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Salford City 2017/18: My Year Following The National League North Champions

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You can search long and hard for a word to describe Salford City’s penalties in the 2016/17 National League North play-off semi final shootout, but nothing serves quite so well as ‘crap’.

These cruel and fickle shootouts are something of a specialist subject for me, having been the match winning goal-keeper in an Under 16s Central Warwickshire, league cup semi-final via penalties several years ago. I distinctly remember a rather ageing and plump official lecturing my counterpart and I on the importance of holding our position and not, as is the habit of the keepers in the Premier League, to step slightly off our line as a penalty taker shoots to gain the narrowest of advantages.

“If you’re a mile out your goal and you save it I’m going to make the kicker take it again. End of.” he said gruffly. “If however, they whack the ball over the bar and you’re off your line then that’s their problem. If you can’t hit the target from 12 yards then you should not be taking a penalty.”

For Salford City, in their shootout against Halifax Town, two of their three penalty takers should not have been taking a penalty. The other saw a feeble effort saved. Salford lost the shootout 3–0.

I often reminisce back to the words of that stern referee whenever I see a penalty placed wildly off target. Watching highlights of the shootout, which included a brace of Salford spot-kicks destined for the cold, neglected terraces of Halifax Town, drove the memory to the foreground of my vision. Those penalties really were crap.

The 2016/17 season was a stain on the once perfectly uniform record of promotion in every season for Salford since the Class of 92’s much publicised takeover in 2014. In three years the club had risen from the Northern Premier League Division One North to the National League North, just two rungs below the football league.

However, the globally famous owners of Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, who heralded from a footballing culture which, though still the aspiration of many non league players, was hundreds of harsh, untrodden miles away from Moor Lane, stuck by their gritty, straight-talking joint managers, Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson despite the unfortunate play off semi-final loss.

Further to this, though certainly unsurprising given the clubs ambitious mandate of Championship football within the next 15 years, Salford invested heavily over the following summer. Liam Hogan was enticed away from Gateshead later becoming captain. Jake Beesley was brought in from League Two’s Chesterfield and keeper Max Crocombe was pinched from Carlisle among many, many others.

City’s most successful singing of the offseason was undoubtedly Jack Redshaw from League One outfit Blackpool. Over the next nine months, Redshaw would run rings around opponents which were admittedly three tiers beneath his exuberating standards.

In July, 2017, the Greater Manchester club went full time, convincing any, doubters that the owners really were upholding their promise of moulding City into a utopian, family-orientated football league club.

Later that month, the Class of 92 launched Salford’s first youth setup. Not only did they craft it in their own image but also gave it their name. Baptising it — The Academy 92. Yet any sense of unnecessary egotism was dismissed after promises of first class coaches and facilities which have thus far been upheld.

It was around this time I first became majorly attached to Salford City. I had seen the Ammies in fleeting appearances on highlight shows and every December a two-part documentary was broadcast on BBC One and later Sky Sports. As I was now destined for the University of Salford, and had been put off by the excruciating ticket prices of the areas other team — some club called Manchester United — I believed it was in my best interest to become fully engulfed in the life and times of this rapidly growing side.

At first though, it seemed like a foolish endeavour. Seldom had a season been so keenly anticipated at Moor Lane then 2017/18, yet the expectation of the fans did not transpire to the players who were convincingly defeated by Darlington 2–0 on the opening day. Still in early August and not yet packed for University I followed City’s results eagerly on my phone.

Over the next four games Salford would change their fortunes dispatching Chorley, Telford, Stockport and Kidderminster all convincingly. The boys in red then went a further seven matches unbeaten until they were finally defeated once more, this time losing 2–1 to York City in the FA Cup.

By now I was firmly settled, residing in student accommodation, garnishing a new found independence and accepting, what will most likely be the status quo for the rest of my existence, living as a single man.

Like the hundreds before me in my new found, lonely shell, I turned to the the numbing comfort of trying to claim somebody else’s achievements. Every City win was hijacked and moulded as if it was also my victory. Yet, overshadowing my criminal use of inclusive pronouns was my own personal profanity of not yet having visited Moor Lane.

My Saturday’s were occupied with University Hockey preventing my mystical pilgrimage up Neville Road. But, only hours after the York loss, I was alerted of the season’s first bye and, like a child at Christmas, I danced around my student halls once I realised this first free weekend fell on a Salford home fixture.

The date finally came around and I found myself joined by a Norwegian course mate of mine, Lars, predominantly for emotional support. We taxied to the ground, cramming in information on that afternoon’s opponents, Leamington. Second from bottom, just three wins all season.

Lars and I made an odd couple. Him well rounded and me, built like a stick, we resembled a poor Laurel and Hardy tribute act. Lars’ heavy Scandinavian accent also added to the illusion of us ‘not being from around here.’ To embed ourselves firmly into the home faithful we purchased two red and white scarfs from club shop vendor Tony Sheldon, who would go on to be named the League’s Volunteer of the Month.

Draped in my newly adopted colours I entered my people’s Cathedral, still marked with fresh paint giving off the pungent odour of ambition. I stood in the packed home terrace, in line with the centre spot, feeling like a tinned Sardine shoulder to shoulder, singing my little heart out. I felt I had found a new love. Salford would lose the game 3–2.

It was a love though that only survived through the roaring brightness of its first flame. Though I enjoyed my season of Saturday Hockey, I felt heartbroken being exiled away from the Ammies. I followed with anticipation online but it felt superficial. When Salford fell slightly off the pace in February I felt as if I was somehow partly to blame.

My Hockey campaign finished in early April though I had a smattering of family commitments that prevented my immediate return to attendance at Moor Lane. Salford were now destined for the Championship and automatic promotion into the National League. With three games remaining they found themselves three points clear of second placed Harrogate Town though had an inferior goal difference.

First was a midweek away trip to Southport. I listened with inherent nervousness to radio commentary, chewing the little nails I had left and whispering sweet reassurances back to the speakers. Just one goal, just one will do.

Salford battled valiantly, coming away with a 1–0 win. The Tuesday night’s biggest talking point however came from mid table Boston United who humbled a sorry Harrogate side. City were now six points clear with only six points left to play for. If they picked up just one more point in their next game, or Harrogate failed to win they would be promoted. It would be a home game, ironically against Boston, I knew I had to go.

I took my place in the home terrace for only the second time. The atmosphere was jovial, the early arrival of summer sun had allowed for a record attendance made up mostly of young families and men in flip flops and shorts.

The game itself was an anticlimax. Boston raced into an early two goal lead but the mood in the ground stayed jovial as news spread that Harrogate had fallen behind in their game against Bradford Park Avenue. In the second half, a chorus of “Championés! Championés! Olé! Olé! Olé!” erupted. Park Avenue had scored a second. The refrain was bellowed louder then the celebration that greeted a late Salford consolation goal from Lois Maynard a couple of minutes later.

The referee blew for full time. Harrogate had lost. Salford fans invaded the pitch. Next year the club would be playing Leyton Orient, Aldershot, Tranmere Rovers, Hartlepool United. I smiled to myself at the thought. I remained in the stands with a handful of supporters who had decided against hopping over the barrier onto the grass. They formed a choir singing a song from one of their own. By the second verse, more and more scarfs were being held aloft as the song spread and gathered us in.

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

All images were taken by the author. The first two are from the Leamington fixture on October 7th, whilst the latter three are from the Boston match on April 21st.

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