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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.

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Two thousand words by Milton Keynes Central

Once a month, for the last year, I’ve boarded a Monday afternoon train from London to Manchester, and then hopped on a tram to Moston, to attend FC United’s monthly board meeting where, for four hours or more, I listen and frantically scribble notes in a notepad before sitting on a tram back into town gazing at pages of barely legible scrawl and crossings out and pondering “how the bloody hell am I going to make sense of this lot”.

And the following morning after porridge and a brew I’m on another of Branson’s rip-off rattlers heading south again tapping away on a laptop desperately trying to assemble my Monday night scribbles into something approaching an informative “summary” of the meeting for the club’s information-hungry members. If the word count’s nudging two thousand by the time the train rolls into Milton Keynes Central I know I’m doing alright. If not, then it’s around this time that I begin to wish I was a thirty a day smoker.

This labour of love began last summer when the new board, elected in the middle of a tumultuous year at the club, committed itself to operating with much greater openness and transparency than in the past, a commitment that included a promise to provide the club’s members with timely information on matters being discussed at board meetings. As a result, instead of having to wait over a month for the official minutes to be published before finding out what their elected representatives have been discussing, members now have access to a report that summarises the key discussions at the meeting within four working days of each meeting (it’s usually available to read by the following Friday lunchtime).

That it is referred to as a “summary” is something of an understatement given that it regularly stretches to four or five thousand words – a reflection of the breadth and depth of the issues under discussion including everything from season ticket sales and ground redevelopment works to events in the function room and the club’s extensive community work. I’d like to think it’s a half-decent read. Wading through a four or five thousand report can be tedious at the best of times so I (often clumsily) try to introduce a little bit of humour to break it up. The April report, around the time of the world snooker championship, was sprinkled with snooker-related puns and there’s even been room for a quote from Donald Rumsfeld and a mention for early nineties acid house pranksters the KLF in past reports. Daft, I know, but it’s a nod to the irreverence of the fanzines that played such an important role in the formation of FC United. Keen eyed readers will also spot the use of the little “c” whenever Manchester city get a mention – old habits die hard.

But I suppose it’s a sign of the times when a tongue in cheek comment about FC United signing a deal with an “official sausage partner” in the latest monthly board report was met with genuine “are you serious?” bamboozlement by some supporters. Time was when almost everyone would have spotted, a mile off, the mimicry of Glazer-era United’s regular announcements of official noodle and kitchen detergent partners and the like. But with our own mini-mountain of debt to service and much talk of the need to boost revenue streams I guess a dose of scepticism is understandable to a degree.

The idea for the report came from AFC Wimbledon whose supporters’ trust publish a summary report of their monthly meeting (I nicked the idea for the introductory paragraph from their report) but they generally take more than a week to get it out and the report isn’t anything near as detailed as the one that FC United now publish. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any organisation, public or private, that shares such a detailed report of board discussions so soon after a board meeting.

All told, each board report generally takes more than twenty hours to produce including attending the meeting to take notes (usually more than four hours), writing the actual report itself (typically about 12 or 13 hours solid; I’m usually chuffed if I’ve completed a first draft by the time the ten ‘o clock news comes on the box) and making any subsequent changes to the report (roughly an hour depending on how many amendments are required). In addition, there’s the time spent preparing for the meeting reading through the various reports and familiarising myself with all the issues that are on the agenda which can easily take another two to three hours.

I’ve only missed a couple of board meetings over the last twelve months – one due to a holiday and the other when I struggled to book a reasonably priced Monday night hotel room in Manchester (it was only afterwards that I realised it was due to the Ariana Grande concert at the Arena) – but I would estimate that it’s taken at least 200 hours to knock out the reports for the ten meetings that I’ve attended. Not to mention days off work and more than a thousand pounds spent on hotels and rail fares. It’s like organising a Euro away each month but instead of getting pissed with your mates you just end up with writer’s cramp and a vague sense that whatever you’ve written could have been written better.

The board summariser remit is part of my wider role as a volunteer for the club’s communications team which also involves writing articles for the website and programme on a range of FC United related topics from the welcome return of Course You Can Malcolm and the club’s ongoing support for refugees to a piece about the shared history of our mid-season friendly opponents SV Austria Salzburg and an overlong end of season review. Basically anything that’s not really about football tends to get slung my way. Someone referred to them as “thought pieces” but that sounds a bit Orwellian to me.

Perhaps the article that I most enjoyed writing last season was the one on Nobby Stiles that we ran towards the end of the season as the club, very fittingly, chose to rename its award for the young player selected as the Academy player of the season after the United legend. I typed it up one afternoon in a coffee shop at Stafford railway station (the glamour eh?) waiting for a delayed train back to London, and managing to annoy several already stroppy fellow travellers by lingering rather too long over a single mug of tea just so I could use the free wifi. I’ve rapidly become the sort of free loading, one drink coffee shop malingerer that no one likes.

On average last season I reckon I was spending around ten hours a week working on FC United related stuff, doing my best to juggle that workload around a full-time job. Yet that pales at the side of the staggering workload of the communication team’s lead who regularly spent more than twenty hours a week volunteering for FC last season. An incredible level of commitment on top of a full-time job. It’s been bloody hard work at times hitting some ambitious deadlines but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. There’s something lovely about still being able to help out the club, doing something you love on a regular basis, despite living more than two hundred miles away. In most cases the articles and the board reports have been well received but inevitably there have been a few grumblings. Ironically the only personal abuse has come from those bemoaning the loss of volunteers in other areas of the club over the last two years.

Whilst it’s true that the number of match day volunteers has dwindled in recent seasons (for various reasons) in other areas of the club the level of commitment displayed by volunteers is arguably at its highest level in the club’s history. A recently formed IT advisory group, a collection of IT literate supporters established to assist the club on techy issues, joins other long established volunteer-run groups advising the club on financial and governance issues. Meanwhile over the summer some supporters have once again been busy assisting with building works and general maintenance around the ground. Work that is done purely out of love for the football club and costs the club nothing. And let’s not forget the board, volunteers themselves, who have collectively put an immense shift in to keep the club afloat over the last year.

In addition, the volunteer-run communications team alone comprises around forty to fifty people performing a vast range of tasks including reporting on matches, updating the website, producing the match programme, commentating on the match for the club’s television or radio stations, writing board reports, updating social media or dealing with press and media enquiries. It’s been a privilege to be a part of that team over the last year and a quarter and, on a personal level, it’s been wonderful at a time when almost everything seems to have a price tag attached to it and people moan about others getting “something for nothing” to turn the world on its head and do something, not because it’ll look good on your cv or earn you a few quid, but simply for the love of it. Anyway, I’m off out for a new notepad, this new football season won’t write itself….

STP me if you think you’ve heard this one before

images-15There’s a fair chance that, whatever you’re up to, if you’re incurring the people hating wrath of the likes of Jeremy Clarkson or the Daily Mail then, quite frankly, you must be doing something right. So after going on strike to protect our “gold plated” NHS pensions in the autumn of 2011 to return home after a day on the picket line to hear Clarkson spitting feathers on The One Show claiming that he would have the strikers taken out and “shot in front of their families” was music to my ears.

Back at work the following day our hospital’s finance director expressed some admiration for the strikers for standing up for what we believed in but her bleak assessment was that there was “no alternative” for the NHS and the rest of the public sector other than to face up to the reality of years of cost cutting (dressed up in management speak as “efficiency savings”) following the financial crisis of 2008. It was a view that was widespread at the time, and still is, amongst NHS bigwigs. A view that we must pay the price for bailing out the banks by shrinking our public services; it’s considered the “the right thing to do” in the circumstances.

The 2011 strike was the first national walk out by NHS staff since the ambulance dispute of the late eighties (when then Health Secretary Ken Clarke infamously labelled ambulance workers as little more than “professional drivers”) and for many NHS workers it was about much more than simply protecting our pensions; it was a protest too against the wider destruction of the NHS about to be unleashed by the Health and Social Care legislation that was, at that point, trundling through parliament. We’d had enough of the relentless “private sector good, public sector bad” market-based twaddle that had infused health policy for more than two decades – it was time to stand up and be counted. And, as we stood with our placards on the picket line in front of the hospital on that November day the tooting of horns of passing cars, lorries and buses and supportive comments from patients and members of the public told us that we weren’t alone in our view that enough was enough.

NHS workers strike in London over pay increase disputeThe slimming down of the NHS over the half dozen years since that day has inevitably meant that the quality of care that patients receive has suffered. You can see it 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 (the government’s pretence that the funding of healthcare has somehow been “ring-fenced” whilst simultaneously plundering local authority social care budgets is surely one of the biggest political con tricks of our time). And it’s visible 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. The Red Cross, not given to hyperbole, has spoken of a “humanitarian crisis”.

The roots of the current obsession with cost cutting and running hospitals as businesses can be traced back to the early nineties when the Tories began the process of carving up the NHS into purchasers and providers of healthcare; a system referred to as an “internal market” and a precursor 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.

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 around £10 billion a year to run (to pay for an assortment of accountants, data analysts, contract negotiators, management consultants, legal advisors, computer software etc) 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 various NHS finance departments for over twenty five years I’m at a loss to point to a single benefit that this market system has brought to patient care.

And now along come the so-called Sustainability and Transformation Plans 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 cost cutting that sold us the lie that the dire economic situation following the global financial crisis of 2008 somehow presented the NHS with an “opportunity” to simultaneously strip £20 billion out of its budget and improve the quality of patient care. That this “challenge” was inflicted on the NHS at the same time as a major reorganisation of services following the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 simply rubbed our noses in the dirt.

These STPs are based on work that has been going on across the country for several years now looking at “reconfiguring” health services and 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 that are, in turn, fed to a public too busy fiddling with our phones to be unduly concerned about the potential closure of our local Accident & Emergency department. Or so they think.

This ideological assault on the NHS has brought us to a 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.

But 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. This means that 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.

imagesThis 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 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 we are too ill or too frail to go 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.

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 bears comparison with any other healthcare system in the world. In fact, it does more than that, it’s the top of the pile according to a 2014 study by the Commonwealth Fund that compared different health systems around the world.

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 living daylights out of 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 NHS worker, as some sort of extremist.

As well as committing to properly fund the NHS Labour’s recent “radical” election manifesto also promised to reverse the privatisation of the NHS and return it into public control; thus signifying the rejection of more than two decades of the NHS snuggling up to big business. At last, in Jeremy Corbyn, we have a political leader prepared to take on the might of the huge multinational companies who are itching to grab a slice of the billions spent annually on the NHS. It’s wonderful to see and provides a glimmer of hope that the NHS can survive the ideological onslaught that has been waged on it for more than two decades.

The NHS is something that we, as a nation, should be immensely proud of and provides proof that putting people before profit can work. Established in the aftermath of war and when the country was on its knees financially, it remains one of our greatest achievements and “an example of real socialism” as its founder Nye Bevan declared. In a world where almost everything comes at a price to know that if we fall ill or have an accident that there will be trained people who will treat us with kindness and compassion, look after us and nurse us back to full health regardless of our social and economic status and without checking our wallets is something very special indeed. That we should celebrate the 5th July, each and every year, as national NHS Day feels like, to coin a phrase, “the right thing to do”.

#MakeJuly5NHSDay

As thick as mince


In the basement of a central London bookshop the London Festival of Football Writing took place a couple of weeks ago and I bussed it across town one evening and joined an audience of about fifty nodding sagely and slurping on six quid craft beers whilst listening to a discussion on football, community and, erm, working class culture. Manchester’s staged a similar literary football event for a few years now but this was the first one in the capital. Where Manchester leads, London follows.

Much of the discussion centred on the historian Anthony Clavane’s recent book “A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse” in which he argues that as Thatcherism ripped the heart out of the industrial north and economic power has migrated south over the last thirty odd years so footballing and sporting power has shifted with it leaving Yorkshire and the rest of the north feeding off scraps. I won’t bore you with the details of what was, on the whole, a thoroughly bleak discussion except to say that it quickly lapsed into that familiar territory of portraying working class folk as principally the victims of events beyond our control. The “things are shite and they always will be” view of the world. We need to suck it up.

When the mood brightened a little and someone in the audience suggested that supporter ownership of football clubs is a means of reclaiming football for the working class one of the participants in the discussion, football journalist Rory Smith, was quick to note how things at FC United, once the poster boys and girls of the supporter ownership movement, had all gone “a bit political” recently. A reference, no doubt, to the off-pitch troubles that have affected the club since it moved into its own ground two years ago. To be fair, he probably reasoned that there’s unlikely to be anyone in a London bookshop that has the foggiest what’s been going on at FC in recent months but nevertheless it was the type of glib, dismissive comment that typifies the view of many journalists and media commentators towards those members of the working class who actually get off their arses and try and change things (football or wider society) for the better. What, the FC United supporters actually wanted to run their own football club? A membership card and a flag with some Stone Roses lyrics on it wasn’t enough for them? They wanted real power?

Of course, as we own our own football club we were able to prevent a discredited leader and his freeloading mates from driving the club into oblivion. It’s one of the beauties of true supporter ownership. Membership is more than a laminated card. Twelve months ago we were able to elect a new board that has done much to turn the club’s fortunes round. We’re not out of the woods yet by any means but things are looking up and it feels once again like “our” football club, a collective effort. It’s an intriguing and ultimately uplifting story that ought to be worth telling by any journalist prepared to do a bit of digging. David Conn anyone?

But as is often the case when working class people change things for the better rather than submissively accepting their fate it tends to be sneered at by those who prefer the image of the plucky underdog, gamely trying to change things but ultimately doomed to failure rather than those striving to change the world around them and actually succeeding against the odds. The current general election campaign is full of this condescension.

Look at the abuse hurled at Diane Abbott simply for getting some numbers wrong in a radio interview. The subtext: how dare this opinionated black woman want to hold office in a future government. Think of how difficult it must have been for Diane Abbott to get where she is, the amount of racist and sexist shit that she’s had to put up with down the years. And compare that to Mrs Strong & Stable who, by comparison has had pretty much everything, including the Tory party leadership, handed to her on a plate. Look too at the coverage of others in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow team. Take Angela Rayner, for instance, a Manchester MP and the youngest ever shadow education secretary. What could someone who left school as a pregnant teenager with no qualifications after being raised on a council estate by a mother who couldn’t even read or write possibly know about education? Someone replying to one of her recent tweets described her “as thick as mince”.

Or what does Salfordian Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, who grew up with an alcoholic dad know about the health service? Probably not much given that he went to school in the Bury without the St Edmund’s bit at the end. Or what about John McDonnell who left school at seventeen and proceeded to have a series of dead end jobs before finally studying for his A Levels at night school. Future Chancellor of the Exchequer? What would someone who’s had to struggle for a living possibly know about managing the nation’s finances?

I’ve been genuinely excited by Labour’s general election campaign but, at the same time, as that Tory lead in the polls narrows I’m trying to resist the temptation to go full on 1992 “we’re gonna win the league” about it all. That’d be daft because you just know that by 10.01pm on Thursday night we could very well all be sad faced emoji again. But whatever happens on Thursday there’s no doubt that it has been a remarkable campaign by Labour and wonderful to see Jeremy Corbyn grow into it. Far from being the weak link that many thought (and hoped) he seems to be relishing the opportunity to make the case, unfiltered by the Tory supporting media, for the most progressive election manifesto for more than thirty years. Win or lose, the debate has shifted to the left and after years of having neoliberal economics rammed down our throats and being told that there is no alternative to rampant capitalism at last we have politicians making the case for a society rooted in fairness and social justice and above all one that offers people hope. Things are looking up again and for that we owe a lot to Corbyn.

But for me this Labour campaign has been much more than a one man show. Whilst the Blairite plotters and slimeball careerists have slithered into the background desperate to preserve their precious careers and remain untarnished by any association with a left wing loser like Corbyn it’s given others a chance to emerge, blinking, into the spotlight. And how well this supposed B team has performed; it’s been wonderful to see the likes of Angela Rayner, Jon Ashworth and Rebecca Long-Bailey (to name but a few) step up to the plate. People who know what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet and who have had to graft to get where they are. What a refreshing change to see politicians from working class backgrounds making the case for putting people rather than profit at the heart of government policy. Wouldn’t it be great too if those journalists who prattle on about money trees and view the fully costed spending commitments in Labour’s manifesto as marking a return to the seventies did so objectively rather than as part of the 5% of people who would pay more tax under a Labour government. Where are the genuine working class voices in our mainstream media?

Listen to Angela Rayner talking about the Labour plans for a national education service free at the point of access and tell me that you’re not welling up with pride at what this country can achieve when it puts its mind to it. The media, seemingly more interested in nuclear bombs and Hamas and the IRA, have laughably framed Labour’s plans for education as a cynical attempt to buy the youth vote by abolishing student loans and replacing them with grants. But that’s as wide of the target as a John Terry penalty; there’s so much more to these plans than simply university education, in fact they almost deserve a television debate of their own. When Rayner talks passionately about pre-school education and adult education you know she’s speaking from the heart and from personal experience. Compared to the focus grouped policies beloved of the career politicians scared to death to upset the curtain twitchers of Hemel Hempstead and Harpenden it’s a breath of fresh air and light years away from the present government’s slashing of school budgets – something that offers hope to millions of children and adults for whom getting a decent education can be tough.

The Theresa May mantra of “strong and stable” leadership repeated like a stuck record throughout this utterly joyless Tory election campaign is a direct appeal to the “not for the likes of us” tendency that would prefer working class people to leave the big decisions in life to their supposed better qualified social superiors. Carry on gawping at that fifty six inch idiot lantern in your living room and keep on getting pissed and talking shite about football and reality television and leave the important stuff to us hey. Well balls to that. We might struggle to match the towering intellect of the likes of Theresa and Boris and Amber but, hey, when we put our collective minds to it we’re capable of truly wonderful, life enhancing achievements as well. The NHS is one. The safety net of the welfare state is another. And the national education service could be a wonderful addition too. And a football club wholly owned and run by its supporters that, despite troubles of its own, reaches out to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in its community plays its part too. FCUM. The Labour Party. There’s life left in us yet you know.

Vote Labour.

We’ll carry on through it all

LONG READ: As the 2016-17 football season draws to a close here’s a review of the last twelve months in the life of FC United of Manchester. It’s undoubtedly been a tough year on and off the pitch but, through it all, there has been much to celebrate and be proud of. 

 

As Tony Walsh’s stirring ode to Manchester, “This Is The Place”, boomed out across Albert Square at the vigil to remember those children, young people, parents and others killed at a pop concert at the Manchester Arena, the words may well have resonated, on several levels, with FC United supporters. That Mancunian spirit of defiance in the face of adversity and the desire to do our own thing, to be creative, to make things better is part of this football club’s DNA. At times like this football appears trivial set aside the heartbreaking loss of young lives destroyed simply because they went to a pop concert but there is much more to this football club than kicking a ball around a patch of grass.

A few days before Tony Walsh’s appearance in front of the Manchester Town Hall was beamed across the world, he had entertained more than three hundred supporters at FC United’s fundraising Gala Dinner at the Midland Hotel, earning a rapturous ovation for his wonderful poetry. And a week before that he’d also done a turn at our Supporters’ Dinner at Broadhurst Park. Two gigs for FC United in eight days. Not to mention an appearance at Course You Can Malcolm at Gigg Lane many moons ago. This is a fella that clearly “gets” what we are about and after the recent Gala Dinner Tony expressed his pride at being invited along and the “huge respect” that he has for what this football club is achieving on and off the pitch. And he’s right, because despite all our well-documented difficulties over the last year there has still been much to be proud of and to celebrate. Sometimes it takes someone else to remind us of that.

On the pitch, to those observing the club from a distance, it might appear to have been a fairly dull season at FC United. Our second campaign in National League North ended with us in thirteenth place, exactly the same position as last year, this time with a total of 54 points, a mere one point more than we garnered in 2015-16. Indeed the rhythm of the season was similar to the previous one with a sluggish start followed by a brief flirtation with the relegation zone in the new year before a decent run of results to pull ourselves into the safety of mid-table by the end of March. But given that this season’s league campaign has undoubtedly been a tougher one with the likes of Kidderminster Harriers, Salford City, FC Halifax Town and Darlington thrown into the mix it’s no mean feat to finish in mid-table again. Most of us would probably have settled for that at the start of the season even if, at times, the football has lacked some of the attacking urgency of old.

Off the pitch though it’s been a year of huge change for the club, a year of growing up and of finally getting to grips with the reality of not only owning a football club but a multi-million pound facility too. Yet although it’s been bloody hard work there has been much to celebrate which may come as a surprise for outside observers for whom Danny Taylor’s piece on disharmony at the club in the Guardian over a year ago or that headline on the BBC’s website last November about our financial troubles (“protest club may apply for overdraft”) might have been the last thing they read about FC.

But through it all the club has continued to cement its place as a Mancunian organisation that offers a helping hand to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our community; like offering a refuge for the homeless at Christmas, supplying breakfast for kids and families that might otherwise struggle to get a decent one, offering companionship for often socially isolated older people, contributing to collections for refugees and recognising the power of football to help victims of torture who choose to make Manchester their home. A football club to be truly proud of.

So even if there’s an understandable temptation to sigh “who cares about football at a time like this” let’s make a brew, grab a biscuit or two and allow ourselves a few minutes to reflect on some of the highlights of the last twelve months.

Now we’re at the wheel….

In times of strife it’s tempting to look for turning points, a six-two-at-Arsenal-in-1990 moment when the future begins to take on a brighter hue. The reconvened General Meeting in May of last year may well come to be seen as a watershed moment in FC United’s history as around four hundred members gathered on a sunny Sunday in Prestwich. We could easily have hit the deck that day and not got back up but instead we summoned that DIY punk spirit that got the club off the ground within a matter of weeks in 2005.

At the end of an often acrimonious twelve months which had seen the resignation of the club’s longstanding Chief Executive and seven Board members, the debate was lively but as the details of more than thirty motions were discussed and voted on, over the course of four hours, the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get things back on track was clear for all to see. A record turnout of more than eight hundred co-owners voted on these motions – perhaps not trumpet blowing territory but there are plenty of football clubs at this level that would love to have that many supporters attending matches let alone engaged in the running of the club.

And this participatory zeal was demonstrated again in June when a record nineteen candidates stood for election to fill the eleven board vacancies at an Extraordinary General Meeting. Of the eleven subsequently elected only two had previous experience of being on FC’s board. They deserve our thanks for having the balls to stand up and be counted in the club’s darkest hour and thanks too for grafting to keep the club afloat over the next few months, for much of this time without key members of staff in place to take care of day to day issues.

The new board met for the first time in July and quickly got down to business, signalling their intention to operate with greater openness and transparency than in the past and there were welcome apologies to several individuals wronged by the previous board. Another of the new board’s first actions was to announce a friendly match against Rochdale at the end of July that was used to 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. The Friday night before the Rochdale match also saw the return of the much missed Course You Can Malcolm club night in the afternoon (but this time not in the afternoon) for the first time since 2014. Another refreshing attempt by the club to heal the rifts that had developed in the club’s support and to move forward as a united body of supporters.

Despite our off-pitch travails the often innovative community work that is woven into the fabric of the club continued throughout the summer in the form of breakfast clubs and youth projects during the school holidays. In addition, the club was the only organisation in Manchester to participate in a national charity-run event to distribute breakfast cereals to community groups, food banks and local residents who might otherwise not get a decent breakfast. The cereal was distributed from a huge container in the car park at Broadhurst Park.

The car park was also the setting in July for Jimmy Cauty’s unusual artwork, the Aftermath Dislocation Principle, which attracted considerable interest. Slightly older readers may recall Jimmy’s role in the acid house scene of the late eighties as part of the KLF. The artwork depicted a model village in a post-riot landscape and was set in a 40 foot shipping container and toured the UK visiting places where “significant civil unrest” had occurred in the past. Civil unrest? Us? Given the radical history of this city the fact that FC United was the only place in Manchester it was displayed also represented something of a coup for the club.

And continuing on the arty theme, a theatre production of the FC United story called “Conceived in a Curry House” and featuring FC supporters and local residents played at the Lowry Theatre, another example of our thriving, longstanding relationship with local theatre group Moston Active Drama.

Doesn’t matter if it’s far or to Broadhurst Park….

Despite all the drama and comings and goings off the pitch, remarkably most of the first team squad had remained intact over the summer and the squad was strengthened with a sprinkling of mainly youthful new signings. The season kicked off with draws against Chorley and Telford but the highlight of the opening weeks was a well deserved Friday night 2-0 win against Stockport County with one of the new signings, Nathan Lowe, sealing the victory only moments after coming on as a late substitute. The first of several important, often spectacular, goals that he would go on to score as the season progressed. The win put FC into the dizzy heights of second place in the table for a few hours at least.

The home match against Darlington on August bank holiday Monday saw the club working with the charity Sporting Memories for the first time. The Sporting Memories Foundation supports older people across the UK living with dementia, depression and loneliness helping them to recall fond memories of watching or playing sport and to connect with others and with their past. Following the match a Sporting Memories group was established and met in the classroom at Broadhurst Park on Friday afternoons throughout the season, proving to be a very popular new strand of the club’s community programme.

Boston three party

The vacant Chief Executive Officer role attracted considerable interest, reflecting the club’s wide appeal, and in the first week of September the board announced the appointment of Damian Chadwick (no relation to FC’s former “nutter in the middle”) as the club’s new CEO. A founder member of FC United, Damian was the Venue Controller at the Macron Stadium, the home of Bolton Wanderers, and was responsible for managing the year round operation of the stadium and the adjacent Bolton Arena. Quite a coup for the club to find someone of this calibre from within our own ranks to step into the Chief Executive role. A reminder, once again, that it is not merely a cliché to note that our very own members are our greatest asset.

The following day FC United recorded their first away win of the season defeating Boston 3-2 at York Street. But that was to be our only league win in September as losses at Harrogate and at home to eventual champions Fylde were followed by draws with Tamworth and Curzon Ashton. However the season’s FA Cup campaign got off to a flyer as the Reds banged in seven goals on a sunny afternoon at Ossett Town.

Panda-monium

Unfortunately another revenue boosting FA Cup run wasn’t to be as, on the opening day of October, with the Reds only seconds away from being in the hat for the draw for the fourth and final qualifying round Harrogate Town snatched a 95th minute equaliser to draw 3-3 and subsequently ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in the replay the following Tuesday night.

The following Saturday saw the long awaited and welcome return of a matchday Course You Can Malcolm to the right end of the tram tracks with poetry, pandas, spaghetti western garage rock and an appearance by lifelong Red and telly presenter and writer Terry Christian. All of this was played out in front of a packed two-thirds of the Main Stand bar before FC United beat Alfreton Town in a topsy turvy seven goal thriller.

The trip to AFC Telford United the following week wasn’t quite as lively as FC once again failed to beat our Salopian bogeymen, losing to a single goal. But all of that was forgotten a week later when FC roared on by a raucous travelling Red Army took all three points back up the M6 after a remarkable, backs to the wall 2-0 win away at promotion chasing Kidderminster Harriers. However, a midweek 3-1 defeat at Halifax Town and a 4-2 mauling at home to the Tigers of Gloucester City had us peering nervously, once again, at the relegation zone.

The Gloucester match took place on People United Day, FC’s annual celebration of the diversity of our local community and, once again, it was a wonderfully heartwarming occasion that featured a special friendly match, after the Gloucester match, on the 3G pitch adjacent to the ground, between a team from United Glasgow FC, comprised largely of refugees and a team from the Freedom from Torture charity. It was refereed by Karl Marginson and watched by a decent crowd.

Freedom from Torture provide clinical support for victims of torture who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers having endured the kind of pain and suffering that the rest of us can probably barely imagine. One of the many strands of FC United’s community work involves a group from Freedom from Torture attending weekly football sessions at Broadhurst Park. A return match in Glasgow is planned as part of Refugee Week in June and it is hoped that these friendly matches will become regular fixtures in the calendar. People United Day with its celebration of diversity and clear anti-discriminatory message proved, once again, that it is as much to do with what this football club is about as winning trophies and snaffling occasional late winners.

Our flag stays red

November didn’t spawn a monster but a 3-2 defeat at home to struggling Bradford Park Avenue wasn’t exactly the prettiest way to start the month as we slipped into a not-too-comfy 17th place in the league. But the following Monday the club was boosted by Damian Chadwick joining the club as our new Chief Executive having been itching to get started following his appointment in August. The club was also pleased to announce the signing of a three year deal with Manchester brewer Joseph Holt’s that means they will be the club’s all important brewery supplier for the next three years. Quite a commitment given how much beer our support typically puts away.

The mood was brightened further by FC’s youth team making their first ever appearance in the first round proper of the FA Youth Cup against Carlisle United at Broadhurst Park. The FC youth had already played four games to make it this far in the competition with wins over Curzon Ashton, Ashton Town, Gateshead and Nostell Miners Welfare in the qualifying rounds, scoring three or more goals on each occasion. The young Reds, captained by Sam Baird, gave a good account of themselves in front of a crowd of 342 but their Cumbrian opponents notched two second half goals to win 2-0. Nevertheless there was much to be proud of and the success of the youth team not only in their cup run but also in the likes of Sam Baird and Mike Jones making the step up to the first team. And FC’s Academy has had a fine year too with praise from many for the quality of the teaching and reflected in the fact that, in contrast to last season, no students have dropped out during this academic year.

The Reds, backed by a large away following, secured a much needed win at Stalybridge Celtic in mid-November with Jason Gilchrist bagging a brace and Kieran Glynn also netting in a 4-2 win that saw young Sam Baird stepping up to make his debut in central defence and impressing with his composure against an experienced Stalybridge forward line. The wonderful station Buffet Bar (we’ll miss it next season) was packed to the rafters before and after the match with several old faces returning and a certain song to the tune of the Stone Roses’ Waterfall getting an airing for the very first time. The win at Stalybridge was the first of three consecutive wins in the league and an unbeaten run that lasted into the new year. Although this was tempered a little by another early exit from the FA Trophy with the Reds crashing out 5-1 at home to Nuneaton.

Meanwhile off the pitch a statement issued by the board on the last Friday of November outlined in stark terms the perilous financial position of the club barely half way through only the second season in its own ground. It highlighted under-performing non-match day revenue, an “unrealistic” business plan, a staffing structure that was simply “not fit for purpose” and a lack of basic financial controls, HR processes and contracts for just about anything; mismanagement and incompetence on a scale that very nearly drove the club into oblivion. In addition things weren’t helped by having to function without a Chief Executive or Club Secretary for a significant chunk of 2016.

Of course, we are far from alone in experiencing financial problems. In our own league, AFC Telford United decided that they could no longer compete with the likes of Fylde and Salford City as a supporter owned football club and voted to seek outside investment; fan ownership viewed as a weakness rather than a strength as it was higher up the football food chain at Portsmouth where the Pompey Supporters’ Trust voted in favour of selling the club to the former chief executive of Walt Disney. And as the season ended Worcester City announced that they would be voluntarily dropping three levels down the non-league pyramid following their relegation from the National League North pointing to “excessive costs” as the chief reason for this drastic action. No surprise then that some FC supporters have questioned whether we too can continue to compete effectively at this level of football and keep our founding principles and commitment to affordable football intact.

The response to the board statement was typically heartening with supporters digging deep once more with many fans taking advantage of Red Friday special offers on merchandise at the online club shop or renewing or increasing regular contributions to the Development Fund (which by the end of the season had raised over £110,000). Match sponsorship received a welcome boost too with the likes of the Giddys (a group of younger supporters usually to be found waving flags at the front of the SMRE), the Red Issue Sanctuary, Reporter from the The Soul Is One forum, the Rainbow Firm and the Secret Mustard Society of Rugby sponsoring matches which meant in the second half of the season almost all home matches were fully sponsored (match, ball and programme), a marked improvement on the previous season. This spirit of defiance was also typified by Karl Marginson donating the fee that he received for his punditry during the television coverage of Curzon Ashton’s FA Cup first round clash with AFC Wimbledon. And Crystal Vehicle Hire very generously offered to sponsor all players who up until that point of the season had not attracted sponsorship.

Giving something back

The home match against Boston in mid-December saw another barrage of benevolence as both the match ball and programme sponsors gave away their spoils to good causes a trend started earlier in the season by the mysterious Redeye who sponsored the match ball and programme for the Fylde match in September and then donated the benefits to a couple of the organisations with which FC United work as part of our community programme.

A wonderful new initiative saw the club open its doors from 7am on Christmas Day morning for homeless people to get a cooked breakfast, a shower and enjoy some of the festive comforts that most of us tend to take for granted. In addition there was a dentist, a hairdresser and nurses on hand to provide medical advice and the club was overwhelmed with donations of food. A minibus driven by an FC United supporter was able to transport more than forty homeless people from the city centre to Broadhurst Park . The FC United volunteers included fans, players and manager Karl Marginson explained that it was all about the club “giving something back to people who are less fortunate than ourselves”. The day was a tremendous success and attracted plenty of media interest with BBC Radio Manchester broadcasting live from the ground on Christmas morning and the Manchester Evening News running a piece. It’s hoped that this will be the first of many such initiatives.

The idea for the Christmas Day initiative stemmed from FC’s annual Big Coat Day collection of warm clothing for homeless people, the longest running part of our extensive community programme. This season’s Big Coat Day took place on New Year’s Day when FC were at home to Altrincham. The day was, once again, very successful with more than six tonnes of warm clothing and footwear collected, even more than last year’s record breaking collection. In total five charities were able to benefit from the collection including our regular partners Lifeshare which works mainly with young homeless people. St Paul’s, a charity based close to Salford Shopping Centre that offers meals, emergency shelter and clothing to homeless people described this season’s Big Coat Day collection as “magnificent”.

In a similar vein, FC also staged its very first Toy Story event in December, working with the Frost Foundation to collect toys and games to distribute to families and young people in need over the Christmas period; anything from cuddly toys, Lego and dolls to jigsaws, games, educational toys, train sets or remote control diggers. Toy Story took place at the home match on 17th December and was also a big success. Each Christmas we celebrate FC United still being here and Toy Story was all about us bringing some festive joy into the lives of others and helping some local children and families who might otherwise struggle at this time of year.

We are those lions

The year closed with a group of local supporters known as the Moston Knuckle Draggers helping to cover the pitch to ensure that the New Year’s Day local derby with Altrincham was able to go ahead. The pitch covering worked but despite an early Jason Gilchrist goal FC were unable to beat the bottom of the table team drawing 1-1. The following weekend FC’s unbeaten league run came to an end in front of 2,821 spectators at AFC Fylde’s new Mill Farm ground, with a 3-1 defeat to the league leaders, a scoreline that flattered the high flying Coasters, as the Reds went toe to toe with the full time professionals and could easily have scored four or five. It was perhaps one of our best performances of the season.

The Main Stand Bar was busy again as the latest edition of Course You Can Malcolm took place before the home match with Salford City on the last Saturday of January. In a slot called Rubbing it Red some supporters spoke passionately about their involvement in the club and its future, embracing the spirit of participatory democracy that had swept through the club in recent months. Where once we’d have been content to let the board and Chief Executive get on with things supporters were now collectively, via a progressive new board, taking charge of the club’s destiny.

Pam and Sarah from the Hummingbird Project, a High Peak based grassroots organisation set up in 2015 to help refugees, made a welcome return to Malcolmses collecting donations of underwear, socks, hygiene items and cash for refugees surviving the winter months in Europe and Syria. They described themselves as being “bowled over” by FC the last time they visited CYCM in July and were back for more. The admiration is mutual.

This was all topped off with a storming set by the young Mancunian band Cabbage, about to start a UK tour, who had the room bouncing with their brand of politically charged post-punk. They clearly enjoyed the occasion as much as the audience if a social media post after the gig by one of the band’s members is anything to go by; “playing at FC United this weekend has galvanised inspiration in me richer than the thousands of records I’ve sat in awe at in my bedroom growing up”.

Similarly the bar under the St Mary’s Road End was also rocking both before the match and at half-time. A bumper crowd of 4,158 packed into Broadhurst Park for the visit of Salford, the highest attendance for a league game since moving to Moston and the fifth highest in the club’s history.

Although things on the pitch didn’t quite work out as the vast majority of the crowd would have liked (Salford City won 3-0) it nevertheless felt like some of the intoxicating joi de vivre of the early days of FC United was back, particularly in the second half, as a cacophony of old and new songs filled the air including an ace new one to the tune of the Stone Roses’ Waterfall…”we’ll carry on through it all, playing punk football”. Dissecting business plans and debating the finer points of the club’s electoral policy is, of course, important but sometimes you just want to go to the match and enjoy yourself. At the Salford match it felt like some of the fun had returned to FC and if you wanted evidence that there are folk left with the faith to fight for FC United then here it was in spades; board members, staff, volunteers, supporters and players united as one.

As a lovely footnote to all the positivity and togetherness in evidence at the Salford match it was great to see Cabbage and the Hummingbirds buzzing off each other too. So much so that the Hummingbirds were invited by Cabbage to go along to their subsequent Manchester gigs at the Gorilla club and the Academy and collect for refugees. Isn’t that lovely? Some would call it “networking” but more simply it’s about people being brought together through a shared love. Love of a football club, of Manchester, of music and of our fellow human beings regardless of which side of arbitrary borders they are born on.

The tills are alive

The following Saturday it was all about Salzburg not Salford as with no league match scheduled for the first weekend in February FC invited fellow supporter owned club SV Austria Salzburg for an international friendly match at Broadhurst Park. The Violetten have much in common with FC United with the club having been formed in 2005 following a hostile takeover of their club by the Red Bull energy drink brand and continue to swim against the tide of rampant commercialisation of the game that we love. Like FC they recognise that football is about more than football and that it has a role to play in wider society in promoting social engagement and integration.

The occasion was a tremendous advert for supporter owned football and the tills were alive as a pre-match Course You Can Malcolm and beer festival filled the Main Stand Bar again. On the pitch FC ran out comfortable 3-0 winners but the SV Austria Salzburg supporters brought plenty of noise and colour to the far end of the Main Stand with their non-stop singing, flag waving and bouncing around. The proceeds from the match were shared equally between the two clubs, a wonderful gesture of solidarity with a club that is also experiencing financial problems.

FC were only six points clear of the relegation zone following a 2-1 defeat at Stockport in front of a league record crowd of 5,630 supporters including nearly a thousand FC United fans. And when we were two goals down at half-time away at Gloucester City the following week it looked as if we were heading towards an inevitable relegation scrap. But the Reds staged a remarkable second half comeback, one of the highlights of the season, with two late goals, including a spectacular strike from Nathan Lowe who lobbed the keeper from inside his own half (file under “audacious”) to snatch a dramatic 3-2 win. The travelling support, in fine voice throughout, could barely believe what they had just seen and the ensuing goon was perhaps the finest of the season.

Ten pints of bitter please

This was the first of three consecutive league wins including a fine performance to beat promotion chasing Kidderminster Harriers 1-0 and another late Nathan Lowe screamer was enough to see off Tamworth. By mid-March the Reds had pulled themselves clear of the relegation scrap and sat in twelfth position. But the following week they looked to have taken the foot off the gas a little as they lost 2-1 away at a struggling Alfreton Town.

Off the pitch the home match with FC Halifax Town was preceded by another Course You Can Malcolm featuring something you don’t see too often at a football match, live competitive painting as three artists from Art Battle went easel to easel for half an hour in the Main Stand Bar to produce something on an FC theme with the audience then voting for their favourite painting. The winning effort by cartoonist Tony Husband, a name familiar to readers of Red Issue and Private Eye, was auctioned off and raised a few hundred pounds for the Development Fund.

As March drew to a close members voted, at an earlier than usual General Meeting, in favour of continuing with our pioneering “pay what you can afford” season tickets for next season with a minimum price of £100 for adults, £65 for concessions and £21 for juniors. The meeting had been brought forward by several weeks specifically so that the sale of season tickets for next season could commence as soon as possible thus providing a much needed boost to the club’s cash flow.

The suggested donation of £75 on top of each adult season ticket price represented an increase of £15 on this season’s suggested average donation of £60, a decision that was driven by the seriousness of the club’s financial situation. If there is one lesson that we must take from the events of the last year it is that moving forward FC United must be run responsibly, sustainably and professionally with a credible and robust financial plan.

The General Meeting also saw members voting in favour of the club introducing a limited number of three year season tickets at a price of £1,000 each with the tickets to be issued on a first come, first served basis and limited to a maximum of 200. The aim is to build a pot of up to £200k of working capital to strengthen the club’s underlying financial position and support a number of infrastructure projects that will allow us to reduce costs or generate additional income on match days or through community use. For example, the club currently spends over £8k per season on renting portable toilets but by having the capital to invest in building more toilets we will not only have better toilets but the savings generated will ensure that they pay for themselves in little over a year.

A touch of class

With the pressure off the rest of the league programme was fairly unremarkable until the Reds roused themselves for the final two league games. Indeed, the penultimate match on a sunny afternoon at Nuneaton was perhaps one of the highlights of the season with the Reds attacking with an urgency not seen for several weeks and winning 4-1 in front of a travelling support intent on having an end of season party and who never stopped singing throughout. The sight of a group of younger Nuneaton fans buzzing off the atmosphere and coming over to join us on the terraces to join in the singing will live in the memory for quite some time. Making friends and all that.

Off the pitch a brand new pre-match event “If the Reds Should Play” took place before the Brackley match and was all about bringing supporters together to celebrate and share stories of the days when we used to go down to Old Trafford to watch a team in red and partly a nod to the wonderful success of the club’s Sporting Memories Group that meets every Friday afternoon at Broadhurst Park. The first “If the Reds Should Play” was all about the trip to rainy Rotterdam in 1991 for the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final with former Red Clayton Blackmore entertaining us with his memories of that match and what it was like to be playing for United at the time. Oh and he might have mentioned that free kick at Montpellier too. The perma-tanned utility player seemed to enjoy the event as much as the rest of us packed into the Main Bar as he posed for pictures with supporters afterwards.

There was more good news off the pitch in April as the club’s bid for Power To Change funding to develop the space under the St Mary’s Road End of the ground was approved. The hope is that this work will take place over the summer thus allowing the popular bar under the SMRE to continue to open next season.

On the final day of the league season more than four thousand supporters packed into Broadhurst Park to see FC finish the season on a high note with a 5-1 thrashing of Gainsborough Trinity, the Reds biggest league win of the season. An initiative to give 1,700 free tickets away to residents living in the M40 and M9 postcode areas and local schools and community groups proved to be very popular and hopefully they’ll be back for more next season. George Thomson picked up both of the club’s Player of the Season awards and celebrated with a spectacular second half goal from outside the box.

It was great to see youngsters from Moston Juniors FC on the pitch at Broadhurst Park once again and as the season closed FC announced a new arrangement with Moston Juniors that will see players aged 16 to 21 from both clubs form a team called Moston United FC that will compete in the Lancashire and Cheshire League next season. An exciting initiative that offers, for the first time, a potential route for five to six year old players playing for Moston Juniors to ultimately make it through to the FC United first team and is a reflection of our flourishing partnership with the junior club.

The Gainsborough match also saw Lewis Unwin presented with the inaugural Nobby Stiles Shield as FC United’s Academy Student of the Year. The award had been renamed in honour of the Mancunian footballing legend and in recognition of our own deeply founded Manchester United roots. Unfortunately Nobby’s decline in health meant that he was unable to attend the match but members of his family, including his son Robert, were at Broadhurst Park to present the shield to Lewis before the match.

It’s particularly fitting that Nobby’s name should be linked to youth football at FC as he was youth team coach at Manchester United in the early nineties playing a key role in the development of the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Butt, Scholes and the Nevilles. After the match Robert Stiles contacted the club to thank everyone on behalf of his family and described the occasion as a “fantastic day” and remarked that the club “did everything with a touch of class”. “I know my dad would have been very proud and honoured to have his name associated with the award and with such a good club” he added. In a season when we’ve buzzed off performances by young players like Kieran Glynn, Nathan Lowe, Jason Gilchrist and Sam Baird it was a fitting way to close the league season.

She wore a scarlet ribbon

And it was another of those young players, full back Jake Williams, who scored the winner in the Manchester Premier Cup Final a few days later, in the first week of the merry month of May, as FC beat Stalybridge Celtic 1-0 at Oldham’s Boundary Park to win the competition for the first time and our first cup since 2008. The scenes at the end were fantastic as captain Jerome Wright celebrated his 400th appearance for the club by lifting the trophy and then taking it to the fans at the front of the stand as players and supporters celebrated as one.

In a nice touch by the board and Chief Executive eight members of staff and volunteers were invited to make up the club’s official party at the final in recognition of the hard work and dedication of all our staff and volunteers. Without the efforts of our wonderful volunteers it’s no exaggeration to say that there would be no FC United of Manchester. Whether they’re manning the turnstiles, pulling pints, dishing up tater hash, selling programmes or Pound For The Ground draw tickets, marshalling traffic, keeping the website up to date, commentating on the match for the radio or television, organising regular matchday events like Course You Can Malcolm or fundraising events such as the popular Punkertainment quiz nights, writing board reports or counting cash the club’s dozens of volunteers do us proud and represent everything that is ace about supporter ownership.

The men’s Manchester Cup triumph followed hot on the heels of FC’s women’s team winning the Manchester FA Women’s Challenge Cup on the preceding Friday night. Jade Parker scored a hat trick as the women produced a brilliant all round team performance to beat City of Manchester Ladies 5-1 in front of a tremendous crowd of 208 at the home of West Didsbury and Chorlton FC. And days later the women’s team made it a cup double following an epic 6-4 win over Bury Ladies in the Argyle Cup final. In the league the women’s team finished in second position five points behind champions Merseyrail Bootle; a tremendous season all round for the women under new manager Luke Podmore. Francesca Davies of the women’s team will join up with an FC United squad, captained by Jerome Wright, that will take part in an indoor football tournament in Lille in June.

The season closed with two big fundraising events for the Development Fund. First up was a Supporters’ Dinner at Broadhurst Park where around a hundred supporters enjoyed a cracking evening of entertainment provided by the comedian Sam Harland, performance poet Tony Walsh (aka Longfella), our own DJ Pace and special guest former United player Norman Whiteside. Norman was full of admiration for what the club has achieved and was blown away by the warmth of the welcome he received. His scouse busting conquests of old clearly haven’t been forgotten.

And a week later the club’s third ever Gala Dinner at the Midland Hotel in town was also a memorable evening with over three hundred people, a tremendous turnout, enjoying a three course meal and a feast of entertainment including Terry Christian, Tony Walsh, the legendary Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam and three blasts from our Manchester United past in the form of ex-manager Tommy Docherty and former players Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy.

Of course, there’s still much to do to establish a stable financial footing for the club but after a year that has tested our resolve to its limit let’s at least allow ourselves a collective smile at everything that we’ve managed to achieve over the last year. Thirteenth in the league might not sound anything special but it’s no mean achievement when you look at how competitive the league is and when we factor in our considerably improved goal difference it represents our best ever league finish. And an average league attendance of 2,667 meant that we were the sixth best supported club in non-league football; a tremendous level of support week in week out, particularly when you realise that the only clubs with bigger average crowds are all well established former league sides.

Meanwhile off the pitch whether we’ve been singing ourselves hoarse in tiny English towns, drinking beer festivals dry, sponsoring matches, collecting cuddly toys, donating big coats, quizzing, attending fundraising dinners, sticking our pocket money in the Development Fund barrels, communicating better or watching cartoon pandas and battling artists; the faith to fight for the future of FC United is well and truly alive and kicking. The days of us sitting back and saying “we’ll leave it to them, they know better” are thankfully over. It’s been a season of supporters pulling together to help “our” football club. We’ll carry on through it all.

Heaven knows we were Les Miserables then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping it Lille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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