Gary Neville isn’t used to compromise. Whether as club captain of one of Manchester United’s greatest-ever teams, the most respected football pundit on TV or Roy Hodgson’s trusted England coach, he demands the best from himself – and expects others to do the same. All of which makes his decision to become a football club owner more baffling – because compromise is the name of this game.
In March 2014, Gary, his brother Phil, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt announced plans to buy Salford City FC, a non-league club just five miles up the road from Old Trafford, but light years away from the talent and wealth of the Premier League. Their aim? To build a side the city of Salford can be proud of, and take it into the football league. And they invited the BBC’s cameras to follow this real-life Roy of the Rovers story as it unfolded during their inaugural season. The result is the two-part BBC1 series Class of 92: Out of Their League.
In their first season as owners, Sir Alex Ferguson’s “Class of 92” sacked their manager Phil Power, sold 50 per cent of the club to a Singapore billionaire and had roughly 60 players come through the squad. Oh, and they also won their league, the Northern Premier League Division One North. Was this what they anticipated when they took control?
“I think if after six months you’d looked at how we were doing as owners, you’d have probably said, ‘Not very well’,” Gary admits. “But from what we wanted to set out to do, the only time to judge us is in three or four years.
“Phil Power had been at the club for 20 months. We didn’t sack him after six months, we sacked him after 20 months. It’s something that doesn’t sit well with us even now. But where we are at the end [winning the league], I wouldn’t say it justified it, but it makes it slightly more palatable. Now we have to prove to people that we’re not interfering owners.”
Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville
Giggs’s and Butt’s coaching jobs with Manchester United mean they took a back seat in this first season, but Gary threw himself into the administrative side of Salford, with brother Phil and Scholes closest to what was going on on the pitch – too close, they both agree, sitting in the club bar a week after winning promotion.
“I was definitely too involved,” says Phil. “I was going down to training, but obviously I couldn’t go to every session or the players would get different voices at different times.”
Scholes teases, “Phil Power was listening to you, though, wasn’t he. You were influencing him with formations, players to play.”
“No, I don’t think I was,” Phil replies, before Gary restores order: “To sum it up, what we felt would be a positive thing – getting involved, commenting, advising, training – didn’t actually turn out to be a positive.”
It’s this dynamic that makes these fêted United fledgelings so attractive for film-makers: Paul Scholes as dry as sandpaper; Phil bouncing Tigger-like from one task to another; Gary the brusque perfectionist, calling the others to order.
Giggs explains a few months later that it’s often like this round the Salford City boardroom table. “Gary is business-minded whereas the other lads aren’t so interested,” he says. “He’s interested in every facet of the football club. We trust him. Sometimes we’ll say, ‘No Gary, you’re wrong.’ But not very often.”
Scholes says he often wakes up to find emails from Gary sent at 3.30am, while in the series Gary’s own wife accuses him of being a control freak. “I like to be across everything,” he responds. “I can’t do anything half-roads.”
While their takeover has brought unprecedented success on the pitch, it has been a devil off it, with long-serving volunteers and fans unsure of what the new owners really want. Convincing them became harder when it was announced that Peter Lim, the Singaporean businessman who owns Valencia and once tried to buy Liverpool, was buying a 50 per cent stake.
Lim refused to be filmed when he came to see what he’d bought, but Butt says having Lim was invaluable. “The fans got a bit upset when Peter came in, but we’ve known him for 15 years, we’re friends with his family, he’s friends with ours,” he says. “He was a bit shocked when he saw it [Salford], to be honest. He was like, ‘Where’s my Premier League club?’”
Gary Neville insists that if any of them were in it for the money, they wouldn’t have gone near Salford. “This is only ever going to cost you money. There is no way it was ever a financial decision. You put money in and you’re investing in players, facilities, people.”
Their investment might just prove there’s another way to run a successful club. “We’ve renovated the clubhouse, the stand, the toilets. We’ve renovated the team. At the moment it’s a renovation, not a complete rebuild.”
Gaining promotion has helped to win those arguments, but with success comes more change. “Why wouldn’t people from Salford who work on the ground, work on the committee, want a football league club?” asks Scholes. “Why would people not want to get better? Some people are stuck in their ways, but in ten to 15 years’ time, if we have our own 20,000-seater stadium, then these people are still going to be around, I hope. Do they want to be part of that success, or to be a club that struggles for years?”
They might have hung up their boots, but the Class of 92’s ambition to win is as strong as ever. And there’s no compromise on that.