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Football taught by Matt Busby

For a few years at school I was into drawing. Although I wasn’t particularly creative so mainly ended up sketching cartoon characters or copying pictures from books. So when Manchester United brought out a magazine to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Munich air disaster in 1983 I was instantly drawn (if you’ll excuse the pun) to the picture on the front cover of a smiling Matt Busby overlooking various scenes from United’s past and present; Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best and Norman Whiteside were a few of the figures that stood out. It was cracking picture and I bought a large piece of card and tried to copy it with a view to sticking the finished product on my bedroom wall. I didn’t finish it though – it took me several weeks just to sketch Matt’s head and by the time I’d made a right horlicks of Norman Whiteside’s nose I gave up and for years the unfinished picture sat gathering dust at my mum and dad’s with all my United programmes and other memorabilia.

But what was of more significance is that it was only when I delved inside the magazine and started to read the various articles that I began to fully appreciate the scale of what happened on that Munich airport runway on 6th February 1958. My dad had been due to go to his first United match the Saturday after Munich and although he never saw the Busby Babes in action he still recalls his giddiness at the prospect of seeing the likes of Duncan Edwards and Eddie “Snakehips” Colman in the flesh. Whilst my own first United match was only nineteen years after the Munich disaster (the same as the gap back to the treble season now) for an eight year old it might as well have been ninety years ago.

So the enormity of the tragedy didn’t really sink in until the day of the 25th anniversary when, lying on my bed, I read through the magazine cover to cover blubbing my eyes out well before I got to the end. Being an out of town fan our football-daft school playground was full of kids that supported Liverpool and Forest and as they seemed to be celebrating a trophy or two almost every season, whilst United won nowt, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t moments when I had more than a few doubts about this team that my dad had saddled me with.

But that Munich commemorative magazine changed all that and made me begin to appreciate the glorious, yet tragic, history of this football club. Learning for the first time about how Matt Busby had built a team brimming with youthful talent and how he had defied the Football League and taken United into Europe, the first English side to play in European competition, filled me with pride. But there was overwhelming sadness too at how a group of young players with so much to look forward to never got the chance to fulfil their undoubted potential. Eight of that team, the pioneering champions of England, died in the Munich disaster and Busby himself was so badly injured that he was given the last rites at one point before eventually recovering.

Which makes it odd that after expunging that teenage self-doubt thirty five years ago that I now spend Saturday afternoons watching a different football team. Although they also play in red and have Manchester and United in their name. Whilst many FC United of Manchester supporters no longer go to Old Trafford there remains a red thread that connects us to Manchester United and back to the Busby Babes like a footballing umbilical cord. That’s why on their way to the match at Nuneaton on Saturday a group of FC United supporters visited the cemetery in Dudley where Duncan Edwards is buried and, as they have done in previous seasons whenever FC have played in the West Midlands, paid their respects to Big Dunc. And it’s why some FC United supporters have travelled out to Munich this week to join hundreds of other Reds in remembering those who lost their lives in that plane crash sixty years ago. And why those of us stood on a cold, damp terrace in Warwickshire on Saturday were singing songs about football taught by Matt Busby. And why too that the superb 1878 Manchester United nostalgia magazine, it’s latest issue devoted entirely to the Busby Babes, is sold at FC United home and away matches as well as at Old Trafford. Two United’s, one soul.

As I headed home from Nuneaton on Saturday night and boarded a Northern Line tube train at Euston on the last leg of my journey I couldn’t help noticing the two clear plastic bags that the young couple sat opposite were carrying which appeared to include a small black book with the words “The Flowers of Manchester” on the cover. I pointed to one of the bags and asked if they’d been to the United match and whether I could have a quick look at what was inside.

They said that yes they’d been to Old Trafford, passed one of the bags over and as I flicked through the book and the commemorative programme (which had been given out free to all supporters attending the match, the closest United home match to the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster) there followed one of those oddly asymmetrical Saturday night conversations that I’ve grown familiar with over the years; them telling me about the match at Old Trafford, who scored, who played well, what the atmosphere was like before asking me which league FC United are in. After briefly informing them that we’re five divisions below United and had lost to Nuneaton Town today I think they decided to take pity on me and offered me one of their commemorative packs.

They explained that one was enough for the two of them and that they would be happy for the other one to go to a good home. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by this kind gesture, reduced to gibbering “are you sure?” and “that’s very kind of you” several times before getting up to leave the train at my station with an unexpected plastic bagged gift. I have a tendency to generalise about many of those who go to Old Trafford these days which is a shame as most of the match going United fans I’ve met in London over the last decade have been sound.

Later on as I sat with a brew flicking through the slim black Flowers of Manchester book and the commemorative programme that had been very generously given to me I realised that sometimes, just sometimes, the football club that I adore but ultimately parted company with as a result of its overbearing commercialisation can still get some of the important things right. Opening the programme (the first time I’ve browsed a copy of the United Review in many years) the repetition of the Glazer name in the section informing supporters of the names of the directors of the club undoubtedly jars but both publications are well presented and a wonderful tribute to the memory of those who died at Munich. As is the smart pin badge adorned with a picture of the Old Trafford Munich clock that was also in the plastic bag. And giving them out for free, as a commemorative pack, to all supporters attending the match was a touch of class.

So as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster this week and remember the twenty three people who lost their lives (including eight of the Busby Babes) I hope that there are more than a few young United supporters reading through that small black book that they picked up at the match on Saturday and, perhaps with tears in their eyes, learning about the proud history of their football club and the football taught by Matt Busby. RIP the Busby Babes. We’ll never die.

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From Fylde to Finchley – where I watched football in 2017

For a few years now the editor of the award winning Doncaster Rovers fanzine Popular Stand has published an ace end of season collection of photographs of all the matches that he’s attended that season. You can take a peek here. Although I’m mostly useless with a camera I love gazing at football photographs so, partly inspired by the Donny fanzine, I’ve been snapping away at all the matches that I’ve been to over the last year and below is a selection of those photos; one from each of the matches that I attended in 2017 and all taken on my phone (with the exception of one that I’ve shamelessly nicked from someone I was at the match with).

They’re mostly nothing to do with the action on the pitch because, let’s be honest, going to the match is not really about watching the actual match is it. In fact, looking back through them I think they probably feature more trees than players – the conifers at Tadcaster were particularly striking. Anyway, aside from watching a live stream of the second half of the Europa League final on my phone these thirty one matches represent pretty much the entirety of my consumption of live football over the last twelve months. Enjoy.

 

Match 1 – Fog at Fylde

AFC Fylde 3 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, Mill Farm, Saturday 7th January 2017, Attendance 2,821

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Match 2 – Fan-owned football across the river from the bankers

Fisher 0 Whitstable Town 2, Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division, St Paul’s Sports Ground, Saturday 14th January 2017, Attendance 149

 

Match 3 – Art Deco fan-owned football at Enfield Town

Enfield Town 2 Grays Athletic 0, Isthmian League Premier Division, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Saturday 21st January 2017, Attendance 575

 

Match 4 – We’ll carry on through it all

FC United of Manchester 0 Salford City 3, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 28th January 2017, Attendance 4,158

 

Match 5 – Stop mad cow disease

FC United of Manchester 3 SV Austria Salzburg 0, Friendly match, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 4th February 2017, Attendance 1,562

 

Match 6 – Going to the match

Stockport County 2 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, Edgeley Park, Saturday 18th February 2017, Attendance 5,630

 

Match 7 – Second half comeback

Gloucester City 2 FC United of Manchester 3, National League North, Whaddon Road (home of Cheltenham Town), Saturday 25th February 2017, Attendance 795

 

Match 8 – Pre-match beer under the arches at Piccadilly station

FC United of Manchester 1 Kidderminster Harriers 0, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 4th March 2017, Attendance 2,456

 

Match 9 – Hamlet prove a handful for Merstham

Dulwich Hamlet 5 Merstham 0, Isthmian League Premier Division, Champion Hill, Saturday 11th March 2017, Attendance 1,564

 

Match 10 – Under grey Derbyshire skies

Alfreton Town 2 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, North Street, Saturday 18th March 2017, Attendance 898

 

Match 11 – Pre-match art battle at Malcolmses

FC United of Manchester 0 FC Halifax Town 3, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 25th March 2017, Attendance 3,149

 

Match 12 – Last minute equaliser

FC United of Manchester 2 Stalybridge Celtic 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 1st April 2017, Attendance 2,375

 

Match 13 – If the Reds should play

FC United of Manchester 1 Brackley 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 15th April 2017, Attendance 2,823

 

Match 14 – End of season party

Nuneaton Town 1 FC United of Manchester 4, National League North, Liberty Way, Saturday 22nd April 2017, Attendance 777

 

Match 15 – She wore a scarlet ribbon

FC United of Manchester 1 Stalybridge Celtic 0, Manchester Premier Cup Final, Boundary Park (home of Oldham Athletic), Thursday 4th May 2017, Attendance 1,592

 

Match 16 – Allez les rouges

FC United de Manchester played in a futsal tournament at the L’Aeronef concert hall in Lille, Saturday 10th June 2017

 

Match 17 – Bohemian like you

Bohemian FC 1 FC United of Manchester 2, Friendly match, Dalymount Park (Dublin), Saturday 8th July 2017  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Match 18 – Here we go again

Brackley Town 2 FC United of Manchester 1, National League North, St James’s Park, Saturday 5th August 2017, Attendance 654

 

Match 19 – Forget 4-4-2 check out those cloud formations

FC United of Manchester 1 Kidderminster Harriers 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 12th August 2017, Attendance 1,946

 

Match 20 – Brewers drop points at home

Tadcaster Albion 1 Prescot Cables 2, Northern Premier League Division One North, Ings Lane, Saturday 26th August 2017, Attendance 262

 

Match 21 – Revenge for 1995

York City 0 FC United of Manchester 2, National League North, Bootham Crescent, Monday 28th August 2017, Attendance 3,411

 

Match 22 – Red rebels and spa town blues (again)

FC United of Manchester 1, Leamington 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 2nd September 2017, Attendance 2,380

 

Match 23 – Are we still in London?

Hampton & Richmond Borough 1 Concord Rangers 1, National League South, Beveree Stadium, Saturday 23rd September 2017, Attendance 496

 

Match 24 – Out of the cup

AFC Telford United 3 FC United of Manchester 1, FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round, New Bucks Head Stadium, Saturday 14th October 2017, Attendance 1,451

 

Match 25 – A new era begins

FC United of Manchester 2 Nuneaton Town 1, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 28th October 2017, Attendance 1,781

 

Match 26 – 1988 FA Cup winners beat team beginning with “L” 1-0 in the cup again   

AFC Wimbledon 1 Lincoln City 0, FA Cup 1st Round, Kingsmeadow, Saturday 4th November 2017, Attendance 3,394

 

Match 27 – Sad news about the match sponsor at Gainsborough

Gainsborough Trinity 1 FC United of Manchester 0, National League North, The Northolme, Saturday 18th November 2017, Attendance 782

 

Match 28 – Tommy Greaves’ red and white army

FC United of Manchester 3 Harrogate Town 2, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 2nd December 2017, Attendance 2,394

 

Match 29 – Snow doesn’t stop play 

FC United of Manchester 1 Brackley Town 1, National League North, Broadhurst Park, Saturday 9th December 2017, Attendance 1,893

 

Match 30 – No football at White Hart Lane this season eh?

Haringey Borough 1 Leyton Orient 2, FA Trophy 1st Round, Coles Park, Saturday 16th December 2017, Attendance 1,133 (club record attendance)

 

Match 31 – Wingate in the wind

Wingate & Finchley 1 Needham Market 1, Isthmian League Premier Division, The Maurice Rebak Stadium, Saturday 30th December 2017, Attendance 151

Murray’s mint

I’ve never been to a tennis match and probably never will to be honest. I doubt that the close proximity to all them Pimms-upped poshos would be good for my blood pressure. And I rarely watch it on the telly either. Aside from Wimbledon there are few opportunities to see it on the box these days without lining Murdoch’s already comfortably lined pockets. Which makes it odd that I bloody love Andy Murray. It’s probably the most love I’ve felt for any sportsperson who doesn’t kick a ball around or wield willow or leather for a very long time. Possibly since Alex Higgins in his early eighties pomp.

I’m not sure exactly when this love affair was ignited but it might have been around the time that a youthful Murray was asked who he wanted to win the football World Cup and he replied, with tongue firmly in cheek, “anyone but England”. Cue little Ingerlunders flying off the handle all over the shop but I loved it. And why the hell would he want England to win the World Cup anyway, he’s a Scot after all. But it’s not only that deadpan sense of humour that I find a bit of a turn-on but also his apparent shyness and awkwardness around talking to the media.

In a world that increasingly expects all our well-paid, media-trained stars of sport, stage and screen to be “larger than life” role models always ready with an easy smile and a sound-bite quote when a microphone is thrust towards them it’s somehow refreshing to observe someone who finds the whole thing something akin to visiting the dentist for some root canal work. It might lack the intensity of the I-want-your-babies man love that I feel for a certain Franco-Mancunian footballer but this slow burning affection for a fellow member of the diffident, slightly awkward squad is powerful nonetheless.

But despite this admiration, I rarely watch Murray play tennis as I get too nervous. I’ve always struggled watching or listening to sports events on the television or radio when I’m really rooting for one of the participants; I spent large chunks of the 1983 FA Cup final riding round the block on my bike, stomach churning and even now, when I can’t make it to a match, I rarely listen to FC United on the radio, preferring instead to check the latest score on Twitter and maybe tune in for the final few minutes if we’re winning. It’s different when you’re there at the match; you can scream, shout, sing or just get pissed as a means of coping with the tension. Watching or listening from afar can be emotionally draining.

So on that Sunday afternoon in 2013 when Andy Murray won Wimbledon for the first time instead of being glued to the box like millions of others I was in full-on hiding-behind-the-sofa-while-the-Daleks-are-on mode scrolling through Twitter to check on his progress with the oohs and aahs of neighbouring flats stoking the tension; was that an “ooh” of admiration for a Djokovic cross-court winner or a relieved “aah” as the Scot clinches a break point with a well executed overhead smash?

Then when he was two sets up and serving for the match I finally felt comfortable enough to switch the telly on and watch that gruelling final game, its ebb and flow producing almost a match within a match, which finally ended with an exhausted Murray becoming the first British man to win the Wimbledon men’s title in seventy seven years. As he lifted the trophy I headed to the kitchen to make a brew mentally drained by an afternoon fiddling with my phone. Thankfully when he won his first grand slam tournament at the US Open the match took place in the middle of the night sparing me four hours of frenetic Twitter scrolling.

It seems a long time now since the final weeks of the 2016 season when Murray finished the season as world number one after winning what seemed like a tournament every week for several weeks in order to amass sufficient ranking points to claim the number one berth. It was an incredible effort that in hindsight may have had a longer term effect on his form and fitness in 2017. He’s been out of action since exiting Wimbledon last year and possibly won’t play again until this summer having undergone hip surgery in Australia earlier this year. By then he’ll have slipped down the rankings but hopefully will return fitter and ready to take on the world again.

Despite his lack of game time in 2017 the finest sporting moment of the year, without a doubt, occurred after Murray had been knocked out of Wimbledon by Sam Querrey. Murray was the defending champion but had gone into the tournament not fully fit and it must have irked him that, having played the last two sets against Querrey on virtually one leg, he wasn’t able to defend his title properly and exited the tournament so meekly. In the press conference afterwards he was asked by an American reporter for his thoughts on Querrey becoming the first American player in many years to make it to the Wimbledon semi-finals – the reporter plainly choosing to ignore half the players at Wimbledon and the Williams sisters’ domination of the tournament in recent times.

Murray, though, wasn’t prepared to tolerate such casual sexism and interjected with “male player” before the reporter had even had chance to spit out his question. The look on Murray’s face was an absolute picture of disgust, barely able to make eye contact with the reporter as he is asked to repeat his comment before the reporter belatedly recognises his error and guffaws nervously and goes “yes, first male player, that’s for sure”. Stick your SPOTY, aside from the football supporters of Cologne invading the Emirates en masse, this was the finest sporting moment of 2017.

It’s wonderful to hear such a high profile male sporting figure react so quickly to the sort of lazy, casual sexism that has surrounded sport for years – this wasn’t someone monotonously reciting carefully scripted lines to assuage a multi-million pound sponsor, it was an instinctive from-the-heart response from someone who is not afraid to speak out on an important issue. And it was a timely reminder too that we must all do our bit to stamp out this sort of lazy sexism – whether it be at work, down the pub, playing or watching sport or on social media.

Murray has made no secret of his support for women’s tennis acknowledging the huge influence of his mother Judy on his career and in 2014 he became the first winner of a men’s grand slam tournament to recruit a female trainer when he appointed former Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. A move that was greeted with cynicism in some quarters – the notion of a successful sportsman being successfully coached by a successful sportswoman was seemingly too much for some to contemplate.

Serena Williams however says that Murray’s efforts to ensure that women’s tennis isn’t merely treated as a glamorous sideshow to the main event are hugely appreciated on the women’s tour. Big deal you might think. But when Hope Solo, the longstanding US women’s football team goalkeeper and a World Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medallist, states that “sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour are rampant at every level in women’s sport and it needs to stop” you realise that, actually yes, this is a big fucking deal. Particularly when it’s set in the context of the last twelve months when barely a day seems to have passed without news of some sexual scandal rocking the worlds of entertainment, sport or politics.

It’s possible that we may be only weeks away from some allegations of tax avoidance or for him to be outed as a lifelong Tory or a Liverpool fan or summat. Or for Andy Murray to make a tit of himself on social media like Lewis Hamilton. I doubt it though, he just seems like a sound lad to me. Either way, he might not have played for ages and he’s probably missed so many tournaments that he’s not even in the world’s top one thousand tennis players by now but let’s take a moment to bask in the magnificence of Scotland’s number one male tennis player Andy Murray. We’re lucky to have him around.

Stick Ceefax on…..

I’d only just got home from work and was making a brew when the phone started ringing. The phone in our shared house very rarely rang for me but I picked it up anyway curious as to what could possibly be so urgent or important at six on a damp November Thursday evening. It turned out it was both.

“United have signed Cantona”. It was my mate George dispensing with the usual pleasantries and cutting straight to the action.

“Yer wot?”

“Stick Ceefax on if you don’t believe me…..United have signed Cantona”

I put the phone down and scurried into the living room, switched the telly on, fumbled with the remote and selected page 300 on Ceefax. And there it was, the sporting headline news of the day; Eric Cantona was indeed heading across the Pennines.

“Fucking hell, you’re right” I said picking up the phone again trying to make sense of what I’d just read.

To say it was a shock was a huge understatement. Dion Dublin’s broken leg had left us short up front but only a week before a bid in excess of three million for Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst was turned down. Now here we were seemingly snapping up the Gallic George Best for barely a third of that. But already I was getting giddy at the prospect of what Eric could bring to a side that had narrowly and cruelly missed out on the league title only six months before. Could this be the final piece in our title winning jigsaw? I was doing accountancy exams at the time and was gazing at profit and loss accounts and balance sheets that evening but the only asset on my mind was the one we’d just snaffled from Leeds for little over a million pounds.

The following morning I popped into a newsagents on my way into work and had a glance at some of the papers to see what the “experts” made of it. Not many of them seemed to rate Eric’s prospects at United and one particular comment that stuck in my mind was the laughable Emlyn Hughes labelling him as “a flashy foreigner”. Meanwhile over in Yorkshire the sheep appeared to be getting restless with some Leeds United season ticket holders threatening to boycott Elland Road in disgust at Howard Wilkinson’s sale of their most gifted player to the club that they despised more than any other. Hahahaha. Schadenfreude indeed.

Back then I had absolutely no idea that almost exactly a quarter of a century on I’d be stood on a terrace at Gainsborough Trinity singing the name of a footballer who completely transformed my United watching life. The rest of that 1992-93 season from late November through to us finally, finally winning the league the following May was an utterly joyous, barely believable, experience; a marked contrast to the first few months of that season.

Eric made his debut on the first weekend in December coming on as a sub in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford as United beat city 2-1 and the following week he scored his first goal for United, equalising on a sopping wet afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Whilst all around him players struggled in the conditions Eric seemed to glide across the puddles as he orchestrated play – he was magnificent in only his first full appearance in a red shirt. I tubed it across London afterwards to watch Morrissey at Alexandra Palace, looking like a drowned rat but buzzing off seeing Eric bag his first United goal.

He scored another late equaliser on Boxing Day at Hillsborough as an electrifying second half saw us recover from three goals down to draw 3-3. It was a scrappy one but already he had developed a knack of scoring crucial goals. I missed his towering far post header that put United in front against Spurs as I’d gone early for a half-time piss but the header that sticks in my mind the most was the one at Maine Road a few weeks later; Sharpey’s cross from the left and there was Eric leaping unchallenged to plant the ball powerfully past Coton. One all. A small group of us behind enemy lines on the Kippax, with our forged city membership cards, were outwardly serene but inwardly doing cartwheels.

Better was to come in early April as a breathtaking first half display by United at title rivals Norwich saw us three up after twenty minutes. The football was sublime that night, with Eric pulling the strings, and when he scored the third (“and here is Cantona….and that’s three”) I was daring to believe that we might, just might, go on to win the league. I’d thrown a sickie that afternoon to make the journey to Norfolk but got spotted in the crowd by my boss watching the match on the telly. Having floated into work the following morning I was invited into his office for a chat.

My personal highlight from that wonderful second half of 92-93 was the chipped pass for Denis Irwin to score against Middlesbrough – viewed from about a third of the way up K Stand and almost in line with the right hand post it truly was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on a football field. A work of art as good as anything in the Musee D’Orsay. The next few seasons brought so many more Eric highlights but that 92-93 season remains my favourite ever football season.

I’ve never met the King (I’ve always had that thing about preferring not to meet your heroes lest they disappoint) so the nearest I’ve been to hearing him speak in real life was at a packed London Palladium on a Friday night in February this year. This wasn’t your typical West End audience mind – it was full of excitable United fans, many in the middle of a four day bender starting with a Thursday night in Saint Etienne and finishing with the League Cup final at Wembley the following Sunday. A lively atmosphere was stoked by a big screen showing some of his finest moments in a red shirt before the great man was introduced on stage.

An Evening With Eric Cantona lasted barely an hour and a quarter but it was fascinating listening to the bloke and the breadth of topics (films, art, music, politics etc) with which he was comfortable talking. But there was plenty of football too; favourite matches and goals, his team mates, the fans, playing under Fergie, THAT kick (“I wished I’d kicked him harder”) and the infamous quote about trawlers and seagulls.

For those of us too young to remember George Best and Duncan Edwards Eric was the greatest we’d ever seen. And still is. He had it all; skill, flair, technique, balance, power and he was hard as nails too. Simply winning wasn’t enough he always had to do it with style – in so many respects he was perfect for United. And off the pitch he was that rarest of creatures – a cerebral footballer as happy talking about Albert Camus and the films of Ken Loach as he was about scoring goals. His arrival at the club, twenty five years ago today, marked the start of the most glorious period in our history. Let’s, once again, drink a drink a drink to Eric the King.

Don’t cry for me Margentina

So the end of an era at FC United as our first and, up until now, only manager Karl Marginson has departed, by mutual agreement, after twelve years at the helm. A board statement thanked Karl for his loyal service and referred to a difficult decision that was “tinged with sadness”. And whilst it might not have grabbed the headlines like the recent high profile sackings of Koeman and Bilic it was nevertheless big enough news to attract a smattering of national media interest as the likes of the Guardian’s Danny Taylor kept a close eye on events. After all, in the upper reaches of the football pyramid only Arsene Wenger has been in charge of a club for longer.

I’ve only really had one proper conversation with Karl down the years and rather than banging on about football we ended up talking mushrooms. The non-hallucinogenic variety that is. Along with then head honcho Andy Walsh, Margy was attending one of our supporters’ branch meetings and, this being giddy London, the pub grub included a stuffed portobello mushroom as a starter. Margy wasn’t having it though and revealed that whilst he was a fan of the more common button mushroom the fancier portobello with its big flat cap didn’t really float his culinary boat. I’ve often wondered since if this was emblematic of some of the odd team selections later in his career? <<searches for the raised eyebrow emoji thingy>>

Anyway you might want to look elsewhere if informed footballing comment or juicy quotes on Karl’s departure is what you’re after. Especially when you consider that historically I’ve tended to be something of an ill-judged conservative when it comes to football managers – preferring not to reach for the P45 even when the football’s been turgid. When United were pants in the autumn of 1986 there was me scribbling a letter, on our finest Basildon Bond, to Shoot (or it might have been Match I always get them mixed up) appealing for United not to sack Ron Atkinson. Fat use that was mind as the following week United were dumped out of the League Cup and Big Ron was shown the door.

And my irrational loyalty to football managers was much in evidence until very recently when it came to Karl Marginson. There I was at the end of each match, win, lose or draw, screaming Margentina (an FC version of the Argentina chant with which United supporters regularly goad little Ingerlunders) often for no other reason than that I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the four syllable simplicity of that particular chant, especially the penultimate syllable which drags out the “ti” like a rubber band before the release of the final “na”. But perhaps it had simply become a habit and one that brought back fond memories of trips to Lancashire mill towns when we sang it with gusto.

Back in the summer of 2005 Margy, having quit playing football, was a fruit and veg delivery man when he was appointed FC’s first manager taking on the role with no previous managerial experience at a supporter owned and run football club that was only a matter of days old. Quite a challenge. And he proved more than up to the job in those terrific first few seasons with three consecutive promotions (two as champions) seeing us arrive in the Northern Premier League in 2008. We fell in love with football again and with our new manager too. After years of Fergie seemingly being at war with everyone and everything it made a pleasant change to have a sound, easy going and humble bloke in charge of our football team.

But it was seven years and four painful play-off defeats before we were finally able to move up to the next level. As early as the second season in the Northern Premier League as the season petered out into an underwhelming bottom half finish there were the first 606-style murmurings of discontent with Margy’s management; “he’s taken us as far as he can, it’s time to look elsewhere…..”. Some supporters were of the opinion that with our higher crowds we really ought to be able to assemble a team good enough to trouble the Conference North at least. Others were happy simply to enjoy the ride and take pride in other aspects of the club. And what a ride it was, at times, with the raucous Bonfire Night victory at Rochdale in 2010, the club’s first ever appearance in the FA Cup first round proper, and the trip to Brighton in the next round being the highlights.

The moans and groans went on for several seasons, following a cyclical pattern as the team always seemed to begin the season slowly before embarking on a decent run of form in the new year which was usually enough to see us in contention for a play-off spot or better. Each time Andy Walsh attended our branch meetings, usually around Christmas time, concerns were expressed about current form and were mostly shrugged off with a simple “we’ll be fine”. We always seemed to be fine muddling through in those days but evidence of any coherent strategy or planning of the football side of things, like much of the rest of the club, was scant. As borne out by then centre forward Mike Norton’s revelation at one branch meeting that the players never practiced set pieces which certainly raised a few eyebrows. And later when Walsh was quizzed as to the circumstances under which he’d sack the manager he simply said that he wouldn’t. It appeared that Karl was unsackable.

What was never in question though was that Margy embraced the club and everything it stands for in a way that is all too rare in modern football. Donating the fee he received for his television punditry during last season’s FA Cup second round match between Curzon Ashton and Wimbledon to the club was his typically generous response to a board statement a week earlier that had highlighted the club’s precarious finances. And a few weeks later he was at Broadhurst Park on Christmas Day as the club opened the ground and its facilities to help the homeless. His by now full-time Head of Football role encompassed involvement in the club’s extensive community work but he always appeared willing to go the extra mile actively supporting regular club initiatives like Big Coat Day and one-off collections to support refugees. And it endeared him to the fans no end. As did his appearances back in the day at the pre-match Course You Can Malcolm at Gigg Lane where he would dazzle us with one of his repertoire of magic tricks or tell one of his bad jokes and get booed off stage.

But FC’s start to this season, our third campaign in National League North, certainly hasn’t dazzled us as we languish in the relegation zone a third of the way through the season and were denied a potentially lucrative place in the FA Cup first round proper by injury time goals at Telford a few weeks ago. After weeks of unadventurous football, which followed a shambolic pre-season, and a lack of any sense of responsibility or ability to explain the poor start to the season even I ended up ditching my traditional loyalty to the manager. On balance this feels like the right decision for the club and for Karl whose body language increasingly conveyed a lack of enjoyment in what he was doing.

Off the pitch Margy appeared unwilling to embrace a more professional approach to the management of the club spearheaded by Chief Executive Damian Chadwick who was appointed last November. This meant that Karl’s role as Head of Football, along with all staff, was subject to an agreed set of targets (or key performance indicators as they are referred to) against which performance would be measured through the season. The sort of appraisal process familiar to modern workplaces and certainly one which a full-time employee pocketing more than thirty thousand pounds a year should expect. Yet when pressed, at a board meeting early in the season, for evidence of progress on targets around improving communications between playing staff and supporters and on furthering his own coaching qualifications in the year ahead he resembled more a monosyllabic teenager who’d been asked to do double homework than an experienced non-league football manager.

Karl Marginson’s departure from FC has undoubtedly split the support with considerable scepticism amongst many about it being “by mutual agreement”. Many reckon that he was pushed. But it’s clear from those who know Karl that he was ready to go, it was simply a matter of time. Others however are pleased that a period of stagnation and uninspiring football may now be at an end and we can look forward hopefully to a brighter, more professional, more imaginative approach to our football. Popular centre forward Tom Greaves has taken over as caretaker player manager and the club have apparently been “inundated” with applications for the vacant role with a first set of interviews to be held shortly.

So thanks for the good times Karl and good luck with whatever you decide to do next. It’s been a heck of a twelve years filled with so many wonderful memories. I’ll miss singing Margentina at the end of each match. And the blue jeans and singing about the blue jeans and selling asparagus and “fruit, fruit and more fruit”. And the Margentiferous programme notes. But now a new, and hopefully fruitful, chapter is set to begin at FC. Onwards and upwards.

Two hot chocolates please

images-79Many moons ago we drove up to Dumfries. It was 1997. I know it was deffo ’97 as, for part of the journey, we listened to Oasis’s new album Be Here Now as we zoomed up the M6. I’d bought the CD the day before and taped it so that we could listen to it in the car. It had been out for a few weeks and the NME had trumpeted its arrival with a gushing ten out of ten review. We were easily impressed back in those days; Blair, Oasis, the peoples’ princess etc. We played it once and then pushed the tape back in and played it again but the second time around it still sounded like a load of overblown pub-rock toss. The cassette player spat it out again and that was that. 3 out of 10 at best.

We pressed on northwards, over the border and eventually arrived at our destination; a B&B on the outskirts of the tiny village of Auchencairn. That night as we headed back from the village’s only pub, refreshed by a few pints of eighty shilling, we needed a torch to guide us back to the guest house. The following morning we drove along winding country lanes through a rolling landscape of lush, dew drenched fields and dairy farms to the local town Kirkcudbright (it’s pronounced Ker-koo-bree) and wandered round the town centre before a downpour had us diving for cover.

We ended up in a cafe and ordered a couple of hot chocolates. It was that sort of day. One of those lovely, bright and breezy autumnal mornings with clouds scudding across the sky, occasionally depositing their precipitation before moving on and leaving the sun to it again. As we sat by the window and lingered over our steaming mugs of chocolate, the rain stopped, the clouds galloped on and the sun reappeared and bathed the surrounding streets in a golden glow and we looked and smiled at each other as if to say “it’s alright for a Monday morning this isn’t it”. No words were necessary; simply to be here now, in the moment, with someone very special is truly wonderful. A lovely moment in a lifetime full of moments, some of them shared, some of them not. We’d probably fiddle with our phones now and miss it.

As the greens turn to brown and the mornings get chillier and September eases into October it reminds me of them two hot chocolates.

xxx

Red Rebels

Roughly two-thirds of the way through Red Rebels: The Glazers and the FC Revolution the tone of the book changes from a rollicking, scarf twirling love story imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness to almost Private Eye style, forensically detailed investigative reporting. The story of how a group of Manchester United supporters who having fought and lost the battle to save the football club they adored from a hostile takeover went and formed their own football club, FC United of Manchester, has been well documented down the years. But when that story is told by the person credited with founding the club then it’s worth paying attention.

There will be many outside of Manchester unfamiliar with the name of John-Paul O’Neill. He’s the editor of the United fanzine Red Issue, which even though it no longer exists in print form continues to ruffle self-important feathers on Twitter, and it was his piece in the fanzine in early 2005, as a leveraged buy out of United by the Glazer family loomed large, that first posited the idea of FC United. Thus setting in train a chain of events that saw, only weeks after the takeover was complete, the newly formed FC United taking to the field, in red, white and black, to compete against Leek County School Old Boys in the North West Counties Football League in front of a crowd of 2,590 (the Staffordshire side typically attracted gates of about 50). Red Rebels provides an insider’s account of the formation of the club as JP describes the painstaking graft of the original steering committee to get the club off the ground, despite the early doubts of many, including O’Neill himself, that they had sufficient time to do it.

What little football there is in the book relates mainly to FC’s first few seasons as we gallivanted round Lancashire mill towns and secured three consecutive promotions to the Northern Premier League. Typically described as “disenfranchised”, “disaffected” or “disgruntled” in away match programmes the truth was that we were having a whale of a time and it shines through in the book. That many time-served Reds, with years of following United round Europe, describe these years as amongst the best of their football supporting lives tells its own story. There was an element of “if you can remember it then you weren’t really there” about the joi de vivre of the club’s early days so it’s nice to be reminded those times and read a few new stories as well. The book is worth reading for the little Roy Keane anecdote alone.

The final third of Red Rebels examines the less publicised story of how FC United’s members and supporters were betrayed by its chief executive, board and an assortment of hangers on many of whom were given well paid roles at the club that they simply weren’t capable of performing. Although it’s only really been in the last two years that the club has been mired in internal strife, arguably the rot set in in 2011 with the disappointment of the club losing out on Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath, the site which FC were originally granted planning permission by Manchester City Council to build our own ground on. But the council, pandering to the powerful interests of nearby Manchester city’s Abu Dhabi owners, went back on their decision, blaming it on the new Tory government’s cuts to local government spending.

It was a huge kick in the teeth for the club which had already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, painstakingly raised by supporters, on planning, legal and other fees associated with the new build. It should have set alarm bells ringing there and then about the club’s management. Why was no deal signed with the council that protected our interests? How could the club’s management team be so frivolous with the Development Fund money that we had collectively grafted for years to raise? There were other events around the same time that should also have prompted concern such as the shoddy treatment of the volunteers running the unique pre-match event Course You Can Malcolm. So it felt apt that, earlier this month, JP was able to sell the first few copies of his book and take part in a brief Q&A session at the first ever Course You Can Malcolm event to be held under the St Mary’s Road End terrace, given that the previous board had informed us that events involving live music could not take place there.

O’Neill kicked off a rebellion against what he perceived as abuses of power by the club’s management team and board in the summer of 2015 a short time after FC, recently promoted to the National League North, had moved into our new Broadhurst Park home with a prestigious friendly match against a Benfica team. As the match was played out in front of a packed crowd, surfing on a wave of promotion-and-new-ground giddiness, on a balmy late May evening it felt almost too good to be true. And it was.

Over the next few months a mind boggling series of revelations of shambolic management and nepotism, barely believable at first, were made by JP O’Neill on internet forums. It kicked off with the board’s lies regarding the 50p increase in programme price for the Benfica match, plainly in breach of the club’s principle of avoiding “outright commercialism”; lies that resulted in the resignation of the programme’s editor after he had been shamefully hung out to dry by the chief executive. It was the wake-up call that the club’s supporters and members needed and what started as a one man rant on a Zola-esque forum thread entitled “J’accuse” culminated, less than a year later, in mass board and staff resignations and Andy Walsh stepping down as chief executive after eleven years at the helm of the club. Indeed there were echoes of Emile Zola’s exile for speaking out when O’Neill was incredibly denied membership of the club he founded, his criticism of the board and management team interpreted as online abuse and intimidation, until he was exonerated by an independent report ordered by the new board in the summer of 2016. By this point the rebellion had gathered sufficient momentum that the biggest turnout in the club’s history had elected an almost entirely new board in June 2016.

It was a remarkable twelve months by the standards of any football club. Yet until Danny Taylor’s piece in the Guardian in March 2016 (FC United of Manchester: how the togetherness turned into disharmony) to the outside world, it must have appeared that all was well at FC United; the team playing in front of crowds that regularly exceeded three thousand had managed to secure their highest ever league placing. One of my few gripes with the book is that it occasionally ignores the roles played by others in the battle for the club’s soul. For instance, despite JP’s best efforts to attract national press attention, it was actually an article on the A Fine Lung website (Bath time at FC United) that prompted Lung reader Danny Taylor to get scribbling as the calls for the board and management team to step down were now emanating from a significant chunk of the club’s support. Taylor’s article was a watershed moment as, for the first time, the turmoil at the heart of the club, was laid bare for all to see.

It’s ironic that it was left to Danny Taylor to report this given that the darling of investigative football reporting, his Guardian colleague David Conn, was a longstanding patron of the club’s Development Fund and was tweeting from the St Mary’s Road End terrace only days before Taylor’s article was published. In fact, not only did Conn ignore the story of managerial incompetence and rampant nepotism that was right under his nose but he also, under pressure from FC United’s so-called Press and Communications Officer Andy Walker, apparently tried to persuade Taylor not to publish the story in order to protect friends of his at the club from the likely fall-out.

A theme of the book, as it has been of much of O’Neill’s writing over the last two years, is the need for the club to be run as professionally as possible – the desire to simply “wing it” that characterised Walsh’s leadership was no longer sufficient for a club that now has a multi-million pound facility to look after. Indeed the difference between our former nomadic existence and having our own £6.5 million ground to take care of is stark, much more so than perhaps any of us imagined.

Towards the end of the book this starkness is magnified by a quote from Damian Chadwick, the club’s chief executive, about Broadhurst Park that I had to re-read several times to make sure that I’d properly understood it. Chadwick, who was the former venue controller at Bolton Wanderers before he joined FC and plainly knows a thing or two about football stadia, reckons that if he had £7 million to spend it would be better “to knock the place down and start again”. Hang on, that’s the football ground that for months and months we sang about, talked about, got ridiculously excited about and invested hundreds and thousands of our hard earned cash in, some of it money that we could barely afford, simply because this was us showing the world that this is what a football club should be. And yet it is this partly finished, could-do-better football ground that is the main source of our current financial problems which, in turn, threaten the very existence of our club. It could almost make you weep.

The debt that the club has incurred in building its own ground, in the form of more than £2 million worth of investment in community shares by the club’s supporters and money borrowed from the council at a time of austerity, mean that the club’s finances must be managed expertly over the next few years. It’s no longer sufficient for the club to merely break even but we must, through a more commercial outlook, generate a level of profit that will enable interest payments to be met and debt repaid. But despite our financial problems the seven core principles of the club’s manifesto remain in tact and the task for future boards will be to ensure that the practicalities of running the football club fit with its underlying ideology. It won’t be easy but at least the future of the club remains in our own hands.

As O’Neill highlights, there is a cruel irony in the fact that the football club that was formed partly as a protest at Manchester United being taken over and plunged into debt is now fretting about being able to afford the interest payments on loans from the council. Let’s hope that we can find our way out of this mess. In the meantime this excellently written book, as difficult to digest as it may be for some, provides a salutary reminder of how we got here in the first place.