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'Class of 92' conjuring up more soccer fairy tales

03 December 2015, 21:31

London - Even in retirement, Manchester United's famous "Class of '92" isn't done with conjuring up fairy tales.

While the group's most famous name, David Beckham, has hit roadblocks in his attempt to start an MLS expansion team in Miami, five of his former teammates made their first foray into club ownership much closer to home.

Also read: Gary Neville named Valencia coach

Last year, Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, winners of the Premier League a combined 44 times at United and the backbone of two trophy-laden decades under manager Alex Ferguson, bought a 50 percent stake in non-league side Salford City, which is located less than 8 kilometers from United's famed Old Trafford. Salford was playing at the time in the eighth tier of English soccer.

Under the "Class of '92," Salford achieved immediate promotion, is currently riding high in the seventh tier, the Northern Premier Division, and is on its best run in the FA Cup, the world's oldest and most iconic club knockout competition. A win against fourth-tier Hartlepool on Friday would place Salford in with the country's giants, including United, in the draw for the third round.

"Who in their right mind, in the seventh tier of English football, is really looking to get to the third round of the FA Cup," Salford striker Danny Webber said. "This is a dream to get here. It's a fairy tale."

Fans of Salford's rivals have labeled the team "Manchester City of the non-league," referring to a club that's become a Premier League force since 2008 through an injection of cash. The perception is that the "Class of '92" and Singaporean business partner Peter Lim, who owns the other 50 percent, are buying their way up the leagues. Even some die-hard Salford fans initially resented a takeover which they perceived threatened the soul of the club.

Salford's players and officials reject those accusations. Money has mostly been spent on improving infrastructure at the club's 1,400-capacity Moor Lane home rather than the semi-professional playing squad, on which the owners have imposed a wage limit. Every player has a full-time job away from soccer, there are window cleaners, fitness instructors, delivery drivers, nurses. The co-manager, Anthony Johnson, is a wagon driver.

"People's perception of the club is totally wrong," striker Gareth Seddon, who models for the likes of Nike, Puma and Under Armour, told The Associated Press before one of the team's two weekly training sessions in nearby Bury. "The Class of '92 wants to do it the right way.

"The whole ethos is to make it a family club, a community club. We don't want to be seen as a club that just buys players and buys the league. If we do that, players and fans won't buy into the whole story of Salford. The soul will go and we don't want that."

With Gary Neville, the England assistant manager and newly hired coach of Spanish team Valencia, at the forefront, the United greats have brought a seriousness and professionalism to the club, although they try not to interfere in team matters.

A recently aired BBC TV documentary, entitled "Class of '92: Out Of Their League" took a fly-on-the-wall look at their dealings with Salford in their first season in charge. They care deeply about the club. They anguish over board decisions. Losses on the field hurt. This doesn't seem to be a publicity stunt.

And it's putting Salford City's name in lights. The game against Hartlepool at Moor Lane is a sell-out, like it was for the first-round victory against Notts County which was watched by 3.5 million TV viewers a record for that stage of the FA Cup and saw Gary Neville and Scholes sing and dance with the players in the locker room after the game.

"The name's getting around," Salford chairwoman Karen Baird told the AP. "We had a minor cup game a couple of weeks ago, and we'd normally have 30 people and a dog there. There was, like, 1,000 people there. This FA Cup run has done wonders for us."

Gary Neville was presented as Valencia coach on Thursday, and will likely be at the Spanish club's Mestalla Stadium on Saturday for its game against Barcelona. But he is planning to fly back to Salford on Friday to take in the FA Cup game, from his usual position on a bank in the far corner of the ground.

Webber, a former United player and Salford's most high-profile name, said there's a "Class of 92" presence at 90 percent of games, which drives him and his teammates on.

"There's a certain standard set," said the 33-year-old Webber, who was close to retiring before being lured to Salford. "They've come through at United and they are disciples of Sir Alex they do things with an element of class, good standards and humanity."

And now, Salford is 90 minutes away from potentially a third-round match against United.

"It'd be great to go to Old Trafford and play as the minions," Webber said with a smile. "It'd be a great day out."

- AP


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