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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……    

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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.

Early doors (and late winners)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that watching United’s stirring second half comeback against Newcastle would have at least brought a smile to the faces of those FC United supporters who hung around at Broadhurst Park last Saturday evening to view the match on the telly in the main bar. Watching your side get knocked out of the FA Cup at home by a team from the division below whilst having three players sent off is no great shakes at the best of times but when you factor in that we’re currently bottom of the league with only one win in our first eleven games and are struggling to recruit a new first team manager it felt like the club hit a new low at around 4.50pm last Saturday – a where do we go from here, Crystal-Palace-in-December-1989 moment. Not to mention the pain of missing out on fifteen grand in prize money that would have come in very handy with one eye almost permanently fixed on the club’s need to generate sufficient income not only to cover its operating costs but also to pay off the substantial debts acquired in completing the building of the ground more than three years ago.

So when Alexis Sanchez’s last minute header hit the back of the net there was at least a momentary silver lining to an otherwise shite day. Many of us may no longer watch United in the flesh but they will always remain our first love so excuse us, wherever we are, if we momentarily go absolutely fucking batshit when a last minute winner goes in at the Stretford End. But seemingly this wasn’t enough for one FC United supporter who took to the club’s members’ internet forum later on in the evening to whinge about how the bar was closed shortly after the match finished at 7.20pm thus denying him (and others) another beer or two to toast United’s victory. Perhaps only a perma-grump FC United supporter could turn United’s crucial late victory on Saturday night into almost instant doom and gloom. The post bemoaned the apparent loss of the “our club, our rules” mantra, took a swipe at a steward “with a big gob” for pointing out that he’d like to get home before concluding with the question “where is this club heading?” 

Which is indeed the six point five million pound question and one that has been pondered, at great length, by a recent review of the club’s organisational structure, performed by three of its members and presented and discussed in detail at last month’s board meeting. The report spoke of how the club’s development has moved beyond our initial phase as a protest club focused largely on bringing the fun (remember that, eh) back to watching football again, through a second phase which saw us concentrating almost exclusively on building our own ground to our current state of affairs which demands that we take collective responsibility for owning and running a £1.2 million turnover business and a £6.5 million pound stadium and community facility. “We, the owners, need to evolve, act like owners and take our share of responsibility” the report concludes (***subtext: grow up FFS***). More than three years since our Broadhurst Park home was opened it’s a poacher-turned-gamekeeper evolution that’s proving problematic to say the least. 

There’s been some scratching of heads amongst members since the publication of September’s sixteen page board report (half of it devoted to discussion of the structural review) about what “responsible behaviour” actually means. After all, aren’t we meant to be rebels and all that – forever disillusioned and always kicking off about something or other? The structural review reckoned that around a quarter of office time (that’s staff and volunteers) is spent directly or indirectly responding to queries from members – referring to this as one of the hidden costs of being a supporter-owned club – and highlighted the need for a maturer approach that recognises that our resources (staff, volunteers, money etc) are scarce and that, as responsible owners of a sixth tier semi-professional football club, we must make the best possible use of what we have and avoid placing unrealistic demands on precious staff and volunteer time. 

What the “can’t get a beer at 7.20pm” post represents is yet another example of how we, as members, often expect far too much of our over-stretched staff and volunteers. Yes, no doubt it would be grand to sit back and have another pint or two in the bar having just watched United win but, at the same time, it would also only be fair, as responsible employers, to let hardworking bar staff, volunteers and stewards go home and put their feet up after a long day for many – there is, believe it or not, more to life than FC United. Of course one of the main reasons for screening these early evening United matches in the main bar is to boost our match day revenue but surely this pursuit of extra coin shouldn’t be at the expense of the wellbeing of our staff and volunteers? And it certainly shouldn’t mean that staff and volunteers get labelled as having a “big gob” simply for pointing out that they’d quite like to go home after a long day.

And why prattle on about what is essentially an operational issue about bar opening times on a forum which was established for us to ask questions of board members? What have bar opening times got to do with the board? We’ve got an operational management team (albeit currently comprising volunteers) in place whose responsibility it is to look after matters like this – the sooner we all recognise this distinction between operational and strategic matters and let the board get on with focusing on the club’s long term strategy, which is what we should be expecting it to do, the better for the long term health of the club. We can argue the toss over bar opening times and the use of plastic glasses and the availability of real ale blah, blah, blah until we are blue in the face but what the club desperately needs after more than three years in its own ground is for the board and the club’s membership to collectively don our thinking caps and set out a long term vision for the club.

Where indeed is this club heading? What are our plans for increasing attendances? Do those plans include the local kids (and their families) who simply cannot afford to come and watch FC United as it is too expensive (affordable football eh?) as was highlighted by the secretary of Moston Juniors at August’s board meeting? Or are we simply intent on wringing every last penny out of our existing supporter base? And what are our plans for using the wonderful redeveloped space under the St Mary’s Road End terrace? Where do we see ourselves, realistically, in five years time on and off the pitch? Where are the exciting plans to set in front of potential new members of staff and sponsors and say to them “come and join us on this journey”? Because without that strategic vision the real risk is that we continue, month after month, flailing around, struggling to simply keep our heads above water without ever getting anywhere. And there’s only so long that we can keep doing that before we will sink. 

We can’t go on expecting hard pressed staff, volunteers and board members (some of whom are regularly working more than 20 hours per week on club matters) to be at our beck and call twenty four seven responding to queries about bar opening times, the price of pies, the availability of chips, whether the shuttle bus will be running, what time the turnstiles will open and what brand of tea bags or bog roll we’re using this week. And oh can you get back to us in the next thirty minutes please, cheers. Questions that nine times out of ten have already been answered elsewhere or in the monthly board reports that are now shared with members only a few days after each board meeting – if only we’d take a few minutes each month to read the bloody things. And yes, you’re right, most of us didn’t bother reading the board minutes in the early days either (and look where that got us) but things, as you may have noticed, have moved on somewhat since then – we weren’t responsible for running a multi-million pound facility, with all the ball-aches that brings, and servicing a mountain of debt back then. It’s exhausting simply observing this regular merry-go-round month after month on the members’ forum let alone be one of those board members obliged to respond to the questions like a new parent perpetually on nappy changing duty. And as the number of board members dwindles the exhaustion is evident. There’s a huge difference between subjecting decision makers to scrutiny and simply bombarding them with a string of questions that have either already been answered or should be directed at someone else.

Typically two board members responded within hours to this latest example of whinge-baggery on Saturday night. By rights they probably should have had their feet up in front of Match of the Day with a few cans after a long day but sadly they felt compelled to respond, not for the first time, to an entirely operational issue and had the good grace to thank staff and volunteers for their graft on what was a long and, at times, difficult day on Saturday. I use the word “sadly” because it really shouldn’t be up to board members to have to point this out to us – surely we should all be fully aware of and thankful for the considerable hard work that is going on around the club at the moment, not only on match days.

Arguably, at this point in time, the value of our volunteering effort and the involvement of members in the day to day running of the club is greater than it has ever been – whether it’s pulling pints, ringing round potential sponsors, reporting finances, organising match day operations, searching for a new first team manager or reviewing the club’s organisational structure. The latter alone has so far involved more than 200 hours of work by three of the club’s members, all experienced in this type of work, who collectively travelled more than a thousand miles to attend last month’s board meeting to present their findings. All at no cost to the club. An organisation could typically expect to pay anywhere between £500 to £1,000 per day to buy in that type of expertise – I’ll let you do the maths on roughly how much money that has saved the club.      

Can’t get a beer in the club’s main bar two and a half hours after the match has finished? Well boo-fucking-hoo. Because, you know what, this coming Saturday at Course You Can Malcolm you’ll be able to turn up at Broadhurst Park THREE hours before kick-off and, in the company of fellow Reds, enjoy live music from a local band, a quiz, possibly a guest speaker or two and locally sourced beer and food (some if it homemade) all laid on by yet more of the club’s hard grafting volunteers and all inside your own football ground. There’ll be nothing else quite like it inside a football ground anywhere in the UK, or possibly Europe, this weekend. We may be bottom of the league, out of the cup and permanently grumpy but let’s take a moment to pause and look around at what we actually do have here at this club. It may not be enough, as looks increasingly likely even at this early stage, to assure us of a fifth consecutive season in this league but nevertheless, from where I’m standing (SMRE top left if you’re asking), even thirteen and a half years on, it’s still pretty fucking special. We do alright you know.    

Waterloo sunset

We submitted our reference costs for the 2017-18 financial year a few weeks ago. After weeks of number crunching and analysis it’s always a relief to wrap things up by inserting the final cost and activity figures into an all-singing macro-enabled spreadsheet and press the button that sends it winging across London to the Waterloo headquarters of NHS Improvement, the health service’s financial watchdog. Responsibility for overseeing this annual costing exercise transferred from the Department of Health to NHS Improvement in 2016 and they collect data from 234 NHS trusts across England and will publish the results later in the year.

By my reckoning it’s the fifteenth time in the last 18 years that I’ve worked on reference costs for three different NHS trusts – I’m something of an old hand at this game now. They’ve been collected annually since 1997 and are defined as “the average unit cost to the NHS of providing defined services to NHS patients in England in a given financial year” – typically an average cost per inpatient spell, or outpatient attendance or contact. The information, once published, has a multitude of uses not least as the national average costs that are derived from it form the basis of the set of prices (or national tariff) that are paid by commissioning bodies to providers of acute services in the so-called “internal market”.

But they are also used to answer questions in Parliament and to respond to queries under the Freedom of Information Act about how much NHS care costs and used by journalists to write the next big headline about how much money the NHS is “wasting” on this, that or the other. So earlier this year when the Daily Express plastered the headline “bed blocking costs the NHS £3 billion per year” on its front page the chances are that the costs bit of that headline was a hastily scribbled calculation on the back of an envelope based on figures extracted from the annual publication of reference costs – data that is available on NHS Improvement’s website for everyone to view whether you are a journalist, a politician, a patient or simply someone who is keen to learn a bit more about how much the NHS costs. So if you live in Barnsley and would like to know how much, on average, it costs your local hospital to treat someone with a urinary tract infection you can find this out (it’s £1,691 in case you’re interested). Or likewise if you reside in Barnet and are curious to know how much it costs for a child to be seen by your local child and adolescent mental health team the details are there too buried deep in the reference costs publication (I’ll let you work that one out for yourselves).

And this data, in turn, is based on figures that have been sweated over by cost accountants at more than two hundred NHS trusts, quite literally in the searing heat of this summer (air conditioning in an NHS finance department? You having a laugh?). Unlike management accountants harping on about budgets and variances or financial accountants with their fixation with debits and credits and balance sheets we cost accountants are striving to link the pounds and pence that the NHS spends on patient care to the patient “activity” (in the form of a spell in hospital as an inpatient or an outpatient attendance for instance) that we actually spend that money on. But when each NHS trust spends hundreds of millions of pounds each year treating hundreds of thousands of patients it is no easy task.

The role of the cost accountant is often portrayed as an unglamorous one – the very back of the back office populated by introspective nerds who prefer spreadsheets to social interaction. And there may be some truth in that – when was the last time, for instance, you saw Anna from finance quizzing Jac Naylor about the costs of her cardiothoracic surgery on Holby City? The reality is that Anna’s probably sent Jac an email with a bamboozling spreadsheet attached to it inviting her to comment but Jac’s likely to have ignored it as she’s a busy surgeon and, quite frankly, hasn’t got the time to engage in this financial nonsense. And as Jac, whilst recognised as a brilliant surgeon, can be a bit volatile at the best of times and Anna, who is also very good at her job but doesn’t let on about it, tends to shy away from confrontation, the email is neither replied to or followed up on. It can be tricky to get “clinical engagement” with the costing process at the best of times. As an aside, if there are any Holby scriptwriters reading this (unlikely but, hey, nothing ventured) then please message me as I have several ideas for a future costing based episode <inserts winking eye emoji>.

But, joking aside, the role of the NHS cost accountant can be an interesting and immensely rewarding one and behind the production of the annual accounts which are a legal requirement for all NHS organisations reference costs are arguably the second most important piece of work to emerge from an NHS finance department each year.

When I first joined the NHS in 1990 specialty cost statements, introduced in the late eighties, were the only attempt to assign costs to clinical activity. The costs were compiled by District Health Authorities for all the hospitals in their area but only covered a limited number of specialties and there was criticism that the costs did not account for the mix of cases treated by different hospitals. “Case mix” was far from a new concept – there had been calls for costing information to account for case mix as far back as the 1960s and ultimately this lead to the development of healthcare resource groups (HRGs).

The introduction of the internal market in 1990 led to something called “costing for contracting” – the production of cost-based prices to be charged by provider trusts to purchasers of healthcare such as District Health Authorities and GP fundholders. Most of this was done on spreadsheets and, unlike the national tariff introduced later, different prices could be charged to different purchasers for the same activity. Oh what fun we had during the contract negotiation season, munching on our late night pizzas, crumbs going everywhere, shifting costs from one purchaser to another in order to be competitive on price like less good looking versions of Bud Fox in a low budget production of Wall Street.

Reference costs represented an attempt to introduce a more standardised approach to costing and to provide a measure of the relative efficiency of different providers through the collection of cost information from all hospitals for benchmarking purposes. The first reference costs collection was for the 1997-98 financial year and marked, at the time, a significant step up in hospital costing to identifying a cost for a group of clinical procedures or treatments that were clinically similar and consumed similar levels of resources – the aforementioned healthcare resource group or HRG.

Previously a view prevailed that it was not possible to attach an accurate cost to a procedure or treatment as no two patients were the same – the variability of patients, doctors and diseases makes it difficult to assign costs with any degree of accuracy but the introduction of HRGs represented an attempt to get round that problem. However even when two patients have the same condition and are treated by the same doctor on the same day who is to say that their costs will be similar?

As a management accountant at a small northern mental health and community trust in the late nineties I remember a booklet introducing reference costs being plopped down on my desk and taking it home to learn more. We purchased a new piece of software shortly afterwards that would assist us in calculating unit costs for each of our services but it was not until 2001 when I took up my first costing role at an acute hospital that I got properly involved in actually calculating reference costs. Since then the annual reference costs exercise has tended to dominate my summer months. Holidays put on hold. Gorgeous summer evenings spent in the office. Bus journeys home spent scrutinising the 200 page tea-stained document known as the annual reference costs guidance. And worldwide and personal events framed by how reference costs is going.

While Brazil were beating Germany in the final of the 2002 World Cup in Japan I was sat in a portacabin in Mansfield frantically trying to complete our reference costs on time whilst listening to the match on the radio. In an Edinburgh strip club on my brother’s stag do in the summer of 2005 I found myself repeatedly tuning out of the flashing lights and scantily clad dance routines to ponder how I was going to clear all the validation errors in our reference costs return when I got back into the office the following Monday. What a saddo. A year later and I was trying to convince a maxillofacial surgeon, who was one of the finance department’s most outspoken critics, of the merits of reference costs. After weeks of meetings and emails and scrubbing up in theatre to watch an operation being performed we had managed to produce a set of average costs per procedure that we both felt were robust and clinically meaningful. And in 2008 when I moved down to London I got to experience patient level costing for the first time and witness at close quarters what a mini-industry it had already become.

As with most occupations we like to think that we’re continually improving things but in reality hospital costing information was being produced more than a hundred years ago – largely as a means of measuring the relative efficiency of different hospitals but also, interestingly, during the second world war this costing information was used as the basis of funding different hospitals for treating additional patients as part of the war effort. But reference costs as we know them are set to disappear soon as our Waterloo-based watchdog seeks to replace them with an annual collection of patient level costs from all provider trusts.

Many trusts have been costing at patient level since the mid-noughties but soon it will become compulsory for all 234 provider trusts – each one required to either upgrade their existing system or purchase new costing software (a new costing system typically requiring an initial outlay of between £30k and £100k) that meets the requirements of NHS Improvement’s Costing Transformation Programme. Half a dozen suppliers offer systems that claim to be CTP compliant but, and here’s the catch, there are significant doubts about the compliance of at least one of those systems and NHS Improvement, when pressed on this, are unable to clarify whether a system definitely meets the criteria set out in the CTP or not. Seemingly the risk of being sued for loss of business by one of these suppliers overrides NHS Improvement’s primary objective of offering support to NHS organisations to deliver high quality patient care.

According to the latest census by the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA), published earlier this year, there are 16,443 finance staff working in the NHS in England, accounting for less than 1.4% of the 1.2 million staff that work in the English health service. And of those finance staff, 352 were employed in costing roles across 234 NHS trusts in England (little more than 2% of the finance staff that are employed by the NHS) – equating to an average of around 1.5 costing accountants per trust. It’s apparent therefore that this is a specialised role that often requires you to look beyond your own organisation for advice. A costing lead often reports to a deputy director of finance who may have scant knowledge of the intricacies of costing so the opportunity to ask your manager or a colleague for advice is much reduced.

As a result it’s perhaps no surprise that something akin to a goalkeepers’ union formed in the early years of reference costs and it, somewhat bizarrely, provided my first experience of using an internet discussion forum as the Department of Health established a forum for those involved in costing to ask questions and exchange views. Although Department of Health staff offered some advice on the forum it quickly became a means for cost accountants all over the country to help each other out and became an invaluable source of information, and something of a comfort blanket, at the time for relative newbies like me. As was our local costing group that met regularly and brought together costing leads from across South Yorkshire and the East Midlands – we discussed problems, often had a good moan, but came up with solutions too. The likes of Sue from Derby, David and Trevor from Sheffield and Julia from Rotherham were experienced cost accountants and I learnt loads from them in those early years.

There were some who questioned the accuracy and usefulness of reference costs with its emphasis on averages and there were always rumours that some trusts paid little attention to the annual costing exercise, doing the bare minimum necessary to get through, but it was clear that many trusts with experienced costing staff spent many months on the exercise during which their costing teams built up a wealth of knowledge about the services that their organisations provided. In all my years working in NHS finance departments I’ve met very few finance professionals who are as knowledgeable about their organisation’s “business” as this group of cost accountants.

In the dash for the nirvana of patient level costing it feels like we’ve lost a little of that curiosity, empathy and genuine interest in what we are doing in favour of an almost robotic churning out of huge volumes of numbers that can be fiendishly difficult to interpret. All the while having to acknowledge that what we’re trying to do – accurately cost every single patient that our organisations see or treat or operate on (including every single dressing or drug or stitch or cup of tea they drank or minute they spent with a nurse, doctor or therapist) – is ultimately impossible and what we end up with is merely an approximation of the true cost just as reference costs are. The jury is out on whether the CTP will be successful and whether investment in yet more new systems (not an area where the NHS has a great track record) will be worth it all in the end. They’ve had their faults but I, for one, will be sad to see the sun set on reference costs.

From remembering Denis to table tennis

A piece I wrote for a recent edition of FC United of Manchester’s matchday programme on the club’s work in developing participation in sporting and other activities in the local community during 2017-18

Some supporters may be unaware that FC United of Manchester’s first team coach Tom Conroy is also the club’s sport development manager, a role that seeks to encourage participation in football and other sports in Moston and north Manchester for people of all ages and backgrounds. The work undertaken by the club in the local community over the last year was set out in a sixteen page report prepared by Tom for July’s board meeting and makes for fascinating reading. It’s available to read online, as are all the monthly reports shared by the board following its monthly meetings, simply by logging onto the members’ forum.

Whilst, on the football front, the men’s first team inevitably attracts the lion’s share of our attention the report highlights that a staggering 84 football teams currently use the facilities at Broadhurst Park on a weekly basis either for training or matches or both. This includes a number of Moston Juniors teams as the relationship with our partner football club has strengthened over the last twelve months and we have begun to work together more closely and develop a joint action plan. For instance, it is hoped that the development of the Wildcats girls’ football team, which sees us running weekly football sessions for girls aged 5 to 15 years, will lead to the formation of a Moston Juniors girls’ team that may ultimately provide a pathway to the FC United women’s team.

The facts and figures on our football development work come thick and fast in Tom’s report. A weekly pan-disability football session takes place at Broadhurst Park and we now have two disability football teams that play in the Greater Manchester Ability Counts League. The East Manchester Junior League continues to use Broadhurst Park for matches as thirty six teams and around 350 children play on the 3G pitch on Saturday mornings. A group from Freedom From Torture, a charity that provides support for victims of torture who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers, hold weekly football sessions on the 3G pitch and also took part in the Refugee World Cup in Manchester in June – FC United was the only football club involved in this tournament. Walking football sessions have proved popular with two weekly sessions at Broadhurst Park and a number of friendly matches with walking football teams from away teams took place on the 3G pitch prior to the first team’s match on the main pitch last season. And 2017-18 saw us begin to provide weekly football sessions for adults with mental health issues and may see us create a mental health team in future.

The development of other sports is not only one of the club’s strategic objectives but also one of our commitments for securing funding from Sport England and Manchester City Council for the building of our Broadhurst Park home. Few supporters may be aware for instance that, in partnership with Table Tennis England, we have purchased two table tennis tables for use in the community cabin and there are plans to establish a table tennis club in future. Similarly our school summer holiday multi-sports camps which see us working with the North Manchester Sports and Activity Forum to provide opportunities for kids to take part in a whole range of sports in the school summer holidays may also fly under the radar. Over eighty kids took part in sports such as cricket, athletics, tag rugby, football, dodgeball and baseball during the summer holidays in 2017 and this summer more than 150 were registered to take part.

But the club’s commitment to its local community stretches beyond participation in sport to encompass a whole range of non-sporting activities as we aim to offer a site that is of genuine value to the local community and is open and accessible to people of all backgrounds. For the second year running the club opened on Christmas Day to offer some festive comfort to local homeless people and this year that commitment expanded beyond the festive period to working with other organisations to help homeless people across the city including providing support (in the form of warm clothing, food and blankets) for a local mosque which had opened its doors to provide warmth and shelter for rough sleepers during bitterly cold weather earlier this year.

Meanwhile the Sporting Memories group continued to tackle the problem of social isolation with its regular Friday afternoon get together of around a dozen older football supporters, swapping sporting tales over a brew, even featuring in a piece in the Daily Telegraph last December as they reminisced about Manchester derbies in years gone by (including Denis Law’s infamous backheel). The group has been such a success that there are plans to take this on the road to care homes and sheltered housing and work with those that can’t necessarily make it to Broadhurst Park every week.

As Tom’s report explains there are plans to expand our community work as we use the soon to be opened redeveloped space under the St Mary’s Road End terrace to reach out to more community organisations and offer space for meetings, events and a range of activities including fitness classes, yoga, tea parties and weight training. And, as NHS budgets are increasingly stretched, we will also utilise this space to promote healthier lifestyles that will include us hosting a range of health clinics and drop-in sessions for local residents in partnership with local NHS organisations.

What happens on the pitch will always be our bread and butter but off it as we wrestle with the challenges of operating a sustainable, successful, fan-owned, democratically run football club Tom’s report offers a reminder that we can make a major contribution to creating a happier, healthier and more resilient community in Moston and across north Manchester. There’s much to be proud for all of us that own and support this football club.