FC still United for a noble cause as they pursue their dream of a different way
Almost a decade on from its founding, the Manchester club is alive and thriving
FC United fans during an FA Cup game against Brighton at Gigg Lane. The club will move into their own 5,000-capacity stadium in Moston, north Manchester in September. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
The joy of sport was written all across Mancunian faces celebrating a vital victory in the north- east last Saturday.
At St James’ Park, Manchester United had won 4-0 against Newcastle United, a possible time-buying away win for David Moyes. But these Mancunians were not at St. James’ Park, they were further up the coast in Northumberland. They were at Croft Park, home of Blyth Spartans. They were not watching the Premier League, they were watching the Northern Premier League, tier seven of England’s soccer pyramid.
These were not Manchester United fans, these were the fans of FC United of Manchester. To use a phrase: they haven’t gone away, you know.
Almost a decade on from their founding as a breakaway club for disaffected Manchester United supporters, FC United of Manchester have defeated the cynical voices who sneered that, like the first World War, they’d be over by Christmas.
What those voices, and many others, failed to understand was the depth of feeling. These were core Manchester United fans who felt betrayed and alienated by the Glazer family takeover of Old Trafford. When, in May 2005, Cubic Expression sold their 28.7 per cent to the Glazers to take their built shareholding to over 70 per cent, campaigning United fans knew their fight was in vain. There would be no Red Knight.
Using a business model employed by the likes of Mitt Romney, who could have been president of the United States , the Glazers transferred their debt onto their new business, Manchester United. Last November that debt stood at £361 million.
The debt is nothing to do with United supporters, although it might partially explain why Alex Ferguson did not buy a creative midfielder for years, why Ryan Giggs is playing at 40 and why Moyes inherited an ageing defence.
Those who made the complicated, challenging decision to walk away from Old Trafford – and the five Premier League titles, three League Cups and one European Cup won under Ferguson since 2005 – had seen the economic future. They didn’t wanted to be “owned”, they thought they owned Manchester United. They thought it could be done differently.
Nine years on the people of FC United of Manchester – FCUM – have proved it can be done differently.
Having beaten Spartans 1-0 on Tuesday night at Gigg Lane, Bury, where ‘FC’ play for now, the attendance to watch the top of the table clash with Chorley was 4,152. Only twice this season have League Two side Bury had more for a home game.
The Manchester Evening News ’ preview carried the headline: “Rebels Ready For Biggest Game Yet”. It finished FC United 2, Chorley 2. There are five games of the Evostik Northern Premier division to go. Six points separate the top four. FC are second by three points with a game in hand. Promotion takes the winners into the Conference North, two steps away from the Football League. The others go into a play-off and FC do not want that due to the fact that they have been there for the past three seasons and lost each time.
For any club those are stomach-churning anti-climaxes, but all the more so for a start-up club dependent solely on supporter enthusiasm to exist. There would be no benefactor stepping in to “rescue” the club, buy players, propel it upwards. Because FC United don’t want that.
“Our raison d’etre is to change football,” chairman Andy Walsh said on Thursday. “We have around 3,000 adult members and 4-500 juniors and they each have a say. We’re a democracy and a democracy has to allow dissent, you’re going to have arguments. We’ve had them but what remains strong is the desire to find an alternative model to running a football club. That’s what holds our democracy together.
“It’s about ownership. With ownership comes responsibility, the right to a say, control. The alternative to that is to look for a benefactor, external finance and that alternative is Vincent Tan at Cardiff and Allam at Hull. Cardiff and Hull fans have shown what they think of them but they are powerless to do anything about it.”
FC United have a co-operative ideology at a time when the co-op movement is being sullied by the Co- op Bank. To run a successful co-op requires input from everyone. It is hard work. But FC have raised £2.5m via their own fund-raising and with help from Sport England and Manchester’s city council, will move into their own 5,000-capacity stadium in Moston, north Manchester in September. They are in conversations with other fan-owned clubs about fund-raising – Portsmouth, Chester, Wrexham.
But while they have an ideology, FC exist in the real economy. They refuse to have sponsors on their red shirts, but the club has an overall sponsor and they sell merchandise. They recently sold midfielder Ollie Banks to Chesterfield, though FC are yet to buy a player. One day, though . . .
“The fundamental purpose of a football club is to win football matches,” Walsh said, “but not at any cost. We have principles _ attractive football – being businesslike and efficient but for a community purpose, not just for business profit. We must be sustainable but have the community at heart – and that’s not some veneer, that’s written into our constitution.”
A difference from other ownership models is that any money made goes back into the club, not into the pockets of men like Malcolm Glazer.
They haven’t gone away either, you know.
And given that the vast majority of FC fans remain Manchester United supporters – a banner in Blyth proclaimed: ‘Two Uniteds One Soul’ – there is still serious interest in events at Old Trafford.
“I’m still a Manchester United fan,” said Walsh. “I want them to do well, I want to see the Glazers fail. And the Glazer model has failed – they’re not interested in football or Manchester United, they’re interested in the Glazer family. The Glazers, Vincent Tan, they don’t want the kind of people we are in the ground, they want customers.”
Increasingly, we live in a top-down world. Those at the top have ring-fenced themselves with cash, celebrity, power. They like to tell us there is no other way.
But football clubs like FC United of Manchester are part of the bottom-up world we once cherished as democracy.
They are part of the alternative, they represent themselves, and in the face of indifference, and the odd sniper, the sheer perseverance is remarkable.
They have put up two fingers to those who said they would peter out, a reason why, perhaps, one suggested name of their new ground was FCUM Hall.