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Pints with David Beckham and kind words from Roy Keane - the lives of the Salford Irish

Stephen O’Halloran and Adam Rooney remember their respective stints at the club.

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SALFORD CITY have come a long way in a relatively short space of time.

It’s just under five years since the announcement that the club was to go fully professional.

It is also coming to the eighth anniversary of confirmation that the club was to be taken over by the Class of ’92 group of Man United legends: Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville (David Beckham would later come on board).

The club had an average attendance of around 100 people and toiled away in the relative obscurity of the Evo-Stik League Division One North at the time.

Under the guidance of the new owners, they have made considerable progress since then. 

The Peninsula Stadium has recently undergone major redevelopment to become a 5000+ capacity ground, while last October, there was speculation that the club could soon move to an even bigger venue.

Salford have also achieved several promotions over the past decade and currently play in English Football’s fourth tier, League Two.

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Manchester, meanwhile, has well-documented links to these shores — according to The Irish Post, roughly 35% of the city’s population has Irish ancestry.

The team’s anthem is The Pogues’ cover of ‘Dirty Old Town,’ a song originally written by Salford native and acclaimed folk singer-songwriter, Ewan MacColl.

On the pitch too, there has been an Irish influence.

In the early days of the Class of ’92 era, when the club was on the cusp of turning professional, Stephen O’Halloran signed for Salford.

The Cobh native had been a promising youngster at Aston Villa and even played twice for Ireland during the Steve Staunton era as part of a 2007 US tour.

However, a succession of injury problems, including two ACL tears within the space of a year, put paid to his hopes of enjoying a sustained career at the highest level of the game.

Joining Salford in 2015 represented another step down, as they played in the Northern Premier League at the time, one division below his previous club, Stockport County.

Stockport were managerless and O’Halloran’s contract was about to elapse when Salford’s joint managers, Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley, approached him with an offer.

“I played against them earlier on in the season and they said they were impressed,” O’Halloran recalls.

Moving to a team a division below the one he was playing at was not a straightforward decision, but ultimately, the Corkonian was persuaded to make the switch.

“I spoke to the two managers a bit further, we had a meeting at Hotel Football near Old Trafford and they brought Ryan Giggs with them. I was a bit like: ‘Wow, this is class.’

“I was trying to be quite serious and professional, asking Giggs about what his plans were with non-league football. It was quite funny looking back at it now. But they were building something, it was a project and I wanted to be a part of it.”

He continues: “Scholes used to come down [to the club] a little bit. His lad was playing football at the time so he trained with us a couple of times. And yeah, he was really approachable, quite interested in the club as well.

“When I first signed, Phil Neville dropped me a message, which was out of the blue. I thought that was nice.

“So you could see these lads that had been there and done that — won everything at Man United but you could see they were driven in other ways as well, trying to build something.”

luis-caicedo-of-equador-tackles-stephen-ohalloran-of-ireland O'Halloran pictured playing for Ireland against Ecuador in 2007. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

O’Halloran spent two seasons at the club and aside from a spell of around three months at the start of the second year where he lost his place in the starting XI, he enjoyed his time there.

Given their impressive resources at that level and the Class of ’92 links, Salford tended to be particularly disliked by rival teams.

“The managers were brilliant with us,” he adds. “They gave us that siege mentality — us against the rest. It was a good pressure. We’d have the owners sometimes come to the game. Seeing Paul Scholes there, Gary and Phil Neville, seeing them around the club was great and I think they actually enjoyed it because it was obviously totally different to what they’re used to from a professional point of view.

“They were there as owners but you could see from the documentaries, they were nearly like fans as well to a point.

“It was us against the rest and we thoroughly enjoyed the pressure that the owners and the managers put on us really.”

O’Halloran made 46 appearances in the league as the club earned promotion via the play-offs in his first season there.

And the Irishman ultimately played a pivotal role in their 3-2 victory over Workington during the final at Moor Lane.

“There was pressure on us being, shall we say, the big spenders in the league, that we needed to get promotion and push this team on going forward. 

“We actually went 1-0 down in the game. I don’t score many goals but I popped up with a header to equalise and it was quite dramatic really. It was 2-2 in the last minute and we nicked a goal with Jordan Hulme popping up for the winner.”

Yet as fantastic a feeling as that achievement elicited, O’Halloran cites another game as his best moment in a Salford jersey.

“The highlight would have been the goals we scored against Notts County on BBC. It was nice because people maybe forgot where I was at. I had a lot of injuries and it was ‘he’s not playing any more,’ but it was nice to show people that I could still do a bit back then and I had a lot of nice texts after that game saying ‘great to see you doing well’ and stuff.

“After we beat Notts County, we went to Hotel Football and they put on a free bar for us. I remember being at the bar and Gary Neville getting us the drinks. It was quite nice when you think about it. He’s won everything but he’s obviously looking after us that night.

“It was the same again when we got promoted. We went back to Hotel Football and they put on a bit of a party for us there.”

Source: The Emirates FA Cup/YouTube

The defender left the club at the end of the 2016-17 season, just after it had been announced that they would be going full-time, as he opted to return to National League North rivals Stockport.

“The main reason I dropped from non-league to the professionals was I actually decided I don’t want to be going year to year on contracts and wait to see where I was going next. I was going to start progressing, and in 2012, I started doing my undergrad for physiotherapy.

“I couldn’t obviously do that from a professional point of view even though I had some offers [from teams], so I went non-league and decided I’m going to get my degree so I can look after myself in the future as well.

“[Salford] did offer me a chance to stay on but it was getting to the point that they were going full-time and I had just qualified as a physio, so I wanted to make sure that I was progressing myself. It would have been a bit different if I was a bit younger, 22 or 23. But at the time, I was 28 and thought I need to look after myself in the long term.”

O’Halloran left with nothing but good things to say about Salford, and so had no hesitation in recommending the club to fellow Irishman Adam Rooney, when the latter was contemplating joining the club in 2018.

Rooney was one of three Irish players in the squad around that era, along with Richie Towell and Rory Gaffney, with whom he briefly lived while searching the area for a permanent home.

The Dubliner had previously spent five seasons at Aberdeen, scoring 88 goals in 197 appearances for the Scottish club.

“I had finished the season with Aberdeen that year and I had not played as much as I would have liked,” he remembers.

“I had come back for pre-season and the manager at the time rang me to say Gary Neville had been on to him. We thought nothing more of it, he kind of dismissed it at the time.

“He came back in after a couple of weeks. The agent had mentioned they were on and had spoken to the club, and he kind of had given me permission to speak to them. In between the time when Neville first got in touch, I had looked at it and I got the chance to speak with the manager there and listen to what their plans were for it.

“The Class of ’92 documentary was on the TV at the time, but I had not seen much of that, so I didn’t know too much about them

“We came back from pre-season and I was considering whether it was time for me to have a change from Aberdeen. I had just turned 30 and in football, once you turn 30, people start to think how long have you got left to play.

“Although I didn’t feel like that physically, it starts to [play] on your mind. I wanted to go somewhere where I was back playing every week and enjoying my football and it was just a bit of a challenge really.”

gary-neville-nicky-butt-ryan-giggs-paul-scholes-and-phil-neville-the-manchester-united-dream-team-boys Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville all part own Salford City. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The presence of a group of Man United legends was an added attraction.

“Like half of Ireland, I was a United fan growing up as a kid, so it’s nice to have them on the phone saying they’d like you to come and play for their club.”

The signing of Rooney caused some controversy. It even sparked a Twitter row between Gary Neville and Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt, who accused the club of trying to “steal” an English Football League spot amid reports that the Irishman was earning wages of £4,000-a-week.  

This sense of hostility was commonplace among rival clubs, Rooney adds.

“You could see that clubs were desperately trying to get one over on us. It gives great ammo for away fans if they go ahead. The Nevilles and stuff get awful stick as well from the fans, so if you go one-down in a game, you never hear the end of it off the away fans. They’d be right up behind their team and they’d be buzzing off it. You have to deal with that side of it because that gives opposition fans a lift.

“You also had players in the league who were hoping to get a move to us, so a lot of them were raising their game and really standing out against us though they may not do it consistently against other teams.

“With many teams, you could tell it meant a lot to them to get results against you. Especially, when we were going for promotion, they would seem to try that little bit harder in games against us.”

Behind the scenes as well as publicly, Neville and his Class of ’92 colleagues were hands-on in their approach.

“You could tell they were very committed to it. They don’t get involved in terms of team selection or anything like that, but Gary more so than the rest of them would be around the club a lot. Gary used to come to some of the away games, I think we played Sutton away for the third game of the season and I remember seeing him in the stand. I was surprised at his level of dedication, going to watch the team away from home.

“It’s easy when it’s on your doorstep but he used to travel and watch away games. He’s standing with the fans, which shows how much he’s committed to it and how he’s part of it.

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“Home games, there are usually two or three of the owners present to watch the games, but Gary more so than any of them would be on the training ground the odd time speaking with [ex-Man United youngster] Chris Casper who deals with the director side of it, in terms of overseeing the youth setup and recruitment and stuff, keeping an eye on things.”

the-walmer-castle-pub-in-notting-hill-which-has-reportedly-been-purchased-for-3-million-by-david-beckham-and-guy-ritchie-featuring-walmer-castle-pub-general-view-where-london-united-kingdom-whe The Walmer Castle pub in Notting Hill, which was reportedly purchased for £3 million by David Beckham and Guy Ritchie. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The first season could not have gone much better from Rooney’s perspective. He scored 21 goals in 38 games as the team earned promotion to League Two.

The one real disappointment was when he missed out on what would have been a first-ever appearance at Wembley, as Salford beat AFC Fylde 3-0 in the play-offs to seal their football league status. The Irish star had picked up a quad injury in their semi-final against Eastleigh.

Rooney and his teammates celebrated their achievement in the Walmer Castle on Ledbury Street in Notting Hill, a pub that had been bought reportedly for £3 million by David Beckham and film director Guy Ritchie in 2018. 

“All the owners were there and we managed to have a chat with them and a few beers to celebrate there. It was a bit surreal having the chat and getting to sit down with David Beckham, having a few beers with him, Scholes, Nicky Butt, Giggs and the Nevilles.

“It was a great moment, to be around those people, especially when as a kid you’re growing up watching them play every week and you’re thinking you’d love to be playing with them.”

They were not the only former Man United stars who had an association with the club. Roy Keane lives near Salford’s ground and would sometimes come to matches.

“Roy used to be at quite a few of the games. I never spoke to him at the games, but I remember seeing him.”

Although never capped at senior level, Rooney had been part of Ireland squads during the Martin O’Neill era and also encountered Keane on other occasions during his career.

“Roy was actually a big part of the reason I ended up signing for Salford. I’m led to believe that, when they were trying to get a deal done with Aberdeen, I think they were questioning whether they were going to fully commit to it or not. But Gary spoke to Roy, I think it might have been when the World Cup was on and they were doing the punditry together. I believe Gary asked Roy basically for a bit of a character reference, doing his due diligence on me before I signed, whether they should go for me or not, and Roy gave me a glowing report.

“Not only through that, when I was a young lad, 18-19, and lived in the same area as Roy, I went to lunch one day with my mate and had never spoken to Roy. I think I was out on loan from Stoke with Chesterfield at the time. I’d been doing well, he came over to my table and introduced himself and said ‘hello,’ and just had a little chat. He said ‘it’s great to see young Irish lads doing well’ and so I was obviously buzzing. We then went to pay for lunch and he had already taken care of it. So I’ve bumped into Roy a couple of times over the years and he’s always been a top man.”

daryl-horgan-andy-boyle-glenn-whelan-and-adam-rooney Adam Rooney pictured training with the Ireland squad in 2016. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And did the presence of the notoriously hard-to-please Sky Sports pundit on the sideline serve as extra motivation for Rooney and his colleagues?

“Yeah, especially when Roy was there because I obviously had been involved in the Irish setup.

“If I didn’t have a good game, he’d see me at some stage and let me know.”

He adds: “You’d always get a few [famous] people. Sir Alex might have been at a few of our games and [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy was at a couple. Beckham came to one of the games after he’d got involved.

“It was funny when Beckham came to the game, one of the lads on our team scored from the halfway line, which was nuts, for the only game he actually made it to.”

Salford found life tougher in League Two during Rooney’s second season. He scored eight goals in 32 appearances amid a campaign interrupted by the pandemic, as the points-per-game rules meant the club finished 11th in the table ultimately.

As they sought to increase their competitiveness at that level, Salford recruited a number of new attackers and with regular game time no longer guaranteed, Rooney ultimately decided to move back to the National League with Solihull Moors where he currently plays.

“I was coming up to 32 at the time and I had only a year left on my contract. They said: ‘Listen, these forwards need to be given opportunities in attack.’  

“I spoke to the manager and he said he was quite happy for me to stay but he didn’t know in terms of himself, how long he’d be there and in terms of the players they brought in, who would be expecting to get game time.”

After an injury-interrupted start, Rooney is now enjoying life at Solihull. They are chasing promotion and the Irish star could potentially be lining out against Salford next season should they achieve that feat.

The 33-year-old was linked with a move home to Shamrock Rovers last year but says he has “no intention of going back just yet”.

Meanwhile, he expects Salford to build on their progress in the years to come.

“I’d imagine in the next two to three years, they’ll be pushing for Championship or in the Championship, I would have thought because of the people behind the club and how committed they are to it.”

O’Halloran, who at 34 balances his physio work with a player-assistant manager role at Stalybridge Celtic, agrees.

“When you think about where they were five years ago when we were getting promoted, it’s just an upwards story. It’s not just financial backing, they’ve got a really good foundation with the club, some great fans, great facilities and it will be interesting to see in the next five years where they go.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Paul Fennessy

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