FOOTBALL COLUMN: Liam Beckett talks...

Paul Scholes
Paul Scholes

Personally, I find it’s always good to occasionally enjoy a change of scenery and that’s exactly what I got the chance to do last week.

The chance came about when I headed off to Manchester together with thousands of other Ulstermen to cheer on our country’s boxing crown jewel Carl Frampton in his World title bout with Scott Quigg at the Manchester Arena.

As we were going for two full days my sons plus my two son-in-laws had already arranged a fairly hectic itinerary to keep us busy over our long weekend.

Our base in Manchester was at the Salford Quays just over the canal opposite Old Trafford, to which the lads paid a visit after our arrival early on the Saturday morning.

After our trip to the home of Manchester United it was time to make our way to our next port of call which was the short journey to Moor Lane, the home of Salford City FC who were at home to Ilkeston FC in the Evo-Stik League Premier Division.

Salford City FC are the club recently featured in the very popular television documentary detailing the involvement of five of the Man Utd ‘Class of ‘92’ – the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs.

All are part of a consortium who have taken control of the club, and ever since the involvement of these high profile stars the club’s profile and fortunes have rocketed, culminating in City winning promotion to the Evo-Stik Premier Division at the end of last season.

On arrival at the tidy, compact ground we discovered it was £7 admission fee for adults, and for what was to follow that seven quid outlay represented good value for money.

City’s facilities were pretty similar to that which you’d find at some of our Irish League grounds and the real green grass playing surface was well manicured , short and in good condition.

First port of call for us was the Salford City FC social club which was reasonably big, lots of soft seats, half a dozen large wall mounted TV screens showing sport, and something I always appreciate wherever I go – spotlessly clean toilets.

A good quality match programme cost £1.50 and a pint of their best lager cost £2.95, and both were being served by extremely pleasant staff who all made a point of making us feel very welcome.

In no time at all it was quite apparent we were not the only Northern Ireland accents in Salford social club and before long I was greeted by fans of Glentoran, Linfield and Crusaders, obviously several others from Ulster had exactly the same idea of how to spend their Saturday afternoon before the big fight.

After two pints (I promise), it was time to venture outside as the two teams were entering the field of play.

Salford City FC have one main grandstand and there was no extra charge if you opted to take a seat rather than stand, and that’s exactly the option yours truly took (no substitute for youth, I’m afraid).

Contrary to some of the other football fans from NI I felt the standard of football on offer was reasonably good and played at a decent tempo, certainly for me on a par with Irish League.

The game itself was a close encounter and despite the fact that so much was at stake with City sitting fourth in the table and Ilkeston 12th, the contest was played in a very good spirit.

With a sizeable contingent of Ilkeston fans in the 2,000 plus crowd there was never one hint of crowd trouble which I felt was heartening considering there was no fan segregation, with both sets of fans vociferous but yet seemingly quite content to mingle amongst each other ( long time since I’ve seen that here at home).

The icing on the cake for my lads came when Paul Scholes strolled into the ground. My boys got their pictures taken and had a wee chat with him, they were well pleased.

I admit I do have a tendency to continually draw comparisons with regard to our local football scene and already I was conscious of the fact that we could most definitely benefit with some of our local fans acknowledging the fact that some day soon it would be really constructive if they began behaving like adults and acted accordingly.

One of the other most striking differences I noted on the day was the complete absence of any foul or abusive language from both sets of supporters, honestly not once did I hear a swear word during the entire game.

Even a popular football song which includes a pretty popular swear word had that particular bad word changed in spelling which meant that although it still sounded like a swear word it most definitely wasn’t.

When I enquired amongst the local fans why they explained it was because there were always children present at their games and I just felt wouldn’t that be nice if some of our local fans at home here could just show the same consideration for our kids at times.

The one other major difference for me was the standard of refereeing, and more importantly the manner in which both sets of players accepted the referee’s decision as final, and not consistently surrounding the man in the middle as they seem to do almost every time they blow their whistle here at home.

Mind you, given all what I’ve said and seen I still much prefer our game here at home, perhaps it’s what I’ve been brought up with.

But on the evidence of what I witnessed at Salford we still have acres of room for improvement here at home.

However, I must admit I also find it so refreshing to watch either the likes of the Salford City game or indeed a game here in local football ,because for me the game they call football in the English Premier League is embarrassingly false.

The players are like robots wearing different coloured kits but producing the same manufactured game, completely oblivious to what used to be called hunger, desire, and pride.

Scandalous amounts of money paid out to these players in wages has completely removed all traces of sanity, and gone are the very core principles this great game was once founded and built on.

These once great attributes in our game have now been replaced with far too many overrated, overpaid and overbearing footballers at English Premier League level. At least what I saw at Salford City and what I see at local level most weeks is honesty, commitment and good value for money.

Fans being properly rewarded and not being ripped off by admission prices etc, God forbid we ever lose those qualities we currently have because if we do we are most certainly done for.

My experience at Salford City was a refreshing one – good facilities, good standard of football, pleasant people and yes, I did have two more of those £2.95 pints before I left.

But my experience of football didn’t exactly finish at Salford, our main event and the main reason for me being there was to get behind our boxing world champion Carl Frampton as he took on fellow undefeated world champion Scott Quigg.

Carl loves his football , he’s a massive Crusaders fan and such is his popularity that four of our current international players Stuart Dallas, Gareth McAuley, Kyle Lafferty and Josh Magennis all accompanied Carl into the ring.

But it didn’t go unnoticed to me either that ‘The Jackal’ does indeed build those bridges between our religious divide in this wee country that so many others have tried and failed to achieve.

Amongst the 20,000 crowd there to cheer our champ onto victory were loads of football fans I met from virtually every Irish League club you could think of including a group of fans from Cliftonville who I know hail from the New Lodge.

When I witnessed them singing and jumping up and down in support of Carl who is from the predominantly loyalist area of Tigers Bay in Belfast it suddenly struck me once again, just where would we be without sport in this country?