Salford City lifted the Vanarama National League North title on Saturday to secure their third promotion in four years, despite a 2-1 loss to Boston United.
Managers Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley watched their side lose their final home game of the season, but results elsewhere ensured they were crowned champions regardless.
It had become a two-horse race in recent weeks for the title and Harrogate Town’s loss to Bradford Park Avenue was enough to ensure the Ammies’ promotion to the National League.
The newly professional side will now play in the fifth tier of English football next season, just one step away from the Football League.
They will invite the likes of Hartlepool, Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge to the newly-redeveloped Moor Lane stadium next season.
Salford had beaten Darlington 5-1 in the last game of the previous season, and were encouraged by achieving the playoffs, but their first game of the new season didn’t quite go to script.
Newly professional, the Salford side was a much-changed side from the one that had lined up the previous year, with just two familiar faces from the previous meeting in the starting line-up.
Darlington’s David Ferguson netted late in each half to earn the away side a victory.
The match was Salford’s first opening day loss since August 2011 when they lost 5-1 in the Northern Premier League to Warrington Town.
Unbeaten run & an FA Cup exit
After suffering the indignity of an opening day defeat at their home ground, Salford bounced back in style with two away victories – against Chorley and AFC Telford.
Those victories spurred on the Ammies, as Johnson and Morley’s side went on a ten game unbeaten run from that point on.
Jack Redshaw, who until that season had been playing his football with League One side Rochdale, was a key part of the successful run, including netting a hat-trick in the 3-0 victory over Kidderminster Harriers.
“Our game management was brilliant” Morley said after the victory, which also saw New Zealand international goalkeeper Max Crocombe save a penalty from Kidderminster.
After their impressive run of form, Salford went into a home FA Cup tie with York City full of confidence.
“Against York, mentally and psychological it can be a big factor in the season, to beat them Saturday here” manager Bernard Morley said after the Nuneaton game.
Things had looked to have been going in the right direction too, when captain Liam Hogan rose highest to head home a free-kick.
Unfortunately for the Ammies, York’s Jon Parkin had very different ideas about the match and netted two second-half goals to dump Salford out of the competition, and record York’s first FA Cup win since 2010.
Battling back & cup struggles
Following the disappointment of an FA Cup exit at the hands of York, Salford were looking to continue their league success and a routine 1-0 away win at Gainsborough looked to have guaranteed as much.
However, their next home fixture, against Leamington, saw the Ammies falter once more in a heated clash between the two sides.
Leamington ran out 3-2 winners and looked to have rocked the Salford boat somewhat.
Nevertheless, the side trooped out for their next league fixture – another home match – against none other than York City, with the side looking for some revenge from the earlier cup meeting.
It was the kind of game that summed up the resiliency of the Salford side, as a brace from Hogan and a goal from Redshaw saw the Ammies sprint into a 3-0 lead in difficult weather conditions.
Despite the lead, Salford weren’t home clear yet and had to weather a late York storm that saw the away side net two goals and set up a nervy finish to the game.
The Minstermen couldn’t muster what they needed to complete the comeback, however, and Salford walked away with the victory and the confidence boost.
Salford pushed on from that result to go on another unbeaten run, picking up points in their next seven league games.
For all their league success, however, Salford found themselves faltering in the cup competitions, with local rivals FC United of Manchester dumping them out of the Manchester Premier Cup with a 3-0 defeat.
The Ammies also saw themselves being knocked out of the FA Trophy convincingly at the hands of Brackley Town, who put four past them including an Aaron Williams hat-trick.
With that defeat it was over six years since a Gavin Salmon goal earned Salford a win in the competition, and once again ended the Ammies’ interests in the tournament for another season.
Uncharacteristic Christmas period & an indifferent new year
Salford found the festive period particularly challenging, failing to win in their next four games, including losing both their Christmas games.
The new year offered no incredible revival of form, either, as the Ammies recorded just four wins in 11 games – a less than impressive run of results given their earlier season form.
One key win in that run, though, was a 2-1 victory over Harrogate Town who were fast emerging as Salford’s main title rivals.
The victory also papered over any real cracks that had begun emerging, allowing the side to extend their lead at the top of the division at that point to 11 points.
By the middle of February it was back down to just two, after losses to Brackley and York.
End of season resurgence & a remarkable comeback
After their stumble in the new year period, Salford started to re-capture their form and picked up wins against Tamworth and Spennymoor Town to begin another unbeaten league run.
The most impressive of these fixtures, and what will likely go down as the game of the season for Salford, was against Kiddermister Harriers.
Finding themselves 4-0 down at Aggborough in the 80th minute, it looked for certain that the Ammies’ unbeaten run was ending before it had even really begun.
However, Salford’s players rallied and goals from Josh Askew and Nick Haughton in the 80th and 89th minutes respectively gave the away side the slightest bit of hope.
Even still, few would have predicted the 93rd goal from Mani Dieseruvwe and then the 96th equaliser from Tom Walker that would dramatically snatch back a point from what had seemed like certain defeat.
It also kept Salford’s unbeaten run alive – a run that would continue right up until their most recent game against Boston United.
League champions… though not as planned
At the Peninsula Stadium – Moor Lane’s official name – Salford knew just a point was necessary to secure the National League North title and earn promotion.
However, as is often the way with football, it didn’t go according to the script with Boston United happy to spoil the celebrations as they raced into an early 2-0 lead.
Lois Maynard did scrape back a goal for the home side, before Gus Mafuta was dismissed for a second booking.
It was a poor performance, all things considered, but as the final whistle approached news filtered through the large crowd that Harrogate had conceded a third at Bradford and Salford were on track for the title.
As such, as the final whistle blew, there was the odd situation of both sides’ supporters celebrating – the Boston United fans excited at their side’s win, while the Salford fans enjoyed their league success.
Jubilant scenes broke out, as fans and players celebrated their National League North title on the pitch.
Looking to the future
With promotion secured, Salford go into their final game – away at Leamington – looking to round off their season in style.
The fans, meanwhile, can look forward to the exciting prospect of new grounds and more illustrious opposition coming to face their team at Moor Lane.
Those will include a number of former Football League sides in Hartlepool, Leyton Orient and Dagenham & Redbridge, as well as the three sides that come down from League Two this season.
The successful season will also please the Class of ’92 owners, who are still on track for their ambitious 2025 goal of Championship football at the club – with the side now set to be playing just one step beneath the Football League next year.