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Televised mind

I’ve seen so many episodes of Not Going Out whilst not going out this summer that a few weeks ago I dreamt I was in a pub in Peterborough having a socially distanced natter with the sitcom’s leading lady Sally Bretton – she’d chosen a pint of Doom Bar when better options were available but I won’t hold that against her – about Tunde Owolabi’s transfer to Hamilton Academical. All plainly nonsense as Sally lives in Hertfordshire (according to her Wikipedia page – I’m not some sort of C-list celebrity mitherer you know) and I live in Manchester so what’s the chances of us bumping into each other in a Cambridgeshire boozer during a pandemic? And I’ve never seen her at an FC United match. Is she even a member? Who knows.

But I digress, the point I was trying to make was that, I guess like a lot of people, I’ve consumed more telly than usual during the lockdown. I’m not usually a great box watcher – certainly not a binger – but the gentle, easy going humour of re-runs of the likes of Not Going Out and Car Share brought some much-needed relief during those head mangling days when we were confined indoors and every news bulletin seemed to bring yet more tales of government incompetence and a rapidly mounting death toll. I’m an inveterate news watcher but even I felt the urge, at times, to switch channels to something lighter.

And aside from suburban sitcoms I also tried to relieve the ergonomically challenged monotony of being perched at the kitchen table gawping at spreadsheets day after day by watching old United matches on the box and on YouTube. This included some rather glorious RTE footage of the ‘85 FA Cup semi-final replay at Maine Road which was shown live in Ireland (but not here of course) and the whole of the ’68 European Cup final in black and white – the first time I’d watched the entire 120 minutes. I also buzzed off highlights of the ’79 FA Cup semi-final replay at Goodison which usually ended up with me watching Jimmy Greenhoff’s winner over and over, one of the most iconic goals in United’s history IMHO, and drinking in the ecstasy of the United fans behind that goal. And a joyous lockdown discovery saw me viewing, for the first time, some highlights of my first United match in ’77 against Newcastle on the Big Match Revisited on ITV4 – I’d long since resigned myself to thinking that footage of this match didn’t exist after unsuccessfully scouring the internet countless times for evidence of Jimmy Greenhoff’s hat-trick.

And who knew that I’d also spend some of this summer watching the current United side on free-to-air telly and actually enjoying it? And that, at the same time, FC United would be contemplating a new era of socially distanced football viewing that could see the live (or delayed) streaming of matches on the internet become one of the club’s principal sources of income (or even the main one) for the coming 2020-21 season. Oh the irony. Paying to watch FC when we’ve been able to watch some United games for free. Covid-19 has well and truly turned the football world upside down.

Last month’s government guidelines for the phased return of spectators to the grounds of clubs at steps three to six of non-league football restricted the capacity of FC’s Broadhurst Park ground, which can usually accommodate up to 4,700 spectators, to a “one size fits all” figure of 600 to allow for social distancing (a figure based on 30% of the minimum ground grading capacity at this level of football of 1,950) and with this capacity unlikely to be increased before the start of the new season on 19th September, it’s quite possible that the money generated by charging viewers for the streaming of matches will become our main revenue stream for the first few weeks of the new season at least.

Last season our average crowd was more than 1,600 so with capacity slashed to less than half of that (and the need to accommodate up to 90 away supporters) there will be at least a thousand regular FC United supporters who will be left craving their weekly football fix. Some may prefer to stay at home and watch the match on the internet whilst the pandemic lingers but many would no doubt rather be in the ground enjoying a beer or two with their mates so watching on the internet is likely to be second best.

And FC are not the only club in the Northern Premier League alarmed by this “one size fits all” approach to setting ground capacities – South Shields’ average gate last season was also in excess of 1,600 (buoyed by the 3,274 spectators that packed into Mariners Park to see them beat FC 5-3 on what turned out to be the final day of last season) and Scarborough averaged around 1,000. But last season’s average crowds for 18 of the 22 clubs in the division were comfortably below 600 (Grantham had the lowest average crowd of 287) so a limited capacity of 600 shouldn’t, in theory, cause too many problems for most clubs  – except when the likes of FC United roll into town when a bumper pay day is usually anticipated.

There is a sense that, for FC United, a likely reliance on income generated by the screening of matches on the internet to boost the club’s coffers in these worrying times will merely be the latest episode in the club’s oddly schizophrenic relationship with the gogglebox. Despite our much-heralded penchant for the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off time perhaps the most famous match in our history, the FA Cup first round win at Rochdale in 2010, was a match rearranged to a Friday night so it could be shown on national television and the four thousand FC fans crammed into the Willbutts Lane Stand at Spotland were proof that few of us had any qualms with that.

Yet another rearranged FA Cup tie against Chesterfield five years later, this time on a Monday night, caused internet uproar and prompted the club’s board to announce that it did not consider the payment of £67,500 of TV money to each club to be (gulp) ample compensation for the disruption caused to both sets of supporters by switching the fixture to a Monday night. And so a few hundred of us ended up protesting outside the ground during the first half of the match. More recently the occasional screening of a big United Saturday evening fixture in Broadhurst Park’s main bar after FC matches has proved a nice little earner but, financial considerations aside, it sits a little uneasy with those of us who viewed the formation of FC United as, at least in part, a rejection of the passive consumption of the modern game.

Yet the club’s own television channel FCUMTV has been producing high quality highlights of matches for many years – so good in fact that it’s been advising other clubs on how best to live stream matches. And the live streaming of the first pre-season friendly match at Broadhurst Park against Barrow last month saw, at its peak, more than a thousand viewers tune in to watch an entertaining 2-2 draw against a side who will play in the Football League next season.

Without an alternative revenue stream from the broadcasting of matches the financial figures simply don’t stack up and, commenting on the huge cut in capacity, the club’s current board pledged to continue lobbying politicians and the Football Association, with the support of the Northern Premier League, for common sense to prevail. Aside from the week when Dr Rashford dislodged the blonde bullshitter as prime minister it’s been a summer of high profile policy announcements by politicians divorced from reality (and devoid of almost any semblance of humanity at times) closely followed by a U-turn when someone who knows what they’re talking about intervenes. So it stands to reason that “a bunch of incompetent and unscrupulous chancers” (Nicola Sturgeon’s words not mine) who’ve overseen the highest death toll in Europe during the pandemic are unlikely to have much of a clue when it comes to securing the future of hundreds of non-league football clubs around the country.

Back in March and April no one was sure how many non-league clubs could survive a prolonged period without any football. I was, typically, in full-on glass half empty mode and told anyone willing to listen (admittedly a tiny group) that I couldn’t see how we’d be back playing football in front of crowds again before the end of 2020 and that we might have to effectively mothball the club until the pandemic ended.

But while a few clubs haven’t made it through the shutdown, including Droylsden, my prediction was pretty wide of the mark as here we are in September back watching football inside football grounds, albeit in much reduced numbers, and excitement is mounting with only days to go to the start of a new league season. But none of us knows how this season is going to turn out. Will crowds return in greater numbers? Will we be able to sing and shout and enjoy watching football as much as we have in the past? Will the season be played to a conclusion? And how will the pandemic play out in Greater Manchester where  local restrictions on households mixing remain in place and as recently as the week ending 26th August an alarming 40% of Covid-related deaths in hospitals in England (17 of a total of 43 deaths) occurred in Greater Manchester and our local hospital in North Manchester has the fourth highest Covid-related death toll in the country?

Will the club be able to survive or even flourish in this new world? Who knows, there are simply too many unknowns at the moment to make any firm predictions. We’ve done exceptionally well to keep the club ticking over during the six months of shutdown – plugging the gap in the club’s finances by donating more than £100,000 during the summer, a tremendous collective effort. Meanwhile the club has typically continued to offer a helping hand to some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in its local community as the ground, whilst closed to the public, was used as a base for a group of volunteers to distribute food parcels to dozens of households across North Manchester experiencing serious health problems or financial difficulties as a direct result of the pandemic – work which saw the club receive a well deserved Special Recognition Award from the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester (the same award received by Prime Minister Rashford for his charity work during the pandemic) and also appear on BBC’s The One Show.

There are grounds for optimism that this collective spirit, allied with careful financial management, will ensure that we survive the pandemic and emerge from the other side a stronger, more resilient football club. But football is more than just kicking a ball around – it provides an emotional release for players and spectators alike and, boy, how we’ve needed that over the last few months. Maintaining the delicate balance between craving the thrill of celebrating a goal by screaming, shouting and hugging fellow supporters and the need for social distancing and for us all to continue to look after one another through an era-defining global health crisis will be far from easy. It hasn’t even begun yet but already it feels like the 2020-21 season is hanging by a thread and by Christmas we could well be back to getting our kicks by binge watching old United matches and half-decent sitcoms (some of us anyway).

For now though let’s emit a socially distanced cheer or two and enjoy the simple pleasure of watching our football team play football again – whether that’s at Broadhurst Park or on our settee. It’s been a while. And whilst it’s light years from the ecstasy of Goodison in ’79 or Camp Nou in ’99 or the Willbutts Lane Stand a decade ago it’s better than nothing. And at least it’ll give me something to talk about the next time I have an imaginary encounter with someone off the telly.

Civilised at last

In my late teens, hamstrung by shyness, the idea of someone volunteering to spend twenty five days in my company, let alone a quarter of a century, seemed faintly ridiculous. Relationships were something that happened to other people – lads and lasses that were far more out-going, more confident, less acne-ridden, better dressed, better looking and more savvy than me.

But on 10th January 2020, with Britain frothing over Megxit and the first murmurings of a mystery virus in a Chinese city that few had heard of barely warranting a mention, Maeve and I celebrated our scarcely believable 25th anniversary – a quarter of a century since we unofficially became a couple on the same day as Andrew/Andy Cole signed for Manchester United. Not only that but we chose the date to become civil partners after the law was changed in November last year to allow mixed sex couples to do what same sex couples have been doing since 2006.

Marriage is fine but it never felt quite like the right fit for the two of us. There’s still an oddly patriarchal whiff about marriage with its expectation that a woman will give up her family name on becoming wedded that I just don’t get at all. Why would Maeve, for instance, want to give up a perfectly solid name like Stevenson to become an Allsopp? But a civil partnership – a genuine coupling of equals, giving us the same legal rights as a married couple, felt right. The thought of one of us popping our clogs and the other one not being considered the next of kin, after spending the best years of our life together, was just plain daft.

So in the first week of December we wandered to Islington Town Hall to register for a civil ceremony – you have to give at least 28 days’ notice just like a wedding – and we set the date for 10th January and chose the least expensive option, eschewing the council chamber or any of the swankier venues in the City of London (where we lived) in favour of the simplest of ceremonies in Room 99 at the town hall (the room two doors down was thankfully unavailable). The website described the room, decorated in red and gold, as a “simple yet elegant setting” – that’ll do for us. We also needed a pair of witnesses so we invited Maeve’s dad and my mum and dad, who got the train down from Chesterfield, to share our special day.

Having chosen to become civil partners for essentially practical reasons, selected the cheapest possible venue and been informed that the ceremony would involve little more than turning up and signing a few papers it was a surprise, to say the least, to find myself welling up during the simple exchange of vows on the big day to the extent that I was struggling to get my words out at several points – the importance of the occasion, the formalising of a relationship with someone very special, had plainly got to me. Although the ceremony itself was pared down, containing none of the pomp that you’d usually associate with a wedding, and lasted only around fifteen minutes, with time for some photographs at the end, it was lovely especially with my mum and dad and Maeve’s dad there to share it with us.

Once over we were able to take some snaps, including a few on the stairs back down to the main entrance of the town hall. Ironically the town hall was one of the first places we had visited when we moved down to London in 2008 to register for council tax and now it was one of our last as we were set to move back up north to Manchester the following week.

The five of us then clambered into a taxi and as we trundled through the West End past Friday shoppers and matinee goers Olivia Newton-John serenaded us with Hopelessly Devoted To You on Heart FM. Our destination was the Wolseley restaurant on Piccadilly, a place where we had celebrated our anniversary on several occasions down the years, where we enjoyed afternoon tea, scoffing sandwiches, scones and cakes and slurping cups of tea, complete with a glass of champagne to toast the happy couple. It was one of the happiest days of my life (apart from when United won the treble in Barcelona obvs) – a very special occasion and I’m so proud to say that, finally, I am Maeve’s civil partner. She’s the love of my life, as much so now as when we first got together all those years ago, and I’m delighted to say that we are civilised at last.

 

 

The happy couple enjoyed a two night honeymoon break in Preston, Lancashire in late February.

Kick it out (again)

Piece I wrote for the latest issue of the FC United fanzine Top of the World about how the fight to kick racism out of football needs more than just social media box ticking. 

“Shoot that nigger” was the chant directed at the opposition’s right-back during a break in play as the home team’s injured captain received treatment in the penalty area. This was Old Trafford in January 1989, in the dying moments of a goalless FA Cup tie between United and Queens Park Rangers, and the player on the receiving end of the racist abuse from a section of the Stretford End was Paul Parker.

Anyone who was a regular on the terraces in the eighties will be familiar with the words to one of the vilest racist ditties around at the time. And there was a large enough group of supporters singing it to attract the attention of Parker. Heaven knows what he was thinking but, after a pause, he smiled reluctantly and mimicked firing a gun towards the Stretford End. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the song sung at Old Trafford, but it was the first occasion I’d seen it get a reaction on the pitch.

Monkey noises, banana skins and racist songs and abuse were part and parcel of the game in the eighties, and black players were regularly urged by their managers and teammates to simply ignore it and “get on with the game”. In his autobiography Black and Blue the former Chelsea player Paul Canoville told of how he was racially abused by his own “supporters” as he made his debut at Stamford Bridge in 1982, the home fans bellowing “sit down you nigger” as he warmed up on the touchline. Later, some far-right Chelsea fans declared that “goals by black players don’t count” and refused to recognise any that Canoville scored.

I liked to think, naively, that United fans were above this — the heirs of the nineteenth-century Mancunian cotton workers who bravely supported the anti-slavery campaign of president Abraham Lincoln by boycotting cotton from the southern states of America, in protest at their use of slave labour. Many of those workers lost their jobs, and their families suffered terrible hardship as a result of their principled stance. But less than a century-and-a-half on, a small minority of bigots from the same city were busy hurling abuse at a fellow human being simply because of the colour of his skin.

Ironically, Parker moved to United a couple of seasons later and became a key member of that peerless, take-no-prisoners 1993-94 double winning side — perhaps the finest United team I’ve ever seen. After his impressive displays for England in the 1990 World Cup, Parker had a choice of joining United or Everton, and turned down the Toffees after receiving letters of abuse from their fans. Some choice, eh?

Fast forward three decades and although incidents of racism are now rare inside football grounds, they haven’t been completely eradicated, and casual prejudice often dressed up as “banter” is still all too common. Sadly this is the case at FC United, as the club with an anti-discriminatory message embedded in its founding manifesto felt obliged to remind its supporters earlier this year.

A double-page article headed “FC United against racism” in the programme for the Stafford match in February referred to “a small number of reports of racist language being used at recent FC United matches” and warned supporters that the club has “zero tolerance of all racist and discriminatory language”, but stopped short of divulging any details regarding exactly what had prompted such a message. Strangely, this was the only mention in any of the club’s communication channels of what was plainly a serious matter. Not a peep on the website or the members’ forum or on social media, where it might have grabbed the attention of a bigger chunk of the club’s support than it did in a matchday programme which increasingly struggles for readers at the best of times, let alone on a cold Tuesday night of horizontal hail showers.

Yet there was no such reticence to address the scourge of racism in June. A few days after the brutal police killing of George Floyd on the other side of the Atlantic, the club’s Twitter account, like those of many football clubs around the world, latched onto the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and assured us that “our manifesto pledge in 2005 is just as relevant today” — a reference to one of the club’s founding pledges to “strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none”. A welcome show of solidarity with worldwide BLM protests that attracted dozens of likes and retweets — all good PR for the club.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the world wide web, an FC United supporter not averse to sharing the extremist filth spewed out by the likes of Katie Hopkins and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was getting a little hot under the collar with all this focus on black lives and felt the need to claim, caps lock ablaze, that “90 PERCENT OF ALL CRIME IN BRITAIN IS DOWN TO THE ETHNIC MINORITIES…..THIS STATEMENT IS NOT RACIST IT’S FACT!!!!”. The figures on race and crime published by the Ministry of Justice last year revealed that 19% of adults convicted of a crime in 2018 were from a BAME background. Nineteen percent? Ninety percent? It’s just numbers innit. Especially if sharing racist propaganda on the internet is your thing.

Later, he pondered why “lefty snowflake supporters want everyone to take a knee” when “that bloke killed by the copper in America was killed by his knee stopping his air”. Where do you even begin with this? Plainly the man from Melton Mowbray, who once had ambitions to be an FC United board member, is unfamiliar with the story of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who famously upset the “leave your politics at the turnstiles (unless it’s far-right politics)” mob back in 2016 when he began kneeling during the US national anthem in protest against racial injustice. Quite how this particular FC fan manages to reconcile such views with support for a football club that makes its anti-discriminatory stance clear in its founding manifesto is anyone’s guess. But he’s not the only one who does.

Maybe part of the problem here is that, in delicately treading the fine line between remaining true to our founding principles and maximising our revenue streams, the club simply isn’t making it clear enough these days that it won’t tolerate racism? After all, we wouldn’t want anyone flouncing off whilst whinging about “lefty snowflakes” would we? Think of the impact on our matchday income. A bit like what happened with the covering-up of the Peterloo logo last season — the club seemingly happy to commemorate a landmark event in the history of our city, but only if it doesn’t end up costing us a few bob in FA fines. Forget the racism folks, let’s all get behind Reno and the lads.

But whilst it’s true that the club has done a lot of growing up in the last few years and has, perhaps inevitably, had to dilute some of the idealism of its early days and keep one eye on its long-term financial sustainability, there is simply no room for manoeuvre when it comes to appeasing racists. As the large banner that hangs from the television gantry at Broadhurst Park proudly makes clear, in full view of virtually everyone in the ground: FC United stands against racism. There should be absolutely no room for it at this football club.

To their credit, plenty of Reds took to social media to remind this “racist scumbag” that he is not welcome at our football club. I daresay the club would prefer that our dirty linen wasn’t aired in public like this but if serious complaints, addressed through the proper channels, about incidents of racism at FC matches prompt only a stating-the-bloody-obvious article in the programme — which, let’s be honest, has probably been read by less than a tenth of our support — then what’s the point? What exactly were the “small number of reports of racist language being used at recent FC United matches” referred to in the matchday programme in February? Did the club investigate these incidents, and what were the outcomes of these investigations? And if any FC United supporters were found to be guilty of using racist language at a match, was the promised “zero tolerance” applied? Because box-ticking #BlackLivesMatter social media output might look good, but it’s utterly worthless if we don’t kick racists out of our anti-racist football club.

#BlackLivesMatter

So what did you do during the lockdown then?

In early April I began assembling a collection of my FC United of Manchester related writings on this blog into a book to raise much needed funds for the club at a time when it had virtually no income coming in following the coronavirus lockdown and the premature ending of the Northern Premier League season. Four months on and more than 530 copies of ‘The Red Thread’ book have been sold, raising over £7,000 for the club.   

Several weeks ago I was on a video call with a mate and we were nattering about what we’d been up to during the lockdown. “Not much really – I certainly haven’t been one of those lockdown wankers that’s written a book or learnt a foreign language” reckoned my mate whilst I, who at this point had been devoting almost every single spare minute of the lockdown self-publishing a book to raise some much-needed funds for FC United, took a deep breath and confirmed that I too had not been up to much either. And we laughed about this a few weeks later on another call as my mate said “you kept this quiet then” as he brandished his copy of the, by now, published book that this particular ‘lockdown wanker’ had sent him a few days before.

Later the same week, seventeen weeks after it was conceived, ‘The Red Thread – collected writings roughly relating to FC United of Manchester’ was officially launched on the world wide web with me talking about the book for around 84 minutes in conversation with FCUM Radio’s Scott Taylor and an audience of FC United supporters on Zoom. There are plenty of people that have been on nights out with me when I’ve spoken for barely 84 seconds so it’ll come as quite a shock to some to see me babbling on for eighty four minutes about anything (click on the link above for a recording of the whole thing if you want evidence).

At the launch I described how the idea for the book came from the first ever online Course You Can Malcolm event in early April when the poet John Darwin invited viewers to procure a copy of his latest collection of poetry in return for a donation to FC United. The club was by now facing up to the reality of potentially many months with virtually no money coming into its coffers (a £100,000 gap in our finances was forecast at the time). I bought one and donated a tenner and when the book arrived from sunny Prestwich a few days later it struck me what a wonderful gesture it was – someone offering something that they had lovingly created in return for a donation to the football club that they own. It got me thinking.

There’s a stack of FC-related articles that I’ve written over the last seven years or so that are basically sat gathering internet dust on my blog. Why not collect some of them into a book that could be sold to raise funds for the club? I discovered that there are about eighty pieces posted on my blog that relate to FC United in some way – the viewing figures for some of the pieces, which have grabbed attention on social media, are measured in thousands but mostly it’s a case of a few dozen clicks if you’re lucky.

For much of the last couple of years I had been in writing mode, scribbling a book about life as an NHS finance manager (a sort-of bean counting version of something like Rachel Clarke’s ‘Your Life In My Hands’) and back in February, in what almost feels like a different decade now, I’d begun emailing book proposals to literary agents and publishers to see if anyone might be interested in snapping up this potential best seller. But after a few “thanks but no thanks” replies Covid-19 bulldozed everything and with no shops in which to flog books or literary events at which to promote them the bottom appeared to have fallen out of the publishing world and no one was in the remotest bit interested in reading my thoughts on NHS financial matters.

So writing a book had occupied my spare time for a while – all I had to do now was switch my attention to another project. The advantage this time was that almost all the writing had already been done. It just needed me to select some of the “best” bits, knit them together into a whole that somehow flowed and would make sense to those who hadn’t been embroiled in the club’s politics during what has been a tumultuous period for the club. Easy peasy.

I daresay if you were writing a book now about the last seven years at FC United it would probably benefit from a smidgen of hindsight – the sense that we saw the turmoil that engulfed the club in 2015 and 2016 coming. But in a book comprising more than thirty “warts and all” pieces hastily cobbled together and spanning seven years there’s little room for any historical revision – the gap between when these articles were written and the events they describe is typically no more than a few days or weeks. It’s safe to say that anyone writing a piece entitled “we could settle wars with this” in 2013 probably wasn’t anticipating the civil war that threatened the club’s very existence only a couple of years later. As several people have pointed out to me after reading the book – it’s an honest account of what’s gone on at the club since 2013 and hopefully one of the book’s strengths.

On a personal level the book also traces the evolution of my writing style from the rather preachy, occasionally shouty, earlier pieces about how this particular supporter-owned football club was going to change the world to the later pieces which, I like to think, are a little more thoughtful and perhaps less black and white in their conclusions. A reflection, perhaps, of the extent to which the club has had to compromise a little in recent years in order to survive – the covering up of the Peterloo logo on the away shirt last season was good example of this new-found pragmatism. Where once we’d have said, fuck it, we’ll pay any fine that comes our way, now, careful management of the club’s cash and financial sustainability are crucial.

In early May with its typesetting and design in progress I began marketing The Red Thread and more than three months on we’ve sold more than 530 copies of the book and, so far, raised over £7,000 for the club (the initial print run of 450 raised a stonking £6,152 which has already been paid to the club). The response has been wonderful and copies have been air-mailed out to places as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Japan, USA, Canada and several European countries including Belgium, France, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Malta.

When I first mooted the idea back in April my intention was to raise a thousand quid for the club by printing a hundred books, selling a few dozen via mail order, and then sticking the rest in the club shop for supporters to buy when we get back to attending football matches again. So to have already raised more than seven times that sum for the club is tremendous and testament, yet again, to the generosity of the club’s supporters many of whom have shelled out considerably more than the asking price of a tenner for the book.

It’s been a lot of hard graft putting the book together and then printing, selling and distributing it but it’s been a ‘blast’ (as I think the youngsters say) and I’ve loved every minute. Thanks to everyone that’s helped with the book particularly Tony Howard of Midjmo Media who, I reckon, must have spent many hours typesetting the whole thing and designing the front and back covers of the book which look fantastic. Thanks too to the photographers Russ Hart, Matt Wilkinson and Richard Searle for kindly giving me permission to use their ace photos on the covers. And thanks ever so much to everyone that’s bought the book and helped the club out in these strange, financially perilous times. I hope The Red Thread represents a half-decent “warts and all” addition to the FC United bookshelves.

And talking of ‘shelves’, flogging the book by mail order has been great but there is a part of me that would really like to see a few copies of the book nestled on a shelf in the club shop come the start of the season. It’s just a personal thing really but taking books out of boxes and sticking them straight into bubble-wrapped envelopes isn’t quite the same as seeing them on a shelf somewhere. Spare me this last little bit of lockdown wanker-ism if you don’t mind 😊

 

p.s if you’ve read this (or watched the recording of the book launch) and think that you would quite like a copy of The Red Thread then please email me at jonathan.allsopp@live.co.uk and I’ll send you details of how get a copy.

The last people you’d expect to see in a place like this

In the summer of 2010 finance staff, along with other back office staff from HR and Information services, moved out of our offices in the basement of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to a new home in the Chelsea Harbour complex a fifteen minute walk away by the river Thames. The basement space was required for redevelopment of the hospital’s outpatient clinics. A fair swap you might think, back office pen pushers making way for improved services for patients (new “airport-style” outpatient facilities no less) isn’t that what the public craves?

But the move caught the attention of the Daily Mirror who ran a piece entitled “NHS staff in move to star marina” on their website which spoke of how dozens of administrative staff had moved into “swanky offices overlooking a marina development, complete with five star hotel, popular with the stars” featuring a “vaulted atrium with three glass lifts” and rounded off with a quote from a local resident who reckoned that “hospital workers are the last people you’d expect to see in a place like Chelsea Harbour”. The message was clear – as mere NHS workers we were undeserving of our new “swanky” offices.

Unlike, say, wealthy corporate executives or racehorse trainers or friends of the Conservative party. And our new Thames-side abode was in the news not long after we moved in as it emerged during the News International phone hacking trial in 2014 that Charlie Brooks, the husband of the news corporation’s chief executive Rebekah Brooks, stashed his collection of pornography behind bins in the underground car park at Chelsea Harbour where the couple lived on the day that his wife was arrested in 2011. The sort of people you’d expect to see in a place like this?

All very different to the situation a decade on when in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic NHS workers have been widely labelled as heroes and many of us take to our streets on a Thursday night to applaud them.

A few months after we’d moved into our new offices in Chelsea Harbour I was dashing through the hospital, late for a meeting, when I bumped into one of the women who used to clean our finance offices before the move and after asking me how things were going in our new abode she told me how a recent change of rota had left her busier than ever and after listening to her describe how many wards, departments and offices per shift she was now responsible for cleaning I remember thinking that it sounds barely possible to get round so many spaces in such a relatively short amount of time and give them all a thorough clean, disinfect surfaces, hoover floors, refill soap dispensers and re-stock toilet paper without cutting corners somewhere.

It’s the rarely glimpsed human side of the out-sourcing of “hotel” and other support services that has been all the rage across the public sector over the last three decades and which has seen many NHS finance managers take great satisfaction in reporting to their board that they are cutting costs – or making “efficiencies” – on things like cleaning, catering, security and portering. Squeezing yet more “value” from people that we perceive as being less valuable than ourselves. The irony being that the chances are that if one of us finance managers doesn’t turn up for work one day then it makes little, if any, difference to the running of a hospital whereas if a cleaner phones in sick one morning then someone must be found to cover his or her work or risk patients picking up an infection from coming into contact with unclean surfaces on their wards.

Interestingly research published in 2016 (Outsourcing cleaning services increases MRSA incidence: Evidence from 126 English Acute Trusts) found that the incidence of MRSA infection was 50% higher in hospital trusts that out-sourced their cleaning services (2.28 cases per 100,000 bed days) than those that continued to employ in-house cleaners (1.46 cases). Whilst trusts that out-sourced their cleaning services were found to save about £236 per bed per year this clearly placed their patients’ health at greater risk and, according to the report, “may prove to be a false economy”.

Behind these so-called “efficiency savings” lies the reality of people being expected to work harder and be paid less, in real terms – and valued less – for doing their jobs. But this rarely applies to hospital chief executives or finance directors on six figure salaries though – it’s those who are considered to be at the bottom of the pile who must suffer. There’s a modern fad for NHS finance managers to bang on about the “value” of healthcare – measured by comparing outcomes to cost – without stopping to think about whether we as finance managers represent decent value for money. Whilst we might lose our rag on the phone to an IT help desk worker in Katowice about why we can’t log onto the network again or get frustrated with a finance officer in Bangalore over an unpaid invoice, rarely do we stop to think about how we’ve ended up in a situation where we value some tasks so little that we farm them out to people many thousands of miles away who are paid peanuts.

The discussion of how we get value for money from each pound spent on health and social care typically revolves around how we can “do more for less” – the “less” bit usually referring to money and spending less of it. Yet this blatantly ignores the fact that nurses, midwives, health care assistants, cleaners, porters simply aren’t paid enough – and valued enough – for the work that they do. Is it right, for instance, that a senior finance manager often earns significantly more (sometimes even twice more) than an experienced fully qualified nurse?

You don’t need to be a medical expert to appreciate the damaging impact that long hours and low pay can have on the mental and physical health of these workers. The evidence is stark in the huge health inequalities that exist across the country. By ignoring these issues we are simply storing up problems for the health service in the future. Short term cost cutting plunges more workers into poverty and, in the long run, places greater demands on the NHS. Yet these low paid, out-sourced hospital cleaners, caterers, security staff and porters are the modern day ragged trousered philanthropists that play a significant, yet barely acknowledged, role in assisting hospital trusts to maintain some sense of financial sustainability whilst paying six figure sums to finance directors and other executives. Bizarrely the NHS ends up widening the income inequalities that partly led to its founding. How does this sit with the NHS’s sense of social solidarity and the need to think holistically about healthcare? We can and must do better.

So I’ve very much welcomed the recent call, reported in the Health Service Journal, by 170 doctors at Homerton Hospital in east London for their trust to rethink its outsourcing of hotel services to ISS Mediclean and which referred to how colleagues in cleaning, portering, catering and security services had, like clinicians, gone “above and beyond during the Covid pandemic” yet endure worse pay and conditions than staff employed directly by the NHS. “Covid has rightly shone a light on our less valued colleagues, who are so important. It is an opportunity for change and not just to pay lip service to the NHS family” they said in a letter to the trust’s management and ISS.

Meanwhile the latest blurb to promote the NHS’s highly regarded financial management training scheme reckons that “as we go through a period of transformation that sees efficiency savings impacting on our limited resources, we need people capable of initiating bold ideas and innovative strategies”. As an NHS finance manager for nearly three decades, and an ex-financial management scheme trainee, I disagree strongly with this relentless focus on “efficiency savings” and “transformation”.

There has much been talk during this pandemic about how a public health crisis such as this, as with the Black Death in the fourteenth century, lays bare the weaknesses of a society. I sincerely hope that when this is all over that we come to recognise the true value of all those who work in the health and care sector. They don’t do their jobs to be labelled as heroes and neither do they expect multi-million pound apartments and superyachts but let’s move away from our spreadsheets and talk of continually cutting costs and have a sensible discussion about how much NHS and care workers are paid. Applause is nice but it doesn’t put bread on the table.

Scrap the immigration health surcharge for everyone now

 

Last week the government announced that it would scrap the Immigration Health Surcharge for health and social care workers but this doesn’t go far enough. As an NHS finance manager I don’t just want the surcharge scrapped for fellow NHS and care workers I want it scrapped for everyone. It is a racist double tax on people who already pay tax.

This pandemic has shown us just how essential shop workers, cleaners, hospitality workers, carers, and delivery drivers – to name a few – are to society. And yet, this year the immigration health surcharge will be increased from £400 to £624 for many of them. Those that can’t afford it will be unable to renew their visa and may face deportation and if they need hospital care they may be charged – this is the Hostile Environment.

This pandemic must be a wake-up call – we all have a right to health and wellbeing. No one should be forced to pay extra for the NHS because of where they are from. No one should be too scared to seek treatment. And no one should be denied healthcare because of Home Office policies.

The immigration health surcharge and all other NHS charges should be scrapped immediately. This is our NHS. We treat patients not passports. It’s time to scrap the surcharge for everyone.

Clapped out

Some diary entries:

November 2011

One of only two bean counters from our hospital’s finance department to join a national strike by two million public sector workers protesting against government reforms to our so-called “gold-plated” pensions – the first national walk out by NHS staff since the ambulance dispute of the late eighties.

Returned home after a day on the picket line to hear Jeremy Clarkson on BBC’s prime-time chat-show The One Show boasting that he would have the strikers “taken out and shot in front of their families”.

Meanwhile back at work the following day our deputy director of finance asked me if I’d enjoyed a nice lie-in on my “day off”. She wasn’t joking. And our director of finance informed me that whilst she admired the strikers for standing up for what we believed in 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 as efficiency savings) following the financial crash of 2008.

July 2014

Wrote an article for the Guardian entitled We bean counters need to speak out about NHS cuts arguing that NHS finance staff should join front-line clinicians in speaking out about the damage to patient care being wrought by the government’s squeeze on health service spending.

Sample response: “Brilliant and much needed article from brave NHS bean counter who sheds light on NHS underfunding”.

September 2014

Joined the People’s March for the NHS for its final mile-long leg from Red Lion Square in Central London to Trafalgar Square where thousands assembled in support of the NHS. The march was organised by a group of mums from Darlington calling themselves 999 Call for the NHS and aimed to raise public awareness of the dismantling of the NHS by the government.

October 2014

One of only three pen pushers (yes, three of us, this time) from the hospital’s finance department to join other NHS workers in striking over Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s refusal to award NHS staff a 1% pay rise, as recommended by an independent pay review body, on the grounds that it was “unaffordable”. I wrote about it here

It’s interesting to note that a 1% pay rise for the health service’s 1.1 million non-medical workforce would have cost an “unaffordable” £500 million per year with an additional £700 million per year required to fund annual incremental pay awards. In comparison it cost the Treasury £137 billion to bail out the banks following the 2008 financial crisis.

Almost the entire media focus in the run-up to the strike, which lasted four hours from 7am to 11am, was on the likely disruption caused to outpatient appointments and theatre lists with scaremongering accusations that lives could be put in danger as a result of the industrial action. Six years on and one of NHS England’s immediate responses to the coronavirus outbreak was to tell hospitals to postpone all non-urgent operations, with barely a whimper from the media, to free up beds to treat Covid-19 patients.

March 2015

Disillusioned by the Labour Party’s health policies I, somewhat hesitantly, threw my hat into the ring as a possible parliamentary candidate for the National Health Action Party in the forthcoming General Election. There wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance that I’d be elected (the Cities of London and Westminster seat was, at the time, a Tory shoo-in) but it would be an opportunity to make the case for the NHS at a time when it was being battered by austerity and increasingly labelled as “unaffordable”.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the NHA Party) the party’s election panel decided that it could not afford to stand any more than the thirteen candidates that it had already announced. Devoid of backing from big business or high net worth individuals it simply did not have the financial muscle to mobilise an effective campaign in many constituencies.

February 2016

Appeared as the Secret Finance Manager in the Guardian as part of a series called This is the NHS penning a six hundred word diary of a typical working week that provided a glimpse at some of the pressures and frustrations felt by those NHS finance staff working within the confines of the NHS’s byzantine “internal market”.

The article appeared on page nine of the paper, a few pages ahead of a piece on Beyoncé’s storming, politically-charged performance at the Super Bowl a couple of nights before ✊

July 2017

Joined the #MakeJuly5NHSDay campaign to make the 5th July – the date on which the NHS was founded in 1948 – ‘NHS Day’ ahead of its 70th anniversary in 2018 with this typically soap-boxy article entitled STP me if you think you’ve heard this one before . Sadly it wasn’t a hashtag that went viral.

January 2018

Tweeted the following as part of a Twitterstorm to raise awareness of the damage being inflicted on the health service by this government:

As an NHS finance manager with 26 years experience it is my #PublicDuty to inform you that the current government is dismantling and privatising our NHS.

Surprisingly it was retweeted and/or liked around ten thousand times.

Not everyone was in agreement mind. “Another leftie abusing his position, what’s your salary and what will your pension be?” enquired one less-than-impressed Twitter user.

February 2018

Mithered NHS England’s former chief nursing officer Professor Jane Cummings on Twitter to find out why she had made the headline-grabbing claim that patients missing their outpatient appointments cost the NHS one billion pounds per year when missed appointments actually cost a mere fraction of that. As I’d tried to explain in this typically lengthy piece called missing the ap-point-ment (see what I’ve done there?). The Prof didn’t reply to my tweets. Although she did retire from her post soon after.

March 2018

Wrote a piece for the openDemocracy website called time to halt NHS gravy train for management consultants which, drawing on personal experience, highlighted the millions wasted by the NHS on management consultants. This was shortly after evidence emerged that management consultants actually make hospitals less, not more, efficient.

April 2020

Did you clap?

No

Why not? Why aren’t you supporting the NHS?

🙄🙄🙄🙄

 

 

We live in strange times.

Scrap the immigration health surcharge now

In October 2016 with the mental health NHS trust, where I was working at the time, over-spending its budget by an eye watering one million pounds per month staff were asked to share any ideas we had for saving a few bob as our Finance Director took part in an online Q&A session with the communications team. The type of cosy chat to make you think we’re all in it together when it comes to addressing the Trust’s financial problems. The ideas focused on the usual things like how we could reduce spend on agency staff, scrap staff uniforms, use less paper clips and make better use of our estate (the trust operates from more than thirty sites) but also included a suggestion that we should “only treat patients who are eligible for NHS treatment”.

Our chief finance officer, part of an almost entirely white executive team of a trust headquartered in a London borough where 40% of people are black, Asian or minority ethnic, reckoned that this was “an NHS wide issue, and one that we need to be better at. The rules are complicated, but basically non-EU nationals are only entitled to free emergency treatment. While this covers a lot of what we do, there are some notable exceptions – areas such as personality disorder services do not provide emergency services – so we should not be treating non-EU nationals in these services unless they or their country are prepared to pay us”. 

This notion that people are only eligible to use the NHS if they have paid into it has gained traction over the last decade as right wing politicians, aided by a largely unquestioning media, have repeatedly blamed foreigners for the NHS’s financial problems – conveniently ignoring the fact that since 2010 the health service has suffered the longest sustained squeeze on funding in its history. As long ago as July 2013 the Home Office and Department of Health were busy launching consultations around migrant access to the NHS which subsequently led to the introduction of the so-called Visitor and Migrant NHS Cost Recovery Programme the following year. Most responses to these consultations accepted that there was “a need to protect the public purse by limiting access to healthcare”.

And this hardening of public opinion paved the way for the changes to the overseas visitor charging regulations in 2015 that included the introduction of the Immigration Health Surcharge – an annual charge for accessing the NHS for people from outside the European Economic Area (i.e. mainly brown and black people) who intend to live in the UK for more than six months. Yet another example of the racist hostile environment in action. I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of this surcharge until a year after it was introduced when a friend and fellow NHS worker, originally from Bangladesh, was in the process of renewing her visa and explained to me that on top of the visa fees she would have also have to fork out six hundred pounds to be able to use the NHS as the £200 per year health surcharge had to be paid upfront for the three year life of the visa. So, as well as working for the NHS and paying taxes to fund the NHS my colleague, like thousands of others, was asked to pay again for the right to use the NHS. 

But the surcharge has been a nice little earner for the Department of Health and Social Care – when the charge was doubled in January 2019 from £200 to £400 per year it was estimated that it had brought in more than £660 million since its introduction in 2015 and that the doubling of charges would recoup an additional £220 million per year to be reinvested in NHS services. Lovely. The DHSC justified this increase of 100% in the surcharge by claiming that “the NHS spends £470 on average per person per year on treating surcharge payers”. But no details were provided of how this figure had been arrived at – no surprise really given that the NHS has been wrestling for more than a decade with the difficulty (some would say near impossibility) of identifying the true costs of the care that individual patients receive.

And then last November during the general election campaign the man described by the Health Service Journal as “our first work experience health and social care secretary” tweeted that post-Brexit a Conservative government would increase the surcharge again to a whopping £625 per year – part of a “battery of measures” aimed at toughening up the immigration system according to the Daily Mail. Less than a year after we were informed that surcharge payers typically cost the NHS £470 per year now we were being told that overseas visitors “cost taxpayers an average of £625 every time they use the health service”. Quite a rate of inflation and, again, no explanation was given as to how this figure had been calculated.

Hancock’s tweet trotted out the usual nonsense that the NHS is “not the international health service” and how everyone should make a “fair contribution” to it – conveniently ignoring the fact that as soon as visitors to Britain begin consuming sweets, crisps, takeaway food and the like they begin paying tax and making a contribution to the national coffers like any other British citizen. And so post-election Chancellor Rishi Sunak subsequently announced the raising of the immigration health surcharge in his March budget just before the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to overwhelm the NHS.

In April, as the UK coronavirus death toll rose alarmingly, sixty MPs signed a letter to Hancock asking the government to suspend the health surcharge during the coronavirus crisis and warning that undocumented migrants are dying at home because they are afraid to seek care. The coronavirus crisis has instilled a sense of social solidarity – a realisation that we can only tackle the pandemic by working together and looking after each other during a time of great worry and uncertainty – but the government refuses to back down on a policy that plainly undermines that sense of community by placing obstacles in the way of accessing the NHS and unfairly targeting a section of our society. The guidance on the health surcharge states clearly that, whilst the charge is mandatory when applying for immigration to the UK, the Home Secretary has the discretion to “reduce, waive or refund all or part of a surcharge payment”.

Meanwhile 63% of the deaths of NHS staff from Covid-19 are from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background according to research by the Health Service Journal (people from a BAME background make up about 21% of the NHS workforce). Would Hancock describe this as a “fair contribution”? Likewise the impact of the coronavirus on BAME communities is just as stark with research by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre indicating that 35% of people in intensive care units because of Covid-19 are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds despite BAME people making up only 14% of the population. Again, is this a “fair contribution”?

One, of many, reasons that’s been put forward for this disproportionate impact of coronavirus on NHS staff from BAME backgrounds is that they are less likely to complain about, for instance, the lack of protective equipment and more likely to just get on with things with minimal fuss – many of them have no choice but to go out and work. And, to an extent, it’s the same with the immigration health surcharge – we’re raising a few quid for the NHS from a section of society that isn’t likely to kick up much of a fuss about it.

On 5th May, more than six weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, Afzal Khan, the Labour MP for Gorton in Manchester, asked Hancock if he would suspend the charging regulations “for migrants accessing the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure universal access to healthcare” given that “the charging regulations disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic people” and the impact that Covid-19 is having on the wider BAME community. But Hancock was unwilling to countenance such a sensible move instead declaring that “the regulations are important because it is important that people make a fair contribution” and added that “the question has been raised in relation to staff” – ignoring the fact that it had referred to migrants accessing the NHS – “and in many cases in that respect the NHS trusts themselves pay the extra, which is a contribution towards running the NHS”. I’ve read that answer back several times and, frankly, I’ve no idea what he’s on about – yet another example of Hancock socially distancing himself from reality.

In April the home secretary Priti Patel quietly shelved her controversial immigration bill which included a points-based system under which many migrants earning below £25,600 (i.e. many of the NHS staff and key workers that people are clapping for on Thursday nights) would be barred from living in the UK unless they could prove that there is a high demand for their work. Perhaps it finally dawned on the government that ploughing on with this racist agenda would have made it much harder to recruit the doctors, nurses, social care workers, therapists, cleaners, porters and other key workers that are currently, in many cases, risking their lives to see us through the coronavirus crisis. It’s time for the government to do the same with the immigration health surcharge – scrap it now and save lives.

Er, sorry mate, could I interest you in a book I’ve written about FC United? It’s only a tenner and it’ll help the club during these football-less times

There’s something grimly amusing about spending nearly forty three years of your life as an out-of-town football supporter, travelling up and down the country to watch your team home and away, spending thousands just getting to games never mind season tickets and the rest of it……only to find that when you do eventually up sticks and move two hundred miles to be closer to your football club that within weeks football has been cancelled and you’re spending every single blummin Saturday afternoon indoors.

And it’s the same for hundreds of football clubs all over the country who now find themselves, like FC United of Manchester, with little or no income coming in for the foreseeable future. So that’s why for the last few weeks I’ve been busy assembling a collection of some of my writing on FC United from the last few years into a book that will hopefully be available for sale by the end of May and might raise a few quid for the club.

A few of you will be aware that I’ve been writing about FC United related matters for several years now on this blog and some of those pieces have also appeared in the matchday programme, on the A Fine Lung website and a few of the more recent ones were written for FC United’s Top of the World fanzine. In total there are nearly eighty FC-related pieces on the blog written since 2013 and I’ve whittled these down to 38 to put into the book (I’d like to think of it as a ‘best of’ selection) and have also tried to include introductions to each piece and explanatory notes so that it might also be of interest (and make sense) to other football fans who don’t follow FC United and even those who don’t like football at all. Although it contains none of the investigatory zeal of Red Rebels, the meandering loveliness of An Undividable Glow or the erudite match analysis of Trips on Glue I’m hoping that it will nevertheless be a worthy addition to the FC United bookshelves.

The book weighs in at roughly 70,000 words which I think will equate to about 230 pages of a typical-ish paperback. The print costs are substantial but I’m intending to print 200 copies and sell them for a tenner with all proceeds going to the club – I’m therefore hoping that we can raise £2,000 for the club. Although this may be ridiculously fanciful on my part as, at this stage, I’ve no idea if more than a handful of people would be interested in buying the thing or even reading it.

So if you might be partial to parting with a tenner for some summertime football-related reading material then please would you let me know either by replying directly to this blogpost or by emailing me at jonathan.allsopp@live.co.uk or by contacting me on Twitter (@jonathanallsopp) so that I can adjust the print run accordingly and reduce my chances of ending up with stacks of unsold books cluttering up our flat. And I’ll be in touch in due course with details of how to pay etc when I’ve got some physical copies to send out.

Thank you very much x

Behind the windows of Manchester

A famous Franco-Mancunian philosopher-footballer once proffered that “nobody can deny that here, behind the windows of Manchester, there is an insane love of football, of celebration and of music” and I reckon our friend from Marseille would have been pretty chuffed last Saturday afternoon as supporters of FC United of Manchester confined behind their windows during the country-wide coronavirus lockdown were treated to a very special collection of music, poetry and literature as the club’s popular pre-match Course You Can Malcolm event made its online debut (you can view it by clicking here if you were busy creosoting your garden fence or one of the 2.5 million joggers currently pounding the pavements of Manchester on a daily basis and haven’t seen it already).

Like all non-league football clubs the fall out from the global pandemic has hit FC United hard – the season has been binned, with all results expunged, just as giddiness at the prospect of play-off heartache abounded and the club faces an estimated £100,000 gap in its finances as it comes to terms with life without any revenue coming in from matches, functions, events or other commercial activities. “We have virtually no income to keep us going through the current crisis” says a message on the club’s website appealing for supporters to donate what they would normally have spent on admission, food and drink, travel, programmes and half-time draw tickets at the half dozen remaining home matches.

And so, rousing themselves from their settees and taking to the video conferencing airwaves (via a North Walian railway signal box), the volunteers who run Course You Can Malcolm, staged at almost all FC’s Saturday afternoon home matches, explored the idea of boosting the fundraising effort by staging an online version of Malcolmses on Saturday 4th April when FC were meant to be going head to head with Nantwich Town in a Northern Premier League promotion six pointer. The outcome of this was a snazzily produced hour-long YouTube video compilation, featuring music, poetry, literature, some farting, a clip from a 1970s television advert for nasal spray and the usual dose of left leaning politics, that mildly rocked the internet at 3pm last Saturday.

Course You Can Malcolm, so-called after a line from a seventies telly advert for Vicks Sinex nasal spray (hence the video clip), began life in 2007 in the days when FC United played their home matches at Gigg Lane in Bury and, allowing for a two year sabbatical around the time that the club moved into its Mancunian home at Broadhurst Park, it has been playing its much cherished part in nourishing the club both culturally and financially for eleven seasons now. Variously described as a “club night in the afternoon”, a “left wing lunatic asylum” and perhaps most beautifully as a South American style “tertulia” CYCM provides match day sustenance for those of us who think that football is not just about football.

There’s music, poetry, theatre, comedy, literature and more – everything from indie-punk to death metal to rap to harp music to belly dancers to members of the Halle choir singing United songs to poets to authors reading from their latest book – talented people giving up their time on a Saturday afternoon to play or perform for free. We’ve been spoiled rotten down the years. Musically, appearances by the likes of the Slow Readers Club, Shame, Cabbage, Aziz Ibrahim, the Eccentronic Research Council and Josephine Oniyama have been undoubted highlights. Not forgetting the genre-busting Ritual Maya who serenaded us earlier this season with (in their words) some “traditional Mexican ceremonial music with punk and metal influences”. But regular appearances by the brilliant local MaD Theatre Company, Attila the Stockbroker ranting about asylum seeking daleks and barely a dry eye in the place as Mike Duff read “And John Terry Cried” are equally as memorable.

All this cultural nourishment is accompanied by locally sourced food (including delicious homemade vegan grub and scrumptious librarian-baked multi-flavoured muffins) and beer at non-rip off prices. Aside from the performers there are plenty of other endearing features including the ever-present banners (particularly the striking Our Flag Stays Red which forms a vivid scarlet backdrop to the stage); the relatively recently acquired disco lights which really do give off a proper “club night in the afternoon” vibe; and each band or musician getting a twenty two minute slot, one minute for each player on the pitch. For those of us deficient in banter and definitely not about to #ClapForFuckingBoris any time soon Malcolmses always feels warm and welcoming, a sanctuary imbued with spirit, patience and gentleness. And perhaps most unusually all of this happens INSIDE a football ground (well it did until Covid-19 rocked up anyway). I’d wager the price of one of Westwell’s cheese pies that there’s nothing quite like CYCM in a football ground anywhere in Europe. After playing at Malcolmses in 2017 Cabbage wrote on their Facebook page that “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“. Awwww, bless ’em, but that’s what it’s like.

The inaugural virtual Malcolmses opened with regular master of ceremonies Si King segueing swiftly, the polished performer that he is, from watching a clip of serial runner-up Steven Gerrard getting sent off after 38 seconds against United a few years back to a typical Malcs-style “did he really just say that” dig at the Tory government for their shambolic response to the coronavirus pandemic that has left many frontline NHS clinicians caring for those infected by Covid-19 with inadequate protection from the disease. Leave your politics at the turnstiles? Nah, fuck it, Malcolmses has always been and always will be, shall we say, a “tad political”.

The poetry section of this e-Malcolmses featured FC United supporter and poet John Darwin who read some poems from his latest book I Meet Myself Returning beneath a skylight in his sunny Prestwich home – proof, if it was needed, that the sun always shines on North Manchester. John very generously offered to mail out copies of the book in return for a donation to the club. Meanwhile another good friend of Course You Can Malcolm historian and writer Selina Todd read from the opening chapter of her latest book, Tastes of Honey, a biography of the Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney who was only nineteen when she wrote the groundbreaking play A Taste of Honey which caused a sensation when it brought the rebelliousness and vigour of northern working class youth to the genteel London stage in 1958. Pretty apt that we should be hearing how Delaney challenged lazy assumptions and showed that working class women “had minds and desires of their own” given that Malcolmses has been doing something similar in a footballing sense for more than a decade now – celebrating the fact that there are plenty of supporters who prefer their weekly matchday fix accompanied by something more stimulating than gassy lager, televised football, fixed odds coupons and mass produced saturated fat.

The hotly tipped Wigan four piece Stanleys, who played at CYCM earlier this season, shared a video of their single Measured in Gold and this virtual edition of Malcolmses was topped off by four songs from indie-punks The Maitlands including a version of the ace Kisses for the Masses which was filmed at Course You Can Malcolm when they came to Broadhurst Park last season. All in all it was a lovely way to spend an hour on a football-less Saturday afternoon. As I write this the thirteen video compilation has had more than two thousand views on YouTube which is not quite the “gone viral” numbers of some posho family belting out a frankly dreadful version of a song from Les Miserables on Facebook but, hey, pretty bloody good for starters and hopefully a chance for this unique match day event to reach a wider audience.

Speaking of which – one of those new-found audience members was one of my bestest mates, a really sound Liverpool supporter, who even though he’s still never been to an FC match (he’s lived in the Netherlands since before FC were born) has always been supportive of the club and intrigued by the concept of Course You Can Malcolm. I shared a link to the online CYCM and invited him to tune in and he texted me back on Saturday evening to say “really enjoyed that and would’ve donated some money if that cheeky fucker hadn’t started by laughing at Gerrard”. It looks like CYCM, and its compere in particular, has a new fan there 😊

And Si and the rest of the hard grafting Malcolmses volunteers, together with a new set of turns, will be doing it all again at 3pm on Easter Monday. So stay safe, keep your distance and don’t forget to tune in, from behind your windows, for more Mancunian cultural riches. Nobody can deny that here at FC United of Manchester we have something very special indeed in Course You Can Malcolm.

 

 

p.s. and if you enjoy the online editions of Course You Can Malcolm and would like to make a donation to FC United of Manchester then you can do so by clicking here: https://www.fcuom.org.uk/donation.php. Thank you.