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Upstairs, downstairs

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Kent. You know Kent?

In one of those London postcodes that’s become a playground for the one percent and where paparazzi loiter until the early hours poised to grab a shot of someone rich or famous or both tottering out of Sexy Fish or somewhere looking like I guess we all look at three in the morning after a night on the lash, Abdi is telling me where he lives.

I’m on a midweek works night out and having tubed it from Seven Sisters to Green Park it feels like we’ve been transported to another planet rather than simply another part of the same conurbation. A group of six of us arrived at this dimly lit basement bar just after six thirty but by seven my slim collection of small talk has been pretty much exhausted and the over-priced bottles of European lager haven’t kicked in yet so my frequent trips to the gents aren’t simply the consequence of a weak bladder. More a need to escape the bumbling work-based conversations that are an occupational hazard of any night out like this.

Toilet visiting synchronocity dictates that each time I visit the gents I see more or less the same faces including the friendly figure of Abdi who by my fourth visit of the evening has informed me that he’s originally from Somalia but has lived in England for seven years now. He reckons that he’ll be here until the bar shuts at three in the morning which means that he won’t get home until about five thirty. After waiting for a night bus it usually takes around two hours for the bus to wind its way through central London, down the Old Kent Road and out into the south eastern suburbs and finally into Kent. When he gets home at around five thirty he usually has a cup of hot water before heading to bed exhausted he adds.

Just then one of the bar staff from upstairs clip-clops her way down the steps and pokes her head round the entrance to the toilets looking for Abdi.

Can you come upstairs, someone’s been sick.

Abdi smiles, gathers a mop and bucket from an adjacent cupboard and follows her upstairs leaving the toilets and a selection of aftershaves, eau de toilettes, lollipops and two silver coins on a silver plate by the urinals unattended. Bloody foreigners, coming over here cleaning our sick up…..

Feigning concern, a Conservative pastime…..

unknown-74“I reckon that people who work in the NHS think it deserves special treatment or something….” 

This was a comment made to me recently by a fellow NHS finance manager whilst discussing the gap that has opened up (and is now expanding) between the demand for NHS services and the level of funding it receives year on year. At first it struck me as a casual “ooh, look at fancy pants there off to that swanky cocktail bar in town while the rest of us sup in Wetherspoon’s” type remark. But this colleague was adamant that, in the context of cuts to other areas of government spending it was unreasonable for us to expect the NHS to continue to receive increases in funding year by year. Why should the health service be treated differently to any other government department when it comes to funding?

Of course, Conservative politicians lend credence to such views by falsely claiming that health service funding has somehow been ring-fenced and protected from any cuts driven by austerity. “Look at all the extra money that we’ve pumped into the NHS” they cry whilst feigning concern and professing support for the NHS, in public at least. But if we delve into the headline figures behind the rhetoric a very different picture emerges and one that shows the price that the health service is now paying, in stark terms, for bailing out the banks. Before we do though it’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the amount spent on propping up the capitalist system in 2008 (more than a staggering £1 trillion) could have funded the annual cost of the entire NHS ten times over. It’s a salutary reminder that when it comes to government spending it’s often a case of where there’s a will there’s a way. Whilst the banking system was “too big to fail” apparently it appears that the health of the nation is not.

Put simply the problems that the NHS currently faces are the direct result of a political choice taken by a government that does not have the will or the desire to adequately fund health and social care. We are told by the Department of Health that the main reason why demand for NHS services is now outstripping funding to such a degree is that we have an ageing population. You see, it’s us, it’s our fault, we’re all living too long. And, of course, not missing a chance to get another dig in about migrants, people who haven’t paid into the NHS pot coming over here and taking advantage of free access to NHS services (so-called “health tourists”) is also a major problem according to some. It’s true that we are, on average, living much longer than we did in 1948 when the NHS was born, by as much as twenty years in some cases, but to identify this as the major reason for the current financial problems is to miss a key point that ought to be staring us all in the face and perhaps rousing us from our settees to take to the streets in protest.

In the 2016-17 financial year the total budget for the NHS is £120 billion. This compares to a budget of £437 million in its first year of operation in 1948. To put that into context that sum now is roughly comparable to the annual budget of a medium sized district general hospital. However, it takes no account of rising prices over the last seven decades – at today’s prices, it equates to a total budget of around £11 billion. So over the course of its 68 year history the NHS’s annual budget has increased by pretty much eleven times its original figure.

images-78If we split this 68 year period into two and look at the periods before and after the current government came to power in 2010 then the differences in increases in funding year on year is stark. The total budget of the NHS in 2010 was £98 billion meaning that it had grown by about £87 billion in the health service’s first 62 years; an average increase in funding of 4.0% per year. Of course, this increase in funding wasn’t consistent across the six decades; investment in the NHS by the Labour government of 1997 to 2010, when there was a concerted effort to bring spending on health into line with other European nations, dwarfed that of decades like the fifties and eighties when the health service struggled financially.

Since 2010, however, the picture is very different. NHS England’s “Five Year Forward View” published in 2015 envisages a total budget for the NHS of £133 billion by the 2020-21 financial year; an increase of £35 billion in health service spending since 2010. But of this £35 billion around £24 billion will be swallowed up by increased prices so in real terms the increase in funding will be £11 billion over the 11 years from 2010 to 2021. This equates to an annual increase in funding of 0.9% per year. A fact that the Tories would prefer not to share with you is that we are living through the biggest squeeze on NHS spending since the 1950s. We now spend around 8.5% of our gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare, considerably less than most European nations (the Netherlands and Germany spend about 11% for instance) and a percentage that is set to fall even further over the next few years.

But what does this mean? Well, in broad terms, it means that we’re putting the safety of patients at risk only four years after the publication of the Francis report into failings in care at Stafford Hospital recommended that we make patient safety a priority. Sir Robert Francis, the author of that report, recently warned that the current financial and demand pressures on the NHS have created an environment where another care scandal of the magnitude of that at Stafford Hospital is “inevitable”.

unknown-54The slimming down of the NHS during the last half dozen years has meant that the quality of care that patients receive has suffered. This is apparent, like a bad eighties flashback, in the number of people lying on trolleys in hospital corridors waiting to be seen. Indeed there have even been cases of hospitals having to turn away patients. And it’s apparent also in the number of patients that are forced to stay longer in hospital than they should because huge cuts to funding for social care often mean that there is nowhere for them to go. Health and social care is at breaking point. The Red Cross, not given to hyperbole, described it as a “humanitarian crisis”.

Arguably mental health services are struggling even more as can be seen with cases like the one recently reported in the Eastern Daily Press of a mental health patient being held in a police cell in King’s Lynn for three days as a result of a shortage of mental health beds across Norfolk and Suffolk where the number of mental health beds has been reduced by a quarter since 2012. It’s only one patient but imagine how you would feel if that was your son, daughter, brother or sister who was locked up in a police cell when they required urgent healthcare. Nationally the number of unexpected deaths of mentally ill patients has risen sharply as the availability of beds has decreased. The cuts in funding and beds are literally killing some people.

The chances are that everyone will use the NHS at some point in their life and naturally we all expect it to be there for us when we most need it. In a world where almost everything comes at a price to know that if we fall ill or have an accident that there will be trained people who will treat us with kindness and compassion, look after us and nurse us back to full health regardless of our social and economic status and without requesting to check our bank details is something very special indeed. And something worth fighting for. This “example of real socialism” as the founder of the NHS Nye Bevan called it hasn’t quite been swept away by the prevailing obsession with profit just yet. Earlier this month a quarter of a million people took to the streets of London to show their support for the NHS, a fantastic turnout and the largest demonstration of support for the NHS in its history. But we must all do our bit over the coming months before it’s too late. Don’t leave it to others, it’s OUR NHS remember.

FC United to make a “fitting tribute” to a Manchester footballing legend

When I was growing up one of the footballers who my dad used to bang on about, perhaps more than any other, was the great Nobby Stiles. So it was an honour to be asked to write this piece for the FC United of Manchester match day programme about how the club are paying their respects to a Manchester footballing legend.

FC United are proud to announce that the award for the club’s Academy Student of the Year will be renamed the Nobby Stiles Shield in honour of a Mancunian footballing legend and in recognition of our own deeply founded Manchester United roots. Fitting too that Nobby’s name should be linked to youth football at FC United as he was youth team coach at Manchester United in the early nineties playing a key role in the development of the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Butt, Scholes and the Neville brothers.

Nobby played for United, mostly under the guidance of Matt Busby, for eleven years from 1960 to 1971 and made well over three hundred appearances for the club winning two league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup. He made his name as a fierce tackling midfielder with tremendous vision, always able to read the game, sniff out any danger and make it easier for those around him to operate at the top of their games.

Many thought of Nobby as the often unsung fourth great United player of the sixties alongside the trinity of Law, Best and Charlton. Indeed Bobby Charlton said of Nobby “no one I would ever know in football was prepared to do so much for his team mates”. More than forty years since he retired from English football Nobby remains the only Mancunian to hold League Championship, European Cup and World Cup winners’ medals.

FC United were invited by Nobby’s family to an unveiling ceremony in May last year when a street in Collyhurst, where he was born, was renamed Nobby Stiles Drive in his honour. The ceremony attracted large crowds and was attended by many former United team mates including Bobby Charlton and Denis Law and took place shortly before the 50th anniversary of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph. He played every minute of England’s 1966 World Cup campaign and the famous picture of gap toothed Nobby dancing a jig with the Jules Rimet trophy remains one of the most iconic images in sport.

Many will be aware of the recent sad news of Nobby’s decline in health as he suffers from advanced dementia. In light of this the board approached FC United member John Bentley who had previously raised the issue of commemorating Nobby at Broadhurst Park. John has been in touch with Nobby’s family and one evening recently John and Karl Marginson and Danny Cooney met with Nobby’s son Robert to show him round Broadhurst Park and chat about how the club can best pay its respects to Nobby.

Robert described the proposal to name our Academy Student of the Year award the Nobby Stiles Shield as a “fitting tribute” to his dad and added that his mum Kay and brothers John and Peter would be honoured. Robert said his dad would be particularly proud given that one of the things that gave him most satisfaction in football was seeing young players he had coached go on to enjoy success in the game.

As we approach the end of a season in which we’ve buzzed off performances by young players like Kieran Glynn, Nathan Lowe, Jason Gilchrist and Sam Baird and the club’s youth team progressed to the first round proper of the FA Youth Cup for the first time it feels apt that we pay our respects to a Mancunian legend in this way.

The recipient of this season’s Nobby Stiles Shield will have been born long after Nobby ceased playing but maybe a few older Reds will be able to pass on their stories of watching Nobby. And with the power of the world wide web the recipient of the award will be able to look up that name on the shield and learn of how a quiet, selfless lad born only a few miles from Broadhurst Park, who couldn’t see properly and had bad knees, went on to become not only a Manchester United great but a well loved footballing figure all over the world. There’s a glorious red, white and black thread that connects those of us stood on the terraces of Broadhurst Park to the wonderful Nobby Stiles. The Nobby Stiles Shield proudly acknowledges that.

Some blobs are bigger than others

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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.

We’ll carry on through it all…..

unknown-68Having 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.

unknown-71In 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.

unknown-70Charlotte 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.

unknown-69Although 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.

Stop Mad Cow Disease

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.

images-73In 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”.

unknownDespite 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.

images-74So 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.

unknown-67A 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.

Red Friday

unknown-59Back 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.

unknown-60The 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.

images-70Moving 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.

Unknown-45Any 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.

images-56One 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.