographic that we’re in, so we have to accept that also. But the field of facts has not been there, like you say, for two or three years with no promotion so we need to get that back. We need to get the ball rolling again.”