It’s only two months into existence but the 2018-19 National League title race already feels finished. Many sides have occupied top spot so far – Wrexham, Harrogate and Leyton Orient enjoying particularly bright starts. But another team – who took just a single point from their opening three games – have hit the summit going into October, and could well be out of reach soon enough.
The team in question is the much-discussed Salford City – backed by billionaire owner Peter Lim and former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and brothers, Gary and Phil Neville.
After that shaky start, they’ve seen their investment win six consecutive games to prise first place away from Orient following the O’s first defeat of the season. Salford might only be a point clear at this stage but last season’s National League North champions have quickly found their feet in a higher division, and don’t look like dropping points this month with fixtures against struggling sides at the bottom.
There are many issues and controversies to discuss regarding Salford’s rise, such as their bumper playing budget. Star signing Adam Rooney is the league’s top scorer so far with nine goals and the former Scottish Premier League golden boot winner looks set to triple that figure by the end of the campaign. No one can compete with their level of spending power and influence. Even if a team can go toe-to-toe with Salford at the top, they’ll most likely boost their squad in the January transfer window and pull away.
Things wouldn’t be so bad if this were a one-off scenario but Crawley Town, Forest Green Rovers and Fleetwood Town have all thrown money at the division and reached the Football League for the first time in their respective histories. Salford are merely a more eye-catching version of these teams.
Fingers can be pointed at the non-league structure for allowing them to flourish. The archaic one automatic promotion place is forcing ambitious owners to go big and aim for the title. However, the National League are at the mercy of their superiors, the EFL, whose 72 member clubs have to agree a majority vote to allow another team to drop out of their system every year.
Where the National League can step up is through financial fair play. No rules are currently in place to stop teams spending above their means and it’s encouraging investors to buy smaller clubs and take them higher, regardless of sustainability. Next season we could see Billericay Town enter the National League, for example, with their millionaire owner Glenn Tamplin leading the club’s sudden surge up the English football pyramid.
There are occasional anomalies to the money factor. Macclesfield Town regained their Football League spot last season despite a significantly lower budget than the rest of the division and another exceptional story will need to be written if Salford are to be stopped from winning back-to-back titles come the summer. But as big as that story would be, it’s still about money – or how a team’s managed to succeed without it.
In a sport that already receives huge criticism for its inflated finances (wages, tickets, etc.), where can supporters escape the mundane, money-influenced football results? If non-league football, with its array of part-time clubs and players, can’t offer an adequate alternative to the mega-rich reputation of the beautiful game, what have we got left to be excited about?