In a darkened room in an office formerly the home of a bankrupt hedge fund a gaggle of finance managers gaze at a large screen on a wall displaying an assortment of moving multi-coloured blobs, some of them bigger than others, framed by horizontal and vertical axes. A few people in the room seem to understand what the blobs represent and the significance of their size and colour and their paths across the screen. But others furrow their brows as if unsure of whether the “units” under discussion are tins of soup, high performance sports cars or people with the misfortune to fall ill enough to require hospital treatment.
But hey, who cares, it looks smart. Presentation is everything. There’s a portfolio matrix with its cash cows and stars. There’s a process control chart. There’s a box plot. We have the technology. We can steer this organisation through choppy financial waters. The presenter, who regards himself as something of an expert on “business intelligence”, explains how these graphs and charts provide the perfect platform to tell stories about the data they contain.
And then a new screen appears where the paths of each blob are plotted carefully, one blob superimposed on another blob to create something that resembles an overfed worm climbing a wall. Or something oddly phallic. “I’ve not seen anything like this before” utters one of the would-be story tellers as others suppress a snigger. I’m not sure any of us have, to be fair.
Having previously only visited Cardiff to watch some men in red kick a ball around, my first trip there since 2005, a few weeks ago, provided a welcome opportunity to have a proper nosey round town for the first time. More than a decade on, it’s easy to forget that the Welsh capital played a small yet notable role in the birth of FC United of Manchester as is described in the opening chapter of An Undividable Glow, Robert Brady’s wonderfully meandering account of the formation and first season of FC United. The book is essentially a love story but unlike Thomas Hardy’s most popular classic it opens not with a detailed description of Gabriel Oak but instead recalls how not far from the madding crowd that had assembled for the 2005 FA Cup Final, under a bridge near the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the red Mancunian version of The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” was sung for the very first time.
As well as pausing by the river to reflect on some early FC United history another Cardiff sight to behold was a statue of the Welsh Labour politician Aneurin Bevan perched at the head of the city’s main shopping street. Bevan was, of course, the founder of the National Health Service in 1948 and amongst many wonderful quotes from his distinguished political career (including one where he described Tories as “lower than vermin”) the one that has lodged itself in my mind is his assertion that “the NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it”.
Rarely has that quote felt more relevant than now as the latest NHS crisis unfolds and brings with it the usual calls that the health service is “unaffordable” and will only survive if it abandons its founding principle of being free at the point of need and starts charging people for visiting A&E or to see a GP. Meanwhile the scapegoaters trot out, yet again, the myth that freeloading health tourists are somehow costing the NHS millions. Sadly, the key point in all of this that we have a government that simply does not possess the will to support the NHS in its current form is ignored. To them a system that Bevan described as an “example of real socialism” is anathema, something to be “reformed”, “restructured” and flogged off to their big business mates.
In many respects it’s surprising that the NHS has survived for as long as it has given the fate of so many of our services and industries. Yet this magnificent creation that is there for all of us in our times of need, without having to worry about a bill, and treats everyone with compassion and kindness regardless of their economic or social status, somehow remains more or less intact, not quite swept away by the prevailing obsession with profit.
And there’s a similarity here with FC United of Manchester isn’t there? Because it is also pretty remarkable that this football club has managed to make it not only to our first Christmas but another eleven after that all the time swimming against a tide that suggests that the only way to achieve success in football is to find someone who is minted and prepared to spend a shed load of cash on winning things.
Even in our own league, only a few months ago AFC Telford United decided that they could no longer compete with the likes of AFC Fylde and Salford City as a supporter owned football club and voted to seek outside investment; fan ownership viewed as a weakness rather than a strength. Meanwhile the crisis that has enveloped FC United over the last two seasons has led many supporters to question whether we too can compete at this level of football and keep our founding principles and commitment to affordable football intact. What about having a shirt sponsor to boost revenue? Or maybe another 50p on the programme price?
But amidst our concerns about our future, the best thing about the club since the election of a new board last June is that it feels like “our” football club again. The board are giving us all a nudge to say, come on, we can’t do this all on our own, this is a collective effort. They are sharing information with us and want us involved in the running of the club again. They want our views, our knowledge and expertise and, as ever, a few bob, if you can spare it, would be nice too. The days of us sitting back and saying “we’ll leave it to them, they know better” are thankfully over.
If the packed to the rafters latest edition of Course You Can Malcolm before the home match with Salford City last Saturday was anything to go by then the club is much the better for this new found openness. In a slot called Rubbing it Red some supporters spoke passionately about their involvement in the club and its future, embracing the spirit of participatory democracy that has swept through the club in recent months. Where once we’d have been content to let the board and Chief Executive get on with things supporters are now collectively, via a new progressive board, taking charge of the club’s destiny.
Charlotte Delaney, daughter of playwright Shelagh Delaney and a writer herself, spoke poignantly of growing up in Manchester and Salford and Pam and Sarah from the Hummingbird Project, a High Peak based grassroots organisation set up in 2015 to help refugees, made a welcome return to Malcolmses collecting donations of underwear, socks, hygiene items and cash for refugees surviving the winter months in Europe and Syria. They described themselves as being “bowled over” by FC the last time they visited CYCM in July and were back for more. The admiration is mutual.
This was all topped off with a storming set by the young Mancunian band Cabbage, about to start a UK tour, who had the room bouncing with their brand of politically charged post-punk; opening with Uber Capitalist Death Trade and finishing with a cover of These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ that had the Malcolmses audience singing along. With their “Born in the NHS” t-shirts it was clear to see which side of the NHS debate they’re on and it’s terrific to see a young band unafraid to take a stand on the issues of the day. They clearly enjoyed the occasion as much as the audience if a Facebook post after the gig by one of the band’s members is anything to go by; “playing at FC United this weekend has galvanised inspiration in me richer than the thousands of records I’ve sat in awe at in my bedroom growing up”. Whilst the band were playing, a cabbage was being raffled off as a prize – rumours of our brassica-lintedness may not have been exaggerated.
All of this was played out in front of a banner that roared “We are those lions” recalling an industrial dispute from many moons ago and a defiant woman by the name of Jayaben Desai, small of stature but a lion of the trade union movement. Meanwhile next door in the other third of the main stand function room Wolves, rather than lions, were the cause of much merriment as a packed bar chortled at the 1990 League Champions’ exit from the FA Cup whilst tucking into some pre-match nosebag. Likewise the bar under the St Mary’s Road End was also rocking both before the match and at half-time. A bumper crowd of 4,158 packed into Broadhurst Park last Saturday, the highest attendance for a league game since moving to Moston and the fifth highest in the club’s history.
Although events on the pitch didn’t quite work out as the vast majority of the crowd would have liked (Salford City won 3-0) it nevertheless felt like some of the intoxicating joi de vivre of the early days of FC United was back as a cacophony of old and new songs filled the air including an ace new one to the tune of the Stone Roses’ Waterfall…”we’ll carry on through it all, playing punk football”. Dissecting business plans and debating the finer points of the club’s electoral policy is, of course, important but sometimes you just want to go to the match and enjoy yourself. On Saturday it felt like some of the fun had returned to FC. And if you wanted Bevanite evidence that there are folk left with the faith to fight for FC United then here it was in spades; board members, staff, volunteers, supporters and players united as one.
It was a perfect riposte to those who seemingly would rather that the present board fail to turn things round. The day before the Salford City match, and no doubt mischievously timed to inflict maximum damage, half a dozen members of the old board released a statement of breathtaking arrogance (even by their standards) absolving themselves of any blame whatsoever for any of the mess that the club is currently trying to dig itself out of. The statement comprised over a thousand words but unfortunately, once again, not the five letter one that many of us were looking for. And it’s clear that they are not the only ones who are delighting in the club’s current woes if the Twitter gloating of the club’s former failed fund raiser is anything to go by. The irony of a member of the board of Supporters Direct, and someone who is partly responsible for the financial mess that FC United are in, openly criticising the board of a fan-owned club was seemingly lost on this odious individual.
As a lovely footnote to all the positivity and togetherness in evidence last Saturday it was great to see Cabbage and the Hummingbirds buzzing off each other too. So much so that the Hummingbirds will be collecting for refugees at Cabbage’s forthcoming Manchester gigs at the Gorilla club and the Academy. Isn’t that lovely? In the world of hot desking and third sector hubbery it would probably be called “networking” or summat but I prefer to think of it simply as people being brought together through a shared love. Love of a football club, of Manchester, of music, of the NHS and of our fellow human beings regardless of which side of arbitrary borders they are born on. There’s still much to do at FC United to turn things round but Saturday was a tremendous start. After a year that has tested our resolve let’s at least allow ourselves a collective smile at what happened last weekend. The faith to fight for the future of FC United is well and truly alive.
On Saturday 4th February FC United of Manchester will host fellow supporter owned football club SV Austria Salzburg in an international friendly match at Broadhurst Park. Below is a slightly longer version of a piece that I wrote for the FC United matchday programme that takes a look at the Austrian club’s history and some of the similarities between the two clubs.
In early October 2005, with FC United supporters still buzzing off the novelty of owning our own football club and looking forward to a North West Counties League Division Two clash with Daisy Hill at Gigg Lane, nearly eight hundred miles across Europe another group of football supporters were in the process of forming their own club following a takeover by an unsavoury businessman. The fans in question were those of Sportverein Austria Salzburg who on 7th October 2005 successfully registered the club’s original name and emblem with the Austrian football authorities.
Following the takeover of their club by the Red Bull energy drink brand earlier in 2005 it was apparent to a section of SV Austria Salzburg supporters that, as with a post-Glazer takeover Manchester United, following their beloved football club would no longer be the same. To Red B*** (supporters of SV Austria Salzburg refuse to acknowledge the energy drink brand referring to them as Red B*** instead) they represented merely another asset in their expanding sporting portfolio which already included a high profile presence in the big money world of Formula One motor racing. But to some of Austria Salzburg’s support, however, it represented the theft of the club’s soul as Red B*** immediately announced that they would be changing the club’s name to FC Red B*** Salzburg, altering the club’s badge to incorporate the winged Red B*** logo, changing the club’s colours from violet and white to red and white, swapping the fans’ popular end, the Curva Sud, the heart and soul of the club’s vocal support and threatening to ban anyone who had the temerity to protest about any of this.
The change in the club’s colours meant little to Red B***’s Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz who hit back at critics by remarking that “the Red B*** can’t be violet, or else we couldn’t call it Red B***”. Astonishingly Mateschitz even tried to erase the club’s proud seventy two year history by changing the club crest so that it appeared that the club was formed in 2005 rather than 1933 declaring that “this is a new club with no history”.
Despite all this some supporters welcomed the takeover and the promise of financial security for a club that was struggling both on and off the pitch. Surely a company that employed Franz Beckenbauer as its football advisor could only be good for the club? The original SV Austria Salzburg had, for most of their seventy two years, lived in the shadow of the more successful teams from Vienna and Graz and it wasn’t until the 1993-94 season that they won their first Austrian Bundesliga title and subsequently became the first Austrian team to enter the Champions League. Indeed, just as many Reds rate the Manchester United double winning side of 1994 as the finest football team that they’ve seen, so the mid-nineties also marked something of a golden age for SV Austria Salzburg as they won three league titles and also made it to the final of the UEFA Cup in 1994 where they lost narrowly over two legs to Inter Milan. By 2005, however, the club was back in the doldrums.
As the summer of 2005 unfolded a group of supporters known as the Initiative Violet-Weiss organised demonstrations and petitions in protest at the takeover and even entered into talks with the new owners but were ultimately unsuccessful in managing to preserve any of the club’s seventy two year old traditions. A derisory “final” offer from Red B*** included allowing the goalkeeper to wear violet socks! Some members of the Violet-Weiss were even refused access to a pre-season friendly with Hadjuk Split merely for wearing the club’s real colours of violet and white and when further protests took place at a league match with SV Mattersburg at the beginning of the 2005-06 season and opposition fans joined in by unfurling a banner that proclaimed “Stop Mad Cow Disease” it was quickly removed by security staff. Pillaging a football club’s traditions and history in favour of a tacky corporate logo? Oh, go on then. Pithy comments on banners voicing protest at this theft? Nah, sorry mate, you’ll have to take that down. As supporters of a club born from protest we know that feeling only too well.
So after five months of protests SV Austria Salzburg rose from the ashes in October 2005, resurrected by supporters who refused to support the rebranded club, and entered the seventh tier of Austrian football for the 2006-07 season. This latest addition to the supporter ownership movement didn’t pass unnoticed in Manchester where FC United’s programme for the match with Castleton Gabriels in December 2005 featured an article on the efforts of the Violet-Weiss to form their own club. Across Europe there were similar expressions of admiration. And thus a seven storey love song began, or perhaps in the birthplace of Mozart that should be a seven storey piano sonata, that saw them, like us, enjoy considerable success in their early years as four successive promotions saw them commence the 2010-11 season in the Regionalliga West at the third tier of Austrian football. Playing at a small stadium close to the city’s airport the Violetten were roared on each week by a noisy, passionate and colourful following of around 1,300.
A further promotion in 2015 took them to the second division of the Austrian Bundesliga and saw them re-enter the world of professional football, a place they felt they belonged. But faced with much larger playing costs simply to compete at this higher level and the need to upgrade their ground to meet the requirements of this league the financial challenges proved too much and they ended the season in substantial debt and relegated back to the Regionalliga West. They currently sit in 12th place in that division but like FC are nervously eyeing the bottom rather than the top of the table as they are only six points above the relegation zone.
The club may have financial problems but, like FC United, their supporters remain determined not to succumb to the commercialisation of the modern game and so launched a crowd funding campaign in the autumn of 2016 called “tradition hat zukunft” (“tradition has a future”) to raise funds for the club.
Last January FC Union Berlin invited Austria Salzburg for a friendly match, a 5pm kick off on a Saturday afternoon, that attracted ten thousand supporters. Recognising the financial plight of the Austrians the home side, in a wonderful display of solidarity, agreed to donate all proceeds from the match to their opponents.
A year on, FC United will also play host to the violet and whites in a friendly match on Saturday 4th February that will also kick-off at 5pm and will aim to raise funds for both clubs with all matchday revenue being shared. It’s clear already that the match has generated considerable interest amongst the Violetten (they’ve already sold more than two hundred tickets for the match) particularly as they are without football at this time of year with the “winter pause” in progress and no league match until mid-March. Speaking of the friendly David Rettenbacher, an SV Austria Salzburg supporter for nearly thirty years, said that a friendly between the two clubs “has been in our minds for a long time. We are really happy that this is happening. We feel honoured and are really looking forward to the game and a weekend characterised by real sportsmanship, authentic football and love for the game”. David added that he’s tried to make it to three FC United matches over the last ten years but each time the game has been postponed. “I hope this isn’t an omen” he joked.
Hopefully as many FC supporters as possible will get down to Broadhurst Park for what promises to be a cracking weekend, complete with a beer festival and another matchday Course You Can Malcolm event, and to show support not only for this club of ours but for another supporter owned club nearly a dozen years into their existence who have shown that fans can successfully build their own football club and bring some enjoyment back to the game. Another club, just like ours, that continues to swim against the tide of rampant commercialisation and is determined to eradicate the mad cow disease that afflicts the likes of the Glazers and Red B*** who view football as a gigantic cash cow to be milked for every last drop. Like FC they recognise too that football is about more than football and that it has a role to play in wider society in promoting social engagement and integration. Come let’s gather together on Saturday 4th February, Mancunian Reds and Salzburger Violet-Weiss, and show that a better football world is possible.
Back when the makers of television programmes credited us with having at least half a brain Granada Television’s acclaimed documentary series World in Action investigated some dodgy goings on at Manchester United. It was January 1980, I was ten at the time and, to be honest, hadn’t the foggiest what was going on as the programme sped by in a blur of allegations involving shady business dealings by chairman Louis Edwards, contaminated meat and illegal payments to the parents of young footballers. But by the time the credits rolled at the end it was clear that something pretty serious was wrong, perhaps magnified by the dramatic descending chords of the World in Action theme tune, and for several weeks after I had a sense of dread that sometime soon Manchester United might cease to exist.
Indeed the allegations were serious enough for the Dibble to investigate but, of course, a few weeks later, Louis Edwards had a heart attack and died, the police dropped their charges and my doom laden scenario failed to materialise. Thirty six years on and, ever the doom monger, there have been several occasions this year when I’ve felt similarly uncertain about the future of another set of red shirted heroes that I have more than a passing interest in. One such occasion was a couple of weeks ago.
The statement issued by the board of FC United of Manchester on the last Friday of November outlined in stark terms the perilous financial position of the club barely half way through only the second season in its own ground. “Protest club may apply for overdraft” guffawed the headline to a mischievous piece on the BBC Sport website. Ironic perhaps that this news should emerge amidst the commercial frenzy of Black Friday given that this is traditionally the day that shops in the United States tend to have earned enough to cover their costs for the year and begin to move into the black as people emerge from their homes following the Thanksgiving holiday to buy more stuff. Black Friday? Red Friday more like.
It’s clear from the statement that the club needs to significantly raise its game in generating additional income during the remainder of this season if it is to meet loan repayments due next year and also fund the remaining works needed to complete the ground. Although the board statement stopped short of naming and shaming it’s not difficult peering between the lines to identify where the source of the current mess lies. It highlighted under-performing non-match day revenue, an “unrealistic” business plan, a staffing structure that was simply “not fit for purpose” and a lack of basic financial controls, HR processes and contracts for just about anything; mismanagement and incompetence on a scale that very nearly drove the club into oblivion. In addition the club had to function without a Chief Executive or Club Secretary for a significant chunk of 2016.
At the risk of raking over old turf, if we are to collectively move on, we need to properly understand how we have arrived at this position in the first place and to learn from our mistakes and ensure that they do not happen again. Perhaps Exhibit A in this process of disaster awareness ought to be the work of fiction that was the five year business plan written in February 2014 that forecasted the club’s likely income and expenditure in its first few seasons at Broadhurst Park.
The business plan spoke of the, ahem, “exciting challenges” ahead and forecast a healthy profit in our first season at Broadhurst Park sufficient to set aside funds to pay out community shares in future years and also to establish an asset replacement fund. All very sensible it would seem. But to do this we needed to generate income from our new function room of a whopping £209k. The truth is of course that we didn’t get anywhere near this target in our first year at Broadhurst Park and without proper promotion of this new facility we were never going to (until relatively recently we didn’t even have something as basic as a marketing brochure to share with potential users of the room). It doesn’t take much to realise that it was absolute pie in the sky stuff and the idea that this marked a prudent course of action frankly laughable. Indeed the new Chief Executive Damian Chadwick described the income plan for the function room as “fantasy” at the recent AGM. In short, it was a plan built on a set of assumptions that were, at best, ridiculously over-optimistic and, at worst, grossly negligent.
There are other holes in that business plan but the function room income was the biggest one. It was the income stream on which the credibility of the business plan ultimately rested – the big unknown (we hadn’t had a function room to operate before of course) and the difference between the club making a loss or generating sufficient income to prudently set money aside to meet future loan commitments. It’s difficult to believe that this time last year we employed someone with the words “business” and “development” in their job title and paid a so-called expert fund raiser yet we were unable to construct a business plan with more credibility than an A Level Business Studies project.
Okay so it’s easy to say all this with the benefit of hindsight but why, if producing a realistic business plan was something that we were struggling with (and that certainly appears to have been the case), did we not feel able to call on the expertise of a few of our more than three thousand members to lend a hand? After all, this is what we’re meant to be about isn’t it – a collective effort, rather than the head honcho plus a few of his mates and assorted bluffers? It’s not merely a cliché to say that our membership base, with its expertise and knowledge of all sorts of issues and tasks is our greatest asset as a club, we’ve proved it time and time again. Perhaps we could have sought the advice of a member or supporter with experience of managing a football facility for a living? Someone like, say, Damian Chadwick, the then Venue Controller at Bolton Wanderers, who apparently contacted the club to offer assistance but was ignored as were others. It smacks of an approach to a complex task that was both arrogant and blinkered and very nearly put us out of business even with the windfall from a televised FA Cup first round tie with Chesterfield.
Or was it simply that this was yet another example of us winging it without a proper plan in place? If so, given the sacrifices that so many of us have made over the last eleven years pouring hard earned cash (that we sometimes struggled to afford but we did it because it was something that we passionately believed in) into the Development Fund, community shares, crowdfunding, one-off donations not to mention hours of volunteering it represented frankly scandalous treatment of a supporter base that had collectively given their all to get the ground built. Not to mention the grant and loan funding pumped in by Manchester City Council when council services were (and still are) being cut right, left and centre.
Moving into a ground of our own was meant to mark a step change in how the club’s finances were managed with more reliance placed on external sources of funding be it income from sponsorship or hiring out the ground’s various facilities. A “game changer” as some stuffed shirt on The Apprentice would no doubt point out to us. But here we are again with us supporters being asked to dig deep and contribute to the Development Fund to both meet our loan commitments at the end of this financial year and complete an unfinished ground whilst the new Chief Executive and the board and staff try to get the club to stand on its own two feet as a business. It won’t be easy. But there are more than three thousand of us and we have already seen some encouraging signs in the last few weeks including manager Karl Marginson donating his fee from appearing as a pundit at the recent televised FA Cup tie between Curzon Ashton and AFC Wimbledon. A wonderful gesture from a man who instinctively gets what the club is about.
Despite its grim message, the board deserve great credit for issuing this statement alerting us to the financial mess that we are in. It would be nice to think that perhaps one or two of the previous board who oversaw this gross mismanagement could find it in themselves to hold their hands up and perhaps issue an apology to the club’s members. In the circumstances it would be the decent, honourable thing to do. But if the typically self-important Q&A session (big on bitterness but low on humility) given by a former longstanding board member at a supporters’ branch meeting in September was anything to go by then we probably shouldn’t be holding our breath. Similarly with the snide, unsubstantiated attack on a current board member by the club’s former General Manager at the recent AGM.
Any remaining sense of respect that I may have had for Andy Walsh (and admittedly that wasn’t much) evaporated at that meeting. He appears to have no sense of any responsibility for the mess that the club finds itself in and, as such, I’m not sure what he has left to offer the club any more beyond self-justification and cheap point scoring. For FC United to truly move on from the strife of the last eighteen months and to repair some of the rifts that have developed amongst our support Walsh (and others) must surely apologise or leave us to sort the mess out.
Glance around at the financial state of many clubs in lower league and non-league football and it is clear that FC United are far from alone in experiencing turmoil off the pitch. Falling crowds? Board resignations? Declining revenue streams? Well, that’s also been the tale of 2016 for our FA Cup first round opponents from last season Chesterfield and worsened considerably by the resignation of the club’s largest investor at their AGM a few weeks ago leaving the club uncertain as to its future with their CEO, ex-United goalkeeper, Chris Turner confirming last week that a £500k shortfall in the club’s finances needs to be plugged urgently in order to prevent the club from going into administration. Like many lower league and non-league club it has been propped up by loans from directors. At FC, of course, we have no such wealthy investors prepared to flash their cash in times of need. But whilst Chesterfield fans wait patiently for further news, uncertain as to the future of their 150 year old football club, at least at FC United the fate of the club is in our own hands. Less than thirty Chesterfield supporters attended a recent meeting to consider a potential supporter-led bid for the club. Sometimes, amidst the firefighting, it’s easy to forget the rare participatory fervour of our own supporters.
In times of strife we all look for turning points, a six-two-at-Arsenal-in-1990 moment when the future begins to take on a brighter hue. The reconvened general meeting back in May may well come to be seen as a watershed moment in FC United’s history as around four hundred members gathered on a sunny Sunday in Prestwich. We could easily have hit the canvas that day and not got back up but instead we summoned the collective spirit of that raucous Saturday afternoon against Quorn many moons ago and stepped up. The board members subsequently elected at the end of June deserve our thanks. Thanks for having the balls to stand up and be counted in the club’s darkest hour and thanks too for grafting to keep the club afloat over the last five months, for much of this time without key members of staff in place to take care of day to day issues.
One board member reckons that he has spent around 20% of his time on FC United duties since being elected. Twenty bloody percent. These people have jobs to do, families to care for etc. That represents an extraordinary commitment that has cost the club not one penny. And yet there are still some who gripe about there being no discernible changes in the club’s position since the summer. The difference between having a football club to support and not having one is not simply colossal it’s mathematically infinite, off the scale. It’s mind boggling that 26% of those who voted at the recent AGM actually voted against the motion that “the club’s off-field activities are being run more effectively now than they were 12 months ago” .
Finally, eighteen months on from moving into Broadhurst Park it looks like the club is beginning to get to grips with managing not only a football team but a multi-million pound facility. We’ve now got a board and Chief Executive who have a refreshingly open and honest approach to managing the club, who don’t feel that they necessarily have all the answers and are prepared to listen to and involve the club’s members in decision making and act accordingly. The votes at the recent AGM on whether to take up a free subscription to BT Sport or whether to seek sponsorship from gambling firms are examples of that. They have and will continue to make mistakes, they’re only human and no other supporter-owned football club has been down this road before but at least they are prepared to acknowledge when mistakes have been made and learn from them.
There’s a huge amount of work to be done but the signs are encouraging with new sponsors coming on board, use of the function room picking up and on Christmas Day the ground will be opened for Manchester’s homeless to get a shower, a decent breakfast and to enjoy some of the comforts and joys of the festive season that most of us take for granted. It’s yet another example of the club reaching out to its local community in a way that few others do. It’s been a dramatic year but the stage is now hopefully set for FC United to move on – thankfully the final credits on our proud story aren’t about to roll just yet. Onwards.
“Ninety five was not enough” sang a section of United fans in K Stand at a match in the spring of ’93. I can’t recall precisely which match it was but it was around the time that a young Liverpool supporter, Tony Bland, finally lost his life. The poor lad had been in a coma for nearly four years after sustaining irreparable brain damage at the Hillsborough disaster and as his life-prolonging treatment was withdrawn he became the ninety sixth and final victim of the disaster. At twenty three years of age he was a year younger than me; yet another young life tragically cut off in its prime simply as the result of attending a football match.
Being an overly sensitive soul I wrote a piece for the United We Stand fanzine that condemned the chanting and wondered why, with all the songs in the United songbook, we should choose to sing something so heartless. United fans were better than that weren’t we? The piece was entitled Dragging Us Down, a rather unimaginative nod to the Inspiral Carpets’ single of around that time, Dragging Me Down, taken from their ridiculously underrated Revenge of the Goldfish album. A few United fans responded in the next issue with one memorable one urging me to “fuck off and watch netball” if I wasn’t prepared to put up with songs like that. It was apparently all part of the whole United-Liverpool rivalry; they sing about Munich, we sing about Hillsborough, they sing about Shipman. And so it goes on and on. I clearly needed to man up.
Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century and I’m putting pen to paper, well, finger to keyboard, grumbling about football songs once more following FC United’s trip to Shropshire earlier this month to take on AFC Telford United. This time the feeling isn’t one of anger, it’s more of shame to be honest. As the game petered out with us trailing to a smartly taken second half goal a section of our support in the Frank Nagington Stand decided to comment on our opponents current financial difficulties with a few choruses of “Telford’s going bust” to the tune of the done-to-death Euro ’96 anthem “football’s coming home”. On the football phone-in scale of near-permanent football outrage it probably barely merits a mention but set in the context of the last year or so of FC United’s existence it feels rather like lobbing a few stones at a neighbour’s shed from the safety of your own greenhouse. Because, let’s face it, we’ve hardly covered ourselves in glory when it comes to managing our own finances have we? We are in something of a financial pickle of our own. And, anyway, whatever happened to our “making friends not millionaires” sense of solidarity that we used to have with fellow supporter-owned clubs? I know it hardly ranks with songs about people dying but aren’t we meant to better than this?
Buried in the thousands of words worth of written updates provided by FC United board members for September’s board meeting is a comment from one board member, not given to hyperbole, that brings home the seriousness of the mess left behind by the mismanagement of the previous board. Referring to the situation that the new board inherited this summer it notes that “it would be difficult to imagine a more challenging starting position and I believe many organisations would simply have folded in similar circumstances, particularly in the light of the accompanying financial challenges”. Four months on and the new board have done much to address these problems but the financial position of the club remains a major concern. Already the new Chief Executive, due to start in the next few weeks, has spoken of it likely being the end of the 2017-18 season before the club regains a stable financial footing.
Of course there’s nothing new in football clubs experiencing financial difficulties and ultimately folding or going bust. It happened to Telford United in 2004 but they were resurrected in the summer of that year by the Telford United Supporters’ Trust who became the club’s owners and started over again as AFC Telford United. As recently as the 2014-15 season they were only one promotion away from the football league and their well appointed six thousand capacity ground, the New Bucks Head, a few miles west of Telford in Wellington has the feel of a place that perhaps expected to be hosting football at a higher level than this by now.
Yet despite excellent facilities and tremendous support the club is beset by financial problems as was starkly laid out in a recent statement by the club’s board that questioned whether supporter ownership was, in fact, the right model to enable the club to compete effectively at this level of football. They expressed a desire to seek external investment instead; supporter ownership portrayed as something of a handicap that prevents them from competing with the likes of Salford City, Kidderminster Harriers and table topping AFC Fylde who only a couple of weeks before had splashed out a club record transfer fee, “a five figure sum”, on a highly rated player from Alfreton Town. In contrast, the board of Telford reckoned that their own club required a five figure sum, £50,000 to be precise, simply to get them through the next two months and launched a campaign, called “Back the Bucks”, to secure the future of the club.
So it was for this reason that, with both clubs already out of the FA Cup, the match against FC United was brought forward from February to October and it worked to some degree as the attendance of 1,706, including around four hundred away supporters, was their largest of the season so far, and bucket collections before and during the match raised around two and a half thousand pounds, a tremendous sum. On a day when supporters of Charlton Athletic and Coventry City marched together and briefly stopped their match by chucking hundreds of plastic pigs onto the pitch in protest at despised owners bleeding their clubs dry, it was a pity that some FC United supporters felt unable to show some comradely solidarity with a fellow supporter-owned club in difficulties.
But the “Telford’s going bust” song was merely one example of the idiocy on display that day. During the first half the same fans responded to a Telford fan banging a drum with a song about banging women. Of course, it can be brushed off by some as mere match day “banter” but, again, aren’t we meant to be better than this? Contrast it, for instance, with the experience of the two women from the Hummingbird Project who came to speak at the Course You Can Malcolm night in July and who, whilst thanking the club for its support, remarked on how much they had enjoyed the evening and how comfortable they had felt in a predominantly male environment. This is a football club that celebrates the role of women in football, the sort of FC United I want to be part of. Meanwhile most of the idiots chanting “Telford’s going bust” probably missed the tannoy announcement at half time thanking FC United fans for their contribution to the bucket collections as they were apparently in the concourse beneath the stand singing songs about the Pope and the IRA. Words fail me on that one.
I’d like to say that the incidents at Telford were merely isolated occurrences but, let’s be honest, for the last year or so, there has been an accumulation of unpleasant incidents, particularly at away matches, often involving intimidation and abuse of fellow FC supporters and often characterised by bigotry, misogyny and fuckwittery that should have no place at this football club. Yes, taken as individual incidents they can be laughed off as banter, drunken frolics or as the actions of a tiny minority but when they happen time and time again over a longer period then it’s apparent that they are symptomatic of a wider malaise that must be addressed. The old board, to a large extent, chose to ignore the problem and let it fester. Maybe it’s partly a consequence, that we should have anticipated, of our move to an area of Manchester where 31 percent voted for Ukip in the 2015 local council elections (compared to 7% across the city as a whole)? Either way, the new board with their commitment to reasserting the principles on which the club was founded must tackle the problem before it’s too late.
As Telford debate their future as a supporter owned club there is much to look forward to at FC United with a new Chief Executive about to join and the club reasserting its founding principles under a progressive new board. But there is a considerable amount of work to be done too. Clearly we’re a very different supporter-owned beast to AFC Telford United but the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the National League North means that consolidating our position in this division for a few seasons would represent a notable achievement. Off the pitch the return of a matchday Course You Can Malcolm earlier in the month, at the invitation of the board, was a very welcome antidote to the increasing small mindedness of some of our supporters. But when decent Reds are talking about not attending matches for fear of abuse and intimidation then enough is enough.
This coming Saturday is People United Day the club’s annual celebration of the multicultural diversity of the local community and the wider Manchester area that reinforces our proud and principled commitment to develop strong links with that community and to discriminate against none. It’s one of the most important dates in the FC United calendar and one that offers a timely reminder that discrimination of any form will not be tolerated at the club as people from all walks of life should be able to enjoy football without fear of intimidation or abuse. This isn’t mere lip service to a nice idea, it’s woven into the very fabric of this enlightened working class football club; our principles are not to be sacrificed for an extra few quid. And we won’t be dragged into the gutter.
Now, hang on a minute, what channel did you say the netball’s on……..?
For those who may have missed it elsewhere this is a piece that I wrote for Football Focus magazine on the recent fortunes of FC United of Manchester. It appears in the latest edition of the magazine.
Alighting the tram at the stop for Newton Heath and Moston, a couple of miles north east of Manchester city centre, one of the first sights that greet you is a sign for the nearby Newton Heath Train Maintenance Depot. It’s a fitting nod to the history of the football club that now resides just up the road at Broadhurst Park. FC United of Manchester, formed in 2005 by Manchester United supporters disillusioned with the rapacious greed of the modern game, traces a proud bloodline back to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway workers who in 1878 formed their own football club Newton Heath FC that, of course, subsequently became Manchester United.
FC United has been at the forefront of the supporter ownership movement for more than a decade and is now the largest supporter-owned football club in the country by number of members. With the club’s democratic one member, one vote structure each member gets an opportunity to have their say on how the club is run and ensure that it remains true to its founding principles. It is the club’s members who set admission prices and elect the board.
Inspired by the likes of AFC Wimbledon and imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness FC United set out in the North West Counties Football League ten divisions below and a world away from the Premier League gravy train. Eleven years and four promotions later the club is beginning its second season in National League North, at the sixth tier of English football and finally after a nomadic decade playing football in a ground of its own and in its home city.
Broadhurst Park, with its capacity of 4,400 and facilities that are the envy of many, is the first new football ground in the UK to be built and funded by a supporter-owned football club; with more than half of the total cost of £6.3 million raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowd funding it is the culmination of an extraordinary collective effort in a time of austerity.
Maintaining the club’s principled commitment to affordable football whilst competing at a higher level and striving, wherever possible, to avoid “outright commercialism”, is a delicate balancing act. Whilst almost all other clubs at this level and beyond are happy to splash a sponsor’s logo across their shirts and many benefit from the investment of wealthy owners at FC United we are proud to say that we do things differently; the players’ shirts remain refreshingly free of advertising and there are no sugar daddies.
Yet FC United’s admission prices (£9 for adults, £5 for concessions and £2 for juniors) are the second lowest in the league and, in addition, the club continues with its pioneering “pay what you can afford” season tickets. Last season the club sold more than two thousand season tickets and was the fourth best supported team in the whole of non-league football with crowds of more than three thousand regularly flocking to Broadhurst Park; an incredible level of support, week in week out, at this level of football. And with a mid-table finish in our first season in National League North to those looking on it must appeared to have been a successful season.
But whilst attendances boomed and matchday revenue surged in 2015-16 the club struggled to adjust to life in its own ground. A turbulent twelve months saw the resignation of the club’s longstanding Chief Executive and seven Board members and ended with some fans staging a protest at the final home match calling for greater democracy and transparency at the club. Many members felt that while the club had been so focused on building a new home the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which the club was founded had been eroded. The 50p increase in the price of the programme at the friendly match against Benfica in May last year, the first match at Broadhurst Park, was widely condemned as overly commercial and led to a significant loss of goodwill amongst many members.
The beauty of supporter ownership is however that, unlike disgruntled supporters at, say, Newcastle United or Charlton Athletic, we can change things and the club’s membership signalled their desire for change during the summer by electing a progressive new board that has already taken steps to heal the rifts that have developed amongst sections of the club’s support and has promised to operate with greater openness and transparency. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future but there is much work to be done.
The summer has been one of reorganisation at the club with supporters, once again, embracing the DIY punk spirit that got the club off the ground in a matter of weeks in 2005 with many supporters offering their time, skills and experience for tasks ranging from building a perimeter wall at the ground to getting involved in a range of volunteer-led groups overseeing areas like communications, governance and finance. It’s at times like this when we fully appreciate the wealth of expertise, knowledge and talent that we have amongst our members whether it involves running businesses, counting beans or laying bricks.
One of the challenges the club undoubtedly faces in the next few years is to secure its financial stability by making the most of the wonderful facilities that it now possesses; using the spacious function room to host events for the local community, businesses and other organisations and hiring out the superb 3G all-weather pitches adjacent to the ground. A new Chief Executive will shortly be appointed to oversee the club’s development on and off the pitch. On the pitch, after looking out of our depth for a large part of our first season at this higher level, most supporters would probably settle for a comfortable mid-table position again this season. But arguably it will be even tougher than last season with the likes of Salford City, Darlington, FC Halifax Town and Altrincham joining the division.
Community work is woven into the fabric of the club with its founding manifesto commitment “to develop strong links with the local community”. The club’s community work covers an impressive range of activities from the Big Coat Day collections of warm clothing for homeless people in Manchester and breakfast clubs and summer youth projects for kids to work with young people not in education, employment or training and support for older people particularly those who live alone. Just a few of the reasons why the club won the Northern Premier League’s inaugural Community Club of the Year award in 2014.
More recently the club has begun working with the Sporting Memories Network, recognising the power of people’s memories of sporting events to overcome social isolation, loneliness and depression particularly amongst older people. And FC United were the only organisation in Manchester to participate in a recent charity-run event to distribute cereal to community groups, food banks and local residents to help those who might otherwise not get a decent breakfast. Meanwhile, only a few weeks ago, a theatre production of the FC United story “Conceived in a Curry House”, featuring FC United supporters and local residents, played at the Lowry Theatre and is part of a longstanding relationship between the club and local theatre group Moston Active Drama.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film maker Ken Loach said on a recent visit to Broadhurst Park, there is a lot riding on the success of this football club; there are many people beyond Manchester willing us to succeed. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters and to a large extent this is a journey into the unknown with few, if any, role models to guide us. No one said that it would be easy and the next few years will possibly be the trickiest so far for this young football club. But the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get the club back on track this summer has been clear for all to see. It’s full steam ahead, once again, for FC United of Manchester.
Apologies folks, I don’t normally do this online charity thing but tomorrow (Sunday 2nd October) I’m running in a race to raise a few bob for Shelter, the charity that works to find those who are homeless or in temporary housing a decent home. Unless you wander round with your eyes closed you can’t help but notice the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets of towns and cities across the country. In addition, there are thousands struggling to get by in hostels, B&Bs or kipping down on the floor at a mate’s house. It’s something most of us take for granted, having a place called home to return to at the end of the day; somewhere safe and a foundation on which we build the rest of our lives. But imagine it wasn’t there and that foundation was removed from under us. It could happen to any of us. The government doesn’t give a shit, there are not enough votes in it for them, so unfortunately it falls to charities like Shelter to fill the gap where a caring government should be.
Anyway, to be more specific, tomorrow I’m taking part in (along with more than 500 others) something called Urban Rush 2016 (not to be confused with Ian Rush, the moustachioed former Liverpool centre forward); it’s a 15 mile run across London, from east to west, starting in the Olympic Park and finishing on the banks of the Thames in Putney. It’s an event specifically set up to raise money for Shelter and aims to raise, in total, more than £125,000. My own aim, as part of this collective effort, is to raise at least £225. There’s a link to my fundraising page below which you can click on. As you can see it’s not been very busy so far because I’m utterly hopeless at this fund raising malarkey but if you can spare anything, no matter how small, to help what I think is a decent cause then I would be very grateful. I may even stretch to giving you a nice big hug the next time we meet (but no kissing). Thanks very much.