Neville excited for Salford City’s first-ever meeting with Man United

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Gary Neville readily admits that he does not sit back and wallow in the moment. When a task is completed, it’s time for the Salford City co-owner to move on to the next challenge, and there are plenty of those right now for a League Two club in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But even Neville, who won 17 major honours during 602 appearances for Manchester United between 1992 and 2011, feels a sense of achievement and pride at the prospect of his two worlds colliding on Wednesday when Salford face United in a competitive fixture for the first time, in the EFL Trophy.

There are a multitude of problems and issues to contend with at every level of football as the game attempts to navigate a path through the COVID-19 crisis, and Neville has strong views on most of them. But six years after the 45-year-old joined forces with former United teammates Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and brother Phil — the “Class of ’92” — by taking over a non-league club playing in front of 150 fans each week in the eighth tier of English football, the prospect of hosting United this week is a significant moment.

“I always go back to the first Salford game that I, Ryan and Nicky went to,” Neville told ESPN. “We stood behind the goal and nobody knew we were taking over the club. It was against Curzon Ashton and Salford lost 3-1.

“It was so awful, we thought, ‘What have we done here?’ We were miles away. But in the years since, we have had four promotions, played at Wembley, climbed to the Football League and we are going to be playing Manchester United this week. There have been milestones all the way through and you now think, ‘this is actually happening.’ that vision of where we wanted to be.

“Because of our careers in the game, you get used to things happening and brushing them aside, almost getting on with it. And now we are playing games we dreamed of playing in — occasions that, five or six years ago, you imagined would be like ‘wow!’ — you don’t really think about it now they are here.

“But all that aside, it is a big moment for us to play Manchester United. It will be their Under-21 side, but it’s still Manchester United. In normal circumstances, the stadium would have been full and it would have been a great occasion for Salford fans, United fans and the local area, but we obviously have to play behind closed doors and that’s one of the big shames of this situation we are in right now.”

That “situation” is the ongoing uncertainty not just in football, but society as a whole as a result of a pandemic that has created financial concerns in every home and business across the globe. As the owner of two hotels and a property development company, alongside his involvement with Salford, Neville has had a daily insight into the unprecedented challenges.

“I live in Manchester and on some days, it’s like a ghost town,” he said. “There are sandwich shops, which used to be packed, with nobody in them. There are still massive health issues within this country, but there are also massive economic issues — not just in football, but in society which will start playing out in the next few months and year, because of the coronavirus.”

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Salford, however, have been one of the lucky ones from a football perspective. The Class of ’92 bring the profile that has enabled the club to negotiate a lucrative sponsorship renewal with the telecommunications company TalkTalk, while majority owner Peter Lim, the Singaporean businessman, is a billionaire. But with all clubs in EFL League 1 and League 2 losing the income generated through the turnstiles since their seasons were halted in March — the 2019-20 season was eventually cancelled at L1 and L2 level — money has dried up and, despite their advantages, Neville says that Salford have not been immune to the effects of the pandemic.

“Football has big challenges ahead of us,” he said. “Missing the atmosphere is an emotional feeling, but missing the revenue from the games is a massive problem for many clubs.

“From our point of view, we will miss the revenue, but we are not dependent on it to succeed at this moment in time. But for other clubs, it’s absolutely critical. Sitting in some of the league meetings I’ve been involved with in recent months, you can feel the anguish and see the pain and understand the challenges caused by issues that haven’t come about because of their own bad decisions or lack of funding.

“It’s purely an economic situation and fans not being in the stadium is one of the biggest causes of that.”

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Clubs in all divisions of English football are hopeful that government plans to allow some fans back into stadiums from the beginning of October will go ahead. But initially, it will be no more than 30 percent of stadium capacity. That may not be an appealing figure to the likes of United, Liverpool and Arsenal, whose stadiums will still feel largely empty, but in the lower leagues, 30 percent of capacity will almost be back to normality.

“We will get 1,700 in,” Neville said. “We averaged 2,500 last season, so we would be down by around 800 fans.

“Our ticket prices average out around £6-7-a-game, so you’re talking about losing £4,000 a match. If we miss 10 matches, that’s £40,000. Our commercial revenue is higher than our gate revenue because we can leverage off different aspects, whether it is through the documentary we have done, or the shareholders — there are elements we can capitalise on that other clubs can’t. It is a strength we have within the club, but we also have a deficiency when it comes to revenue on match days.

“We are competing with clubs in League 2 like Bolton, who can average maybe 15,000 fans at every home game. Bradford will be the same. We were averaging 150 people a game six years ago — now we are at 2,500, so it is a massive increase in supporters. We are trying to build a club within a city, but clubs like Bolton, Bradford, Tranmere, they have long, established histories and the fan base to match.

“But clubs at our level rely on season ticket sales to get them through the summer months, and that revenue has been absolutely obliterated.”

In an attempt to bring some financial stability and certainty to the lower leagues, clubs in League 1 and League 2 voted during the summer to introduce a salary cap. In League 1, the limit is £2.5m a year on player wages, while in League 2, the figure is £1.5m.

Just over a year ago Neville’s hometown club, Bury, were expelled from the EFL due to a failure to pay player wages and mounting debts, and despite being against the imposition of salary cap, Neville accepts it is something that many clubs were desperate for.

“Fundamentally, I disagree with it, but I also understand that the clubs are massively for it and, when you are a member of a league like we are, I do believe in solidarity and that, if you become a member, you are conscientious of the others’ wishes and that’s how we have acted at Salford,” Neville said. “We are in a different position to most other clubs, so it would be wrong of us to be selfish on our behalf. We have to understand the plight of other clubs and the situation they are in.

“The average League 2 wage bill last season was £1.9m-£2m, so it’s 25 percent less than that. And there is a natural salary cap coming in this season because of coronavirus. It is the biggest impact on player wages for decades, certainly in the lower leagues, but the clubs wanted it and felt they needed it. I was vocally against it when it first came in 3-4 months ago, but I know that we are a member of 72 EFL clubs and 48 clubs in L1 and L2, and 38 of that 48 voted for the salary cap to come in.

“That’s a landslide. The clubs and owners have had enough of losing money, putting money in, subsidising wages.”

One solution to football’s financial crisis, Neville believes, is help from the Premier League, whose most recent broadcasting deal amounted to £9 billion between 2019 and 2022. During negotiations over Project Restart, the UK government insisted on greater Premier League support for football’s ecosystem in the lower leagues, but as yet, the trickle-down effect has been limited to the advance of a £125m solidarity payment thar had been due anyway.

“Many clubs are in a really difficult situation and I’ve called, from day one, for a support package from the Premier League for the lower leagues,” Neville said.

“It hasn’t come yet, but I’m hopeful it can come at some point because I do think that there is a massive pressure on clubs that doesn’t need to exist at this moment in time. It could be something as simple as a gift. If you are talking about £250m from the Premier League, it is essentially £12m per club.

“We are talking about £250m out of a £9 billion broadcasting deal, as a one-off, to try to salvage some revenue from the losses incurred by coronavirus.”

Neville will continue to be a prominent voice in the battle for greater support for the smaller clubs, but this week, he will allow himself a moment of satisfied reflection. When Manchester United’s next generation emerge onto the pitch at Salford’s Peninsula Stadium on Wednesday, it will be a reminder football is not always about the cold world of business.

“There are days as a club owner where you ask yourself why you are doing,” Neville said. “But it’s because we love football and it’s the one thing that I do in my life that gives me a thrill — the anger, the disappointment, the thrill of winning in the last minute — which can in some way replicate what I had as a player at United.

“It can never fully replicate it, but you get that little feeling of it, and Wednesday will be a moment for that.”