Manchester United's Class of 92 taking Salford City to next level

It started on a train. Travelling together from London to Manchester, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs began talking about the opportunities they were afforded at Manchester United and the difficulties facing young players now.

Their idea -- tentative at that stage -- was to create an academy. But with no first team at the end of it, there would be no pathway similar to the one they were able to take advantage of at Old Trafford.

By the time Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt became involved, the conversation had turned to owning a club. A local club. One that would benefit from investment and a chance to grow. And, in March 2014, Neville and his Class of 1992 teammates agreed a deal to buy Salford City.

"To get into the Football League was always going to be Stage 1 and we know that's a long way away from where we are today," Neville tells ESPN FC. "We're in a good position at the moment, near the top of the league, but there is a long way to go and there are some good teams in this league."

The Football League is not as far away as Neville suggests. Two promotions in three years have seen Salford -- founded in 1940 as Salford Central -- jump from the Evo-Stik Division One North to National League North.

After last weekend's 1-0 win over Alfreton, Salford sit top of the table, four points clear of Harrogate Town, who have a game in hand.

Neville would disagree with talk of promotion in November, but going up this season would leave just one more hurdle to League Two, currently home to former Premier League team Swindon Town and 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry City.

"Yeah, we want promotion," admits Neville. "We're desperate for it, but you only get that through consistency. Then to get out of the Conference is an even bigger challenge. From our point of view, we don't see anything other than the next game."

Aided by investment from Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, who also holds a stake in Spanish side Valencia, Salford went full-time in the summer.

The original idea of an academy is now a reality, and this season the youth team reached the first round proper of the FA Youth Cup, the competition that launched the Class of '92.

Salford's home on Moor Lane, now renamed the Peninsula Stadium -- less than five miles away from Old Trafford -- is now a stadium with an all-seater main stand and three terraces. When the redevelopment is complete, it will be able to hold more than 5,000.

In 2014, Salford averaged gates of around 100. On Saturday against Alfreton, 2,074 fans watched Mani Dieseruvwe, a striker who began his career at Sheffield Wednesday, score a last-minute winner.

"We've invested in the right things, like the stadium, the team and the academy," Neville said. "The principle when we started was to have an academy with a path to a first team so, from my point of view, I want to see some of those youth-team players in our first team."

Visiting the club last month, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he thought his former players had been "off their heads" to buy Salford and there have been challenges along the way.

The Class of '92 faced criticism for changing the club's colours from tangerine to a more familiar red and white. And in January 2015, they made the decision to sack manager Phil Power.

Phil Neville and Scholes were in the dugout for the next game against Kendal Town before Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley were appointed as joint managers after six years in charge of Ramsbottom.

"I've sat there on Sky and said some of the sackings have been absolutely ridiculous," said Neville. "But then we found ourselves within seven or eight months of taking over this football club that we had to move a manager on. He had been here for 18 months but we knew, ultimately, it wasn't right and we had to change it. That was probably the most difficult decision we have made because that's not what we want to do.

"We're lucky that since then there has been consistency and stability.The challenges of being an owner are great."

One of the key challenges for Neville has been to keep the club's soul intact despite three-and-a-half years of radical change.

The 14 committee members who were initially approached in late 2013 by the Class of '92 are still part of the club. It includes Frank McCauley, who has been involved with Salford since 1984. The days of chairman Harold Brierley paying league fees out of his own pocket and dogs invading the pitch on match days are over. The push for progress, says Neville, is not.

"We are proud," he said. "I'm more proud of the fact that the original people are still here.

"I knew we would be successful to some degree, win some promotions, but I didn't think we would get two in two years. The real challenge was, the people who were originally part of the club, the 14 committee members who volunteered for 25 years, are still here and an integral part. That's a key thing for us.

"There are still moments when you think, 'oh no,' but there are moments when it's complete joy. It's football, it's emotion.

"Football gives you ups and downs and it's like that on the business side. You feel disappointed for a week when you lose, but that's just the way it is. We love it and it's probably one of the best things we've ever done."