By the gasworks wall #6: Man Utd vs Salford, Manchester Guardian ‘The Red Side’ editorial, 28th January 2023

symbiotic/ˌsɪmbɪˈɒtɪk/ adjective BIOLOGY

Involving interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association.

Denoting a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

Oxford English Dictionary

1: Symbiosis in Salford

There is an almost universal hatred for the half and half scarf among many football fans who actually attend games in this era. The mere suggestion that it would be a good idea for a club to share its name with a rival on a piece of cheap wool mix is anathema to them, never mind the ridiculous notion of actually brandishing it on the terraces. No, this honour is usually reserved for the tourist or the fella from the Make a Wish foundation for whom visiting a ground such as Old Trafford has been a lifelong dream (bless him).

But as my Kia Niro crawled snail-like through the milling crowds up Sir Matt Busby way before this match today I had never noticed such an abundance of them. One vendor I asked said “Wish it was the same every week, I normally have to burn a load after most games”.

And there is a reason for this which I am sure you already realise. It is because THIS is it. This is THE defining game of the modern Manchester footballing landscape. Forget Liverpool being knocked off their perch only to climb back up and taunt minah-like towards a rudderless Utd; ignore the tantalising red and white rose derby prospect of a resurgent Leeds (still confined to the Championship as of 2023) and as for City, aren’t Tevez and Aguerro that new latino law firm in Hale? For today dear readers it is Manchester United vs Salford in the 4th round of the FA Cup, a collision of two teams who are at once joined at the hip yet divided at birth, separated by the church with just a spire, Salford precinct and what fans call the ‘new’ Macdonalds (it’s been there 25 years) but symbiotic in their deep-red United blood which permeates their bones with a shared DNA.

RHODRI GIGGS NEW SALFORD MANAGER - Salford Star - with attitude ...
Rhodri Giggs, Salford legend

You know the story by now, the famous Class of 92′ bandwagon, rolling into Ryan Giggs’ brother’s old club (Rhodri played for and managed them for many years) with their kudos and red millions to lift them from obscurity. With the kits changed from the old orange to a brilliant scarlet, the logo changed to a roaring lion and even David Beckham jumping on board to add to the former United royalty of Giggs, the Nevilles, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.

What followed was a rise in fortunes almost unprecedented in the modern game with 4 promotions in 6 years to take them to the dizzy heights of League Two, accompanied most of the way by the obligatory Sky camera crew (cheers, Gary). What is more, they did most of it with two managers and in their own unique style which often felt like they were playing a massive real life game of the popular computer game “Football Manager” with a new stadium, improved youth facilities and massive local sponsorship.

But then it almost came crashing down, with a mediocre mid-table finish in their first League Two season (albeit interrupted by the dreaded Coronavirus, enough said) in came a change of manager in what the board called a ‘new broom’ in the shape of FMheathen, a man whose appointment had many fans grabbing google to find that a) not only was it his first management appointment but that b) his playing career was best described as a ‘lower league holding-midfield journeyman’ formerly of Chorley, Atherton Collieries and the famous Corinthian Casuals among 6 other non league clubs in a 15 year playing career. It was a puzzle, sure, and for a while even this esteemed publication was at a loss to fathom exactly why FMheathen had been trusted to steer a potentially magnificent vessel as these former ‘Ammies’ on such a rising tide. But then with some old fashioned journalistic digging it was revealed, that hidden in that unimpressive footballing history was a little know six month youth contract at Manchester United’s Cliff training ground just a mile from Salford City’s Moor Lane stadium. A contract tragically cut short by a recurring Achilles injury at the start of Utd’s winning 1992 FA youth cup campaign which, timed as it was, created a deep and lasting bond between FMHeathen and the future ‘Class of 92’ that only they (and several of their children whom he became Godfather too) knew about until now.

Despite the fans’ fears we now know that what followed, quite incredibly, were two further promotions in 4 years meaning Salford are now in the middle of the Sky Bet Championship currently standing just 28 places below their esteemed hosts. Some would say it’s luck, some would say a miracle. Others however, mostly Salford fans, will say it was a work of the combined genius of the class of 92′ in appointing someone whom they knew and ultimately believed in despite a complete lack of credentials.

This, of course, is difficult enough to achieve but when one considers in hindsight what we now know about the Class of 92’s unexpected departure from the club in early 2022 the achievement becomes all the more admirable. I won’t labour the point here as you all know the story well I am sure apart from recapping by saying the Class of 92′ unexpectedly withdrew and accepted a fans’ bid ownership headed by Karen Baird, the board member who had welcomed the ex-Utd players to Salford in the first place. As Gary Neville said at the time, when asked why they were leaving at such an important juncture having still not yet reached the Premier League:

“6 promotions, a new stadium, a youth program to be proud of, our old Utd mate FMheathen in charge and even a Class of 92′ university! In all those things we achieved what we set out too. Just like the fans we will now take a minority stake based on our season ticket cost so that we can join them on the terraces and cheer this great team on not as board members but as equals, which was always our unstated intention.”

Likewise, Paul Scholes added:

“It will be nice not having Gary phoning me up at 10 o clock on a wet Tuesday night to go through yet another list of tea bag suppliers for the cafe. Everyone knows the cut off is 9 apart from him, the lad’s not right in the head.”

2: Match report

By anyone’s account Salford City’s Moor Lane win over West Ham in the third round was an unexpected technical masterpiece, winning 2 nil against a Hammers side who came into the game tired after a midweek league game against Southampton and left deflated after defeat from a side whose entire weekly wage bill (134k p/w) was lower than that of their star player Felipe Anderson (145k p/w). But that was not all, for the resulting joy then turned to ecstasy as Utd easily destroyed a poor Plymouth side 5-1 to set up the tie with Salford in the Theatre of Dreams.

On a drizzly Manchester afternoon which included the bizarre sight of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes leading the Salford City songs in the Old Trafford away end whilst David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville sat in a Utd director’s box, Salford predictably erred on the side of caution with a slight adaptation to their now familiar narrow formation with two central midfielders instead of their usual 3 attacking midfielders:

As the teams were announced it was clear that this would be a gentle rivalry as demanded by the occasion as every player’s name was cheered in equal measure by both sets of supporters. Add to this a notable rise in volume as Salford’s ex-Man Utd WB Brandon Williams was announced (one of 5 ex-Utd youth players currently at Salford City) surpassed only by the even bigger cheer for Wayne Rooney as he took his seat in the Salford dugout as part of their coaching staff. Caution aside. this was a strong, youthful side indeed with an average age of just 23 and one that most Utd fans and Sir Alex must have surely respected.

By contrast, Manchester United were also pulling no punches with only one change to the side they put out in their last 2-0 league win against Manchester City just 4 days previous with the formally Napoli player Piotr Zielinski in for the injured Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in central midfield.

Handshakes and hand gel over, the first 10 minutes started well enough for Salford City, whom in their short passing, urgent pressing and high possession strategy might well have been playing a regular league game against Leyton Orient. As such, Utd’s propensity this season to counter from deep with the defence-splitting passes that has been so productive for them in this campaign was nullified (for this period at least). In fact, as ten minutes passed the United players were getting so frustrated at the sheer cheek of these young upstarts constantly pecking their ankles they started to acost the ref at every opportunity for a free kick, which was universally derided by the Salford City fans in the fevered and rising temperature of the away corner. This period was perhaps best summed up by this passage of play when, under pressure from Salford’s Jessy Deminguet and Paul Evans, the usually masterful Donny van de Beek was bundled off the ball, resulting in a 12 pass combination from Salford and several “Ole’s” that would have ended in a goal if Salford’s 23 year old striker Sergio Camello hadn’t fluffed the finish:

43 minutes in and it remained the same, with Utd continually frustrated by a surprising 57% possession stat for Salford. No doubt in part the result of FMheathen’s almost constant discussions with Wayne Rooney in the Salford dugout in complete contrast to Thomas Tuchel who constantly paced and shouted instructions to his now breathless elite players who were clearly getting feed up of the constant press from Salford.

But then the moment came when finally the failing of Salford’s narrow formation came unstuck as many thought it would do eventually, with a searing run from deep by United’s marauding left back Nuno Mendes that ultimately resulted in a tap in header from Mason Greenwood to the dismay of all in the Salford corner who had really begun to believe that they could survive until half time at least:

Whilst FMheathen’s post-match comment that at half time he “just told them to carry on as they were and try not to wake the beast anymore” is likely to have been a paraphrase for a lengthier strategic plan, in the second half Salford seemed to find a renewed vigour for the fight ahead and in fact at one point took the game to United in a five minute spell of three corners that once more challenged the United keeper Dean Henderson.

However, FMheathen’s words seemed to be in vain as the aching legs and subsequent declining technical ability of Salford’s youngsters started to fail them. In an extended assault United had 7 shots in 3 minutes that would have resulted in another goal were it not for an incredible off the line clearance from Brandon Williams in front of the away fans that drew a spontaneous standing ovation from both sets of fans combined. As FMheathen said later, “What a way for the boy to come back to Old Trafford”:

Thankfully and to spare Salford’s blushes in a game where many feel they deserved at least a draw, the goal remained empty and the final result was 1 nil, leaving a combined Manchester/Salford fanbase to traipse home to their pie and peas (and maybe a cheeky Big Mac in the “new” Macdonalds) feeling largely content with proceedings in a result that was never really in doubt.

Manchester United, THE Manchester United had once more reigned supreme, but only just, as Salford City, their somewhat younger cousin had laid down a marker that could not, after this, be ignored.

Daz B, Manchester Guardian “Red Side” editorial, 28th January 2023

aka @fmheathen everywhere (thanks for reading)

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