Salford City – the club co-owned by six former Manchester United team-mates – have won promotion to the English Football League for the first time in their history.
Goals from Emmanuel Dieseruvwe, Carl Piergianni and Ibou Touray were enough to see off AFC Fylde, themselves bidding to go up to the EFL for the first time, in the National League promotion final at Wembley.
Salford have won four promotions in five seasons since five members of United’s ‘Class of 92’ – Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs – took control of the Ammies in 2014.
Former England captain David Beckham joined his former team-mates in January by purchasing a 10% stake, with Singapore businessman Peter Lim owning the remaining 40% of the club.
Dieseruvwe netted the opener in the 15th minute after the ball fell fortuitously to him following a mix-up in the Fylde defence, before Piergianni headed in a second from a corner just after half-time.
Touray secured the win for Salford as his attempted cross beat Fylde goalkeeper Jay Lynch and went in off the inside of the post.
“We had an aggressive plan of four promotions in eight years and we have done it in five,” Gary Neville told BBC Sport.
“We made some decisions along the way that weren’t always popular and we were quite clinical but we knew what we needed to do.”
Two clubs making rapid rises – but Salford reach EFL first
Victory ensured big-spending Salford spent just one term in the fifth tier, and the club have made no secret of their desire to play at a higher level.
A television documentary has followed the progress of the ‘Class of 92’ for much of their reign and Salford’s climb from the eighth tier of English football to the fourth.
The new owners have also overseen the redevelopment of Salford’s Peninsula Stadium, which now has a capacity of more than 5,000.
At the start of this campaign, they replaced joint-managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley – who had led them to the National League North title last term – with Graham Alexander, who achieved promotion through 2013-14’s League Two play-offs with Fleetwood.
Not all have agreed with their approach. After signing striker Adam Rooney from Scottish Premiership side Aberdeen for an undisclosed fee in July, Gary Neville was accused of trying to “steal” an EFL spot by Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt in a row between the pair on social media.
However, Holt congratulated Salford on their promotion soon after their Wembley victory.
He posted on Twitter: “Full credit to Salford City and Gary Neville. There are differing opinions on how football finances should be, but their wages will be paid, which is better than what’s going on in other clubs.”
On the pitch, Salford competed for the National League title up until the final day, before ending the regular season in third place.
Fylde’s rise up the non-league pyramid had been just as rapid as Salford’s, with chairman David Haythornthwaite stating in 2007 – when the club was known as Kirkham & Wesham – that he wanted to get them into the Football League within 15 years.
The Coasters were looking to achieve that aim well ahead of schedule after finishing fifth in the league before defeating Harrogate Town and Solihull Moors in the play-offs.
Fylde were a 10th-tier club just over a decade ago and were hoping to complete their own meteoric rise to the EFL, but were well beaten in the first of their two trips to Wembley in the space of eight days.
Dave Challinor’s side will play National League winners Leyton Orient in the FA Trophy final on 19 May.
Salford cruise to Wembley success
The Ammies, who were watched by their co-owners at Wembley, raced into the lead when Devonte Redmond’s free-kick was cleared by Fylde striker Danny Rowe against the back of team-mate Luke Burke and straight into the path of Dieseruvwe.
They nearly doubled their advantage as Nathan Pond headed a corner just wide midway through the first half, while Fylde midfielder Ryan Croasdale forced a good save from Salford keeper Chris Neal and Coasters’ full-back Andy Bond struck a good effort over the bar.
Defender Piergianni, who netted for Salford in their semi-final victory against Eastleigh, was on the scoresheet again, heading home a Touray corner in the 53rd minute.
The Gambia international then rounded off Salford’s famous win to wrap up promotion for the Moor Lane outfit.
‘Planning for the Football League had already started’
Salford co-owner Gary Neville told BBC Sport:
“We knew we had to get to the Football League and no-one has ever got out of this division at the first time and it means so much.
“I think of all of the players and managers over the years who have worked so hard for this club. We have picked good characters and good people all the way through.
“People said it was ridiculous to pay this much but what we realised quite quickly was if you build a team a year ahead it actually saves you money by getting rid of players on contracts – 95% of this team will stay together next year.
“Graham [Alexander] didn’t want to come to us and he wanted to stay in the league because he is a league manager, but we persuaded him and he took a chance on us. He has been outstanding and we are delighted.
“The year we didn’t go up was my fault because I went away with England and we delayed our recruitment by two weeks.
“We started our recruitment for this next league two months ago and on 8am on Monday morning we will get those players in.
“We will enjoy tonight like you would not believe and we go again on Monday.
“We have to go up next year. We know it’s going to get tougher and tougher but that is the way we always approach it.”
Alexander reflects on ‘special’ day – managers’ reaction
Salford manager Graham Alexander:
“I don’t think it gets any more special than winning promotion at Wembley.
“Leyton Orient deserved to win the league, they were the most consistent over 10 months, but I felt we deserved to go up with them.
“We knew it would be a tough game and the scoreline might not look like that, but we had to work exceptionally hard.
“I’m so delighted for everyone who’s seen this club rise, been there since the start before the owners took over – the committee members and people like that – I know how special today will be for them.
“It doesn’t happen every day. To take this step into the Football League is probably the most difficult one.”
AFC Fylde manager Dave Challinor:
“I think our journey has been a pretty steady one. Ultimately everyone’s looking to get into the Football League.
“This division is ridiculously tough to get out of. I suppose what we’ve got to look at is what we’ve done this year and be proud of that.
“(Next season) we want to try to get out of this division. We don’t hide behind that, we’re very ambitious. I hope to be challenging but I know it’s not going to be easy.
“We’ll strengthen through the summer and, if our recruitment’s good, hopefully we’ll have another go (at promotion) next year.”