For those who may have missed it elsewhere this is a piece that I wrote for Football Focus magazine on the recent fortunes of FC United of Manchester. It appears in the latest edition of the magazine.
Alighting the tram at the stop for Newton Heath and Moston, a couple of miles north east of Manchester city centre, one of the first sights that greet you is a sign for the nearby Newton Heath Train Maintenance Depot. It’s a fitting nod to the history of the football club that now resides just up the road at Broadhurst Park. FC United of Manchester, formed in 2005 by Manchester United supporters disillusioned with the rapacious greed of the modern game, traces a proud bloodline back to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway workers who in 1878 formed their own football club Newton Heath FC that, of course, subsequently became Manchester United.
FC United has been at the forefront of the supporter ownership movement for more than a decade and is now the largest supporter-owned football club in the country by number of members. With the club’s democratic one member, one vote structure each member gets an opportunity to have their say on how the club is run and ensure that it remains true to its founding principles. It is the club’s members who set admission prices and elect the board.
Inspired by the likes of AFC Wimbledon and imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness FC United set out in the North West Counties Football League ten divisions below and a world away from the Premier League gravy train. Eleven years and four promotions later the club is beginning its second season in National League North, at the sixth tier of English football and finally after a nomadic decade playing football in a ground of its own and in its home city.
Broadhurst Park, with its capacity of 4,400 and facilities that are the envy of many, is the first new football ground in the UK to be built and funded by a supporter-owned football club; with more than half of the total cost of £6.3 million raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowd funding it is the culmination of an extraordinary collective effort in a time of austerity.
Maintaining the club’s principled commitment to affordable football whilst competing at a higher level and striving, wherever possible, to avoid “outright commercialism”, is a delicate balancing act. Whilst almost all other clubs at this level and beyond are happy to splash a sponsor’s logo across their shirts and many benefit from the investment of wealthy owners at FC United we are proud to say that we do things differently; the players’ shirts remain refreshingly free of advertising and there are no sugar daddies.
Yet FC United’s admission prices (£9 for adults, £5 for concessions and £2 for juniors) are the second lowest in the league and, in addition, the club continues with its pioneering “pay what you can afford” season tickets. Last season the club sold more than two thousand season tickets and was the fourth best supported team in the whole of non-league football with crowds of more than three thousand regularly flocking to Broadhurst Park; an incredible level of support, week in week out, at this level of football. And with a mid-table finish in our first season in National League North to those looking on it must appeared to have been a successful season.
But whilst attendances boomed and matchday revenue surged in 2015-16 the club struggled to adjust to life in its own ground. A turbulent twelve months saw the resignation of the club’s longstanding Chief Executive and seven Board members and ended with some fans staging a protest at the final home match calling for greater democracy and transparency at the club. Many members felt that while the club had been so focused on building a new home the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which the club was founded had been eroded. The 50p increase in the price of the programme at the friendly match against Benfica in May last year, the first match at Broadhurst Park, was widely condemned as overly commercial and led to a significant loss of goodwill amongst many members.
The beauty of supporter ownership is however that, unlike disgruntled supporters at, say, Newcastle United or Charlton Athletic, we can change things and the club’s membership signalled their desire for change during the summer by electing a progressive new board that has already taken steps to heal the rifts that have developed amongst sections of the club’s support and has promised to operate with greater openness and transparency. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future but there is much work to be done.
The summer has been one of reorganisation at the club with supporters, once again, embracing the DIY punk spirit that got the club off the ground in a matter of weeks in 2005 with many supporters offering their time, skills and experience for tasks ranging from building a perimeter wall at the ground to getting involved in a range of volunteer-led groups overseeing areas like communications, governance and finance. It’s at times like this when we fully appreciate the wealth of expertise, knowledge and talent that we have amongst our members whether it involves running businesses, counting beans or laying bricks.
One of the challenges the club undoubtedly faces in the next few years is to secure its financial stability by making the most of the wonderful facilities that it now possesses; using the spacious function room to host events for the local community, businesses and other organisations and hiring out the superb 3G all-weather pitches adjacent to the ground. A new Chief Executive will shortly be appointed to oversee the club’s development on and off the pitch. On the pitch, after looking out of our depth for a large part of our first season at this higher level, most supporters would probably settle for a comfortable mid-table position again this season. But arguably it will be even tougher than last season with the likes of Salford City, Darlington, FC Halifax Town and Altrincham joining the division.
Community work is woven into the fabric of the club with its founding manifesto commitment “to develop strong links with the local community”. The club’s community work covers an impressive range of activities from the Big Coat Day collections of warm clothing for homeless people in Manchester and breakfast clubs and summer youth projects for kids to work with young people not in education, employment or training and support for older people particularly those who live alone. Just a few of the reasons why the club won the Northern Premier League’s inaugural Community Club of the Year award in 2014.
More recently the club has begun working with the Sporting Memories Network, recognising the power of people’s memories of sporting events to overcome social isolation, loneliness and depression particularly amongst older people. And FC United were the only organisation in Manchester to participate in a recent charity-run event to distribute cereal to community groups, food banks and local residents to help those who might otherwise not get a decent breakfast. Meanwhile, only a few weeks ago, a theatre production of the FC United story “Conceived in a Curry House”, featuring FC United supporters and local residents, played at the Lowry Theatre and is part of a longstanding relationship between the club and local theatre group Moston Active Drama.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film maker Ken Loach said on a recent visit to Broadhurst Park, there is a lot riding on the success of this football club; there are many people beyond Manchester willing us to succeed. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters and to a large extent this is a journey into the unknown with few, if any, role models to guide us. No one said that it would be easy and the next few years will possibly be the trickiest so far for this young football club. But the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get the club back on track this summer has been clear for all to see. It’s full steam ahead, once again, for FC United of Manchester.
Apologies folks, I don’t normally do this online charity thing but tomorrow (Sunday 2nd October) I’m running in a race to raise a few bob for Shelter, the charity that works to find those who are homeless or in temporary housing a decent home. Unless you wander round with your eyes closed you can’t help but notice the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets of towns and cities across the country. In addition, there are thousands struggling to get by in hostels, B&Bs or kipping down on the floor at a mate’s house. It’s something most of us take for granted, having a place called home to return to at the end of the day; somewhere safe and a foundation on which we build the rest of our lives. But imagine it wasn’t there and that foundation was removed from under us. It could happen to any of us. The government doesn’t give a shit, there are not enough votes in it for them, so unfortunately it falls to charities like Shelter to fill the gap where a caring government should be.
Anyway, to be more specific, tomorrow I’m taking part in (along with more than 500 others) something called Urban Rush 2016 (not to be confused with Ian Rush, the moustachioed former Liverpool centre forward); it’s a 15 mile run across London, from east to west, starting in the Olympic Park and finishing on the banks of the Thames in Putney. It’s an event specifically set up to raise money for Shelter and aims to raise, in total, more than £125,000. My own aim, as part of this collective effort, is to raise at least £225. There’s a link to my fundraising page below which you can click on. As you can see it’s not been very busy so far because I’m utterly hopeless at this fund raising malarkey but if you can spare anything, no matter how small, to help what I think is a decent cause then I would be very grateful. I may even stretch to giving you a nice big hug the next time we meet (but no kissing). Thanks very much.
In the autumn of 2011, shortly after taking part in a one day strike in protest at the proposed changes to NHS pensions and the wider destruction of the NHS proposed in the Health and Social Care legislation which was then passing through parliament, I was chatting about the NHS, over a beer, with the finance director of a central London hospital. Whilst she admired the strikers for standing up for what they believed in, her view was that there was “no alternative” for the NHS other than to face up to the bleak financial reality of years of “efficiency savings” following the financial crisis of 2008. It was a view that was widespread at the time, and still is, amongst senior NHS figures. A view that says that we must pay for the global financial crisis by slimming down public services like the NHS; it’s considered the “the right thing to do” in the circumstances.
Meanwhile, across town, protesters from the Occupy movement were camped out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London, for once, felt like a vibrant place to be, alive with discussion and bubbling with new ideas and the hopes that a better society could be salvaged from the wreckage of a failed capitalist system. In cities and towns around the country there were similar tented protests. So it felt doubly dispiriting that, in contrast, the person in charge of the purse strings at a high profile London hospital should adopt such a narrow minded view of the crisis faced not only by the NHS but all public services.
The slimming down of the NHS during the last half dozen years has almost inevitably meant that the quality of care that patients receive has suffered. It’s apparent in the longer waiting times for routine operations and in the struggles of Accident and Emergency departments to cope. It’s apparent too in the increase in the numbers of patients who 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. A recent audit at Plymouth Hospital found that 27% of beds were taken up by people who were medically fit to leave. And it’s apparent too in the lack of time patients are able to spend with their GPs, in the rationing of healthcare such that certain procedures are only available to those who are in the most pain and in mental health services across the country that are stretched to breaking point. And still we are told by a whole host of senior NHS figures representing NHS England, provider Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups that there is no alternative.
This situation is the culmination of more than two decades work by both Conservative and Labour governments. The Tories began the process in the early nineties with the break up of the NHS into purchasers and providers of healthcare; a system referred to as the “internal market” and the first step to encouraging greater private sector involvement in the NHS. The NHS, as an example of socialism in action with everyone arriving through the doors of a hospital treated equally regardless of their economic status, has long been anathema to the Tories particularly those in thrall to the market.
Later on in the nineties a Labour government despite, to its great credit, bringing funding of the health service back into line with that of other western nations, continued the process of marketisation and privatisation with the advent of semi-autonomous Foundation Trusts free to adopt a more business-like approach to managing their finances, an expansion in the use of the Private Finance Initiative to build new hospitals, a huge increase in the use of management consultants and the introduction of a system of financial flows misleadingly labelled as “payment by results”.
That there is a “market” at the heart of the NHS is a point completely lost on the vast majority of patients and members of the public. And that this system is estimated to cost somewhere between £4.5 billion and £30 billion a year to run (to pay for accountants, analysts, contract negotiators, legal advisors, computer software etc) depending on which study you believe, is barely mentioned by any senior NHS figures, politicians or think tanks when discussing how the health service could save money. Remarkable given the near obsession with cutting costs. Having worked in NHS finance departments for over twenty five years I am struggling to think of a single significant benefit that this market system has brought to patient care.
And now along come the new kids on the block, the so-called Sustainability and Transformation Plans or STPs which break the NHS down into 44 regional “footprints” and provide the means by which NHS England hopes to extract a further £22 billion worth of savings by the year 2020. This is on top of the £20 billion already squeezed out of the system in the first half of the decade; a programme of efficiency savings that was referred to as QIPP or Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention and sold us the notion that somehow the dire economic situation following the global financial crisis of 2008 presented the NHS with an “opportunity” to simultaneously strip £20 billion out of its budget and improve the quality of patient care. That the QIPP “challenge” was inflicted on the NHS at the same time as a major reorganisation of services following the Health and Social Care Act simply rubbed our noses in the dirt.
The Sustainability and Transformation Plans are based on work that has been going on across the country for several years now looking at “reconfiguring” health services labouring under such nonsense-names as “fit for the future”, “healthier together”, “shaping a healthier future” and “better services, better value”; words stripped of their true meaning to concoct meaningless slogans fed to a public too busy whipping themselves into a frenzy over cake baking on the telly to be unduly concerned about the potential closure of their local Accident & Emergency department.
Delve into the small print of the plans and they talk of how “difficult decisions lie ahead”, of how local health services in each “footprint” will “look very different following transformation” and, with almost breathtaking arrogance, that this represents “the right thing do” and the only way to ensure financially and clinically sustainable health services. It’s true that local health services will look very different in many areas of the country if these plans come to fruition – but certainly not in good way. It’s likely, for instance, that the number of A&E departments nationally will be “reconfigured” to between 40 and 70 as these plans kick in; there were 140 A&E departments around the country in 2013. So we’re all going to have to get used to longer journeys to receive emergency care in future. For many of us, instead of a relatively short ambulance journey across town this could well mean a twenty or thirty mile trek to the nearest big town or city.
This ideological assault on the NHS has brought us to the current situation where more than eighty per cent of hospitals are in debt and during the last financial year the NHS as a whole was £2.5 billion in deficit. To put that into some sort of perspective, when the Tories came to power in 2010 the health service was breaking even. Ironic that the party that prides itself on “balancing the books” should make such a mess of the finances of the NHS.
It’s perhaps worth pausing at this point to recognise that the dire financial situation that the NHS currently finds itself in is far from accidental or somehow inevitable as the government would prefer us to believe – it is the result of a stark political choice, pure and simple. The government has chosen to starve the NHS of much needed funds with the result that since they came to power in 2010 they have overseen the biggest sustained cut to the amount of money that we spend on health care since the birth of the NHS in 1948. As mentioned earlier, the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 through substantial investment in the NHS brought the amount that we spend on healthcare into line with that of other leading European nations. Six years later however, we now spend 8.5% of our gross domestic product on healthcare, considerably less than the Netherlands and Germany who spend around 11% and also less than the likes of Greece, Portugal and Austria.
This fact alone makes a mockery of the argument that is continually trotted out that the NHS is overspending, that it is inefficient and that if only those bolshie doctors and nurses, instead of protesting and walking out on strike, worked a little bit harder then we would not be in this mess. Far from being the result of inefficiency on the part of its hardworking clinical staff the financial crisis that the NHS currently faces is ultimately the product of a world view that huge multinational banks are too big and too important to fail but the health of the nation is not. That we can justify spending billions on weapons with the capability to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people but refuse to adequately fund our health service is difficult to stomach.
By rights we should be on the streets protesting at this government’s dismantling of our heath service. Far from being unaffordable a fully functioning NHS is absolutely essential to a successful economy. How can we hope to have a booming economy if people are too ill or too frail to work? A point that is often overlooked in the debate on affordability is the fact that for each one pound that we invest in the NHS we receive three pounds worth of benefits to the wider economy.
And where does this notion that the NHS is somehow grossly inefficient come from because it’s simply not borne out by the evidence. A comprehensive report by the independent Commonwealth Fund in 2014, for instance, hailed the NHS as the best healthcare system out of eleven of the world’s wealthiest countries. Switzerland was second and Sweden third with the likes of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, the USA and Australia lagging further behind. The NHS scored highly for the quality of the care it provides, its efficiency and the low cost at the point at which it is used by patients. In terms of overall costs the report found that the UK spent the second lowest amount on healthcare; about £1,990 per person compared to nearly £5,000 per person in the US.
Yes, the NHS has its faults, but let’s face it what other organisation of similar size doesn’t? It’s a vast organisation that sees and treats around one million people every thirty six hours. However, despite the many pressures it faces it is a wonderful system that blends quality, access, efficiency and affordability and it bears comparison with any other healthcare system in the world. In fact, it does more than that, it’s the top of the pile which is a fantastic achievement.
On the other side of the pond, meanwhile, the US health system, frequently held up as a role model for the NHS, demonstrates the failure of applying market principles to healthcare. The US spends around 18% of its gross domestic product on its insurance-based healthcare system yet nearly 50 million people are uninsured, up to 100 million have insufficient insurance to cover their needs and life expectancy and infant mortality lags well behind that of other western countries. The health policy expert Allyson Pollock has described the US system as “islands of excellence in a sea of misery”.
So it comes as no surprise that when we finally get a political leader who challenges this deeply entrenched view that there is no alternative to austerity that, of course, it scares the hell out of other politicians and the press barons and broadcasters who fail to hold the government to account, protect this mainstream view and in the process label anyone who makes the case for an alternative, be they a politician or a striking junior doctor, as some sort of extremist. In the last few weeks, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised that a future government under his leadership would scrap the pointless and expensive NHS internal market. This is a potentially huge step that signifies the rejection of more than two decades of the NHS snuggling up to big business; a real “game changer” in management-speak mumbo jumbo. And it takes strong political leadership too a world away from the timidity of the likes of David Cameron and Theresa May too afraid to stand up to the might of huge multinational companies keen to grab a slice of the billions spent annually on the NHS.
The NHS has been around for nearly seventy years, is something that we should be proud of and provides proof that putting people before profit can work. I’m tired of hearing politicians on all sides trot out the same arguments about how the health service must make efficiency savings if it is to survive. And I’m tired of this political gobbledygook being swallowed unquestioningly by those who run the NHS, its chief executives and directors and senior managers in the name of not rocking the boat and preserving their careers. All of us who work in the health service are there because there are times when people suffer ill-health or accidents and need someone to treat and look after them and we should speak out on behalf of these people. At last there is a politician who is prepared to do this and who is prepared to consider a different approach to managing the health service.
So excuse me if I don’t entrust the leadership of the political party that created the NHS to a former lobbyist for the giant pharmaceutical firm Pfizer. Owen Smith? You’ve got to be joking. Instead I’ve voted (for the second time in just over a year) for someone with the balls to actually begin to tackle the problems that face the NHS and actually commit to restoring it as a public service free from the clutches of big business. And the same is true of education, transport, the environment, defence and workers’ rights. What Jeremy Corbyn represents for me is the hope that we can collectively build a better world after a generation and more of neoliberal politics that has tried to convince us that socialism is dead and that subjecting public services to the rigours of the market is the only way forward. I was proud to vote for him last September and even prouder to do so again now.
At various points over the last few weeks a number of people have, with a look of pity usually reserved for a pet who’s curled out a turd on the front room carpet, said something along the lines of “I suppose you’re voting for Corbyn again then are you?” to me. And yes, I have. I did it on the same day that my ballot paper was emailed to me. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about whether he sings the national anthem or how deep he bows in front of the monarch or how he dresses because frankly if you care one iota about the future of the NHS you’d be stark raving bonkers not to vote for him. It feels like, to coin a phrase, “the right thing to do”.
A year on from football supporters across Europe expressing their solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers and showing the power of football to unite us all, here is a piece that I’ve written for the FC United of Manchester website (please click on the link below) that looks at the club’s ongoing support for refugees and asylum seekers and reflects on the recent visit of the Hummingbird Project to Broadhurst Park and the wonderful work that the club does with asylum seekers who are victims of torture. Refugees welcome? Don’t be daft, of course they are.
“Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavoured to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
There’s been a deflating familiarity to the sight of a succession of Labour MPs announcing their resignations from the shadow cabinet recently, in the wake of the European Union referendum. A bunch of careerists with an inflated sense of self worth, droning on about so-called bullying and intimidation, their views woefully out of touch with the party’s membership and their resignations timed to inflict the maximum amount of damage. At FC United of Manchester we have endured a year of flouncy exits from the boardroom that left us, until recently, with a depleted board of only four.
Thankfully though, a Painean common sense has prevailed and after a year that has seen the club brought almost to the brink of financial collapse members have signalled their desire for change and have elected a progressive new board. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future and even a soupçon of positivity has returned, if I’m not getting a bit too carried away with it all. Surprising then that the BBC, having pretty much totally ignored events at the club over the last year, chose this time to stick a piece on their website entitled “FC United of Manchester: the protest club at war with itself?” You’d almost think that someone was stirring the pot a little here.
But, hey, what do I know? On the day that the board election results were announced I was dawdling round a field on the outskirts of Budapest, on a baking hot afternoon, gazing at communist-era statues and monuments. These, often huge, stony representations of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and an assortment of Hungarian communists once took pride of place in the main streets and squares of the Hungarian capital before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. At the tiny kiosk at the entrance to the park an old radio rather forlornly played some of the propaganda anthems of the time. Memento Park, as it’s called, represents a sort-of theme park to a flawed ideology that promised much after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 but merely replaced one dictatorship with another.
In my all too frequent glass-half-empty moments during the last few months I’ve often pictured an empty post-FC-United-apocalypse Broadhurst Park becoming something of a monument to the slightly bonkers notion that supporters can run football clubs. People would get the tram out to Moston, pay what they can afford at the turnstile, dispense with their politics and whilst admiring the shiny third-sector-hub-ness of it all would reflect on the bitter irony of a football club that while it constructed its own football ground destructed the egalitarian and democratic principles on which it was founded. “Look at those daft buggers” people would say “thought they could run a football club better than the businessmen”. Over the tannoy would play some of the fans’ favourite songs interspersed with clippings from old speeches by Comrades Walsh and Brown urging supporters to dig deep yet again for “one last push” to get the ground completed both utterly convinced that their five year plan would ensure the healthy future of the club.
That this gruesome vision of the future has been held at bay owes much to the club’s original founder John-Paul O’Neill’s persistent whistle blowing over the last year or so and the membership’s gradual awakening from its hibernation, in the nick of time, to finally seize control of the destiny of this football club. Eleven board members have been elected, only two with previous experience on the FC board, and the old guard swept from power with the promise of a new era of glasnost at the club; the board operating with openness, transparency and honesty. Already, in recent weeks, there have been welcome public apologies to O’Neill regarding the club’s denial of his membership and to the former programme editor Tony Howard over the club’s shambolic handling of the increase in the programme price for the Benfica match.
One of the new board’s first actions was to announce that the friendly match against Rochdale on Saturday 30th July will pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers, past and present, who give up their time and skills week in week out to make the club what it is. And on the Friday night before the match some of the volunteers from the much missed pre-match Course You Can Malcolm event that took place at Gigg Lane for many years and raised thousands for the club will stage a CYCM type event with music, poetry, food and beer. A refreshing attempt by the club to heal the rifts that have developed in the club’s support and to move forward as a united body of supporters. But at FC United no silver lining is complete without a humungous cumulo nimbus looming large; the news of the return of CYCM has already had some of the “that Malcolmses/A Fine Lung lot are planning to take over the St Mary’s Road End and turn it into a communist prayer room or summat” conspiracy theorists foaming at the mouth.
Reconciliation and healing clearly won’t be easy. Already some of those loyal to the old board have spoken of a board election campaign damaged by “bullying” and have expressed annoyance with those supporters who refused to renew membership and season tickets for the new season until after the board election results were announced. But who exactly were the bullies and intimidators in the recent election campaign? Tim Worrall and Sam Mullock with their feisty talk of reconciliation and their vaguely threatening deployment of the rarely-seen-at-FC-United word “sorry”? Adrian Seddon for many months a calm and considered presence on the club’s official discussion forum and himself the victim of a despicable attempt by another board candidate to undermine his candidacy? Or was it Nathan Ellis-Scott, at last a youthful presence on the board, browbeating us into joining him in the clubhouse to sing Kumbaya? Or perhaps the dastardly pitch trespasser George Baker antagonising his critics by offering to shake hands with them at the EGM? What a bunch of bastards eh.
Or maybe it’s simply those supporters who held off renewing their memberships and season tickets until after the Board election results were announced that really raised hackles. That’s their right of course. I daresay there are many supporters who have invested a lot in community shares and in the development fund down the years, sometimes money that they perhaps couldn’t properly afford but they did it because FC United was something that they passionately believed in. So if people suddenly feel a little reticent when it comes to parting with their hard earned cash then that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Besides it wasn’t that long ago that many of us vowed “not one penny” in different circumstances. We are certainly not cash cows to be taken for granted.
Speaking as someone who renewed their membership and season ticket long before the election campaign I’m absolutely delighted to see a fresh board elected with, perhaps for the first time, a wonderful blend of youth and experience. In contrast to my usual pessimistic persona I have a, perhaps naive, faith in the power of democracy and I trusted the membership to get this one right. But I’m tiring of the regular and unsubstantiated claims of online bullying and intimidation directed at those who have called for change at the club. Not all internet criticism should be dismissed as the work of “keyboard warriors”, “knobs on the forum” or as mere “sniping from the sidelines”. Of course, there are many examples of internet discussion descending into the gutter but it’s also true that the internet can be a tremendous force for good offering space for thoughtful contributions that can often be lost in the clamour of public meetings. Arguably there would not be an FC United of Manchester without the internet and Andy Walsh and Adam Brown’s Not For Sale book demonstrates how the world wide web, in its early days, was used by Manchester United fans to fight the Murdoch takeover bid in 1998-99.
One such product of the internet was the pamphlet distributed at the Stalybridge match in April which called for greater democracy at the club and was produced by a collective who care deeply about the future of the club. A recurring theme in all of the articles in The Pamphlet was that co-owners of the club must play a greater role in the club’s democratic processes. Whilst it was critical of the board, it was also critical of all of us, the members, for not participating sufficiently in meetings and elections and for failing to keep a watchful eye on our elected representatives. We had, as Mickey O’Farrell so eloquently expressed in one of the articles become “lazy utopians”, happy to sing the praises of supporter ownership but not do the hard yards of actually making it work. Arguably, three months on, the pamphlet has been successful in its aims.
Take the turnout at the board election for instance. Okay so 671 voters out of a membership of more than five thousand last season isn’t necessarily anything to shout about but it represents the highest number of voters at any board election in our history and follows the General Meeting in May where more than 820 of the club’s co-owners voted on a plethora of resolutions and members’ votes which represented about 18 percent of the club’s adult membership at the time. Again, it’s not really trumpet blowing territory but there are plenty of football clubs at our level that would love to have that many supporters attending matches let alone engaged in the running of the club. To put this into some context, at the Dons’ Trust, the supporters’ Trust that holds a majority stake in AFC Wimbledon, 578 members voted in the elections to the board at their 2014 Annual General Meeting. So at a football club that took more than twenty thousand supporters to Wembley recently for a play-off final and one where the majority of the electorate voted online they attracted fewer members to participate in their 2014 General Meeting than us. When viewed this way it suggests that we’re perhaps not too shabby when it comes to participation in elections but clearly there is huge scope for improvement.
Hopefully the reinvigoration of the club’s democracy will knock on the head, once and for all, the notion that simply looking to increase the club’s membership (4,000, 5,000, 10,000 where do we draw the line?) is of itself a good thing. Yes, the membership team have done sterling work in boosting membership numbers and this does of course give us greater weight when looking to secure external funding. But it is also apparent that booming membership numbers have been both a strength and a weakness significantly diluting the strength of the club’s democratic processes if many of these new members treat us like, say, joining the Phone Coop, as a cause that they believe in and are willing to support financially but have no intention of ever attending a meeting or voting. A smaller membership but one that is more engaged in the running of the club and keen to hold the board to account must surely be preferable to a much larger membership that is predominantly apathetic?
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film director Ken Loach said on a recent visit to Broadhurst Park, there is a lot riding on the success of this football club; there are many people beyond Manchester willing us to succeed. And as someone who is now on the board said on a train journey home last season “thank fuck for FC United”. As the country votes to turn its back on its neighbours, choosing instead to swallow the small-minded rhetoric of right wing politicians, and the political party established to represent us threatens to self-destruct, we buck the trend in proudly demonstrating that ordinary working class people can build something that emphatically demonstrates that a better world is possible. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon who are 77% owned by their supporters’ Trust, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters. To a large extent this is a journey into the unknown with few, if any, role models to guide us. No one said that it would be easy and the next few years will possibly be the trickiest in our short-ish history. But at least now there are encouraging signs that we can once again get on with doing things differently. And common sense has returned. Onwards.
We laughed again as Chisty recounted the story of her phone call home in March last year that began with her sister proudly proclaiming “hey, we beat you guys”. Bangladesh had just beaten England in the cricket World Cup, knocking them out of the competition, and the “Land of Bengal” was celebrating a famous victory. Chisty had rolled her eyes in exasperation the first time she told me this but aside from the gentle ribbing about a cricket match those five words perhaps inadvertently but neatly encapsulate the oddly schizophrenic existence of anyone who ups sticks and moves to another country; the emigrant who leaves behind family, friends and their “home” and the immigrant who tries to build a new life and set up a new “home” in a foreign country. Where is home anymore? Who is “you”? Who is “we”? How does it feel to be caught adrift between two worlds separated by several thousand miles and different languages, cultures and social norms?
Chisty has lived pretty much her entire adult life in London having arrived from Bangladesh on her own, with a suitcase and enough cash for a couple of weeks, as a nineteen year old in 2008. After nearly eight years living in the capital, a city she loves, she thinks of herself as a Londoner. I first met Chisty nearly two years ago when she joined the finance department of the central London hospital where I worked until recently. She’s one of many interesting people in a work place that, like many in London, is wonderfully diverse; people from different countries, cultures and religions, rubbing along together, sharing experiences and learning from each other. This bean counters’ United Nations produced a slightly lopsided cultural exchange that meant that I got to learn about Bengali music and food and the more spiritual strand of Islam known as Sufism, whilst Chisty listened to me banging on about FC United of Manchester and The Smiths.
I’ll admit before meeting Chisty my knowledge of Bangladesh was scant and often cricket related. It’s one of those places that only ever seems to be in the news when something bad has happened; flooding perhaps or an earthquake or the collapse of a badly constructed factory building killing and injuring hundreds of workers. But the chances are if you have a root around in your wardrobe or through your drawers at home that you’ll probably find several items that were “made in Bangladesh”. The huge Bangladeshi garment industry makes cheap clothes for a number of high street retailers like H&M and while it offers one of the few employment opportunities for women the “cheap” clothes come at a high price in the form of punishingly long hours, low pay and appalling working conditions.
Chisty’s own “made in Bangladesh” story intrigued me, as it’s not only a mixture of the determination and courage that characterise so many immigrant stories but is also remarkable in that it is the story of a young single woman breaking all social norms and leaving behind family and friends to build a life of her own in a foreign country. She’s undoubtedly one of the most determined and resourceful people that I’ve ever met. Her story intrigued me so much that I suggested writing something about it and after a brief exchange of text messages we found ourselves, amidst the post-work hubbub, in a pub round the corner from Victoria railway station chatting over drinks.
Like most Bengali kids she grew up in a large extended family and although she only has one younger sister she has many cousins; her dad has a brother and two sisters and her mum has five brothers and five sisters. It “feels like a big family” she says and she refers to her cousins as brothers and sisters; “we are so close to each other”. The busy house that she grew up in comprises five flats with four other families sharing the same space. The adjustment to living a more solitary existence in England is something that she has found tricky at times.
She was raised as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country that remains deeply conservative and patriarchal with few opportunities for women to live independently. She went to girls’ schools and although lessons were taught in Bengali, the national language, from an early age she began to learn English in addition to other subjects including Islamic studies and home economics. Her future, had she not left when she did, would likely have been another tale of unfulfilled female potential; getting married as soon as possible and settling down to a life of domesticity, raising children and cooking and cleaning for her family.
Despite improvements in living conditions in recent years, Bangladesh is still a poor country where women’s employment rates remain very low and where the mobility of women and girls is seriously curtailed by concerns about safety on the streets. Even now Chisty’s mum will not go out at night alone. It’s something that we take for granted but just being able to walk the streets, particularly at night, without fear for her safety is one of the things that Chisty most enjoys about living in London. She says that she has rarely encountered any abuse during her time in England. The worst case was someone shouting at her in the street to “fuck off back to your own country” but incidents like this have been very rare. Chisty herself is wonderfully open when it comes to matters of race or ethnicity – she jokes that, as far she is concerned, a future boyfriend could be as green as the witch in the Wicked show that plays in the theatre next door to the pub we are in.
Chisty’s attitude to her religion is more relaxed than many Muslim women; she doesn’t wear a hijab or any other form of Muslim dress for instance. Instead she prefers to adopt a more philosophical stance as a humanist, living as good a life as she can but always being kind to and respectful of others. The decision not to wear a hijab is something she feels strongly about; she dislikes the hypocrisy of some Muslim women who criticise her for not wearing one but will openly flirt with men whilst claiming to be devout Muslims.
Back home her parents wouldn’t even let her wear jeans outside the house. But in contrast she now lives a life not unlike that of many twenty-something Londoners working in a busy office during the day and heading out in the evening to enjoy the capital’s night life with friends. She loves make-up, clothes and girlie nights out and she’s part of that generation that has embraced social media, with her penchant for selfies and hashtags, and has used dating websites to try to find a partner although with her admiration for the likes of Chris and Liam Hemsworth she’s arguably set a very high bar. She’s a talented singer and musician too and sang and read poetry on national radio and television as a child in Bangladesh and has auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent over here. But most of all she enjoys the freedom of living in England and living her own life, being who she wants to be rather than who others expect her to be; girl power in action. “I always liked Western culture and wanted to come here (England) and study and change my life and do something for my family and set a good example”.
Her life in London hasn’t always been such a frantic social whirl though. From arriving in England in 2008 to completing her degree in accounting and finance at university in the summer of 2014 she studied hard and worked part-time doing shifts for the likes of Asda, Burger King and Sports Direct, often trekking across town on long bus journeys as it was cheaper than taking the tube. During those six years she admits that she barely went out at all, her life consisting simply of lectures, working, bus journeys, studying at home and sleeping.
“Home” was one of the many (more than a dozen) shared rooms in rented houses that Chisty has lived in during the last eight years most of them in the low-rent fringes of east London such as Ilford, Dagenham and Leytonstone where new arrivals to London often settle down. Life was often difficult for a young, single Bangladeshi woman sharing a house with others. There was an Indian vegetarian family who wouldn’t let her cook meat in the house and a Nigerian couple where the woman worked night shifts and the man would invite his mates round to listen to music and drink late into the night; some of the men would follow Chisty to her room as she went to bed. And a woman who even threatened to kill Chisty and her friend as she mistakenly thought that they had reported her to the local council and that she was about to lose her home as a result.
In her first few days in England Chisty found it tough adjusting to the early autumn after the sweltering heat of Bangladesh. With only one thin sheet that she had brought with her and no heating to keep her warm at night (she was too shy to ask for any bedding) she fell ill during her first few weeks in the country and was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. She spent two weeks in hospital (“the nurses were lovely” she adds) and early on, as she was made to wear an oxygen mask, she thought she might even die. The nurses wheeled her out of the ward so that she could ring her parents to tell them that she was fine.
Only days before her stay in hospital Chisty had left behind her large extended family at the airport. “Everyone was crying” she says but having said an emotional goodbye she refused to look back as she made her way to the departure lounge. Going to England was something that she’d dreamed about for a long time and she wasn’t about to change her mind now. From a very young age Chisty had dreamed of coming to England; as a child she drove her parents mad singing a song that was popular in Bangladesh about buying a plane ticket and flying to England. She watched lots of British and Hollywood films and television programmes (including Fawlty Towers) and became fascinated by life in the seemingly more glamorous west where it looked like there was a life for a young woman beyond one of cooking and cleaning and getting married. She longed to be able to support her family so that they didn’t have to depend on anyone else financially.
As she tucks into a chicken burger and another glass of cider Chisty describes how she was born and grew up in the city of Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city. It’s an old river port city in the south-west of the country, about six hours drive from the capital city Dhaka, and lies close to the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to the famous Bengal tiger. Until getting on that plane to come to England Chisty had not travelled outside Bangladesh before. In fact she hadn’t travelled very far at all with her family as they simply couldn’t afford to go far.
By the age of sixteen Chisty had completed her secondary school certificate (equivalent to O Level or GCSE) and then went on to do a further two years at college before applying for a place at university. But having failed to get a place on a Business Administration course at her local university a newspaper advert for a national competition offering the prize of a part-funded scholarship to study in England caught her eye. She passed an exam and was one of only 300 selected for a scholarship from more than fifty thousand who sat the exam.
At first her whole family were very resistant to the idea of leaving home at such a young age and flying to England; “what is she going to do to earn money, be a prostitute?” one of her aunts asked. But eventually her persistence paid off and she was able to persuade them that this was what she really wanted to do and that no one was going to stop her. Unfortunately though her dad had a stroke shortly before Chisty was due to leave and she spent most of her last days in Bangladesh at his bedside in hospital. She describes herself as a “daddy’s girl” and even now she speaks to her father by phone on a daily basis and he rings her each morning to make sure that she is up for work.
After arriving in England and after having paid half of the scholarship fee (two thousand pounds) she discovered that the whole thing had been a scam. The promised “school of business” had done a runner with everyone’s money, the building where it was meant to be lay empty. Two thousand pounds gone just like that. A big setback but Chisty wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her dreams and she dusted herself down and enrolled on another accounting course. There must have been times like this when she felt tempted to give up and head home? “No, I’ve never regretted coming to England. There have been difficult times but I’ve always tried to stay positive and look forward, I’ve never felt homesick”.
A couple of years later she was in a position to look for degree courses but with her parents unable to support her education she was forced to take out two substantial loans (which she is still paying off) to get her through two years of study at university. The middle year of a three year degree course was spent on a placement in an NHS finance department in central London and after graduating in the summer of 2014 she looked for her first full-time job and successfully applied for a job in the finance department at the hospital where I used to work. She loves the NHS and would like to continue working in a finance role in the health service. Indeed she is studying to become a qualified accountant and hopes to become a Finance Director in future. You certainly wouldn’t bet against her.
Yet despite having lived in London for nearly eight years, a place which she now refers to as home although she won’t be able to apply for British citizenship (something that she can’t wait to do) for another two years, Chisty has fallen foul of a new Home Office rule, introduced this April, that holders of tier 2 skilled worker visas like her must earn more than a certain amount per year (with some exceptions) to be able to remain in the country even if they’ve lived here for several years. So after years of grafting to build a new life in a foreign country, years of studying and working to be able to afford to study, years of not going out, years of gruelling bus journeys from the arse end of town to work shifts in city centre burger joints, years of sacrifice to try to ensure a better future for herself and her family Chisty is now faced with the very real prospect of having to leave the country if she cannot find another job that pays more. Her life is on hold, uncertain where exactly her future lies. All she knows is that she desperately wants to stay in England, in London, her home.
This arbitrary threshold has been introduced purely as part of the government’s desire to be seen to be tough on immigration. It’s something that “we” the British electorate demand apparently. As the curtain comes down on the often toxic European Union referendum debate where fear of immigrants has once again being stoked up, all too often, the focus of the debate on immigration is on numbers and hardly ever considers the lives and thoughts and feelings of those individuals like Chisty caught up in the process. Why is it felt appropriate, for instance, to measure the contribution that someone makes to our society simply by referring to how much money they earn? Chisty has already demonstrated her industriousness and determination in spades and has so much more to offer this country culturally, socially and economically. She loves living in England; this is no story of someone who struggles to integrate and there’s an effervescence and love of life that no artificial borders or barbed wire or arbitrary immigration rules dreamt up by faceless bureaucrats should be able to restrain.
So, finally, to return to cricket and the so-called “cricket test” posed by Norman Tebbitt back in the eighties, deliberately designed to cast doubt on the Englishness of those migrating to Britain from commonwealth countries; who does she want to win in a cricket match between Bangladesh and England? She laughs again and says that despite everything, despite her love of England and English people and despite London now being her home and the place where she wants to live the rest of her life, she would still want Bangladesh to win of course. And why not? Why not be proud of your roots? Her large extended family and friends back home in Bangladesh and her new friends in England should certainly be very proud of Chisty, our very own Bengal tiger.
It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week. You may have missed it. Even for those of us who work in the NHS it can slip by barely noticed. Mental health struggles to attract the attention or funding that it merits; cancers, strokes, gastric bands and broken limbs tend to capture the public’s imagination more than troubled minds and even now there is a tendency for us all to view those suffering from depression or anxiety as simply needing to pull themselves together rather than seek the treatment and advice of experienced healthcare professionals. Yet it’s estimated that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
That statistic refers to human beings not football clubs but nevertheless it’s apparent that FC United of Manchester is exhibiting many of the symptoms of being mentally unwell. I’m no psychiatrist but I would suggest that the highs and lows of the last twelve months, the mood swings and bouts of depression (sometimes accompanied by heavy drinking), the paranoia of certain board members mistaking debate and scrutiny for bullying and harassment, the delusions of grandeur and the occasional psychotic episode are indicative of a wider malaise. And if the events of the last week or so are anything to go by we now also seem intent on deliberate self-harm with one board member flouncing out of the club with a despicable, unprovoked online attack on a fellow co-owner. If we lay back on the therapist’s couch and subjected ourselves to a spot of psychoanalysis I’m sure our birth from protest and rebellion and our schizophrenic “two United’s but the soul is one” existence would be diagnosed as likely contributors to our present ill-health.
One evening a few weeks ago I listened to a radio programme about the current crisis in child and adolescent mental health services. In truth, I was merely channel hopping trying to avoid Liverpool’s comeback against Borussia Dortmund on 5 live whilst washing the pots. The programme spoke of how half of all mental health problems in adults begin developing in childhood with patients often speaking of difficulties that started at school or college; promising futures that were knocked for six. One psychotherapist reckoned that one of the major reasons why kids today are more susceptible to mental illness than many of us were when we were younger is because of image. There is often a huge gap between the fantasy lifestyles that young people project on social media and the reality of their day to day lives. The bigger the gap the more likely it is that mental health issues will arise. Take the obsession with body image, particularly for young girls, and the incidence of anorexia. Or kids from the selfie generation, obsessed with physical attractiveness, suffering from depression because they’ve got bad acne.
And this is a bit like what’s happened to our young (and sometimes we forget how young we still are) football club isn’t it? Not that we’re busy squeezing our spots but that progressively over the last few years we’ve witnessed a widening of the gap between the image of FC United projected to the wider world by the Walsh/Brown modernisers and the altogether more mundane reality that we are a non-league football club in Manchester that is struggling to adapt to life in its own home. The modernisers’ fantasy lifestyle embraced third sector hubs, social enterprise and talked of changing the whole of football and overthrowing capitalism and the reality gap was stretched so wide that the likes of Sherrard, Walker and Ramsey were able to saunter in, barely noticed by many, and allowed to release their poison drip by drip.
Look at the club’s public profile over the last twelve months; until Daniel Taylor’s article in the Guardian at the end of March there was not an inkling to the outside world that there was anything wrong at the club. Amidst the proud boasts of record crowds, “shining example” Broadhurst Park being crowned the best new non-league ground for 2015-16 and becoming the country’s largest supporter owned football club internal dissent was brushed off as the work of “troublemakers” and “thugs”. Indeed there was even a ham-fisted attempt to get the Guardian to pull Daniel Taylor’s story so concerned were the likes of Andy Walsh and Andy Walker that the truth would out. So low did we stoop that on the final day of the season, following an on-pitch protest calling for greater democracy at the club, the club’s official Twitter account was involved in an unseemly spat with one of the club’s co-owners merely for having the temerity to voice his opinion on the pitch invasion.
For me, the reconvened General Meeting last Sunday marked the beginning of us closing the gap. At the end of an often acrimonious twelve months which has seen the resignation of the club’s General Manager and seven Board members in recent weeks, the meeting was attended by around four hundred of the club’s co-owners. The debate was lively but as the details of twenty three resolutions and thirteen members’ votes were discussed and voted on, over the course of four hours, the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get this football club back on track was clear for all to see. Meanwhile the empty chairs on the right hand side of the stage told their own story of how some former board members viewed the club’s democracy.
I also sensed that some of those in attendance were possibly beginning to appreciate the extent of the damage wrought by the chumocracy that has been allowed to develop as an assortment of chancers, bluffers and worming careerists have brought the club to its knees; an affront to the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which FC United was founded. An update on the club’s finances revealed that without the television and prize money from the FA Cup match against Chesterfield in November the club would have run up a deficit well in excess of £100,000 during its first year at Broadhurst Park and as the season closed it was forced to ask the bank for an overdraft. The holes in the club’s cash flow are plain to see in the financial figures for the first three quarters of the year; the loss of goodwill following the programme price increase for the Benfica friendly match a year ago has had a significant impact on contributions to the Development Fund, barely a third of home matches were sponsored and income from use of the club’s brand new facilities was well below plan reflecting the failure of a paid fund raiser to do the job he was paid thousands to do.
Undoubtedly we can turn this around, as the response of supporters to the recent calls to get involved in various volunteer-led groups has shown, but you suspect that if things had carried on for much longer then we probably wouldn’t have had a football club left to support; a simply gobsmacking situation for a club repeatedly held up as an example of how supporter ownership can work. When the dust settles a huge debt of gratitude must surely be shown to the club’s founder John-Paul O’Neill who has been blowing the whistle on this shambles, persistently and in forensic detail, for several months. His tactics may not have always sat easy with many (but as we learnt from 1998 and 2005 any battle for the soul of a football club sometimes requires more clandestine operations; the Manchester Education Committee anyone?) but I don’t think anyone can now question that he has the best interests of the club at heart.
It was interesting too to hear Chuks Akuneto speak towards the end of the meeting about on-pitch matters and in particular the club’s youth team. Chuks is an experienced player and coach and was a member of the FC United coaching staff for eight years, including a stint as first team coach, until he left the club in 2015. His last role was as coach for the club’s academy programme and he spoke passionately of the failure of any youth team player to make it onto the pitch for the first team last season, even for just one minute. A damning indictment of the club’s youth policy and a failure to meet one of the club’s founding principles.
Our present state of health is not good but the debate at the general meeting, whilst heated, served a much-needed therapeutic purpose in reasserting our democratic rights as members. By signing up as members of this football club we become its custodians and it becomes our responsibility to love it, cherish it and nurture it into achieving its full and very beautiful potential. This is no ordinary football club that relies simply on blind loyalty, we are part of a democratic organisation that requires participation and vigilance to ensure that the club, in everything it does, remains true to its founding principles.
So this is a rather driving-to-Cornwall-in-the-rain way of saying that if there is one tiny bit of advice that I might offer to those standing for election to the board at the Extraordinary General Meeting on 25th June it is to keep the gap between the image of FC United projected to the outside world and the reality on the ground to an absolute minimum. Yes, I know there are times when we won’t want to wash our dirty laundry in public and might wish to take the positives from any given situation, I’m not naive enough to fail to appreciate that. But after the shambles of the last twelve months most of us are crying out for openness, honesty and transparency and for that reality gap to be wafer thin. The members’ vote at the general meeting that stated that “the membership has no confidence in the transparency of the club or executive” was supported by 53% of voters thus rubbishing the notion that those who have criticised the board in the past year or so are simply part of a “small but vocal minority of troublemakers”. Although the voting results from the general meeting announced this week were disappointing overall, that vote on our confidence in the board’s transparency should give critics heart and should be carefully noted by all future board members. Please no more self harm and no more hallucinations about taking over the world. National League North will do for now. Let’s mind the gap.