Friday, 6 October 2017

Salford not for sale

I wasn't particularly surprised the other day when Marwan Koukash, owner of Salford rugby league club, announced that he was relinquishing control and handing it over to a supporters' trust. I'd been expecting something along those lines at the end of a season in which, despite the money he's put into the team and the highish league position that they achieved, attendances at matches have continued to fall.

When Salford moved to their new ground in Barton-on-Irwell from their longtime home at the Willows in Weaste in 2012, attendances were about 5,000. The stated aim of the move was to at least double that; instead, they are now around half, often bolstered by away rather than home fans supporting their team, and even some season ticket holders no longer attend as many matches as before.

Salford had apparently been told by the Rugby Football League that the Willows was no longer a fit ground for the twenty-first century, hence the move to Barton and a new 12,000-capacity stadium there, jointly owned by Salford City Council and Peel Holdings, owners of the nearby Trafford Centre shopping mall.

A modern ground, even one that incorporated standing areas and offered cheap tickets, was never going to have either the atmosphere or historical associations of the Willows, where Salford had played since 1901, but there have been many other problems with the site too.

I remember at the last match at the Willows, while in the queue for the turnstiles, that some fans were complaining that in moving to Barton the club was leaving the traditional (i.e. pre-1974) boundaries of Salford, and although that might be a minority opinion there's definitely a feeling that a lot of fans who walked to the ground from the club's Weaste and Pendleton heartlands in the past now no longer bother.

Public transport isn't great to the new ground - the nearest train stations and tram stops are at least a mile away - the proposed tram line to Port Salford, the freight terminal on the Ship Canal also owned by Peel Holdings, which will include a stop nearby, isn't scheduled to open for another four years, and the long access road to the ground means that despite there being a large, free car park outside the time it takes to leave it at the end of matches means many fans have given up using it and now park in the Peel Green housing estate opposite instead.

There has been some talk of Salford not taking enough advantage of their potential fanbase in the neighbouring city of Manchester, and while the idea of that city's name being incorporated into the club's has rightly been rejected, there is some truth to it, especially with their location miles out from the centre in Barton not helping with that.

If the funds could be found, the ideal solution would be to build a ground in the part of Salford that adjoins Manchester city centre, with its numerous transport hubs, but I suspect that they can't, what with the financial support Koukash has given about to be withdrawn and the money from the naming rights to the ground going to Sale Sharks rugby union club, Salford's co-tenants at Barton.

Rugby league has always been dependent on local businessmen becoming owners and directors of its clubs, whether for the prestige or connections that gave them, much like football clubs up until the last quarter of a century in which they have either become PLC's or been transferred to offshore trusts in exotic tax havens controlled by American or Middle and Far Eastern billionaires.

It's hard to see then how, without an alternate source of outside income, a supporters trust will work at Salford, the first board of which is apparently going to be appointed by the outgoing owner. It seems that rather than generously gifting the club to its fans, he is instead walking away from it, perhaps understandably given the circumstances, and taking with him the money which he is no longer willing to put into its continued maintenance.





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