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Balls to that

10/31/2015

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When ball number fifty six was paired with ball number twelve in last week’s draw for the first round proper of this season’s FA Cup there was a fair chance that a television company would come sniffing round. And so it was, a couple of days later, that FC United of Manchester’s home tie with Chesterfield of Football League Division One was selected to be shown live on Monday night on BT Sport. Ace if you like sitting at home watching the footy. Not so good if you’re a match going supporter of either club with a job to go to and, you know, a life outside football.

The Board of FC United protested and initially refused to move the kick-off time but were told in no uncertain terms by the Football Association, the so-called guardians of the best interests of our national sport, that rules are rules and we can like it or lump it. The reaction of some observers has been depressingly familiar. If you feel that strongly about matches being moved for television then why don’t you pull out of the FA Cup altogether? Why don’t you just give the television money back? What’s the point in protesting or boycotting the match, it’s just the way things are these days, get over it. A protest or boycott will have no impact blah, blah, blah…..

First of all, let’s set one thing straight, particularly for those football writers out there who seemingly can’t be bothered to do some basic research. In 2007 the members of FC United voted to enter the FA Cup for the first time and to adhere to its rules including any regarding televised matches. The Board of FC United having been guided by the club’s membership do not therefore have a mandate to simply pop their toys back in the box and withdraw from the FA Cup. Such is life for a football club founded on democratic principles. If we vote to participate in a competition then that’s what we do warts and all. If we don’t like it then we return to the ballot box. Does this in some way invalidate our right to protest about the fixture being moved for television purposes or mean that we have in some way sold our soul? Does it bollocks.

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Eight years ago the idea of FC being on the box looked a distant prospect but as we’ve climbed the rungs of non-league football increasingly we are re-engaging with the world of Big Football that we turned our backs on in 2005. Ooh, the irony eh? The freedom fighters of FC United being forced to play a fixture on a Monday night whilst across town on the same weekend Manchester United will kick off at the traditional time of 3pm on a Saturday against West Brom.

The debate about televised football has never been merely about the actual screening of games. The main beef has always been around the disruption caused to match going fans of, say, having to schlep to Norwich and back on a Monday night and then get up for work the following day. Of course, we’ve famously been here before to some extent. On a raucous, life affirming November night in 2010 FC United beat Rochdale 3-2 at Spotland in the first round of the FA Cup. The match was moved to a Friday night and broadcast live by ESPN. The club on this occasion deemed that a Friday night trip up the road to Rochdale wasn’t going to overly inconvenience supporters and so agreed with the fixture switch.

The following year, partly as a result of the heated debate around the Rochdale match, the club adopted a policy, voted for by members, on how to treat televised games. The policy specifically refers to the inconvenience caused to match going fans of moving kick-off times (with a Monday night fixture deemed to be the least favoured option for obvious reasons) and also considers the distance travelled by away fans and whether any financial gain for both clubs outweighs any resulting mither for fans. The Board’s response to the decision to screen the Chesterfield match on a Monday night referred to this policy and considered that a payment of £67,500 to both clubs was not worth the disruption caused to the supporters of both sides. The FA, in typically arrogant fashion, refused to listen or even acknowledge these concerns.

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Indeed it’s surely no coincidence that of the FA Cup first round matches chosen for television coverage it is FC United’s that should be the Monday night one. I doubt, for instance whether Salford City, chosen for the BBC’s Friday night match would have had any qualms with a Monday night fixture. It’s almost as if the FA wanted to pick a fight with us. Particularly after the events of the previous weekend when FC United and the admirable Sporting Khalsa refused to move the kick-off time of their FA Cup fourth qualifying round clash (the biggest game in Khalsa’s history) to accommodate a hideously tacky sounding “brand new BBC Mobile Match of the Day Live experience” which involved television intruding on pre-match preparations and demanded access to managers and substitutes on the touchline.

Monday night football is a television invention but I can remember attending many a televised United match on a Monday evening. Bunking off college to get down to Southampton for a goalless FA Cup tie on a brass monkeys January night in the early nineties is one that springs to mind. And one of my favourite away trips ever was a Monday night televised top of the table clash at Norwich in April 1993 when United produced a performance of such breathtaking style that we started to believe that we might, just might, win the league for the first time in twenty six years.

We each have our own relationship with football on the telly. I will never subscribe to Sky; the very thought of contributing anything willingly to the Murdoch empire repulses me. But down the years I’ve watched United games at mates’ houses and down the pub, thus taking advantage of someone else’s Sky subscription. Does that make me a hypocrite? Quite possibly. But equally it was a proud moment for me, when at the club’s annual general meeting in November 2012 the FC United membership voted overwhelmingly to ban the club from paying for Sky or any other pay per view channels.

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I understand the argument that many advance that it’s not the television companies themselves that are the problem but the way that the billions of pounds of television money have been frittered away on players’ wages when it could have been used to keep admission prices low and to support grassroots football for instance. But ever since Murdoch spoke of using televised football as a “battering ram” to advance his media empire the relationship between television companies and football has largely been one of exploitation. The same applies to BT Sport as it does to Sky. They’ve chosen the Chesterfield cup tie as they expect it to be an attractive proposition on a Monday evening; a decent atmosphere and the sniff of a cup upset. But what it needs more than anything else to make it a decent “product” is fans who bring noise, colour and passion.

The Rochdale cup match in 2010 is not the only occasion that an FC match has been televised. Back in 2007 the Northern Premier League’s decision to broadcast our match at Curzon Ashton on the internet and bring forward the kick-off time to 12.45pm was met by a near total boycott of the match by FC United supporters. Instead of the two thousand fans that would have been expected to turn up only around twenty FC fans were in attendance. It led to a very tense relationship, for a period, between the club and the Northern Premier League who were furious with FC’s behaviour.

A repeat of Curzon Ashton and a full boycott of the match on 9th November is highly unlikely. A shame as this would be my preference and would, I believe, send the strongest possible message to the FA. The composition of FC United’s support has changed considerably since 2007. There’s been an alarming loss of some principled founder members whilst a good number of newbies have clambered aboard, many of them unencumbered by principles, largely ignorant of the club’s origins and seemingly not unduly perturbed by a fixture being moved to a Monday night for television purposes. But many of us are and we need to do summat to show that the club still has principles and we’re not just going to sit back and be told what to do by the FA and television companies.

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I’ve come fairly late to the wonderful book “Capitalism and Sport”. It’s a collection of essays on politics in sport which among some ace pieces on topics as diverse as the Tour de France, cricket’s Barmy Army and workers’ sport in post-revolutionary Russia includes a chapter on FC United written by a pair of academics. It’s always interesting to read what others make of FC and the two writers refer to the difficulties that television coverage of FC games presents to the club’s principled rejection of “outright commercialism”. They refer to the Curzon match in 2007 as presenting supporters with “a dilemma which many interpreted to be the first steps towards the commercialisation they had experienced as Manchester United supporters”. Eight years on we’ve still not properly addressed this issue as a club and, as a result, there’s an element of growing up in public going on here.

The Board’s decision to keep admission prices at nine pounds for adults, thus forcing the FA to back down on its insistence on a ten pound minimum price for this round of the FA Cup, is to be applauded. The fact that the FA have a minimum admission price for each round of the cup but not a maximum tells you all you need to know about the utter disdain that they have for match going fans. But until someone fights back this will go on and on.

With regard to the kick-off time the Board has, in this instance, done what it can to try make the FA see sense. Of course, it would be good if Chesterfield FC could show some solidarity with FC United and issue a statement critical of the disruption caused to their own fans of a Monday night fixture. But we’re not holding our breath. It’s now down to us as members and supporters to demonstrate that we are not simply going to sit down and shut up on this issue. The club was built on a rebellious and defiantly Mancunian “fook it, we’ll do it our way” spirit and we need to tap into that right now.

Some supporters have suggested that fans of both clubs should boycott the first half of the game to show the level of dissatisfaction with the fixture being moved. It’s a fine idea that channels some of that rebelliousness. Alternatively we could stay silent for the first ten minutes, have protest banners all the way round the ground, chuck balls onto the pitch, hurl abuse at the FA or we could draw inspiration from the direct action of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the early seventies and lock the Chesterfield team in their dressing room. Whatever we choose to do needs to send out a strong message that we are football supporters not passive consumers.

There will be many that don’t want to join in, that simply just want to go and watch the match. If it was up to me I’d have a bloody picket line round Broadhurst Park but that’s another debate. Let’s not allow the more squeamish amongst us to prevent us from being bold. There are fewer and fewer areas of society where having principles counts for much anymore. We’ve been an inspiration for many other clubs over the last decade and there will be many eyes on us again next Monday night. Let’s make it a night to remember off the pitch as well as on, perhaps one that will be talked about in the future as a turning point in football’s relationship with television. A better football world is possible.

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From → Politics, Sport

8 Comments
  1. Stuart permalink

    Thank you for writing this. I thought I was in a tiny minority for wanting a full boycott!

    • Cheers Stuart. If only we still had that collective militancy of the early years. It would send the strongest possible message to the FA.

  2. Well said! I am an fairly new co-owner myself, but I fully understand ánd support the core principles of the founders. It’s why I decided to join the FCUM family, even though it’s very unlikely I will get the opportunity to actually see them play very often.

    • Thanks Franck. I certainly didn’t mean to be critical of all relatively new members – many, like yourself, “get” the ethos of the club and what it stands for and that’s great. The more like you the better. Hope you make it to a match soon. Where are you based?

  3. Dave permalink

    Wow! That was a hell of a read!
    Well put

  4. I have posted this around Facebook and Twitter because it raises really important points for football and for life in general. I would also have favoured a total boycott, but being realistic that is not going to happen and I would feel bad at depriving the club of its revenue for such a big game. Silence can be a very positive thing, but would be difficult to make happen so visual and verbal protest seems the best option. Both BT Sport and the FA need to know exactly what we think. Innovative and cutting new songs please!

  5. Locking the opponent is the wrong thing to do no matter what. How would you like to be locked up with 4 walls? Plus, you should boycott the second half, not the first, so that people can go back home and rest, since people have to work on Tuesday.

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