The collective groans and press inches that have greeted Salford’s financial extravagance in the wake of their first season in the National league has been arguably the most vociferous story to break in football since the World Cup.
From the moral high ground of the broadsheets to the dial-a-quotes of ex-professionals, the whooshing of thumbs down for what’s seen as a lack of fair play has been surprising in its mutual condemnation.
The furore in most part has been based around one surprising signing: the transfer of centre forward Adam Rooney from Aberdeen, whom is reported to be earning £5k a week. It has called into question not only player ambition but how fellow National league clubs can even begin to compete on a level playing field.
One thing that has been noticeable, however, is how few of these complaints have come from either supporters or owners of the National league clubs themselves. That’s for a simple reason. Traditionally, it’s nothing the non league hasn’t seen before, nor prepared for. In fact, the National league has a way of ganging up on those who think they can simply flash their money like a Cuban trick and box tango out of their surroundings. As a supporter of a League Two club, who were relegated into the league last season, I can confirm this first hand.
Despite a healthy player budget and crowds of around three and a half thousand, Hartlepool United would end up falling short in being competitive in the top reaches of the National league, even without their mid-season financial problems. For all the obvious jokes about the away team buses looking like the one in the Porridge Christmas special, they found out to their cost that their opponents were thoroughly well prepared for anything a historical league club tactically had to offer.
The team system
There still remains a dangerous and naive philosophy in the English game that free flowing and flair driven football are the quickest way out of difficult leagues in this country. You only have to look at the recent World Cup, however, to realise that it isn’t even the case in the upper echelons of football; never mind it’s basement leagues. With the dust now settled on the tournament in Russia, it’s noticeable how its high points and success stories weren’t based on individual exploits but rather the brutalist methods of the team system and its ethics. The youthful energy of England. The collective steel of Croatia. Even France’s obvious creative nous was based on discipline rather than edge-of-the-seat creativity. It’s a back to basics philosophy that seems to be the current trend in World football
For all the obvious chasm in class, this is actually the default setting the National league has been built on for the past few years. In fact, it’s surprising how few flair players have actually been successful in the grit of relentless league games at that level. Experience, however, seems to be the key not only in what goes on the field but also at a managerial level. Whilst the archetypal national league manager may not be the star pupil of the UEFA coaching classroom, he certainly has to have a talent for eclecticism. From minuscule player budgets to back room interference, the one man band not the maverick, it seems, is king.
Morley and Johnson
Whilst Salford may not suffer (at least partly) under such restrictions, it could well be here that they have made one crucial but simple mistake. The removal of Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson during their pre-season might have been seen as a necessity by the clubs hierarchy if the team was to obtain a more PR friendly image, but their very raw, combative nature might have been a crucial weapon in their first season in the national league. There was a sense of real momentum built up by the duo, too. For new manager Graham Alexander, it may well be a difficult job replicating that success. In a league where only one guaranteed automatic promotion place is fought over like pack dogs, he doesn’t seem to have much room for stasis.
They will certainly have to create a siege mentality. The collective ‘get in’ that rang out around the country when Leyton Orient scored a late equaliser during their opening fixture seems a precursor to what they are about to face for the rest of the season. In a difficult league, with difficult opponents, it remains to be seen whether the curse of the National league might be about to claim another high profile victim.