“Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavoured to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
There’s been a deflating familiarity to the sight of a succession of Labour MPs announcing their resignations from the shadow cabinet recently, in the wake of the European Union referendum. A bunch of careerists with an inflated sense of self worth, droning on about so-called bullying and intimidation, their views woefully out of touch with the party’s membership and their resignations timed to inflict the maximum amount of damage. At FC United of Manchester we have endured a year of flouncy exits from the boardroom that left us, until recently, with a depleted board of only four.
Thankfully though, a Painean common sense has prevailed and after a year that has seen the club brought almost to the brink of financial collapse members have signalled their desire for change and have elected a progressive new board. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future and even a soupçon of positivity has returned, if I’m not getting a bit too carried away with it all. Surprising then that the BBC, having pretty much totally ignored events at the club over the last year, chose this time to stick a piece on their website entitled “FC United of Manchester: the protest club at war with itself?” You’d almost think that someone was stirring the pot a little here.
But, hey, what do I know? On the day that the board election results were announced I was dawdling round a field on the outskirts of Budapest, on a baking hot afternoon, gazing at communist-era statues and monuments. These, often huge, stony representations of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and an assortment of Hungarian communists once took pride of place in the main streets and squares of the Hungarian capital before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. At the tiny kiosk at the entrance to the park an old radio rather forlornly played some of the propaganda anthems of the time. Memento Park, as it’s called, represents a sort-of theme park to a flawed ideology that promised much after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 but merely replaced one dictatorship with another.
In my all too frequent glass-half-empty moments during the last few months I’ve often pictured an empty post-FC-United-apocalypse Broadhurst Park becoming something of a monument to the slightly bonkers notion that supporters can run football clubs. People would get the tram out to Moston, pay what they can afford at the turnstile, dispense with their politics and whilst admiring the shiny third-sector-hub-ness of it all would reflect on the bitter irony of a football club that while it constructed its own football ground destructed the egalitarian and democratic principles on which it was founded. “Look at those daft buggers” people would say “thought they could run a football club better than the businessmen”. Over the tannoy would play some of the fans’ favourite songs interspersed with clippings from old speeches by Comrades Walsh and Brown urging supporters to dig deep yet again for “one last push” to get the ground completed both utterly convinced that their five year plan would ensure the healthy future of the club.
That this gruesome vision of the future has been held at bay owes much to the club’s original founder John-Paul O’Neill’s persistent whistle blowing over the last year or so and the membership’s gradual awakening from its hibernation, in the nick of time, to finally seize control of the destiny of this football club. Eleven board members have been elected, only two with previous experience on the FC board, and the old guard swept from power with the promise of a new era of glasnost at the club; the board operating with openness, transparency and honesty. Already, in recent weeks, there have been welcome public apologies to O’Neill regarding the club’s denial of his membership and to the former programme editor Tony Howard over the club’s shambolic handling of the increase in the programme price for the Benfica match.
One of the new board’s first actions was to announce that the friendly match against Rochdale on Saturday 30th July will pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers, past and present, who give up their time and skills week in week out to make the club what it is. And on the Friday night before the match some of the volunteers from the much missed pre-match Course You Can Malcolm event that took place at Gigg Lane for many years and raised thousands for the club will stage a CYCM type event with music, poetry, food and beer. A refreshing attempt by the club to heal the rifts that have developed in the club’s support and to move forward as a united body of supporters. But at FC United no silver lining is complete without a humungous cumulo nimbus looming large; the news of the return of CYCM has already had some of the “that Malcolmses/A Fine Lung lot are planning to take over the St Mary’s Road End and turn it into a communist prayer room or summat” conspiracy theorists foaming at the mouth.
Reconciliation and healing clearly won’t be easy. Already some of those loyal to the old board have spoken of a board election campaign damaged by “bullying” and have expressed annoyance with those supporters who refused to renew membership and season tickets for the new season until after the board election results were announced. But who exactly were the bullies and intimidators in the recent election campaign? Tim Worrall and Sam Mullock with their feisty talk of reconciliation and their vaguely threatening deployment of the rarely-seen-at-FC-United word “sorry”? Adrian Seddon for many months a calm and considered presence on the club’s official discussion forum and himself the victim of a despicable attempt by another board candidate to undermine his candidacy? Or was it Nathan Ellis-Scott, at last a youthful presence on the board, browbeating us into joining him in the clubhouse to sing Kumbaya? Or perhaps the dastardly pitch trespasser George Baker antagonising his critics by offering to shake hands with them at the EGM? What a bunch of bastards eh.
Or maybe it’s simply those supporters who held off renewing their memberships and season tickets until after the Board election results were announced that really raised hackles. That’s their right of course. I daresay there are many supporters who have invested a lot in community shares and in the development fund down the years, sometimes money that they perhaps couldn’t properly afford but they did it because FC United was something that they passionately believed in. So if people suddenly feel a little reticent when it comes to parting with their hard earned cash then that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Besides it wasn’t that long ago that many of us vowed “not one penny” in different circumstances. We are certainly not cash cows to be taken for granted.
Speaking as someone who renewed their membership and season ticket long before the election campaign I’m absolutely delighted to see a fresh board elected with, perhaps for the first time, a wonderful blend of youth and experience. In contrast to my usual pessimistic persona I have a, perhaps naive, faith in the power of democracy and I trusted the membership to get this one right. But I’m tiring of the regular and unsubstantiated claims of online bullying and intimidation directed at those who have called for change at the club. Not all internet criticism should be dismissed as the work of “keyboard warriors”, “knobs on the forum” or as mere “sniping from the sidelines”. Of course, there are many examples of internet discussion descending into the gutter but it’s also true that the internet can be a tremendous force for good offering space for thoughtful contributions that can often be lost in the clamour of public meetings. Arguably there would not be an FC United of Manchester without the internet and Andy Walsh and Adam Brown’s Not For Sale book demonstrates how the world wide web, in its early days, was used by Manchester United fans to fight the Murdoch takeover bid in 1998-99.
One such product of the internet was the pamphlet distributed at the Stalybridge match in April which called for greater democracy at the club and was produced by a collective who care deeply about the future of the club. A recurring theme in all of the articles in The Pamphlet was that co-owners of the club must play a greater role in the club’s democratic processes. Whilst it was critical of the board, it was also critical of all of us, the members, for not participating sufficiently in meetings and elections and for failing to keep a watchful eye on our elected representatives. We had, as Mickey O’Farrell so eloquently expressed in one of the articles become “lazy utopians”, happy to sing the praises of supporter ownership but not do the hard yards of actually making it work. Arguably, three months on, the pamphlet has been successful in its aims.
Take the turnout at the board election for instance. Okay so 671 voters out of a membership of more than five thousand last season isn’t necessarily anything to shout about but it represents the highest number of voters at any board election in our history and follows the General Meeting in May where more than 820 of the club’s co-owners voted on a plethora of resolutions and members’ votes which represented about 18 percent of the club’s adult membership at the time. Again, it’s not really trumpet blowing territory but there are plenty of football clubs at our level that would love to have that many supporters attending matches let alone engaged in the running of the club. To put this into some context, at the Dons’ Trust, the supporters’ Trust that holds a majority stake in AFC Wimbledon, 578 members voted in the elections to the board at their 2014 Annual General Meeting. So at a football club that took more than twenty thousand supporters to Wembley recently for a play-off final and one where the majority of the electorate voted online they attracted fewer members to participate in their 2014 General Meeting than us. When viewed this way it suggests that we’re perhaps not too shabby when it comes to participation in elections but clearly there is huge scope for improvement.
Hopefully the reinvigoration of the club’s democracy will knock on the head, once and for all, the notion that simply looking to increase the club’s membership (4,000, 5,000, 10,000 where do we draw the line?) is of itself a good thing. Yes, the membership team have done sterling work in boosting membership numbers and this does of course give us greater weight when looking to secure external funding. But it is also apparent that booming membership numbers have been both a strength and a weakness significantly diluting the strength of the club’s democratic processes if many of these new members treat us like, say, joining the Phone Coop, as a cause that they believe in and are willing to support financially but have no intention of ever attending a meeting or voting. A smaller membership but one that is more engaged in the running of the club and keen to hold the board to account must surely be preferable to a much larger membership that is predominantly apathetic?
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film director Ken Loach said on a recent visit to Broadhurst Park, there is a lot riding on the success of this football club; there are many people beyond Manchester willing us to succeed. And as someone who is now on the board said on a train journey home last season “thank fuck for FC United”. As the country votes to turn its back on its neighbours, choosing instead to swallow the small-minded rhetoric of right wing politicians, and the political party established to represent us threatens to self-destruct, we buck the trend in proudly demonstrating that ordinary working class people can build something that emphatically demonstrates that a better world is possible. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon who are 77% owned by their supporters’ Trust, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters. To a large extent this is a journey into the unknown with few, if any, role models to guide us. No one said that it would be easy and the next few years will possibly be the trickiest in our short-ish history. But at least now there are encouraging signs that we can once again get on with doing things differently. And common sense has returned. Onwards.
We laughed again as Chisty recounted the story of her phone call home in March last year that began with her sister proudly proclaiming “hey, we beat you guys”. Bangladesh had just beaten England in the cricket World Cup, knocking them out of the competition, and the “Land of Bengal” was celebrating a famous victory. Chisty had rolled her eyes in exasperation the first time she told me this but aside from the gentle ribbing about a cricket match those five words perhaps inadvertently but neatly encapsulate the oddly schizophrenic existence of anyone who ups sticks and moves to another country; the emigrant who leaves behind family, friends and their “home” and the immigrant who tries to build a new life and set up a new “home” in a foreign country. Where is home anymore? Who is “you”? Who is “we”? How does it feel to be caught adrift between two worlds separated by several thousand miles and different languages, cultures and social norms?
Chisty has lived pretty much her entire adult life in London having arrived from Bangladesh on her own, with a suitcase and enough cash for a couple of weeks, as a nineteen year old in 2008. After nearly eight years living in the capital, a city she loves, she thinks of herself as a Londoner. I first met Chisty nearly two years ago when she joined the finance department of the central London hospital where I worked until recently. She’s one of many interesting people in a work place that, like many in London, is wonderfully diverse; people from different countries, cultures and religions, rubbing along together, sharing experiences and learning from each other. This bean counters’ United Nations produced a slightly lopsided cultural exchange that meant that I got to learn about Bengali music and food and the more spiritual strand of Islam known as Sufism, whilst Chisty listened to me banging on about FC United of Manchester and The Smiths.
I’ll admit before meeting Chisty my knowledge of Bangladesh was scant and often cricket related. It’s one of those places that only ever seems to be in the news when something bad has happened; flooding perhaps or an earthquake or the collapse of a badly constructed factory building killing and injuring hundreds of workers. But the chances are if you have a root around in your wardrobe or through your drawers at home that you’ll probably find several items that were “made in Bangladesh”. The huge Bangladeshi garment industry makes cheap clothes for a number of high street retailers like H&M and while it offers one of the few employment opportunities for women the “cheap” clothes come at a high price in the form of punishingly long hours, low pay and appalling working conditions.
Chisty’s own “made in Bangladesh” story intrigued me, as it’s not only a mixture of the determination and courage that characterise so many immigrant stories but is also remarkable in that it is the story of a young single woman breaking all social norms and leaving behind family and friends to build a life of her own in a foreign country. She’s undoubtedly one of the most determined and resourceful people that I’ve ever met. Her story intrigued me so much that I suggested writing something about it and after a brief exchange of text messages we found ourselves, amidst the post-work hubbub, in a pub round the corner from Victoria railway station chatting over drinks.
Like most Bengali kids she grew up in a large extended family and although she only has one younger sister she has many cousins; her dad has a brother and two sisters and her mum has five brothers and five sisters. It “feels like a big family” she says and she refers to her cousins as brothers and sisters; “we are so close to each other”. The busy house that she grew up in comprises five flats with four other families sharing the same space. The adjustment to living a more solitary existence in England is something that she has found tricky at times.
She was raised as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country that remains deeply conservative and patriarchal with few opportunities for women to live independently. She went to girls’ schools and although lessons were taught in Bengali, the national language, from an early age she began to learn English in addition to other subjects including Islamic studies and home economics. Her future, had she not left when she did, would likely have been another tale of unfulfilled female potential; getting married as soon as possible and settling down to a life of domesticity, raising children and cooking and cleaning for her family.
Despite improvements in living conditions in recent years, Bangladesh is still a poor country where women’s employment rates remain very low and where the mobility of women and girls is seriously curtailed by concerns about safety on the streets. Even now Chisty’s mum will not go out at night alone. It’s something that we take for granted but just being able to walk the streets, particularly at night, without fear for her safety is one of the things that Chisty most enjoys about living in London. She says that she has rarely encountered any abuse during her time in England. The worst case was someone shouting at her in the street to “fuck off back to your own country” but incidents like this have been very rare. Chisty herself is wonderfully open when it comes to matters of race or ethnicity – she jokes that, as far she is concerned, a future boyfriend could be as green as the witch in the Wicked show that plays in the theatre next door to the pub we are in.
Chisty’s attitude to her religion is more relaxed than many Muslim women; she doesn’t wear a hijab or any other form of Muslim dress for instance. Instead she prefers to adopt a more philosophical stance as a humanist, living as good a life as she can but always being kind to and respectful of others. The decision not to wear a hijab is something she feels strongly about; she dislikes the hypocrisy of some Muslim women who criticise her for not wearing one but will openly flirt with men whilst claiming to be devout Muslims.
Back home her parents wouldn’t even let her wear jeans outside the house. But in contrast she now lives a life not unlike that of many twenty-something Londoners working in a busy office during the day and heading out in the evening to enjoy the capital’s night life with friends. She loves make-up, clothes and girlie nights out and she’s part of that generation that has embraced social media, with her penchant for selfies and hashtags, and has used dating websites to try to find a partner although with her admiration for the likes of Chris and Liam Hemsworth she’s arguably set a very high bar. She’s a talented singer and musician too and sang and read poetry on national radio and television as a child in Bangladesh and has auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent over here. But most of all she enjoys the freedom of living in England and living her own life, being who she wants to be rather than who others expect her to be; girl power in action. “I always liked Western culture and wanted to come here (England) and study and change my life and do something for my family and set a good example”.
Her life in London hasn’t always been such a frantic social whirl though. From arriving in England in 2008 to completing her degree in accounting and finance at university in the summer of 2014 she studied hard and worked part-time doing shifts for the likes of Asda, Burger King and Sports Direct, often trekking across town on long bus journeys as it was cheaper than taking the tube. During those six years she admits that she barely went out at all, her life consisting simply of lectures, working, bus journeys, studying at home and sleeping.
“Home” was one of the many (more than a dozen) shared rooms in rented houses that Chisty has lived in during the last eight years most of them in the low-rent fringes of east London such as Ilford, Dagenham and Leytonstone where new arrivals to London often settle down. Life was often difficult for a young, single Bangladeshi woman sharing a house with others. There was an Indian vegetarian family who wouldn’t let her cook meat in the house and a Nigerian couple where the woman worked night shifts and the man would invite his mates round to listen to music and drink late into the night; some of the men would follow Chisty to her room as she went to bed. And a woman who even threatened to kill Chisty and her friend as she mistakenly thought that they had reported her to the local council and that she was about to lose her home as a result.
In her first few days in England Chisty found it tough adjusting to the early autumn after the sweltering heat of Bangladesh. With only one thin sheet that she had brought with her and no heating to keep her warm at night (she was too shy to ask for any bedding) she fell ill during her first few weeks in the country and was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. She spent two weeks in hospital (“the nurses were lovely” she adds) and early on, as she was made to wear an oxygen mask, she thought she might even die. The nurses wheeled her out of the ward so that she could ring her parents to tell them that she was fine.
Only days before her stay in hospital Chisty had left behind her large extended family at the airport. “Everyone was crying” she says but having said an emotional goodbye she refused to look back as she made her way to the departure lounge. Going to England was something that she’d dreamed about for a long time and she wasn’t about to change her mind now. From a very young age Chisty had dreamed of coming to England; as a child she drove her parents mad singing a song that was popular in Bangladesh about buying a plane ticket and flying to England. She watched lots of British and Hollywood films and television programmes (including Fawlty Towers) and became fascinated by life in the seemingly more glamorous west where it looked like there was a life for a young woman beyond one of cooking and cleaning and getting married. She longed to be able to support her family so that they didn’t have to depend on anyone else financially.
As she tucks into a chicken burger and another glass of cider Chisty describes how she was born and grew up in the city of Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city. It’s an old river port city in the south-west of the country, about six hours drive from the capital city Dhaka, and lies close to the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to the famous Bengal tiger. Until getting on that plane to come to England Chisty had not travelled outside Bangladesh before. In fact she hadn’t travelled very far at all with her family as they simply couldn’t afford to go far.
By the age of sixteen Chisty had completed her secondary school certificate (equivalent to O Level or GCSE) and then went on to do a further two years at college before applying for a place at university. But having failed to get a place on a Business Administration course at her local university a newspaper advert for a national competition offering the prize of a part-funded scholarship to study in England caught her eye. She passed an exam and was one of only 300 selected for a scholarship from more than fifty thousand who sat the exam.
At first her whole family were very resistant to the idea of leaving home at such a young age and flying to England; “what is she going to do to earn money, be a prostitute?” one of her aunts asked. But eventually her persistence paid off and she was able to persuade them that this was what she really wanted to do and that no one was going to stop her. Unfortunately though her dad had a stroke shortly before Chisty was due to leave and she spent most of her last days in Bangladesh at his bedside in hospital. She describes herself as a “daddy’s girl” and even now she speaks to her father by phone on a daily basis and he rings her each morning to make sure that she is up for work.
After arriving in England and after having paid half of the scholarship fee (two thousand pounds) she discovered that the whole thing had been a scam. The promised “school of business” had done a runner with everyone’s money, the building where it was meant to be lay empty. Two thousand pounds gone just like that. A big setback but Chisty wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her dreams and she dusted herself down and enrolled on another accounting course. There must have been times like this when she felt tempted to give up and head home? “No, I’ve never regretted coming to England. There have been difficult times but I’ve always tried to stay positive and look forward, I’ve never felt homesick”.
A couple of years later she was in a position to look for degree courses but with her parents unable to support her education she was forced to take out two substantial loans (which she is still paying off) to get her through two years of study at university. The middle year of a three year degree course was spent on a placement in an NHS finance department in central London and after graduating in the summer of 2014 she looked for her first full-time job and successfully applied for a job in the finance department at the hospital where I used to work. She loves the NHS and would like to continue working in a finance role in the health service. Indeed she is studying to become a qualified accountant and hopes to become a Finance Director in future. You certainly wouldn’t bet against her.
Yet despite having lived in London for nearly eight years, a place which she now refers to as home although she won’t be able to apply for British citizenship (something that she can’t wait to do) for another two years, Chisty has fallen foul of a new Home Office rule, introduced this April, that holders of tier 2 skilled worker visas like her must earn more than a certain amount per year (with some exceptions) to be able to remain in the country even if they’ve lived here for several years. So after years of grafting to build a new life in a foreign country, years of studying and working to be able to afford to study, years of not going out, years of gruelling bus journeys from the arse end of town to work shifts in city centre burger joints, years of sacrifice to try to ensure a better future for herself and her family Chisty is now faced with the very real prospect of having to leave the country if she cannot find another job that pays more. Her life is on hold, uncertain where exactly her future lies. All she knows is that she desperately wants to stay in England, in London, her home.
This arbitrary threshold has been introduced purely as part of the government’s desire to be seen to be tough on immigration. It’s something that “we” the British electorate demand apparently. As the curtain comes down on the often toxic European Union referendum debate where fear of immigrants has once again being stoked up, all too often, the focus of the debate on immigration is on numbers and hardly ever considers the lives and thoughts and feelings of those individuals like Chisty caught up in the process. Why is it felt appropriate, for instance, to measure the contribution that someone makes to our society simply by referring to how much money they earn? Chisty has already demonstrated her industriousness and determination in spades and has so much more to offer this country culturally, socially and economically. She loves living in England; this is no story of someone who struggles to integrate and there’s an effervescence and love of life that no artificial borders or barbed wire or arbitrary immigration rules dreamt up by faceless bureaucrats should be able to restrain.
So, finally, to return to cricket and the so-called “cricket test” posed by Norman Tebbitt back in the eighties, deliberately designed to cast doubt on the Englishness of those migrating to Britain from commonwealth countries; who does she want to win in a cricket match between Bangladesh and England? She laughs again and says that despite everything, despite her love of England and English people and despite London now being her home and the place where she wants to live the rest of her life, she would still want Bangladesh to win of course. And why not? Why not be proud of your roots? Her large extended family and friends back home in Bangladesh and her new friends in England should certainly be very proud of Chisty, our very own Bengal tiger.
It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week. You may have missed it. Even for those of us who work in the NHS it can slip by barely noticed. Mental health struggles to attract the attention or funding that it merits; cancers, strokes, gastric bands and broken limbs tend to capture the public’s imagination more than troubled minds and even now there is a tendency for us all to view those suffering from depression or anxiety as simply needing to pull themselves together rather than seek the treatment and advice of experienced healthcare professionals. Yet it’s estimated that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
That statistic refers to human beings not football clubs but nevertheless it’s apparent that FC United of Manchester is exhibiting many of the symptoms of being mentally unwell. I’m no psychiatrist but I would suggest that the highs and lows of the last twelve months, the mood swings and bouts of depression (sometimes accompanied by heavy drinking), the paranoia of certain board members mistaking debate and scrutiny for bullying and harassment, the delusions of grandeur and the occasional psychotic episode are indicative of a wider malaise. And if the events of the last week or so are anything to go by we now also seem intent on deliberate self-harm with one board member flouncing out of the club with a despicable, unprovoked online attack on a fellow co-owner. If we lay back on the therapist’s couch and subjected ourselves to a spot of psychoanalysis I’m sure our birth from protest and rebellion and our schizophrenic “two United’s but the soul is one” existence would be diagnosed as likely contributors to our present ill-health.
One evening a few weeks ago I listened to a radio programme about the current crisis in child and adolescent mental health services. In truth, I was merely channel hopping trying to avoid Liverpool’s comeback against Borussia Dortmund on 5 live whilst washing the pots. The programme spoke of how half of all mental health problems in adults begin developing in childhood with patients often speaking of difficulties that started at school or college; promising futures that were knocked for six. One psychotherapist reckoned that one of the major reasons why kids today are more susceptible to mental illness than many of us were when we were younger is because of image. There is often a huge gap between the fantasy lifestyles that young people project on social media and the reality of their day to day lives. The bigger the gap the more likely it is that mental health issues will arise. Take the obsession with body image, particularly for young girls, and the incidence of anorexia. Or kids from the selfie generation, obsessed with physical attractiveness, suffering from depression because they’ve got bad acne.
And this is a bit like what’s happened to our young (and sometimes we forget how young we still are) football club isn’t it? Not that we’re busy squeezing our spots but that progressively over the last few years we’ve witnessed a widening of the gap between the image of FC United projected to the wider world by the Walsh/Brown modernisers and the altogether more mundane reality that we are a non-league football club in Manchester that is struggling to adapt to life in its own home. The modernisers’ fantasy lifestyle embraced third sector hubs, social enterprise and talked of changing the whole of football and overthrowing capitalism and the reality gap was stretched so wide that the likes of Sherrard, Walker and Ramsey were able to saunter in, barely noticed by many, and allowed to release their poison drip by drip.
Look at the club’s public profile over the last twelve months; until Daniel Taylor’s article in the Guardian at the end of March there was not an inkling to the outside world that there was anything wrong at the club. Amidst the proud boasts of record crowds, “shining example” Broadhurst Park being crowned the best new non-league ground for 2015-16 and becoming the country’s largest supporter owned football club internal dissent was brushed off as the work of “troublemakers” and “thugs”. Indeed there was even a ham-fisted attempt to get the Guardian to pull Daniel Taylor’s story so concerned were the likes of Andy Walsh and Andy Walker that the truth would out. So low did we stoop that on the final day of the season, following an on-pitch protest calling for greater democracy at the club, the club’s official Twitter account was involved in an unseemly spat with one of the club’s co-owners merely for having the temerity to voice his opinion on the pitch invasion.
For me, the reconvened General Meeting last Sunday marked the beginning of us closing the gap. At the end of an often acrimonious twelve months which has seen the resignation of the club’s General Manager and seven Board members in recent weeks, the meeting was attended by around four hundred of the club’s co-owners. The debate was lively but as the details of twenty three resolutions and thirteen members’ votes were discussed and voted on, over the course of four hours, the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get this football club back on track was clear for all to see. Meanwhile the empty chairs on the right hand side of the stage told their own story of how some former board members viewed the club’s democracy.
I also sensed that some of those in attendance were possibly beginning to appreciate the extent of the damage wrought by the chumocracy that has been allowed to develop as an assortment of chancers, bluffers and worming careerists have brought the club to its knees; an affront to the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which FC United was founded. An update on the club’s finances revealed that without the television and prize money from the FA Cup match against Chesterfield in November the club would have run up a deficit well in excess of £100,000 during its first year at Broadhurst Park and as the season closed it was forced to ask the bank for an overdraft. The holes in the club’s cash flow are plain to see in the financial figures for the first three quarters of the year; the loss of goodwill following the programme price increase for the Benfica friendly match a year ago has had a significant impact on contributions to the Development Fund, barely a third of home matches were sponsored and income from use of the club’s brand new facilities was well below plan reflecting the failure of a paid fund raiser to do the job he was paid thousands to do.
Undoubtedly we can turn this around, as the response of supporters to the recent calls to get involved in various volunteer-led groups has shown, but you suspect that if things had carried on for much longer then we probably wouldn’t have had a football club left to support; a simply gobsmacking situation for a club repeatedly held up as an example of how supporter ownership can work. When the dust settles a huge debt of gratitude must surely be shown to the club’s founder John-Paul O’Neill who has been blowing the whistle on this shambles, persistently and in forensic detail, for several months. His tactics may not have always sat easy with many (but as we learnt from 1998 and 2005 any battle for the soul of a football club sometimes requires more clandestine operations; the Manchester Education Committee anyone?) but I don’t think anyone can now question that he has the best interests of the club at heart.
It was interesting too to hear Chuks Akuneto speak towards the end of the meeting about on-pitch matters and in particular the club’s youth team. Chuks is an experienced player and coach and was a member of the FC United coaching staff for eight years, including a stint as first team coach, until he left the club in 2015. His last role was as coach for the club’s academy programme and he spoke passionately of the failure of any youth team player to make it onto the pitch for the first team last season, even for just one minute. A damning indictment of the club’s youth policy and a failure to meet one of the club’s founding principles.
Our present state of health is not good but the debate at the general meeting, whilst heated, served a much-needed therapeutic purpose in reasserting our democratic rights as members. By signing up as members of this football club we become its custodians and it becomes our responsibility to love it, cherish it and nurture it into achieving its full and very beautiful potential. This is no ordinary football club that relies simply on blind loyalty, we are part of a democratic organisation that requires participation and vigilance to ensure that the club, in everything it does, remains true to its founding principles.
So this is a rather driving-to-Cornwall-in-the-rain way of saying that if there is one tiny bit of advice that I might offer to those standing for election to the board at the Extraordinary General Meeting on 25th June it is to keep the gap between the image of FC United projected to the outside world and the reality on the ground to an absolute minimum. Yes, I know there are times when we won’t want to wash our dirty laundry in public and might wish to take the positives from any given situation, I’m not naive enough to fail to appreciate that. But after the shambles of the last twelve months most of us are crying out for openness, honesty and transparency and for that reality gap to be wafer thin. The members’ vote at the general meeting that stated that “the membership has no confidence in the transparency of the club or executive” was supported by 53% of voters thus rubbishing the notion that those who have criticised the board in the past year or so are simply part of a “small but vocal minority of troublemakers”. Although the voting results from the general meeting announced this week were disappointing overall, that vote on our confidence in the board’s transparency should give critics heart and should be carefully noted by all future board members. Please no more self harm and no more hallucinations about taking over the world. National League North will do for now. Let’s mind the gap.
The morning after the Hillsborough inquest ruled that the ninety six football supporters who lost their lives at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final were unlawfully killed I was on a work training course. At a coffee break as people made small talk and fiddled with their phones the conversation turned, as it so often does these days, to football. After a brief natter about city’s Champions League match the night before someone mentioned that that day’s edition of the Sun newspaper had relegated the Hillsborough news story to page ten; along with that other Murdoch paper the Times the only titles not to lead with the day’s big news story.
Another lad, who looked to me like he probably wasn’t old enough to have been around at the time of the disaster, remarked that he thought that, despite the inquest jury’s verdict, thousands of ticketless, drunken football supporters trying to force their way into a football ground must have been partly to blame for the disaster. “What were the police expected to do?” he asked. And before you know it I, who up until that point had barely said a word, was doing what I’ve done on countless occasions over the last twenty seven years when people start spouting off about Hillsborough; I was off on one trying to explain what really happened that day. As I went over the police incompetence, the design and layout of that end of the ground, the lack of a ground safety licence, the utterly inadequate response of the emergency services and the lies spun over and over and over by police, press and politicians for more than a quarter of a century I could see the lad’s eyes glazing over. A few minutes later, my rant over, everyone went back to fiddling with their phones.
It’s a measure of the industrial scale of the establishment’s efforts to shift the blame for the tragedy that so many people (and I’ve come across so many down the years both in person and via social media) were prepared to believe, and some still are, that the Liverpool supporters were in some way to blame. The families knew they weren’t to blame and those of us who had stood on that same Leppings Lane terrace and experienced first hand the South Yorkshire police at their worst knew that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Now, after so many years, it’s finally been acknowledged officially and unequivocally that the fans were not to blame.
For those raised on a diet of televised Premier League football played out in happy clappy, ultra-safe, plastic stadia it must be difficult to contemplate what happened on that terrace. Going to the match nowadays is barely recognisable from the late eighties when fans were treated like animals, penned in on terraces and herded to and from grounds. Take tickets for instance. The accusation trotted out endlessly down the years has been that a significant number of Liverpool fans turned up at Hillsborough without tickets. But we forget in these times of having to buy a ticket to watch even the most mundane top flight football match that back then the FA Cup semi-final was one of the few games a season you needed a ticket for; at the majority of games fans were able to pay on the gate and it was affordable enough for groups of kids to go together. Booking weeks in advance by credit card is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Shortly after the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings were released in 2012 I wrote about a trip to Hillsborough (here) to watch Manchester United only two months before the disaster. I’d used the panel’s impressive website, including more than 450,000 documents relating to the disaster, to look at how the police planned for the visit of United fans to Hillsborough in February 1989. The phrase that kept appearing in the planning documents over and over again was the need to “maintain order”. Nowhere was there any mention of the comfort and safety of spectators. That represented the mindset of the often abominable South Yorkshire police force at the time.
United took a huge following of more than fifteen thousand supporters to Hillsborough that day, one of the last big Red Army days out, and the central pens on the Leppings Lane terrace were packed (but the ones either side less so). What people who hadn’t been to Hillsborough before wouldn’t necessarily appreciate is that once you had made your way through the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end of the ground it looked like the tunnel directly in front of you, leading into the central pens, was the only way to get onto the terrace. There were no signs to suggest otherwise. It was a fundamental flaw in the design of that part of the ground but one that could have been simply addressed on busy match days by stationing police officers at the entrance to the tunnel to direct supporters to the outer pens. It wasn’t difficult and the tactic had been employed on previous occasions.
It wasn’t just inside the ground that the South Yorkshire police’s lack of care for supporters was in evidence. As an out of town United fan I had travelled to the match from Chesterfield but that was of no concern to the police officers on Sheffield railway station after the match as, having been bussed back to the station from the ground, we were ushered towards a Manchester-bound train. I tried to explain that I needed to get another train but was wrestled onto the train by two officers accompanied by the words “I don’t care where you live, you’re getting on this fucking train”. It was an occupational hazard of going to watch football back then. Football supporters really were the lowest of the low; replacing the miners as the new “enemy within”. And it was apparent that the South Yorkshire Police force felt that it could get away with almost anything after Orgreave and the miners’ strike when an army of police officers was used to crush the year long struggle. Just as it was at Hillsborough their role in the miners’ strike was one of enforcement and control rather than public safety.
A few weeks after the Hillsborough inquest began in Warrington in March 2014 a solicitor from one from one of the firms representing the families got in touch with me. They had seen my blogpost and wanted to talk to me about my experiences of attending matches at Hillsborough and whether I thought that the police and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club could have done more to ensure the safety of spectators. As I answered questions and provided as much detail as I could, a quarter of a century on, I found myself, at times, struggling to comprehend some of the experiences that I was recounting as they seemed so far removed from the modern day experience of attending football matches. Did we really stand on those decrepit, piss-soaked terraces, penned in behind fences, often in the pouring rain and treated like shit by police forces who really didn’t give a toss about our welfare? Did we really do this week after week?
The lies told by the police, press and politicians seeped into the public consciousness to such an extent that they became believed. Irvine Patnick OBE, the right wing Tory MP for nearby Sheffield Hallam was one of the sources for the Sun’s notorious coverage of the disaster. He spoke of the “mayhem caused by drunks” and that policemen were punched and kicked as they tried to help. Thatcher’s former chief press secretary, the loathsome Sir Bernard Ingham, wrote in 1996 of “tanked up yobs who turned up late” causing the disaster. “To blame the police is utterly contemptible” he added. A year later, the newly elected prime minister Tony Blair, afraid to upset his new mate Rupert Murdoch, refused to order a new inquiry into the disaster, infamously remarking “Why? What is the point?”. It was another thirteen years before the Labour government, now lead by Gordon Brown and encouraged by the admirable Andy Burnham, set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel which eventually reported in 2012.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson, never shy of giving his opinion on something which he knows nothing about, wrote in his column in the Spectator magazine in 2004, and with the benefit of fifteen years worth of hindsight, that there was “no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon”. He referred to the police as a “convenient scapegoat” and the Sun newspaper as “a whipping boy” for daring to tell the truth. The United fans who sang “there’s only one Boris Johnson” shortly after that article appeared were wrong on so many levels that there simply isn’t the space or the time to dwell on it here.
When you set the word of ordinary people against those of decorated senior politicians, press barons and knighted civil servants it is perhaps forgivable that people may be tempted to believe the latter. Kelvin MacKenzie at the Sun admitted years later that “the mistake was I believed what an MP said” referring to the apartheid supporting member for Sheffield Hallam.
I’ve got to admit that I’d never heard the medical term “compression asphyxia” until after Hillsborough. What a hellish way to die, the life slowly being squeezed out of you. Ribs cracking. Urine and vomit everywhere. Then collapsing and being trampled underfoot. Lifeless bodies piled on top of each other; sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, football supporters, human beings. All because they went to watch a football match. I was at Old Trafford that afternoon watching United play Derby County in a meaningless end of season fixture. At half-time there was an announcement that the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough had been abandoned and that there had been “some casualties”. There were a few cheers from both sets of supporters – at that stage, we didn’t know whether the victims were Liverpool or Forest fans. I only learnt quite how many people had died a few hours later; sat in front of the telly that night watching the news coverage there were tears in my eyes.
My own views on the disaster have led me to fall out with several United fans down the years. Perhaps the worst occasion was in 1993 when at a match a few days before the last of the Hillsborough victims to die, a young lad called Tony Bland had his life support switched off, some United fans in K Stand sang “95 was not enough”. “Well they sang about Munich” came the reply when challenged. To be honest, there are idiots on both sides as the recent Europa League clash illustrated but it’s difficult for anyone to cling to any moral high ground in the whole “they sang, we sang” Munich, Shankly, Heysel, Hillsborough, Shipman shitpile. For me, when it comes to Hillsborough, I’m a human being first and a Manchester United supporter second. If there is one group of supporters for whom the comment “it could have been us” is more than just a throw away remark it’s us. It really could have been us. That’s not an exaggeration.
As I’ve grown older I’ve mellowed a little and begun to appreciate that Manchester and Liverpool share the same fervent devotion to their red shirted football heroes. One of my best mates is a Liverpool supporter and aside from the football rivalry we share similar tastes in music, books and politics and there are few people I would rather enjoy a beer with. Football rivalry shouldn’t blind us to the important things in life and it certainly shouldn’t prevent us from offering the hand of friendship to those like the Hillsborough families who have fought so courageously or those who, even to this very day, still refuse to buy the Sun newspaper. What a boycott that has been.
Hillsborough was the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Yet for years people who should know better have rolled their eyes and gone on about, oh, well, you know, “football supporters”, “Scousers” and a “tanked up mob”. Anything to dehumanise those caught up in a horrible tragedy. My only small criticism of the Hillsborough families and campaigners is that at times it has felt like they thought it was a case of Merseyside against the rest of the country. But perhaps it’s no wonder that given everything that has happened that something approaching a siege mentality developed and some Liverpudlians were left thinking that the whole country was against them. It wasn’t.
I hope that in a generation’s time that when people discuss the Hillsborough disaster that they will no longer be boring on about ticketless, drunken fans but instead will look back and learn from one of the most inspiring, courageous fights to expose establishment corruption of this or any era. Despite countless setbacks over twenty seven gruelling years they persevered and meticulously dismantled the wall of lies that hid the truth for so many. To the families and everyone involved in the fight for justice you are genuinely an inspiration to us all. And take it from me, even beyond Merseyside, you never walked alone.
Around the time that Fergie fell out with his mates at Coolmore many moons ago someone wrote in one of the United fanzines that there was once a time when Alex Ferguson could have popped round to his house, taken a dump on the front room carpet, wiped his arse on the curtains and he would still have asked him if he fancied a brew. Well, a few years back it’s probably fair to say that I felt much the same way about FC United of Manchester’s General Manager Andy Walsh. Okay so that might have been a bit of an exaggeration but a slice or two of Battenberg cake might have been nice and, to be honest, thinking about it, we could have done with some new curtains at the time. Alas, it’s all mere fanciful conjecture now as Andy recently announced that he will be stepping down at the end of this season after eleven years in charge of the club.
Walsh has worked tirelessly at the helm of a club that has become the largest supporter owned football club in the country and now plays in a ground of its own. In the early days he was our leader, our “El Presidente” and there was even a mercifully short-lived terrace tribute to him to the tune of the Frog Chorus. Some of the more Sunday supplement types even went as far as calling him a “visionary”. We joked about a helipad but trusted him, as one of the leaders of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association’s successful campaign against Murdoch’s takeover bid, as one of the best men for the job.
Looking back, the height of my Walshism was perhaps the morning after the glorious Bonfire Night victory over Rochdale in the FA Cup in 2010 when FC United refused to take part in the BBC’s Football Focus programme in solidarity with members of the National Union of Journalists at the BBC who were striking over attacks on their pensions. It made me proud to be an FC fan that even after perhaps the greatest night in our relatively short history we were showing some good old fashioned off-pitch solidarity, the rebel heart of the football club beating loud and clear. Leave your politics at the turnstile? Bollocks to that. It seemed to epitomise Walsh’s own background as a lifelong trade unionist and former chair of Greater Manchester’s Anti Poll Tax Federation.
I think at that point in November 2010, and FC United historians may wish to correct me here, the vast majority of FC United’s Glazer defying founder members, with a few exceptions, were still on the bus with the destination board indicating that we were bound, with much giddiness, for Ten Acres Lane. Planning permission for our new home in Newton Heath, the very origins of our first love Manchester United Football Club, was secured later that same month. Happy times. But the next five or so years have felt very different with a gradual waning of Andy’s standing in my eyes and those of others.
Away from the club Andy’s profile is perhaps higher than ever. There are few more eloquent or passionate speakers on supporter ownership and issues affecting modern football and he is regularly quoted in the press and interviewed on the radio. Indeed his name is now recognised well beyond Manchester and it would be no surprise if he found a future role at an organisation like Supporters Direct or more generally in the cooperative movement. On occasions I have attended work conferences and sat through drab presentations by assorted “motivational” speakers, usually successful sportsmen or women or business “leaders”, and thought how they pale in comparison to Andy. Many times I have listened to Walsh speak and gone away inspired.
Yet FC United are not where we are simply because of the actions of one person. It has been an extraordinary collective effort to build a football ground in north east Manchester with half of the £6.3 million total cost raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowdfunding by supporters and other admirers of the club’s ethos who were prepared to back something that they passionately believe in. Andy Walsh was, of course, at the forefront of the community shares campaign but arguably it was events on the pitch and FA Cup success in late 2010 that really kick started the take up of community shares after a quiet first couple of months. The club’s profile rocketed after Rochdale and as a result many people were persuaded to invest in the club who may not otherwise have been interested or aware of who FC United were.
A few months after Rochdale on a lovely spring morning in 2011 I saw Andy Walsh on the bus on my way to work. In fact, as I glanced round at my fellow passengers I saw several Andy Walshes. On the back of that morning’s Metro, the right wing comic that serves as reading material for the nation’s commuters, was a full page advert for the Cooperative movement and there beneath a slogan inviting readers to “join the revolution” was a picture of Andy, gazing into the distance, surrounded by a group of FC United supporters in the main stand at Gigg Lane, Bury. At first I felt a sense of pride that here was the football club that I co-owned spearheading a campaign for the wider cooperative movement. But later, as I picked up a discarded paper and looked more closely at the picture I couldn’t help but feel a little unsettled by the image of Andy, at the centre of the picture, standing above those huddled around him. An almost messiah-like figure surrounded by his disciples. Was I the only who found that picture a little disturbing? It seemed a strange visual image to present to the outside world and at odds with our one member one vote set-up.
For a while I ignored those supporters who reckoned that Andy had “too much power”. I ignored the tales of Andy phoning someone minutes after they’d posted something even mildly controversial on the club’s internet discussion forum. I ignored the comment of someone close to him that he would be willing to consider shirt sponsorship as a means of generating revenue for the club. And I even ignored the accusations of “jobs for the boys” as longstanding mates were appointed to paid positions within the club. How naive I was.
Some supporters have been in tears and others have declared themselves “mortified” at Walsh’s impending departure such is the loyalty that he inspires. Many have paid tribute by remarking that FC United wouldn’t be where we are today without Walshy. Well, of course, anyone who has been the head of any organisation since its birth and for more than a decade is bound to have shaped that organisation. It almost goes without saying. I think that what they’re trying to say is that perhaps we wouldn’t be the biggest supporter owned club in the country playing in National League North in front of crowds of more than three thousand in our own ground if it wasn’t for Andy Walsh. But surely the beauty of FC United has been that this has been a magnificent collective action?
As Daniel Taylor pointed out in his excellent piece in last week’s Guardian Walsh has become an increasingly divisive figure with many founder members having left the club at various points over the last five years citing the increasingly dictatorial manner in which the club is run as a major reason for their departure. Over the last twelve months the club has struggled financially to adjust to life in our own ground and made a series of monumental blunders that have seriously dented its ability to raise further funding from its co-owners but there has been not one word of apology from the General Manager for any mistakes that have been made. In fact, the word “sorry” appears to have vanished from his vocabulary. To some he now personifies a football club that handles criticism, no matter how politely or thoughtfully expressed, with all the grace of a stroppy teenager. The club has appeared to be run Andy’s way or no way as a largely ineffectual Board has struggled to exert any authority. So much for supporter-owned democracy.
I remember being shocked that only around 500 members voted at the club’s Annual General Meeting in 2006, a turnout of about 24% of our adult membership at the time. I’d signed up for democratic socialist football and expected us all to be champing at the bit to exercise our newly found democratic rights. But little did we know at the time that this would represent something of a golden age for democracy at FC United. For the first few seasons I not only voted but also, as something of a saddo, printed out the Board meeting minutes at work and took them home to read. It was interesting back then to get a glimpse into the day to day workings of a football club, our football club. How many other football fans around the country were privy to this sort of information about their club? Much of it was mundane, of course, but some of it sticks in the memory like the Board discussing a complaint from Bury about damage to a number of seats in the Manchester Road End following the FA Vase match against Quorn. To be honest, I’m surprised there wasn’t significant structural damage to the MRE such was the delirium after what we thought was a late winner by the nine men of FC.
But over time I read the Board papers a lot less frequently and gradually fell out of the habit of voting as I kept forgetting to print off the papers. And it seems like I wasn’t the only one as by 2011 we were unable to summon up more than 300 members to vote at the AGM which represented less than 13% of our adult membership. The same was true in 2012 but the independent review of the club’s governance that year remarked that “the Board is in agreement that the club’s strength and character is determined by its adherence to democratic principles” and added that “co-owners must accept responsibility through participation, standing for elections, volunteering for sub-committees and exercising their right to vote”.
Whilst we keep talking a good game about democracy the reality is something very different. In the recent members’ survey there was overwhelming support (94%) for our club’s structure as a one member one vote Community Benefit Society. Indeed 35% said that “one member one vote” was the club’s most important founding principle and nearly a quarter of members said that they became a member to participate in the running of the club. But at the last AGM in November 2015 barely 10% of adult members could be bothered to vote. In fact since 2012 the AGM minutes no longer include the actual number of members who voted in the Board elections and for resolutions, it’s almost as if we’re too embarrassed to share the data. Meanwhile an ex-Board member I spoke to recently admitted to a sense of relief that they are no longer on the Board (we’re hardly encouraging participation are we?). And recruitment to sub-committees has often been on a nod and a wink. Whither the club’s strength and character and democracy?
The mess that we find ourselves in with the increasingly tense “them and us” relationship between the Board and co-owners is undoubtedly part of Walsh’s legacy. But it’s also the fault of all of us that pay our membership fee each year. When was the last time you voted? Do you read the minutes of Board meetings and other papers? How much scrutiny do you really put the Board of FC United under? For the vast majority of us the answer to the last question is probably “very little”. And, to be honest, if that’s the case then it’s perhaps no surprise if the Board becomes increasingly complacent and a gaping “democratic deficit” opens up. It’s up to all of us to make this supporter-owned democracy thing work, we can’t simply leave it to the Board and General Manager. Yes, there will perhaps always be a proportion of FC’s membership who may not wish to actively participate in the running of the club (some of those who joined solely to invest in community shares for instance) but only one in ten of us bothering to vote at an AGM? Come on, let’s be honest, however we try to dress that up, it’s a serious embarrassment. It doesn’t take that long to read a set of Board minutes or AGM notes and resolutions – it’s our responsibility to do it.
But it is true that the General Manager and Board could have done more, much more, to address the “democratic deficit”. How about being able to pick up meeting papers and being allowed to vote at home matches? A ballot box on the membership stall perhaps? Or given that we’re now in the twenty first century what about online voting? Last autumn’s members’ survey was done online and despite being the size of a novella over 1,600 members at least started to reply. This is more than four times the number of voters at the last AGM and proof that online voting has the potential to boost participation in elections significantly. Or what about broadcasting AGMs and other meetings on the club’s television or radio channels? Or how about all Board members, not just a few, having the decency to respond to serious questions raised by co-owners on the club’s own internet discussion forum, something which was designed to improve accountability? And if we’re talking about the Board properly representing our fan base how about a space or two for one of our younger members? Down the years the average age of pretty much all our Boards must have been forty summat. But suggestions like this have often been waved away without any proper explanation. Whilst the focus was on raising the £6.3 million to get us into Broadhurst Park democracy undoubtedly took a back seat. “Never mind the ballots here’s the six point three million” became our rather uninspiring punk anthem.
Ultimately, when it comes to Walsh’s stepping down, I’m left feeling a bit like when someone’s leaving card comes round at work and you’re not sure what to write as you used to think they were sound but recently you suspect that they might be the one nicking your milk from the fridge and there was that time when they were a right dick at the Christmas party. Thanks Andy for your determination, drive and all the sheer bloody hard work you’ve put into this club and all those times when you’ve inspired us to perhaps give a little more to get us to Broadhurst Park. Good luck with whatever you decide to do next. But leadership’s not all about talking and directing. Sometimes you have to listen as well, particularly when supporters have genuine concerns about the running of the club, and also display a humbler side and acknowledge when mistakes have been made and apologise. And occasionally you have to have the grace to say thank you to people who you may have fallen out with but who have grafted hard for this football club too.
In those respects you have failed woefully and in doing so have almost brought the club to its knees. Because of that I’m very pleased that you are stepping down. At least the club can now move on. We as co-owners need to reclaim and restore our football club to ensure that it rests on strong democratic foundations and rediscovers its defiantly Mancunian rebel heart. I suspect we’ll need more than a four week e-mithering, Twitter-bothering crowd funding campaign to sort this one out.
The day after FC United of Manchester won the Northern Premier League last April I trekked out to the ExCeL Arena in east London to pick up my number for the London Marathon the following Sunday. Still giddy from the night before, I tweeted something daft about late night celebratory boozing only days before running a marathon perhaps not being the best preparation for race day. I thought nothing much of it. Just another “look at me” update casually tossed into the twittersphere for no one in particular. So I was mildly surprised to get a reply from FC United’s official Twitter account enquiring if I would consider using my marathon place to raise money for the club. To be honest, it struck me as a bit cheeky that I was effectively being asked to consider kicking off a fund raising campaign barely four days before the event itself. Anyone who has ever raised sponsorship money will know that it can take weeks and months of mithering family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues to get a decent total. And, for all the club knew, I might already have been raising money for another cause.
I declined the offer pointing out that the timing didn’t feel right and, anyway, for several weeks another FC United supporter training for the Manchester Marathon had already staged a well publicised, and successful, fund raising campaign that had generated a four figure sum for the club. It’s not that I’m a heartless monster, I’ve run the minithon several times to raise money for the club, but to keep asking supporters for funds week after week, well, it just doesn’t feel right to me. With any fund raising effort there has to be an element of knowing and respecting your audience and not taking the piss. And, anyway, shouldn’t the club be a bit more organised in the way that it approaches people to participate in fund raising rather than simply rolling up a few days before an event with a half-hearted “spare any change mate?”. There are plenty of enthusiastic runners amongst FC United’s support as we’ve witnessed with the annual minithon. Why not, at the beginning of each year approach them to see if they would be interested in running a marathon or a half marathon or a 10k race to raise funds for the club?
In hindsight, perhaps the ill-timed tweet shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, as it’s merely a small example of the ineptitude of FC United’s fund raising over the last year or so. At times it’s felt like it’s being led by some fresh-faced spreadsheet monkey but, no, the fund raising role is meant to be sufficiently remunerated for the club to attract an “expert” fund raiser. Well, that was the idea anyway. One of the present incumbent’s early brainwaves was to boost the takings from the prestigious friendly match against Benfica last May, the first match at Broadhurst Park, with a one-off programme price increase of 50p. It’s a decision that has had huge consequences for the club. Some members appalled at the club breaking one of its founding principles and indulging in “outright commercialism” withdrew their membership and left the club. Others, like myself, who have stayed have significantly reduced their financial contribution to the club such that the recent month-long crowd funding campaign to raise £15,000 to kit out a temporary building that will provide accommodation for the youth team and assist the club’s community work has, by our own high standards, failed miserably. So, what has the club’s response been to this? Oh, let’s run the crowd funding campaign for another four weeks and continue to bombard our members with increasingly desperate emails. Problem solved. At times it’s laughable how incompetent it all is.
Anyway, winding the clock forward, I was out running again last Saturday. This time a nineteen mile training run in preparation for next month’s London Marathon but fuelled only by four jelly babies and simmering anger at the latest off-pitch shenanigans at FC United. Usually I’d have a bowl of porridge before I tackled such a distance but, to be honest, there was no need for it as by the time I left home there was performance enhancing steam pouring out of my ears. If the club carries on like this I reckon I’ll be breaking the world marathon record come the last Sunday in April. Sharapova should bin the meldonium and get herself an FC United membership. It’s better than drugs this.
The reason for my ire was the latest flabbergasting blunder-bolt in a season full of them; the revelation that in December FC United’s Board voted to conduct an independent investigation into “abuse” that Board members, staff and volunteers were allegedly receiving on internet discussion forums and social media. Dave Boyle, the former chief executive of Supporters Direct and a friend of General Manager Andy Walsh and longstanding Board member Adam Brown, was apparently offered £900 to take on the role of Witchfinder General. NINE HUNDRED BLOODY POUNDS of co-owners’ money. This is a man who had apparently already taken a look at the supporters’ internet forum and remarked that he felt like he “needed a bath” afterwards. So much for casting an “independent” eye there then. Without a hint of irony, one of the leading lights of the supporter ownership movement was offered a hefty sum of a supporter-owned football club’s money to snoop on the internet activity of co-owners of that very football club, once the poster boys and girls of the supporter ownership movement. This at a time when the club is struggling financially to adjust to the stresses and strains of owning our own ground.
Boyle initially accepted this “project” (bless!) and then quickly pulled out after apparently receiving some “unpleasant” messages and a threatening phone call. It’s worth pointing out that he also received more than a few mild-mannered messages from FC United supporters expressing their disappointment with the actions of someone that they had previously respected. But that’s perhaps less newsworthy in the tit for tat world of social media so we’ll gloss over it. It’s also worth remembering that this is the very same Dave Boyle who, minutes after AFC Wimbledon were promoted to the football league in 2011, infamously tweeted offensive and obscene remarks at a lawyer involved with the decision to move Wimbledon football club to Milton Keynes and the MK Dons’ chairman Peter Winkelman. The absolute bare-faced hypocrisy of it all seems lost on the General Manager and most of the Board.
If we want to tackle abuse and “unpleasant” behaviour how about offering a duty of care to decent match going Reds who regularly suffer abuse and harassment at matches? Again, at the recent match at Worcester City, we saw some individuals, without any provocation, abusing fellow supporters for a large part of the match. It’s not the first time this has happened this season and one of the individuals involved has already been warned as to his future conduct at matches. Forget the jobs for the boys internet surveillance what is the club doing to address this “shameful” behaviour on the terraces?
Meanwhile you wouldn’t get a sniff of any of this aggro from the club’s sanguine public profile. “”Shining example” Broadhurst Park is named best new non-league stadium” says one news story on the club’s website. “Saturday’s crowd is a record breaker” cries the headline on another and adds that crowds are 53% up on last season. Crowds of more than three thousand have been the norm at Broadhurst Park and last Saturday’s gate of 3,432 against Fylde took the aggregate for the season to the highest ever in the National League North. An incredible level of support, week in week out, at this level of football. And despite our on-pitch struggles in our first season in National League North the club now boasts more than 5,300 co-owners making it the largest supporter-owned football club in the country (by number of members).
In addition, FC’s public profile in the vanguard of the supporter ownership movement is perhaps higher than ever. The club has a representative on the Board of Supporters Direct to enable it to “influence the direction of the organisation”. And FC United played a prominent role in the recent press coverage of the government’s Football Expert Working Group on supporter ownership and getting fans more involved in the running of football clubs with Andy Walsh widely quoted in the papers.
The club’s cheer leading Twitter account, only too happy to keep retweeting the considerable amount of, well earned, praise that the club has received over the last few years from far and wide seems to have a mental blockage when it comes to even the remotest criticism. At Board level, it’s the same with words of criticism, no matter how polite or constructive, often addressed with almost breathtaking “let them eat cake” arrogance by some Board members. There’s a potentially fascinating article to be written here for any journalist prepared to do a bit of digging. Yet, of late, only the Morning Star, hardly renowned for its circulation numbers, has cast a mildly critical eye in the club’s direction with an excellent piece on the struggle that the club faces to stay true to its founding principles.
There is so much to love about this football club of ours that it depresses me to sit here being so bloody miserable. But we are, as we are proud of saying, a “democratic supporter owned football club” and with that comes responsibilities. If we feel that the people that we elect to run this club are not doing a good job then we have a responsibility to say so. Far from the Board operating Stasi-like surveillance of our internet activity we, as co-owners, should be maintaining a very close eye on the actions and words of the General Manager and our elected Board members. Anything else would be a failure of the democracy that we are only too happy to keep banging on about.
Through all of this the thing that most rankles with me is not so much that cock-ups have been made, no one ever said that owning and running our own football club would be easy, but that the Board and General Manager have, at times, completely lacked any sense of humility and the ability to just hold up their hands and say “sorry”. I don’t expect the Board to be anywhere near perfect, we’re all human beings, we all make mistakes and, yes, as we keep being informed there is a sense that some of this is a learning experience for all involved. But when they do mess up as they have done on numerous occasions in the last twelve months it would be helpful if they would actually acknowledge that a mistake has been made and try to put things right; show some decency, some politeness, some basic human warmth instead of flinging up a defensive wall and pressing on as if nothing is wrong at all. It raises hackles.
How can we pretend that the 50p increase in price for the Benfica programme was not a hugely damaging mistake that has potentially cost the club thousands of pounds? Many supporters feared that might be the case at the time but why couldn’t the Board see that and why, with ten months worth of hindsight, will it not even begin to acknowledge that a mistake was made? Likewise inviting a Tory minister to Broadhurst Park in the week of the Tory conference in Manchester. What on earth were we thinking? And how can a football club that inspired such a truly beautifully written book as An Undividable Glow (a book written about the club’s first season) and possesses amongst its ranks some excellent writers also spew out some dreadful, corporate twaddle like the recently released draft Code of Conduct. And while we’re at it, how about a public word of thanks for the volunteers at Course You Can Malcolm (because let’s face it it’s probably not going to return is it?) who consistently made match days at Gigg Lane something special and in doing so raised thousands for the club? Or maybe a word of thanks for former programme editor Tony Howard who produced a first rate programme week in week out for many seasons? Or is it too much effort to say thank you to people who the club appears to have fallen out with? If so, I’m not sure that’s a football club I want to be part of. How can we evangelise about the wonders of supporter ownership when we treat our own volunteers, contractors and supporters with such disdain?
Amidst the gloom, there is some hope. It was noticeable that the four Board members who voted against using the club’s money to snoop on co-owners were all new members, elected at last November’s AGM and the openness and honesty of each of these four has been a breath of fresh air and one of the bright spots of the last few months. The others would do well to look and learn. And regular matchday Board surgeries, opportunities to question Board members on issues, albeit still in their early days, have to be a good thing in engendering a civilised discussion between the Board and co-owners.
The club’s annual meeting on 24th April will be an interesting one. It’s also the day of the London marathon for me. But after weeks of going out in the pissing rain to do training runs five times a week, I’ll happily jack all that in to attend this meeting if there is a chance that, just for once, we will hear the club’s General Manager and Board apologise for recent mistakes and try to draw a line under this annus horribilis and unite as a football club. It might be the biggest single thing that we do to boost fund raising over the next few months. Some have long since disappeared and are no longer around to listen but for those of us who remain I genuinely believe that it would make a big difference and begin to melt some of the ice that has built up over the last year. If not, the thought of us heading towards next season with more co-owners leaving (and possibly taking community shares with them) and others unwilling to pay more than the bare minimum for season tickets must surely set alarm bells ringing. It’s going to be a crucial few weeks for the future of this football club.
People often remark that I have a decent memory for dates. I’m not convinced about that but what I do know is that, after years of football match going following Manchester United and now FC United of Manchester home and away, I find that I often connect events in my day to day life to particular football matches or even events off the pitch. For instance, discussing Al Pacino recently with someone at work one of his films that got mentioned was Scent of a Woman for which he won an Oscar. “What year was that?” pondered my colleague. In the blink of an eye I knew it was 1993. Not because I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the films of Al Pacino but purely because I remember going to see it at the cinema on that golden afternoon that Oldham beat Aston Villa and United were crowned champions for the first time in twenty six years.
Sometimes the links are more tenuous. Like the year of a family trip to Blackpool illuminations recalled purely because of a midweek European match. Driving home from the seaside I remember we had night time Radio Two crackling away on the car wireless, keeping an ear out for the score in United’s UEFA Cup first leg match at PSV Eindhoven. It was 1984. Around that time I had a notebook in which I used to keep a record of all United’s games, the teams, the scorers, attendances etc and sometimes I wrote a mini match report. I was a right laugh as a teenager me but the legacy is an ability to recall the dates of often obscure fixtures.
Anyway, I was reminded of such football trivia on a recent trip to the theatre. On my last week in my old job a group of us went to watch Les Miserables in the West End. We’d been meaning to go to the theatre for a while and, as I was leaving, I got to choose what we saw. The Phantom Of The Opera was mooted but, let’s be frank here, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than give a single penny of my hard earned to the loathsome Andrew Lloyd Webber, a multi-millionaire Tory peer who flew back from New York last October to vote in the House of Lords in favour of cuts to tax credits for some of the poorest people in the country. Instead, I plumped for “Les Miz” as it’s one of the longest running shows in the West End (selling itself as “the world’s most popular musical”), and because everyone I know who has seen it, and some have seen it multiple times, said unfailingly that they enjoyed it immensely and invariably added “you should go and see it”. Oh and it’s got a bit of politics in it set as it is in post-revolutionary France and culminating in the Paris Uprising of 1832. I’m always a sucker for a red flag or two. So, as Stuart Maconie would say, what’s not to like?
It was, I think, only the fourth musical that I’ve seen since we moved down to London nearly eight years ago, and one of those, Wicked, was because my partner got some freebie tickets through work. Strange really as both my parents love musicals and I grew up in a town where going to see one of the big shows was the centrepiece of most peoples’ occasional trips to the big smoke. It was almost a case of, well, why else would you possibly want to visit London? It still makes me smile when I see coaches from the likes of Mansfield and Chesterfield lined up along the Embankment on weekend afternoons, bored drivers waiting for matinees to end before collecting their punters for the journey back north.
But after sitting through two hours and fifty minutes of what is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest musicals of all time, I have to conclude that it’s an art form that I just don’t “get”. And I’m not convinced I ever will. It’s not that I disliked Les Miz but simply that it just didn’t get my juices flowing. For starters I didn’t recognise any of the songs. Not one. Which isn’t really a good start with a musical. My workmates looked askance. Surely you must have heard this one? Or this one? But, no, none, zilch. Apparently Susan Boyle sang “I Dreamed A Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent a few years back and it went viral on YouTube. But like most of what happens on reality television it completely passed me by.
Perhaps what is far worse though than all of this is that my abiding memory of Les Miserables will remain an inevitably football related one from a Sunday night in April 1992. That afternoon United had lost 2-0 away at Liverpool to complete a thoroughly miserable week of football (three defeats in seven days) that had seen us blow, quite spectacularly, the chance of actually winning the league for the first time in a quarter of a century. A footballing capitulation of almost Devon Loch proportions. Back then I was too young to remember United ever being champions and on the journey home I seriously questioned whether I would in fact ever see them lift the league title in my lifetime. Would we ever get a better chance than in 1992? I was living and working in Cambridge at the time and due to various Sunday railway engineering shenanigans I was travelling back via London with a mate who lived in Essex. It was a solemn journey of few words.
After what felt like several hours we eventually disembarked at Euston and as we shuffled along the platform towards the station concourse my eyes were drawn to a series of large adverts to our left which featured the word “miserable” repeated over and over in large letters. A few years earlier in my first term at university a group of psychology students had invited some of us to take part in a study which involved sitting in a darkened room and looking at a computer screen on which were flashed random words, sometimes several at the same time, for about thirty seconds. The exercise was repeated three or four times with different sets of words and at the end of each round we were asked to spend a couple of minutes jotting down the words that we could remember seeing.
We must have seen hundreds of words on each occasion but I was only able to write perhaps a dozen down each time. And after the second round I noticed a bit of a pattern developing as I scribbled down words like “sad”, “lonely’, “unhappy” and “dejected”. Of all the hundreds of words that were being thrown at me there appeared to be a theme to my choices. It wasn’t surprising in many respects as someone who has always found it difficult to make friends I was struggling hopelessly to adjust to student life, my lonely evenings of Pot Noodles and crap television not quite living up to the promised hedonistic nights of drinking, drugs and girls. I was, in many respects, perfect for this spot of amateur psychology.
On seeing the word “miserable” plastered across Euston station it briefly crossed my mind that the psychology project was being repeated. Miserable was how we undoubtedly felt so, amidst all the adverts at one of London’s biggest railway stations, miserable was what we saw. The adverts were in fact for the musical Les Miserables which had left the West End to go on tour and, at that point, was being played out at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Hence the big advertising campaign at Euston aimed squarely at passengers clambering aboard trains to Manchester who might be unaware of their destination’s cultural offerings.
It’s an image that has seared itself into my brain to such an extent that twenty four years later whenever Les Miserables is mentioned, and even after having seen the show now, I instinctively think, not of the musical itself, but of Euston station in April 1992 and the miserable events that preceded it that day. Instead of recalling the heroic Jean Valjean, little Cosette, I Dreamed A Dream and a lovely evening out with cherished work colleagues, images of Liverpool’s beanpole striker Ian Rush scoring the first goal flicker in my mind’s eye. Ian bastard Rush who up until that point had failed to score against United in more than twenty games. And these scenes are soundtracked by songs of Scouse joy, utterly jubilant that they should be the ones that denied us the championship for another year. Les Miserables? You bet we were.