Gary Neville has never been one to do things by halves. An ambitious and committed player at the very highest level for the best part of two decades, he’s just about seen it all.
These days, ambition and commitment are attributes he has carried over into a variety of successful business ventures, unmistakable punditry and co-commentary for Sky Sports and, perhaps most importantly of all, his role as co-owner of Salford City Football Club, one which continues to catch the eye.
“I love it,” he says with a smile, before pausing for thought.
“I enjoy it, but I also hate it. I’m happy, I’m frustrated, I’m passionate, I’m angry. It gives you every emotion. I feel as connected to Salford City and the players now, as I did as a player at Manchester United. It’s my new life.”
Indeed, since becoming involved with then-non-League Salford back in 2014, he has helped steer the Ammies to four promotions and an EFL Trophy success in just six seasons. It has been a rollercoaster ride that promises to continue on an upward trajectory, with the Club having recently played its 100th EFL fixture as a Sky Bet League Two outfit.
It will come as a surprise to very few that Neville has taken a hands-on approach to his role. With no fewer than eight Premier League and two UEFA Champions League trophies to his name from his playing days, as well as three FA Cup triumphs and a further two in the League Cup, he brings with him a wealth of experience, knowledge and contacts.
His is a name synonymous with achievement; and his Club, therefore, is one with a clear plan.
“We wanted this success,” Neville continues. “We said we thought that a promotion every two years was viable and we’ve bettered that. We didn’t think we’d get to an EFL Trophy Final and beat Portsmouth, so at times we’ve surprised ourselves and there are other things we’re on track with. We always knew there would be a plateau at some point, but overall we’re delighted with what’s happened with the Club.
“We didn’t have a stadium eight years ago and we basically had 160 fans watching us. These days, we get 2,500 for some games and that’s massive for us in terms of our growth. I think we’re only going to get better.
“Our ambition has never changed. We’re a successful Club but we’re finding it more difficult in League Two. We need to navigate through the division, understand how to play in the division and what our identity and values are as we enter into this next chapter. We’re hoping to move into a new stadium too, so it’s a time to reset and re-evaluate who we are, in order to create the Salford City for the next seven years.
“The first seven years have been a brilliant success with frustrations along the way, but we are where we are and we’ve had a great time so far. League Two is a really hard division with teams who fight like mad; it’s a mad division and, in every game, you could flip a coin.”
Now seems as good a time as any to take stock. Like many organisations attempting to manoeuvre through the countless obstacles presented by the pandemic, Neville’s Salford have felt the impact of COVID-19 over the last 18 months.
The 46-year-old has often cited the EFL’s myriad of Managers, playing styles and philosophies as the elements which make it so unique, unpredictable and exciting but, following the outbreak of Coronavirus, many at Club level suddenly found themselves in the same boat.
Whether it was the absence of supporters, implementation of additional health and safety measures or simply the desire for a return to normality, there existed a common ground in unprecedented circumstances, and Neville believes it’s brought about a lasting positive.
“As an owner, it’s been a tough time,” he adds. “Now that we’ve got crowds back, we can probably say how desperate it was without them – it was terrible. I was commentating on games and I think the situation told you how important fans are. It was difficult for players to get up for games without that energy in the stadiums, but we got back on our feet and got football back. It’s been a difficult time, but we’ve seen a lot of positives as well, and I think the EFL did a phenomenal job in the COVID environment in terms of getting football back. It was a brilliant operation.
“As an owner in that situation, you find yourself making instinctive decisions without any sort of comparable in the past or without a manual that tells you how to behave or what to do. It’s been about making sure you look after others, whether it’s your team, your staff, your fans or your community. We’ve had to communicate well and I think, at League Two level, football did that really well.
“Particularly in the first six months of the pandemic, a really strong community was built among owners in League Two and that’s stayed with us since. I think League Two acted nobly during the pandemic and acted with great decency and integrity, and a really strong bond was built there.
“In a time of crisis, with a global health scare and Clubs going through a time of financial stress and uncertainty, I think we found out a lot about people. Speaking as a League Two owner, I really felt we bonded together in that moment and there was a lot of unity and empathy.”
If ‘vaccination’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ have been some of the general buzzwords associated with the pandemic, ‘community’ – as alluded to by the former defender – has been football’s raison d’être.
EFL Clubs and their respective Club Community Organisations were recognised at the 2021 Sports Business Awards for their collective community response to COVID, and now reach over 850,000 people each year across England and Wales through a variety of projects that tackle some key societal issues.
The pandemic has undoubtedly brought this long-standing work – as well as the importance of Clubs to the towns and cities they represent – to the fore. It is something the game, and indeed the country, can ill afford to lose.
“I recognise how important Clubs are because that’s what I’ve grown up with; they’re important to communities right across the country,” Neville says.
“Last night, I left Salford’s ground early; we’d had two men sent off and I was fuming, but we scored in the 95th minute and all of a sudden I feel brighter today. That’s football, that’s what football does to you... it’s your life. On another day, you’ll be 2-0 up and concede twice at the end, and you’ll be devastated all weekend. It affects your life, and people who don’t understand football won’t get that, but it’s like that for millions of us, it consumes our lives.
“I had a photo with four Bristol Rovers fans who had travelled up to Salford on a Tuesday night; it had taken them four hours and I said, ‘well done to you, fair play’, and I thought of them on my way home. Those four lads would have taken the day off work, spent their hard-earned money and got home at three or four in the morning while I’m going to bed just around the corner. Football fans really are spirited, dedicated people.
“For many of us, our Football Club is the major asset in our community and every family is impacted by it, so these games and these Clubs really do matter.”
But football has now reached a time for change, a critical crossroads at which those Clubs – and, by extension, their communities – need to be safeguarded for generations to come. “Ultimately, I’ve learned as an owner that football needs to protect itself from itself,” Neville adds, asked to sum up his learnings since taking the reins.
It is hoped that the publication of the Fan-Led Review into Governance of the English game in November – which proposes a fundamental financial reset and additional distributions from the Premier League – will be the catalyst for that change, in order to make Clubs sustainable.
Led by Tracey Crouch MP and aided by contributions and reflections from Clubs and supporters alike, the 162-page Review is described by Government as a ‘comprehensive examination of the English football system with the aim of exploring ways of improving the governance, ownership and financial sustainability of Clubs in the football pyramid, building on the strengths and benefits that our great game already provides the nation.’
“The English football pyramid is absolutely sacrosanct – I would fight for that, I’d die in a ditch over that,” Neville adds.
“The EFL needs a greater alignment to the Premier League in terms of the money, because there can’t be that element of desperation or Clubs gambling. Parachute payments and the disparity between the bottom of the Premier League and top of the Championship needs to close. We need financial controls that ensure a greater distribution of money, but with increased independent financial control to ensure we don’t end up back in the same situation. If we get that, we’ll be in a strong position coming out of the pandemic.
“We need more financial control in football. We need more sustainability, and that’s coming from an owner who spends a fortune at his Club. We need better distribution of money, we need regulation and we need our heads banging together. Let’s make sure we have a proper diverse and inclusive game moving forward. Clubs in League One and League Two shouldn’t have had to wait 10 months for the Premier League rescue package to come into play.
“It’s hard work running an EFL Club; a lot of time, effort, endeavour and passion goes into it, but we need to make sure we have controls in place that take the emotion out of it. These Clubs are not businesses, they’re community assets that should be protected and the owners are the guardians. We shouldn’t be allowed to just do what we want.”
And while much-needed change is afoot off the pitch, the drama and excitement that has become part and parcel of EFL competitions continues to go from strength to strength on it.
Salford’s place in the League Two table at the time of writing is a microcosm of the picture across the divisions. The Ammies are one of many Clubs vying for position, with just 10 points separating eighth place from 21st in the table, and the door to a promotion or Play-Off place likely wide open until the final weekend.
Change, then, whether it comes from a boardroom or a dressing room, is inevitable over the coming months and years, and Neville – like many others – is confident that can be a good thing.
“I think the quality of football in the EFL is the strongest I’ve seen it for years, it’s been outstanding,” Neville concludes.
“When we first came into the EFL, in that first season; Swindon, Crewe and Plymouth were fantastic teams. Forest Green this year are the same. I just feel that there are some really good teams playing some good football.
“The game’s changing in this country, and it’s in a good place. We just need to get the big, structural items right.”
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.