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Heaven knows we were Les Miserables then

It’s twenty five years since, what remains for many Manchester United fans of a certain age, one of the most gut wrenching days (and weeks) in our modern history. At the risk of inducing nightmarish flashbacks here’s a few memories from April 1992. Those of a slightly nervous disposition should look away now.

People sometimes remark that I have a decent memory for dates. I’m not entirely convinced about that but I do know that, after years of following Manchester United and now FC United of Manchester home and away, I find that I often connect events in my day to day life to particular football matches. Discussing Al Pacino recently with someone at work the conversation turned to the film Scent of a Woman for which he won an Oscar. “What year was that?” pondered my colleague. In the blink of an eye I knew it was 1993. Not because I have a particularly extensive knowledge of the films of Al Pacino but purely because I remember going to see it at the cinema on that golden afternoon that Oldham beat Aston Villa and United were crowned champions for the first time in twenty six years.

Sometimes the links are more tenuous. Like the year of a family trip to Blackpool illuminations recalled purely because of a midweek European match. Driving home from the seaside I can recall night time Radio Two crackling away on the car wireless, as we kept an ear out for the score in United’s UEFA Cup first leg match at PSV Eindhoven. It was 1984. Around that time I had a notebook in which I used to keep a record of all United’s games, the teams, the scorers, attendances etc and sometimes I wrote a mini match report. I was a right laugh as a teenager me but the legacy is an ability to recall the dates of often obscure fixtures.

And so it was that I was reminded of one of the most painful moments of United’s modern history on a trip to the theatre last year. On my last week in my previous job a group of us went to watch Les Miserables in London’s West End. We’d been meaning to go to the theatre for a while and, as I was leaving, I got to choose what we saw. The Phantom Of The Opera was mooted but frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than give a single penny of my hard earned to the loathsome Lloyd Webber, the multi-millionaire Tory peer who infamously flew back from New York to vote in the House of Lords in favour of cutting tax credits for some of the poorest people in the country.

Instead, I plumped for “Les Mis” as it’s one of the longest running shows in the West End (selling itself as “the world’s most popular musical”), and because everyone I know who has seen it, and some have seen it multiple times, said unfailingly that they enjoyed it immensely and invariably added “you should go and see it”. Oh and it’s got a bit of politics in it set as it is in post-revolutionary France and culminating in the Paris Uprising of 1832. I’m always a sucker for a red flag or two.

It was, I think, only the fourth musical that I’ve seen since we moved down to London nine years ago, and one of those was only because my partner got some freebie tickets through work. Strange really as both my parents love musicals and I grew up in a town where going to see one of the big shows was the centrepiece of most peoples’ occasional trips to the big smoke. It was almost a case of, well, why else would you possibly want to visit London? It still makes me smile when I see coaches from northern towns lined up along the Embankment on weekend afternoons, bored drivers waiting for matinees to end before collecting their punters for the journey back north.

But after sitting through two hours and fifty minutes of what is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest musicals of all time, I have to conclude that it’s an art form that I just don’t “get”. And I’m not convinced I ever will. It’s not that I disliked Les Mis but simply that it just didn’t stir the juices. For starters I didn’t recognise any of the songs. Not one. Which isn’t really a good start with a musical. My workmates looked askance. Surely you must have heard this one? Or this one? But, no, none, not a single one. Apparently Susan Boyle sang “I Dreamed A Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent a few years back and it went viral on the internet. But like most of what happens on reality television it completely passed me by.

Perhaps what is far worse though than all of this is that my abiding memory of Les Miserables will remain a football related one from a Sunday in April 1992. April 26th 1992 to be precise. That afternoon United lost 2-0 away at Liverpool to complete a thoroughly miserable week of football (three defeats in seven days) that had seen us blow, quite spectacularly, the chance of actually winning the league for the first time in a quarter of a century. A footballing capitulation of Devon Loch proportions. Earlier in the month, in pole position with games in hand on a Leeds team that appeared to be feeling the pressure of the title run-in it seemed only a matter of when, rather than if, we could start making plans for an open top bus parade. The United We Stand fanzine declared that we would be “Champions At Last” and there weren’t many of us who disagreed.

There was reason for optimism on the political front too as 1992 was also a General Election year and this time it looked like, maybe just maybe, Labour might actually stick it to the Tories. On the last day of March as we drove away from Carrow Road after United’s win against Norwich the radio news announced that Labour had a seven point lead in the latest opinion poll. There was barely a week to go until election day. Surely they wouldn’t mess this up. It felt like the double was on and even more so the following Saturday as Party Politics won me a topical few quid on the Grand National and city thumped Leeds 4-0.

Of course Labour’s opinion poll lead soon evaporated. The Sun did its worst and an overly triumphalist Labour party rally in Sheffield probably didn’t help the party’s cause amongst floating voters either. It looked like the political equivalent of singing “we’re gonna win the league” too soon. Nevertheless going into election day there was still hope of success with many commentators predicting a hung parliament. But not long after midnight on election night as a grinning Tory with bad hair triumphed in the bellwether seat of Basildon, I headed to bed. Essex Man had spoken and after thirteen years of divisive Tory rule it felt like a kick in the teeth. At work in an office in Cambridge the following day I refused a lunchtime invitation to go out and celebrate the Tories’ election victory. I was despondent but at least there was United’s first title in yonks to look forward to.

Or so we thought. But almost unbearably the flame of hope that burned so brightly at the end of March rapidly became a roaring Dantean inferno of despair as United blew it all in the space of five games in eleven dismal days in late April. A quarter of a century on it still feels like someone’s taken a dagger to my heart recalling this grisly handful of games but here goes. First up on a nervous Thursday night, a single Andrei Kanchelskis goal gave us a 1-0 win at home to Southampton before, two days later, a drab 1-1 draw away at a Luton side that we’d hammered earlier in the season. Then on Easter Monday, Fergie left out Mark Hughes and we lost 2-1 at home to a Forest side that we’d beaten at Wembley in the Rumbelows Cup only a few days before. By now the early season swagger had vanished and we were on the ropes. On a horrible Wednesday night at Upton Park (“Reds in Hammer horror” screamed the Mirror the following morning) an already relegated West Ham delivered the knock out blow, playing out of their skins to win 1-0. Their supporters celebrated like they’d won the World Cup. Again. Officially we lost the league at Liverpool the following Sunday but exiting Upton Park on that Wednesday night it felt like the soil was already tumbling over our heads.

By the time United took to the pitch at Anfield Leeds had won 3-2 in the lunchtime kick-off at Bramall Lane and we needed a win to take the title race into the final weekend. In truth, United played alright at Anfield, as if the unbearable weight of expectation of the last few weeks had been lifted. We hit the woodwork several times but Liverpool won 2-0. The scousers, of course, loved it, delighting in the fact that we had lost the title on Merseyside and reminding us of exactly how many times most of us had seen United win the league. As me and a mate sat tight-lipped in the Kemlyn Road stand even the stewards around us were joining in with the phlegm speckled choruses. United had lost the title at Anfield. Leeds had won the league. In football terms it truly didn’t get any fucking worse than this. Whoever uttered that phrase about us needing to experience the lows in life to truly appreciate the highs really was having a laugh.

The weekend railway engineering gods had also done their worst meaning that the only way to get back to Cambridge that evening was via London. As the sullen Euston-bound train home gathered pace through suburban Liverpool I turned to my mate and said that I didn’t think we’d ever see United win the league in our lifetimes. He muttered something in agreement and we barely exchanged a word for the rest of the trip. It felt like that was our best chance ever and we’d blown it. The double whammy of the Tories getting back in and United’s self destruction in the title race was almost too much to stomach. Would we ever get a better chance than in 1992?

After what felt like several hours we eventually disembarked at Euston and as we shuffled along the platform towards the station concourse my eyes were drawn to a series of large adverts to our left which featured the word “miserable” repeated over and over in large letters. A few years earlier in my first term at university a group of psychology students had invited some of us to take part in a study which involved sitting in a darkened room and looking at a computer screen on which were flashed random words, sometimes several at the same time, for about thirty seconds. The exercise was repeated three or four times with different sets of words and at the end of each round we were asked to spend a couple of minutes jotting down the words that we could remember seeing.

We must have seen hundreds of words on each occasion but I was only able to write perhaps a dozen down each time. And after the second round I noticed a bit of a pattern developing as I scribbled down words like “sad”, “lonely’ and “unhappy”. Of all the hundreds of words that were being thrown at me there appeared to be a theme to my choices. It wasn’t surprising in many respects as someone who has always found it difficult to make friends I was struggling hopelessly to adjust to student life, my solitary evenings of cans and crap telly not quite living up to the promised debauchery of wild student parties. I was, in many respects, perfect for this spot of amateur psychology.

On seeing the word “miserable” plastered across Euston station it briefly crossed my mind that the psychology project was being repeated. Miserable was how we undoubtedly felt so, amidst all the adverts at one of London’s biggest railway stations, miserable was what we saw. The adverts were in fact for the musical Les Miserables which had left the West End to go on tour and, at that point, was being played out at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Hence the big advertising campaign at Euston aimed squarely at passengers clambering aboard trains to Manchester who might be unaware of their destination’s cultural offerings.

It’s an image that has seared itself into my brain to such an extent that twenty five years later whenever Les Miserables is mentioned, and even after having seen the show now, I instinctively think, not of the musical itself, but of Euston station on the 26th April 1992 and the miserable events that preceded it that day (and that week). Instead of recalling the heroic Jean Valjean, little Cosette, I Dreamed A Dream and a lovely evening out with cherished work colleagues, images of Liverpool’s beanpole striker Ian Rush scoring the first goal flicker in my mind’s eye. Ian bastard Rush who up until that point had failed to score against United in more than twenty games. And these scenes are soundtracked by songs of scouse joy, utterly jubilant that they should be the ones that denied us the championship for another year. Les Miserables? You bet we were.

Keeping it Lille

FC United of Manchester have been invited to play in an indoor football tournament in the French city of Lille in June. Below is an extract from a piece I wrote for the club website about the trip.

A famous Franco-Mancunian once observed that “nobody can deny that here, behind the windows of Manchester, there is an insane love of football, of celebration and of music”.

Well, FC United are delighted to announce that we will be channelling some of this Mancunian joi de vivre when we cross the channel to the northern French city of Lille to take part in a celebration of Manchester’s love of football, music and all things cultural on the weekend of Friday 9th to Sunday 11th June 2017.

Our first trip to France has come about as a result of an invitation by a non-profit organisation called L’Aeronef, formed in 1989 and based in Lille, who have been running a project in recent months showcasing Manchester’s artistic, musical and cultural heritage to a French audience.

Billed as a journey into the heart of Manchester’s burgeoning cultural scene it has taken the form of a series of concerts, conferences, exhibitions and film and documentary screenings all on a Mancunian theme and has included gigs by the likes of Peter Hook, A Certain Ratio and Mr Scruff. The project will draw to a close in June with a futsal tournament to which FC United have been invited to take part.

The weekend’s events will take place at the L’Aeronef concert hall, in the Euralille district of the city, a popular venue for many bands over the last two decades. L’Aéronef and FC United share similar values and a belief in a fairer society, so our French hosts have arranged for the finale of their Manchester project to feature FC United, as they consider our football club to be a wonderful example of Manchester’s reputation as a welcoming and open city, a football club that continues to engage with some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our city.

Our role as Mancunian footballing and cultural ambassadors will kick off on the evening of Friday 9th June with a short conference on the values of football including a talk by an FC United member and a question and answer session with manager Karl Marginson. In addition, two further speakers will provide a musical and cultural view of Manchester and its history. This will be followed by a vinyl night organised by the Belle Vue collaborative.

The futsal tournament will take place on Saturday 10th June culminating in a final which will kick off around 7 or 8pm. This will be a friendly tournament with players from the local community competing alongside an FC United team.

For those unsure of what futsal actually is; it’s a five-a-side game, played indoors (the term futsal is roughly translated from Spanish as “indoor football”) on a hard court smaller than a football pitch with hockey-sized goals and a smaller ball with a reduced bounce. As a small-sided game it places an emphasis on improvisation, creativity and technique and can make for a wonderfully exciting spectacle.

The final of the futsal competition will be followed by a gig by Manchester band the Space Monkeys who are, of course, no strangers to FC having played at Course You Can Malcolm before the match with SV Austria Salzburg only a few weeks ago.

There will be no futsal games on Sunday 11th June but the FC United players will probably spend some time coaching local children during the day.

L’Aeronef have very kindly offered to pay all travel, accommodation and food expenses for a party of ten guests from FC United (including eight players) to travel over to Lille for the weekend and will also make all the necessary travel and accommodation arrangements for this group. The FC United party will arrive on Friday 9th June, probably on an early flight via Charleroi airport in Belgium.

Aside from the events organised by our hosts at L’Aeronef there is much to enjoy in Lille. The city grew as an industrial centre but after a period of decline is now better known for its handsome city centre and a thriving cultural scene boosted by the presence of a large student population. The attractive old town (Vieux Lille) with its cobbled streets and grand central square and the first rate art collection of the Palais des Beaux Arts are perhaps the star attractions but there is much more to see and do including plenty of ace bars and restaurants.

Lille has great transport links not only to the rest of France but to nearby Belgium and England; the Eurostar from London St Pancras takes about an hour and 25 minutes whilst Brussels is barely half an hour away. Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is about an hour by train and a direct coach service connects central Lille and Charleroi airport in 90 minutes.

It promises to be a cracking weekend; a blend of football, music, culture and a beer or two in the finest traditions of FC United. Let’s show a French audience what Eric was on about all those years ago. Allez les rouges!

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.