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Cock of Gibraltar

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World following the announcement this summer that online gambling firm BetVictor will sponsor the Northern Premier League.   

On a training day at work recently the lad sat in front of me plainly knew his stuff and was able to rattle through the computer-based questions we were set at regular intervals before repeatedly switching to a webpage displaying the ball by ball commentary and scorecard from the Pakistan-Bangladesh cricket world cup tie, invariably reaching for his phone as he did so. It was mid-afternoon before I glimpsed an app on his phone and realised what he was up to. “Yeah, I’m just betting on the cricket – got to keep it interesting,” he grinned.  

This modern fetish for in-play betting has largely passed me by. It’s possibly an age thing. Time was when I’d dash out of work at lunchtime, when a big race meeting was on, to put a bet on the horses at the bookies down the road before returning to the office empty handed an hour or so later, stinking of cigarette smoke. Now you barely need to raise a finger to have a flutter. The bit I really struggle with though is the need for money to be involved to make viewing a sporting contest more “interesting” in the first place. I’d have loved to swap a sweaty basement training room for a sunny Lord’s to soak up the atmosphere and admire a Babar Azam cover drive or Shaheen Afridi yorker, without feeling the need to chuck a few quid in the direction of Paddy, William or Fred.

Or BetVictor who, in addition to sponsoring the World Championship of Ping Pong, recently signed a deal to sponsor the Northern Premier League (and the two other regional feeder leagues at steps three and four of non-league football) for the next two seasons, bringing an undisclosed but “remarkable level of new investment” into the three leagues.

And what’s not to like about a few quid in sponsorship money heading our way in these tough times? It’s a “major coup” for the three leagues to attract such a “high profile” sponsor, as the accompanying press release trumpeted. And there certainly shouldn’t be any moaning from us at FC United given that we voted, only two years ago, to allow gambling firms to sponsor the club. Plus we’ve had links to several betting sites on the club’s own website (Canadian Sports Betting, anyone?), displayed the name of a bookies on the back of Pound For The Ground tickets for years and, of course, the building of our ground was part funded, to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds, by the National Lottery via Sport England. So suck it up folks.

That certainly appears to have been the consensus amongst FC’s forumistas anyway, with many also quick to point out the hypocrisy of fellow supporters whinging about the involvement of gambling firms in the game when FC United already have contracts with the likes of Holt’s brewery and Holland’s Pies – and alcohol abuse and obesity represent arguably bigger problems to society than gambling addiction. I use the word ‘arguably’ as a recent study warning that gambling is a bigger problem amongst children these days than either drugs or alcohol, was published around the same time as those pearl clutching do-gooders at the NHS announced the opening of the first gambling clinic for children.

The attraction for our new friends at BetVictor undoubtedly lies not in taking out a full page advert in the programme for Basford United’s local derby with Mickleover Sports but in using the collective digital muscle of the websites and social media platforms of the 228 clubs in the Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier leagues to attract more “customers”. Or “the opportunity to amplify our brand’s digital presence and engagement and to get closer to the leagues’ football fans” as Victor’s Director of Brand and Creative so eloquently put it, possibly whilst rubbing his hands up and down his thighs like another Victor on a nineties game show. And the presence of FC United in this season’s Northern Premier League with our six million website visitors per year and a Twitter following that is five times the size that of a typical club at this level – we account for nearly a quarter of the collective Twitter following of the NPL’s twenty two clubs – surely didn’t deter them in their quest for brand amplification via non-league football. Like it or not, we’re a big fish in a smaller pond again.

So expect plenty of “unique collaborations and campaigns” encouraging us all to bung another few quid Victor’s way in the coming months, as we play our part in a gambling industry that splashes £1.5 billion annually on advertising campaigns pumped out online and through social media. But that’s okay because we voted for it didn’t we, so let’s not get too worked up about all this.

But beyond the simplistic “suck it up, we voted for it” arguments and debate about the rights and wrongs of gambling there are surely wider ethical and financial issues here that ought to be worthy of our attention. Those who like a flutter will recognise BetVictor as the rebranded version of Victor Chandler, the first bookie to move his business off-shore (to Gibraltar) in the late nineties to avoid paying any UK tax. More recently, racehorse owner and multi-millionaire Michael Tabor took over the company and its annual turnover has soared to more than £1 billion on the back of the boom in online betting. (A racehorse owner and a connection to Gibraltar – it looks like we’ve come full circle here folks. Either that or they’re deliberately trolling us). 

For those unfamiliar with the takeover of Manchester United in 2005, it was manager Alex Ferguson’s legal dispute with John Magnier, then United’s major shareholder, over the ownership of the champion racehorse Rock of Gibraltar that ultimately paved the way for the Glazer family’s takeover of United after Magnier sold his shares in the club to Malcolm Glazer in 2005. And the rest is history. 

Of course the BetVictor sponsorship is a league thing, so it’s out of our hands. But I get the impression that, given the club’s continued financial struggles, many supporters would be more than happy with a betting firm based in an off-shore tax haven pouring tens of thousands of pounds into our coffers in return for us prostituting our social media to pump out tacky adverts exhorting our followers to inject a frisson of excitement into their joyless lives through gambling.

The double whammy with companies like BetVictor is that, as well as leaving the NHS to pick up the pieces when the fun stops – it’s estimated that problem gamblers cost the government up to £1.2 billion per year – they are unwilling to pay the taxes to ensure that the NHS is adequately funded in the first place. And how do we reconcile this tax avoidance on a grand scale to the club’s manifesto commitment to “be of benefit to its local communities”? How exactly would cosying up to a tax avoiding sponsor benefit our local community here in north Manchester where facilities like the North Manchester General Hospital are crying out for investment after the longest sustained squeeze on NHS funding in its history? Go on, I’m all ears.

As the search for a main sponsor continues it’s apparent that we’ve given insufficient thought to what a “good” club sponsor might look like beyond them being an individual or business prepared to pump in several thousand pounds per year. What if a potential sponsor prefers not to make a contribution to the fabric of society by paying its taxes? Would we be willing to consider a sponsor linked to a regime with a dodgy human rights record, keen to “wash” their reputation via our website and extensive social media following? And as our contract with Holt’s brewery is soon to end, would potentially replacing them with one of the big multinationals rather than a Manchester-based brewery be “of benefit” to our local community? Or does any of this really matter as long as they’re prepared to chuck tens of thousands of pounds our way?

If only we could get our commercial act together and leverage our multi-million website hits per year; our Twitter following that rivals that of several Scottish Premier League clubs; our support that stretches far beyond these shores; and our highly regarded community work to find ourselves a main club sponsor that has an interest in the population of Moston and Newton Heath beyond simply encouraging them to sit around in their pants all day gambling. How difficult can it be?

In the meantime, FC are apparently twelve to one with BetVictor to win the league. Worth a flutter? Oh, go on then, I’ll pop out in my lunch break.

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Do you want to join our Fantasy League?

Every year, round about now….

– Do you want to join our Fantasy League?

– No thanks, I’ll give it a miss if you don’t mind

– But I thought you liked footie?

– Yeah, I love football

– Which team is it you support again? That non-league one isn’t it?

– FC United of Manchester

– The yellow and green ones?

– No we play in red

– Oh yeah, the one that the Nevilles and Beckham own? Class of ’92 innit, saw it on the telly

– No the one the supporters own

– What the supporters own the club?

– Yeah

– What does Gary Neville do then?

– He’s nowt to do with us – that’s Salford City, a different club

– Oh. But how can supporters own a football club?

– It’s a cooperative and for a small membership fee we get to elect the board and have a say in the running of the club, setting admission prices and stuff – it’s democratically run, one member, one vote

– But who puts the money in? There must be a Mr Big?

– Mainly the supporters through season tickets, memberships, merchandise etc but we also get sponsorship from various businesses and hire out our facilities to the local community. We own the club, run it and make the decisions. If Mr or Mrs Big wants to rock up, that’s fine, but he or she’ll have one vote and one voice like the rest of us.

– Sounds like hard work to me

– Yeah it is. But worth it.

– What league do you play in then?

– The Northern Premier League

– Oh, I’ve not heard of that one. Me and a mate went to watch Dagenham & Redbridge play once – there was only 1,500 there and it pissed it down, we got soaked. Do you play them?

– Nah, they’re a bit far south for the Northern Premier League

– Oh is it just teams up north then?

– Yes

– But who do you really support then?

– FC United of Manchester

– No, don’t be daft, who’s your real team?

– I used to be a Manchester United season ticket holder if that’s what you mean

– So why don’t you go now then? Is it cos they’re not winning stuff anymore?

– It’s a long story mate

– What do you reckon to Rooney coming back eh? Ninety grand a week, wouldn’t mind a bit of that

– Not really arsed to be honest mate

– Man U eh. Bet you don’t come from Manchester do you?

– No. Is that a problem?

– I don’t know any Man U fans that actually come from Manchester – most of them seem to be from down here

– Have you ever been to Manchester?

– No, I went to Liverpool once. One of my mates got us tickets for a European match at Anfield one time. What an atmosphere.

– Well, take it from me, there are quite a few Mancunians that follow United

– So will you join our Fantasy League then?

– No, I’m alright thanks

– Go on, it’s free – just pick a team that you can cheer on each week in the Premier League, makes it more interesting

– But I’ve already got a team that I cheer on in the Premier League – United

– But I thought you didn’t support them anymore?

– 🙄 🙄 🙄 🙄 🙄

– Come on, it’s just a bit of fun

– Nah, it’s shite

– But you could win a pair of tickets to watch a team of your choice – you could go and watch Man U seeing as you still love them so much

– Thanks but I’ve already got a season ticket to watch the “team of my choice”

– Or you could win some Amazon vouchers for twenty five quid

– Fuck Amazon

– Why, what’s wrong with Amazon?

– Sorry mate, I think that’s my phone ringing

 

Looking for some Potts stuff, baby this evening….

Heard the one about the red shirted Manchester football club who appointed a club legend as their caretaker manager then saw an immediate upturn in fortunes with a youthful side playing attacking football before it all went pear-shaped after the appointment had been made permanent? Yeah, you must have, but maybe not the low budget version where the chief protagonist hails from Yorkshire rather than Norway. FC United of Manchester’s start to the 2018-19 season was a shambles and before the end of August manager Tom Greaves, the club’s all time leading goal scorer, had departed less than a year after initially being appointed as caretaker manager, with the club second from bottom of the table with only three points from its first half dozen matches.

The first week of the season was a shocker with the team shipping a dozen goals as we were thumped 5-1 by the eventual champions Stockport on the opening day and then, the following Tuesday night, inexplicably threw a 3-1 half-time lead away at home to recently promoted Ashton United to lose 4-3 followed by a 3-0 thumping by Boston United the following weekend. Yet this all came after a reasonably impressive pre-season campaign by FC standards and there were hopes that Greaves’ newly assembled squad would hit the ground running in the club’s fourth season in National League North. But to some extent the writing was on the wall before a ball had even been kicked with a squad top heavy with young contracted players leaving little wriggle room from one of the smallest playing budgets in the league if key players sustained long term injuries.

As far back as March 2018 two board members were concerned that around half of the playing budget for the following season had already been committed on seven contracted players. The worry was that with 2018 marking three years since the club moved into Broadhurst Park this was the point that it had to begin repaying some of the debt accumulated in the building of the ground leaving no room to overspend on the playing budget. Unlike the 2017-18 season when the board had voted to overspend in the final weeks of the season to avoid the drop. The folly of signing so many players on contracts (by the time the season started the total was up to eleven) quickly became apparent as goalkeeper Lloyd Allinson, last year’s player of the season, injured his hand, apparently whilst piercing a hole in his belt, which meant he didn’t play until October. And then when we did kick off at Stockport, on the opening day, one of Tom Greaves’ summer signings sustained a serious knee injury after only a few seconds and missed the entire season.

Greaves’ departure was quickly followed by the resignation, a few weeks later, of Chief Executive Damian Chadwick after nearly two years at the helm. He’d joined FC United with the club’s finances in a perilous position but managed to establish a more professional operation befitting a sixth tier football club and, at the same time, began to boost the club’s non-match day revenue by reaching out beyond our own fan base. But as a team of volunteers reviewed the fitness for purpose of the club’s management structure Damian felt that it was an opportune moment to step down. He was replaced later in the season by a part-time operations manager supported by a volunteer-run management team that has focused on financial and commercial issues. It’s a much leaner management structure but one that has often felt extremely stretched and overly reliant on the goodwill of volunteers. Indeed the extent of the involvement of the club’s co-owners in the day to day running of the club is arguably greater than at any point in its history – saving the club a staggering £276,000 per season, or around 23% of its annual turnover, according to a recent estimate.

One bright spot in the early part of the season was the opening of the redeveloped area under the St Mary’s Road End terrace as a space that can be used by the local community on non-match days. And it also became the new home for Course You Can Malcolm, FC’s club night in the afternoon, which continued to provide a pre-match feast of music and poetry throughout the season, all acts playing for free, including local bands like Callow Youth who I’m sure we’ll be hearing more of in years to come. In a season where there was little to cheer on the pitch CYCM regularly brought smiles to Red faces and nourished us culturally and culinarily. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything else like it inside a football ground on a Saturday afternoon anywhere in Europe.

Former captain Dave Chadwick took over as caretaker manager following Tom Greaves’ departure and results improved but for a time in the autumn as the search for a permanent replacement dragged on and we seemed incapable of ending a match with eleven players on the pitch the grim reality that this season was going to be a long battle against relegation set in. Neil Reynolds was eventually appointed first team manager in late October joining the club from Bamber Bridge who he had led to promotion to the Northern Premier League on a shoestring budget the previous season – thus making this the first time that FC United had appointed a manager with actual managerial experience and with a UEFA B coaching badge to boot. Straightaway it was clear that the new manager puts a strong emphasis on fitness and the use of the latest technology to track progress and within a couple of weeks supporters raised over £4k to purchase a set of hi-tech tracker bibs for the squad.

Immediately the talk was of looking up the table rather than down and after creditable draws at home to Brackley and Alfreton, FC enjoyed something of a purple patch in the first half of November with impressive wins away at Blyth Spartans and Hereford scoring six goals in the process and playing perhaps the best football FC United have ever played at this level with the newly recruited captain Mike Potts impressing in midfield. The comfortable 3-1 win at Hereford, sealed with a burst of three goals in a five minute spell midway through the first half, was hugely enjoyable on and off the pitch, providing a glimpse of Reno’s preferred style of football and, on reflection, was perhaps the season’s high point. Exiting Edgar Street after the match you couldn’t help but embrace the manager’s optimism about the remainder of the season and the Donna Summer inspired song for our new captain earwormed its way into my brain for several days after.

But it wasn’t to last and despite finally winning a home league match in December against Curzon Ashton, the only win at home in the league all season, there was little festive joy as top of the table Chorley twice blasted four past us. A win at promotion chasing Bradford (Park Avenue) in January briefly raised hopes but a grim 1-0 defeat at Ashton United the following week brought us crashing back down to earth and staring relegation in the face. In truth we played well for large parts of the matches at home to on-form Stockport and Altrincham but the inability to turn possession into goal scoring chances was frustrating but ultimately reflected the lack of headroom in the football budget for Reynolds to bring in players of sufficient quality. Although it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying as, by the end of the season, more than fifty players had played for the first team at some point during the 2018-19 campaign.

In such a dismal season it’s difficult to single out the lowest point. Our exit from the FA Cup, at home to Witton Albion from the division below, ending the match with only eight players on the pitch felt like a new FC United low at the time but this was trumped by the shitshow at home to bottom of the table Nuneaton at the end of March as we were thrashed 4-0 by a side that only won four matches all season. We were effectively relegated there and then but Guiseley’s inability to win as well meant that it wasn’t until the penultimate match on Easter Monday that relegation was confirmed. The number and quality of the away support at Brackley on the last day of the season, however, told its own story – a neutral would have been hard pushed to decipher which of the two teams was heading into the play-offs for promotion to the National League.

So where do we go from here, back in the glue league after a four year sojourn? Well we could start by looking to the future rather than wallowing in our past. We do a ridiculous amount of looking back at FC which I suppose goes with the territory of being a football club that was partly formed as a reaction to the passive consumption of much of modern football and sought to bring back the passion and atmosphere to the terraces that many of us had known from our United supporting past. But at times we take it to almost cringeworthy extremes; the continual harking back to 1974 during the relegation struggles of each of the last four seasons (apart from the fact we went down this year, it was nothing like ’74 was it?); the regular “ten years ago” feature in the programme (we’re only 14 years old ffs); the 1878 nostalgia magazine (it’s a belting read though); the reminiscing about 1977 as Martin Buchan was invited to the club in September and yet more reminiscing, oh yes, around the twentieth anniversary of that night in Barcelona when United clinched the treble as Andy Cole guested at the recent Gala Dinner the club’s biggest fundraising event of the year.

Of course it shows the pride that we all have in our 141 year history but we need to look to the future because there are a whole stack of reasons to be optimistic about the club’s future both on and off the pitch. On the pitch we may have been relegated but we have a young, hungry and ambitious manager who has already been busy assembling a squad for next season’s campaign in the Northern Premier League with supporters already looking forward to trips to the likes of Matlock, Whitby and Scarborough. Meanwhile the success of the club’s Academy should be a source of considerable pride with Elliot Simoes’ performances in an FC shirt in the first few weeks of the season catching the eye of Barnsley who offered the nineteen year old winger a long term contract, Sam Harding called up to play for England Schoolboys and several Academy players making their first team debuts during the season.

Off the pitch there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful too as the club has established a grip on its finances over the last few years to the extent that it now generates a healthy operating profit – no mean feat at this level or any level of football. And with work ongoing to establish firm plans for the repayment of debt incurred during the construction of the ground, in years to come we may well remember 2019 as the year that the club ensured its long term survival. But the single biggest hole in the financial plans for 2018-19, as in the last few years, was the inability to find a main club sponsor. What Manchester-based business, with one eye on its social responsibilities, wouldn’t want to be associated with a club that does so much good in a corner of Manchester worn down by a decade of austerity? Yet many of our own supporters and members, let alone local businesses, would probably struggle to describe to you the full extent of the club’s community programme – we’re not great at blowing our own trumpet.

Take a look at the club’s website, a window on the club for many hundreds and thousands of potential supporters and sponsors, and you have to look carefully to find much evidence of our extensive community work. Not even a mention, for instance, of the club’s disability team who recently won the Adult Male League Disability competition in the FA People’s Cup and were presented with the trophy on the pitch at Wembley at half-time in the FA Cup Final a few weeks ago. A tremendous achievement for the club yet you’ll learn more about it on the FA’s website than you will on our own. Likewise a recent report by Amnesty on their Football Welcomes weekend in April, a celebration of how football clubs all over the country can help generate welcoming communities for refugees and asylum seekers, mentioned the participation of Manchester United and Salford City amongst others yet only last summer FC United was the only football club that participated in a refugee football tournament in Manchester – but unless you were actually at the event or one of the hard core two hundred or so co-owners that can be arsed to peruse the monthly board reports you probably wouldn’t know that. Like so much of what we do it flies under the radar.

Yet as PSG and Barcelona visited Old Trafford in the Champions League in the spring we saw French and Spanish journalists visiting Broadhurst Park eager to learn of the progress of “l’autre Manchester United” and pen pieces for newspapers back home. And, as ever, through the season we’ve seen hundreds of supporters from all over Europe, and sometimes further afield, at home matches invariably knowledgeable about the club and its history – more so than the Barclays banter lads I often bump into on trains to and from matches who regularly refer to us as “Gary Neville’s lot”. One group of Schalke fans I got chatting to in the queue for the 182 from town told of how they were over for the weekend, had been to Aston Villa on the Friday night and originally intended to go to Derby on the Saturday but instead had chosen to come to watch an almost relegated side in division six. Why? “It’s always a good atmosphere, so much passion, we like it”. And, at the same match, fans from Slovakia described FC United as “an inspiration to us”. I don’t pretend to know anything about sales and marketing but, at times, it’s mind boggling that a club with this much of a profile and pulling power across an entire continent not only struggles to find a business prepared to pump in a five figure sum as a main sponsor but scratches around trying to sell pitch-side advertising boards and matchday sponsorship packages for a few hundred pounds.

This continued inability to find a main club sponsor is a concern and the lack of a long term club strategy undoubtedly isn’t helping. In their review of the fitness for purpose of the club’s management structure last year the volunteer review team identified the urgent need for the club to set out its long term strategy. Where do we expect to be in five or ten years time both on and off the pitch? Where are the ambitious plans to set in front of potential major club sponsors and invite them to come and join us on the club’s journey? But nearly a year on from the review we appear to be no nearer to setting out our long term plans. It’s time to put the fading match programmes and dog-eared ticket stubs away, stick that treble DVD back on the shelf, stop wallowing in all this nostalgia and focus on the club’s future.

Oh what a night, late in May in nineteen ninety nine……

Late in May in 1999 the biggest travelling football support to ever leave these shores descended on Barcelona to watch Manchester United come from behind to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 to win the European Cup in a breathtaking final three minutes and, with it, claim an unprecedented English football treble by winning the League, the FA Cup and the European Cup in a single season. This is one account of that extraordinary night and the days around it. 

“Put your clothes back on mate for fuck’s sake”. The pair of us were about to be thrown off the train from Barcelona to Paris before it had even left Catalonia and there he was stood in his underpants remonstrating with the various members of the train crew who had assembled to usher us off the train. We’d lost our train tickets – or, more precisely, I had lost our tickets – and despite being able to locate a receipt for the purchase several weeks ago the Spanish hector had seen enough and instructed us that the train would be making an unscheduled stop at Girona to drop us off.

Looking back, I’ve no idea how we managed to board an international express train in the first place without being able to produce valid tickets or, to be honest, whether or not we were actually on the right train (probably not to be absolutely Frank Stapleton with you given the amount of alcohol consumed that day) as, unlike the trip down a couple of days before, there were a lot of Germans on this train many of whom were gathering in the corridor outside their compartments to point and laugh at a pair of drunken English football fans making right dicks of themselves. After being given our marching orders my mate had decided that the only way to avoid being thrown off the train was to strip and stage what he referred to as a “diplomatic protest”. He’d seen it work on television documentaries apparently and urged me to do the same but I was too busy trying to sober up. Thankfully there were no phone cameras around back then to capture this pantomime taking place almost exactly twenty four hours after the greatest three minutes of our thirty summat football supporting lives.

The first twenty or so hours of 27th May 1999 had been blissful – a day of celebration in the early summer sunshine in one of Europe’s great cities, supping beer, singing songs, swapping stories and interspersed with the occasional shake of the head at the barminess of it all. Did it really happen? Did we really just win the treble? There were Reds everywhere grinning like big daft Cheshire cats. Strangers were hugged and locals tooted car horns and congratulated us as they passed. “They are ugly, but they are good people” said one of the local papers of the hordes of United supporters who had invaded their city turning it into a Manchester suburb. By late morning we’d plotted up at a bar near the Sagrada Familia cathedral and not long after a group of lads from Frankfurt joined us to celebrate – they were Eintracht fans on holiday down the coast and had come into town to gloat at the demise of Bayern Munich. Belying the xenophobic “two world wars and one world cup” narrative beloved of the English media there were many Germans who took great delight in the English footballing triumph of the night before. And, in contrast, no doubt quite a few ABUs back home in England were keeping their heads down at work that morning.

By late afternoon the day began to gently unravel as the heat, lack of sleep and several litres of Estrella Damm and San Miguel began to hit home. We were drinking with two lads who we’d met on the train down from Paris on Tuesday night. We’d never met before and after they departed for an earlier train on that Thursday evening we never saw them again. Arriving in Barcelona on the Wednesday morning only one of the four of us had a ticket and none of us had any accommodation booked. The story was that all hotels within at least an hour’s drive of Barcelona were fully booked and the city’s airport reportedly had its busiest day on record – it was the largest travelling football support ever to leave these shores and everyone you spoke to had their own story of how they’d made it to north eastern Spain by plane, train or automobile or sometimes a combination of all three. Inevitably the prices of “cheap” flights to Spain had rocketed as the final whistle sounded in Turin weeks before so we’d decided to let the train take the strain (“full steam ahead to Barcelona”) as, aside from the Eurostar leg, it was considerably cheaper than flying. So our own itinerary consisted of getting a train to London on the Tuesday morning then the Eurostar to Paris with just enough time for a few sundowners by the Seine before catching the overnight train down to Barcelona arriving bright and early in the centre of town on the Wednesday morning. What could possibly go wrong?

Getting some kip in the bunks of a sleeper train compartment whilst cheek by jowl with complete strangers can be difficult at the best of times but add copious amounts of alcohol and pre-European Cup final giddiness into the mix and it was nigh on impossible. As the sun rose and the train, packed with excitable United fans, eased through the Barcelona suburbs there were United flags draped from the balconies of apartment blocks and hotel windows everywhere. It was a tremendous sight but at the same time it made the prospect of actually finding a ticket, at a price we could afford, that much slimmer. And there was a quiet moment, one of very few on that trip, when it dawned on the four of us that this was the day when we really were going to watch our Manchester United in the final of the European Cup. Most United fans in our twenties and thirties had grown up with the tales of Matt Busby’s swashbuckling side conquering Europe in ’68 and this was finally our turn, more than three decades later, to make our own history. 

By mid-afternoon after walking the Ramblas with real intent and much scurrying from bar to bar as whispers of spare tickets here and there were rife it still looked like only one quarter of our party would make it into the stadium. But as we dropped our bags into left luggage lockers at the railway station before heading out to the ground we got chatting to a group of Bayern fans who offered us a spare ticket at face value (one of their group couldn’t make it at the last minute) and my mate snapped it up. It meant he was in the Bayern end but at least he was going to be in the ground the lucky bastard.

We were outside Camp Nou more than three hours before kick off in the search for any spares and it was quickly apparent that there were tons of snides about and also a lot of Barcelona season ticket holders with genuine tickets for sale but who all seemed to want in excess of £500 for tickets that started at around twelve pounds face value – way above our modest budgets. The minutes seemed to fly by, lots of Reds were buzzing at finally getting their hands on a ticket whilst some were in despair at the news that their travel company had gone bust leaving them stranded and without tickets they’d already paid for, and as the two lads in our group that actually had briefs headed into the ground with about half an hour to go the two of us left behind began to think about finding a bar to watch the match. But with barely five minutes to go until kick-off we struck gold – a Barca fan with two spare tickets who’d earlier asked us for silly money was now prepared to sell us the pair for what was the equivalent of £140 each (the tickets were around £16 face value). We handed over a wedge of pesetas, ran for the turnstiles and eventually took our places at the back of the second tier, high above a corner flag at the United end just as Mario Basler’s free kick nestled in the back of the net.

I don’t remember much about the next eighty five minutes of the match. It wasn’t a classic by any means but European Cup finals rarely are. Yet those who reckoned that we were second best throughout and lucky to win were wide of the mark. Yes Bayern hit the woodwork a couple of times but watching highlights of the match recently I’d forgotten how many decent chances we had to equalise, particularly after Teddy and Ole came on late on. It just felt though like our reservoir of luck for the season had finally dried up. But, no matter, at least we’d been lucky enough to see our team play in a European Cup final and as the final few minutes ebbed away I took a breather from singing and shouting and paused to gaze in awe at the splendour of a packed Camp Nou. The Bayern fans at the other end of the ground were in celebratory mood already, and who could blame them, only a few minutes from being crowned European champions again and remain on course for a treble of their own. Their elder statesman Lothar Matthaus got a huge ovation as he was substituted and likewise Mario Basler, the scorer of what looked almost certain to be the winning goal in a European Cup final, a few minutes later. The latter was replaced by Hasan Salihamidzic and the Bayern stadium announcer did that thing where he only announces the oncoming player’s first name and allows the supporters to do the rest. The five syllables of the Bosnian’s surname crackled like celebratory fireworks around the arena – it sounded ace (we tried to do the same at OT the following season when the teams were read out before kick-off but it never took off).

But then, as the clock ticked past ninety, from out of nowhere came Teddy’s equaliser to take the match into extra time. Fucking get in. Then seconds later as we’re still catching our breath from the leveller, another corner, a header at the near post, Ole sticks out a boot and the roof of the net bulges. Cue absolute pande-fuckin-monium, primal screams, limbs everywhere, “I can’t fucking breath”, bear hugs, sloppy kisses, grown men in tears, more bear hugs. MUFC are the European champions. GET IN THERE YOU FUCKING BEAUTIFUL TREBLE WINNING RED BASTARDS!!!! The celebrations on the pitch and in the stands at the end which lasted more than an hour, as each player took it in turns to lift the trophy in front of the fans, were something really special and demonstrated a one-ness between players and fans all too rare in modern football – I never wanted it to end.

One of my favourite things on Twitter recently has been scrolling through the thread started by Barney Chilton, the editor of the United fanzine Red News, on which fans have been sharing their photos from the night. I’d bought a cheap disposable camera for the trip but then forgot to take it to the ground (who takes photos at football matches anyway?) so aside from a match programme with its Miro-esque cover, a slightly dog-eared ticket and a UEFA accreditation badge allowing access to the Champions’ Lounge (I’ve no idea how I ended up with this) I haven’t got anything tangible to show from that night so it’s been great to see the pictures and they’ve brought back so many happy memories. On reflection, I’m glad that it all happened back in the days before our mobile gadgets took over and we were able to become completely submerged in those euphoric moments without feeling the need to express a reaction on social media or reach for a camera or, perish the thought, a fucking selfie stick.

Memories of the rest of the night after we eventually left the stadium are hazy to say the least. I remember being on the metro back into town, the carriage rocking with us singing and bouncing around, and overhearing a dejected Bayern fan stood nearby turn to his mate and go “zay only sing ven zay are vinning”. And I can vaguely recall a dancefloor somewhere and the layers of synths on the OT Quartet’s Hold That Sucker Down, a corking slice of nineties trance, building like a skyscraper. No need for pills, the adrenaline rush of the match was exhilaration enough. But between that and waking up in the railway station at about seven in the morning thinking I’d dreamt it all and amidst commuters trying to plot a route across a concourse laden with bodies is a blank. 

So it was something of a come down several hours later to meet a welcoming party of several police officers as we clambered off the train at Girona and we were ushered into a station office and questioned for what was probably about an hour, but felt a lot longer, about why we’d effectively tried to jib a ten hour train journey from Barcelona to Paris. After convincing them that we weren’t English football hooligans intent on causing mither but simply regular fans who during twenty four hours of celebrating the greatest night of our football lives had misplaced our train tickets for our return journey we were left to wander the streets of the Catalan town to find a bed for the night.

Unfortunately two days of almost non-stop singing had shredded my vocal chords which made communicating, in pigeon Spanish, with the woman at the ticket office at Girona station the following morning tricky to say the least. But eventually we bought tickets to enable us to resume our journey back to England and hopped on a local train that meandered to the border and then got further trains on round the coast to Narbonne and Perpignan and subsequently on to Montpellier. Sadly there was little time to enjoy the scenery of south western France as we were on a tight schedule. Later as we whizzed north to Paris on the TGV we laughed about a thoroughly miserable train journey that we had shared back from Liverpool seven years earlier, the ocean depths to our ’99 cloud nine, when the notion that we would even win the league let alone an unprecedented treble of the league, the FA Cup and European Cup before the turn of the century was, frankly, borderline delusional. Post-Barcelona there weren’t many matches that we went to together again. The following year my mate went back home to Ireland (although he returned a couple of years later) and I took a year off work and went backpacking. Strangely the last football match that we attended together was FC United’s first league match at Leek in August 2005. I loved it but my mate, despite enjoying the day, decided that FC wasn’t for him and that was that.    

On arrival in London on the Friday night I hopped onto a Northern Line tube at Waterloo and a lad sat across the aisle eyed my United t-shirt and chatted excitedly about Wednesday night. When I explained that I was on my way back from the match he gasped and went “what, you were actually there?” before getting up to shake my hand. We’d arrived back in the country not having a clue as to the reaction of people back home to United winning the treble in such breathtaking fashion but it was clear from this little exchange that if punters on the tube were discussing it with complete strangers two days later then something pretty special must have occurred. It was the early hours of Saturday morning before I eventually made it home dazed, hungover, exhausted, a little bit sunburnt and tens of thousands of pesetas lighter than when I set out on Tuesday morning but still buzzing at the events of two nights before, the like of which I’m convinced we’ll never see again. Oh what a night……    

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m forty nine point six?

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World on how the club can play a valuable and much needed role, alongside local NHS services, in improving the health and well-being of people across North Manchester  

Scrolling through some old emails recently I found a long forgotten one that made me cringe – a missive fired off to the National Health Action Party in the spring of 2015 asking them to consider me as a possible parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming General Election. The nascent political party, campaigning for a properly funded, publicly run NHS, were standing candidates in a national election for the first time and as a longstanding NHS worker increasingly disillusioned with the ongoing destruction of the health service I had decided to throw my hat into the ring. Although quite why anyone would want to vote for an anti-social NHS bean counter standing for a single issue political party that no one’s even heard of is anyone’s guess.

The part of the email that made me flinch was not so much my audacity in wanting to stand for parliament in the first place, which was plainly nuts, but the final paragraph of my five hundred word statement that droned on about how I was a founder member of FC United and how much the club had achieved, on and off the pitch, in barely a decade providing proof that “a group of people with passion and commitment to a cause can”….wait for it…..“change the world” <inserts rolling eyes emoji>.

It’s easy to forget how, by early 2015, so many of us had bought into this “changing the world” bullshit that trips to the likes of Torquay were conducted with almost evangelical (oh look it’s the inventors of supporter owned football coming to save us) fanaticism whilst giddiness levels were cranked up to eleven at the prospect of our future Moston home becoming the power base for a full-on assault on rolling back western capitalism.

(I think we reached peak new world zealotry when Walsh and the Reverend Pye-in-the-sky turned up to a London branch meeting one year and were busy preaching the benefits of establishing links with like-minded clubs in Europe when someone, with family connections to Ghana, piped up that we should do the same in Africa – he had contacts there and would pass them on. Meanwhile the rest of us just sat there lapping it up, not one of us interjecting to say “hang on a minute mate, we’re a half-decent Northern Premier League side that’s permanently strapped for cash, how the fuck are we going to go inter-continental?”)  

Fortunately the party that no one’s heard of said thanks but no thanks to my offer to save the world. Devoid of backing from wealthy donors they were as skint as FC United and had thus wisely decided to stick with the dozen candidates they’d got so far rather than recruiting more – and therefore with no chance of internet footage of any pompous “changing the world” nonsense on the hustings emerging in later years my blushes were spared.

Fast forward a few years and, although our plans for world domination have been curtailed somewhat, there is an often over-looked and important connection to be made between FC United and the health and wellbeing of the community of which we are part. And I’m not talking about the blood pressure raising qualities of our Leeds supporting keeper either. The health service has taken a battering in the last decade as it endures the biggest sustained squeeze on its funding in its seventy year history whilst further butchering of the wider public sector that has seen local council funding slashed, school budgets cut and a dearth of affordable, decent quality housing has only exacerbated the pressure on hospitals and GPs. And north Manchester has suffered more than most as the health gap across the city has grown to such an extent that one councillor warned that the combination of bad health and bad healthcare in the north of the city is potentially “catastrophic”.

When viewed by council ward across the whole of Manchester the statistics on health for the likes of Newton Heath and Harpurhey make for grim reading whether we’re talking about life expectancy, mortality rates, childhood obesity or the percentage of babies born to mothers under 18. But perhaps the most shocking of all the numbers is the revelation that healthy life expectancy (i.e. the number of years a person can reasonably expect to live in good health) at birth for males raised in Newton Heath is a mere 49.6 years (the lowest of any council ward in Manchester) and 50.3 in Harpurhey (the second worst in the city) compared to 56.1 for Manchester as a whole (and 58.3 for South Manchester) and 63.5 across England. So men living in two of the wards on FC’s doorstep can typically expect to encounter serious health problems (and thus require the services of the NHS) nearly a decade before someone living in the south of the city and a staggering fourteen years earlier than the average English male.

No surprise then that the local hospital is struggling to cope. Visiting the long neglected North Manchester General Hospital in Crumpsall with its ageing buildings is like being whisked back half a century or more – staggering, in a city where multi-million pound hotels and yuppie apartment blocks are going up all over town, that one of its major hospitals has been starved of significant capital investment for so long. Meanwhile the management of the Pennine Acute Hospitals Trust, which runs the hospital along with others in Bury, Rochdale and Oldham, was branded “inadequate” by the healthcare watchdog the Care Quality Commission in 2016 and the trust is projected to make a deficit of £69 million in the current financial year – more than a tenth of its total budget of around £660 million. Like many hospitals much of this deficit is driven by an inability to cope with rising emergency admissions and difficulties in recruiting and retaining nursing and medical staff. And we think we’ve got financial problems.

We might not be trying to save the world anymore but much of the community work that we have done and are continuing to do since we arrived in Moston has been, directly or indirectly, about improving the health of local people from running healthy eating workshops for local schools and weekly walking football sessions to the sporting memories group which aims to reduce social isolation, depression and loneliness amongst older people through reminiscing about past sporting events. A recent report by the Health Foundation found that older people who live alone are 50% more likely to go to A&E than those who live with someone else and that by tackling problems such as social isolation and loneliness amongst elderly people it is possible to significantly reduce the pressure on A&E departments and GPs. We certainly shouldn’t underestimate the value of the work that the club is already doing.

But as the biggest community organisation in the area we could be doing more and the redevelopment of the space under the St Mary’s Road End was meant to be a game changer that would see us greatly expanding our community work with our Power to Change funding application, written over two years ago, referring to how the “multi-functional community space” will benefit the “health and wellbeing” of the local community by hosting activities such as “NHS medical surgeries, stroke victim clubs, blood/heart testing, mental health initiatives and physiotherapy and sports injuries clinics”. Yet nearly six months since Martin Buchan cut the scarlet ribbons where are all these activities that we were meant to be hosting?

You don’t need to be the Secretary of State for Health to join the dots and realise that FC United can play a key part in improving the health of our local community. And far from us needing to go cap in hand to the powers that be at the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, the alliance of councils and NHS organisations responsible under the so-called DevoManc initiative for managing the devolved £6 billion budget for health and social care for Greater Manchester, they really ought to be banging on our door. The recently published NHS Long Term Plan refers to something called “social prescribing” to ease the pressure on hospitals and GPs. It’s a fancy term for much of the good stuff that our football club is already doing and intends to do in future – doing our best to help people live healthier lives in an area that has borne the brunt of the post-crash cuts and where swimming pools, youth clubs, meals on wheels and libraries have either disappeared or been left to volunteers to plug the gaps. When we finally get round to setting out the club’s long term strategy, in whatever year that may be, our contribution to the health of the local community must surely be a significant part of that.

By helping us to help our local community each pound invested in activities at Broadhurst Park by the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership could, in the long run, save thousands of pounds for the local health economy by promoting a fitter and healthier population across M40 and M9 thus easing the pressure on our local health services. It ought to be a no brainer. A “win-win”. Call it what you want. However the NHS, with its byzantine organisation and almost impenetrable jargon, has traditionally been poor at looking beyond its own organisational boundaries for assistance and here at FC United, until recent times, we’ve not exactly been great either at attracting financial and other support from beyond our own fan base (you only need to look at the lack of income to support our community work to see evidence of that) so this will no doubt involve considerable hard work on both sides.

But we really need to get our collective act together here because right now the local NHS needs us to be doing our bit for the local community perhaps more than anyone at the club realises. We might not ferment the overthrow of the capitalist system but we could help some of our local residents to live a reasonably healthy, active and enjoyable life well beyond their fiftieth birthday. And it would provide a much needed nod to the vision, all those years ago, of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company’s board who, recognising the power of football, leased a plot of land, just down the road from here, for workers to partake in regular outdoor sporting activities in their spare time. Let’s hope our board and management team and local health bosses can display similar foresight.          

A different type of football club owner

 

 

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World in the aftermath of the huge outpouring of grief that accompanied the death of Leicester City’s “different type of football club owner” in a helicopter crash in October

In a central London pub, a couple of years ago, I listened to one of FC United’s former board members recount her time on the board. I left after nearly three hours of what was chiefly a self-justificatory snorefest but not before I heard reference to something called the “Roman Abramovich test” of which she was quite proud. Apparently on occasions when the board weren’t sure how open they should be with the club’s owners (i.e. us) she urged fellow board members to consider how much information the Chelsea board would be willing to divulge with their billionaire Russian owner in a similar situation. An interesting glimpse into the mind-set of our former board when it comes to what they expected of the club’s owners. There was us merrily thinking we were trying to show the world that a bunch of supporters could own and run a football club but really all that was expected of us was to keep quiet and reach into our wallets when required – little different to the likes of Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and Saint Vichai.

I’ll be honest until the news story broke on that late October Saturday night I had never heard of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. I’ve long since lost touch with big football – I don’t have Sky and rarely make the trip to the pub to watch United games anymore – so the identity of Leicester City’s owner hadn’t featured on my scaled down football horizon. I was under the impression that their “fairytale” Premier League title win in 2016 was simply a once-in-a-lifetime story of plucky underdogs triumphing against the odds and hadn’t fully appreciated until much later that it had, in fact, been bankrolled by a Thai billionaire who owned a company called King Power who had a monopoly on the sale of duty free products in Thailand.

So the huge outpouring of grief that accompanied the death of the Leicester owner, along with four others, in a horrific helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium took me by surprise. Of course it was a terrible tragedy for the family and friends of the Thai billionaire but it was also one that appeared to unite the entire football world in grief as players, supporters and reporters rushed to copy and paste his name into social media posts paying tribute to a “truly great, kind, loving man”, and a “different type of football club owner” who was “so generous in the extreme”.

Supporters laying floral tributes outside the ground told of how he bought them a pint, always acknowledged them with a smile and gave money to the local hospital. Enough to be lauded as a “man of the people” these days. Even polo partner Prince William waxed lyrical about a “businessman of strong values who was dedicated to his family”. So dedicated that his former beauty queen mistress died in the helicopter with him. And surfing the Diana-style wave of grief engulfing the nation the Sun ran an eight page pull-out to mark the passing of the great man, referring to him as a “legend” of the game and the ripples were even felt as far afield as Broadhurst Park where, at the suggestion of the National League, a minute’s silence was held before FC United’s midweek match with Alfreton.

Of course, the Thai tycoon was another example of one of those “good” migrants who everyone likes. Not the ones fleeing the horrors of civil war desperate to find shelter and make a new life elsewhere but the ones who bring pots of cash with them – cash is king in this age of austerity with public services crumbling. Made billions by bribing government officials to acquire a controlling interest in a privatised oil company sold off way below its true value? Come on in, pour yourself a vodka. Or made your fortune by using your political and royal connections to acquire a lucrative monopoly in flogging duty free products from your country’s biggest airport? No problem, come on in. The helicopter? Land it where you want mate. Your mistress? Yeah, bring her as well, the more the merrier.

But dig a bit deeper and it’s apparent that Vichai’s business dealings left much to be desired. His company King Power has thrived thanks not only to royal connections but also to top level political support – in particular to the leaders who ordered a brutal crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations across Thailand in 2010 which saw more than 80 people killed and two thousand injured. All this is well documented in the Political Prisoners in Thailand blog, an excellent, not to say brave, feat of investigative journalism that has been detailing abuses of the law and human rights in Thailand over the last decade. Even a cursory glance at the mentions of King Power and the former Leicester owner on this website leaves you with the impression that here was a man that certainly did not live up to the recent hype. A “businessman of strong values”? Hmmm.

But setting aside these allegations it’s remarkable, as Red Issue tweeted, how easy it is, particularly in this post-Savile era, for a murky past to be scrubbed clean by a few charitable donations and how we remain so ridiculously in thrall in this country to anyone that has a pile of cash, no matter where it has come from or how it has been acquired, and is prepared to splash it around a few charities and public services. The fact that by organising society in a way that reduces inequality we could ensure that hospitals, schools and other public services were properly funded and didn’t have to rely on the well publicised largesse of wealthy benefactors is no doubt lost on most.

And let’s be honest, when it comes to generosity, writing off a football club’s debt and continuing to bankroll it, as the Thai billionaire did with Leicester, is hardly news these days – it happens all the time at all levels of the game. Only in the last few weeks, our fellow National League North side Nuneaton Borough, experiencing serious financial problems of their own, confirmed that more than £450k of loans to the club by two of its former directors had been generously written off in order to secure the club’s long term future.

And what of FC United’s different type of football club owner who are no strangers to pumping money into our football club time and time again? As the news of the helicopter crash swamped social media on that Saturday night after our hard-earned draw with Brackley, across on The Soul is One forum supporters were already responding to an appeal for us to club together to raise more than £3,000 to support our new manager in the form of a set of hi-tech tracker vests to be worn by the players – a sign of the more professional managerial approach that Neil Reynolds is keen on. Already, late on that Saturday night, cash was being chucked into the pot and barely forty eight hours later, more than eighty supporters had raised around £4,000 and the market was being scoured for a suitable supplier. A heartwarming sign, yet again, of how much we all care for this club of ours.

Indeed it would be interesting to compare how much Leicester’s legendary billionaire owner pumped into the club as a fraction of his wealth (estimated at more than three billion quid) with the sums that many FC United supporters invested in the club’s community share scheme which raised more than £2 million to get our Broadhurst Park ground built, as a proportion of what might loosely be termed as our “wealth” or life savings. I’m going to hazard a guess here, as we clearly don’t have such figures to hand, that a fair few FCers, encouraged by the silver tongue of our very own former “light of progressive glory” ended up over-extending ourselves financially and chucked a bit more into the community shares pot than perhaps we could reasonably afford in “one last push” for Moston. Especially as we might not have read that pesky small print. And when we do the maths that proportion of our total “wealth” is probably several multiples of what the Thai duty free mogul pumped into Leicester. But let’s not hold our breath on a Gary Lineker tweet or newspaper pull-out any time soon.

For all our failings, the recent vest contributions and the current extent of the involvement of supporters in the day to day running of the club, illustrate again how we have something worth shouting about here – a genuinely different form of football club ownership that is a world away from being bankrolled by a Thai oligarch. And thankfully too we’ve come a long way from the “Roman Abramovich test” and the mushroom management that nearly drove us into oblivion.

All that can adorn and bless

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World about how the club might commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre next year 

During this summer’s Euro away I bumped into a couple of FC’s newer supporters on their first trip abroad following the club. We chewed over recent events at the club for a while before swapping notes on where we stood in the ground; “oh, near the lefties then” said one as I explained my regular-ish location on the St Mary’s Road End, prompting me to blurt out something about how without “the lefties” this football club wouldn’t exist. It was something of a conversation killer and we drifted off into the night. Fuck knows what these supporters would have made of events at a fellow fan-owned football club in London this summer.

There’s nothing new about football clubs using their shirts to support particular campaigns or causes. Celtic players have worn a large cross on their shirts around Famine Memorial Day in recent seasons to commemorate the Great Famine in Ireland and, of course, the controversial red poppy is now emblazoned on shirts, merchandise and club websites in the run-up to Remembrance Day each year. But in August, before they had even played a competitive fixture, Clapton Community FC caused quite a stir with the launch of their red, purple and yellow away shirt inspired by the colours of the International Brigades who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

Clapton Community FC are a fan-owned football club – formed this summer after a long running battle between the supporters of Clapton FC and its owner – whose supporters include a number of lifelong fans and a group known as the Clapton Ultras who, disillusioned with top flight football, boosted crowds at the club’s Old Spotted Dog ground in recent seasons. The supporters wanted a greater say in the running of the club and for the additional matchday revenue from average crowds, which rose from about 25 to more than three hundred over the course of five seasons, to be reinvested in the club. They staged a solid boycott of home matches throughout the 2017-18 season before deciding to establish their own club this summer, apparently seeking advice from FC’s former head honcho, Andy Walsh, amongst others. The newly formed club have begun life in the Middlesex County League Division One on the twelfth rung of English football’s ladder (for local equivalents, think of the likes of Heywood St James and Tintwhistle Athletic in Division One of the Manchester Football League) and is set up as a ‘one member, one vote’ community benefit society like FC United, run entirely by volunteers.

The Clapton Ultras have made no secret of their inclusive, anti-racist stance and, accordingly, the away shirt was designed to send out a clear anti-fascist message with the words “no pasaran” printed on the back. To everyone’s surprise it flew off the shelves after pictures of it being worn by players during a pre-season friendly went viral on social media, with around 6,000 orders for the shirt being received by mid-September. The club currently has around 400 members and had originally expected to sell just a couple of hundred shirts through its first season though, such has been the extraordinary level of interest, its website initially crashed and the small band of volunteers struggled to cope with demand. Much of this enthusiasm has come from Spain and, in a nice touch, some of the funds raised by sales of the shirt will go to the International Brigades Memorial Trust which commemorates those who travelled there in the 1930s to fight fascism.

You may have spotted a few red and white stickers in town or around Broadhurst Park bearing the name of the Clapton Ultras on them and wondered who they were. Living in London, I’ve been to a few of their matches – when the prices of Branson’s rip-off rattlers have prevented me from travelling north – and their fervent, vocal support reminds me of a smaller version of FC United’s away support. At least what it used to be like before we started drinking in ‘spoons. They’ve a fondness for flags, pyrothechnics, Polish beer and bouncing around and boast an extensive songbook that includes some familiar tunes but a fair few original ones as well; there’s a song to a Desmond Dekker tune that I particularly like (substituting Claptonites for Israelites) and the rousing Italian anti-fascist anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ invariably gets an airing and sounds great. In addition the Ultras have been active across their East London community, regularly collecting for food banks and refugees. There’s much to admire of these fans of a football club located in the heart of one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world.

Meanwhile Clapton FC, whence the Ultras came, kicked off another season in the Essex Senior League and were forced to put out a statement clarifying that they are not connected to the new club after the popularity of the anti-fascist away shirt caused much confusion, with fans from Spain contacting Clapton FC (rather than the new fan-owned outfit) and people turning up at their Old Spotted Dog ground to buy the shirt. Clapton FC, formed in 1878 and one of the oldest non-league football clubs in the country, felt obliged to make clear that it has no allegiances to any political party and is focused on “football not politics”. A sentiment, of course, regularly voiced by FC United’s very own “leave your politics at the turnstiles” contingent.

So, what of our own politics and campaigning as we approach a very important anniversary? Next year will mark two hundred years since the Peterloo Massacre, when government forces charged on horseback into a crowd of around 60,000 people who had gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to peacefully protest for representation in parliament. The troops slashed at the crowd with sabres, killing eleven people and injuring several hundred – an act of terrorism right here in the very heart of our city which, like all terrorist atrocities, was designed to engender fear. At the time only 2% of the population were able to vote in parliamentary elections and the London-centric government had no idea what life was like for workers in the north who had long grown tired of poverty wages, appalling working conditions and a lack of any say in how the country was run. Peterloo was all about putting these uppity mill workers who dared to protest back in their place.

And for a time it worked, as the lid was temporarily slammed on any form of dissent nationwide. But Peterloo marked a significant turning point in the fight for the right to vote, and ultimately led to greater democracy and the birth of the trade union movement. It also cemented Manchester’s place as a home for radicalism and protest which has continued over the following two centuries through socialism, trade unionism, the cooperative movement and conscientious objection to war, through to acid house, the “24 hour Peterloo peace people” and FC United of Manchester. Yes, this football club, like it or not, was born out of protest – a political act that can trace a long, red, radical thread back to Peterloo. Don’t believe me? Well, how come no other supporters of top flight football clubs around the country, protesting against the take over of their clubs by nefarious business interests, have gotten off their arses and formed their own football club? FC United is inherently political.

So how are we going to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Peterloo then? A special commemorative away shirt like Clapton Community FC? A pin badge? A flag? Summat with a bee on? A carefully worded statement on the club’s website that doesn’t offend any of our “stakeholders” or the delicate flowers on Facebook? Or are we just going to leave it to the Course You Can Malcolm volunteers to remind us, as we sit here with our small screened devices sounding off about nonsense, of how much we all owe to those who trekked to St Peter’s Fields to campaign for the right to vote two hundred years ago? It’s all a bit, erm, political isn’t it, let’s just leave it to “the lefties”. I hope not.

Business plans, debt repayments, governance arrangements and the club’s financial bottom line may have sapped much of our energy over the last couple of years – and rightly so, because we wouldn’t still be here otherwise – but beneath it all our proud rebel heart still beats. In 2019 let’s take the time to mark the events of two hundred years ago and recognise the long tradition of protest and Mancunian rebelliousness that this football club of ours is also part of.