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Left wing lunatic asylum seekers

01/24/2016

images-41Imagine living in London surrounded by some of the world’s most famous theatres, cinemas, museums and galleries and reckoning that one of the cultural highlights of your year consisted of watching a man playing a guitar in a drab upstairs room, more Albert Tatlock than Albert Hall, at a football ground in Bury. Unlikely? Need to get out more? Well, it happened to me a couple of years ago as I was fortunate enough to see Aziz Ibrahim, formerly of the Stone Roses and surely one of the finest guitarists of his generation, play for free at FC United of Manchester’s match day Course You Can Malcolm gathering. In fact it was so good that, whisper it quietly, dozens of us even missed the first ten minutes of the second half as Aziz, clearly enjoying the occasion as much as we were utterly spellbound by his performance, played an elongated half time set.

Variously described as a “club night in the afternoon”, a “left wing lunatic asylum” and most beautifully as a South American style “tertulia” CYCM provided match day cultural and culinary sustenance for those of us who think that football is not just about football. There was music, poetry, theatre, comedy and more. Everything from death metal to rap to harp music to belly dancers to a city-supporting Guardian journalist reading from his latest book; talented people giving up their time on a Saturday afternoon to play or perform for free. Over several seasons we were spoiled rotten. Musically, appearances by the likes of the Eccentronic Research Council featuring Maxine Peake, Slow Readers Club and Josephine Oniyama were highlights for me; all musicians that I later paid good money to watch in London. But Attila the Stockbroker ranting about asylum seeking daleks and barely a dry eye in the place as Mike Duff read “And John Terry Cried” were equally as memorable.

images-46All this cultural nourishment was accompanied by local, often homemade, food and ale at non-rip off prices. It was something special, born of a recognition that there are some supporters who prefer their weekly football fix accompanied by more than a lager in Wetherspoons, fixed odds coupons and saturated fat. Aside from the performers there were other quirks that really endeared the place to me; the ever-present “Manchester – We Are All Immigrants” banner; each band or musician getting a twenty two minute slot, one minute for each player on the pitch; the veggie hot dogs from a kettle; and the linesmen getting referred to as the referee’s “little snitches” each week when the teams were read out to name a few. For social misfits like me, bashful, deficient in banter and seemingly unable to hold a conversation without mentioning politics at some point it felt warm and welcoming, a sanctuary imbued with spirit, patience and gentleness. A truly unique matchday experience from a football club that sometimes prides itself on “doing things differently”. And perhaps most unusually all of this happened INSIDE a football ground.

images-43But, alas, CYCM is no more. I miss it. Blimey, there have been times over the last few months when I’ve even felt a little nostalgic for all that bad furniture. The incentive to get to the ground early just isn’t there anymore for me. It sounds daft when we should be enjoying our new home but travelling up to the recent Bradford Park Avenue match felt, perhaps for the first time, like a little bit of a chore. My match day enjoyment diminished over the last few months by a succession of events; the penny pinching programme price increase for the Benfica game and subsequent shambolic treatment of the programme’s editor, the visit of a Tory minister to Broadhurst Park in the middle of the Tory party conference (what on earth were we thinking?), tacky tweets promoting multinational companies, the Ukip-like reaction of some supporters to the collection for Syrian refugees at the Corby match and the Board and General Manager’s laissez-faire attitude to democracy have particularly rankled with me. As has been more eloquently expressed elsewhere we often appear more than happy, as a club, to laud the democratic supporter ownership model whilst simultaneously being unwilling to address, in a mature manner, genuine concerns about the direction that the club is taking. As the former rail union leader Bob Crow famously said “democracy is not a spectator sport”, it takes graft.

images-45There’s an excellent piece on the award winning Two Hundred Per Cent blog that takes a critical look at FC United’s recent off-pitch travails comparing us to AFC Wimbledon who’ve had problems of their own recently not least with the sale of their Kingsmeadow home to Chelsea who will use it as the base for their youth team. The proceeds of the sale will make a significant contribution to the funding for Wimbledon’s new ground back home in the borough of Merton but it will leave their former tenants Kingstonian FC without a home and whilst there are many that reckon that Kingstonian should have seen this coming a long time ago (i.e. AFC Wimbledon’s desire to return home has been no secret) there are equally some who expected perhaps a less hard-nosed approach from a football club in the vanguard of the supporter ownership movement. Interestingly though, many Dons fans have been keen to rebut this criticism by emphasising that they are simply just another football club and that it is unreasonable to expect them to adhere to a higher moral code than any other club. Perish the thought that FC United of Manchester should ever be viewed as “just another football club”.

At half time during the Bradford Park Avenue game I went for a beer in the “bottle bar” under the St Mary’s Road End. Both sets of fans mingled and enjoyed a drink whilst in the background world championship darts was being played out on television screens. Granted, it’s still early days in developing some areas of the ground and it’s evident that a fantastic amount of hard work has gone into sprucing up and kitting out the space below the SMRE but I can’t help thinking that we can do much better than this. That space has so much potential. OK so many fans look for nothing more from a match day than a few beers, a few laughs and hopefully three points. That’s fine. But watching football means different things to different people and there are many of us for whom going to the match is about much more than simply securing three points.

Unknown-38Much was made of that anti-war banner at the recent Stockport match that said simply “drop points not bombs”. I thought it was ace; a pithy, peace-loving political comment that could trace a red thread back to the “24 Hour Peterloo Peace People” banner at the Stretford End in 2003. It’s barmy, I know, but some of us would probably swap success on a football field for a more peaceful world. If all I wanted from a match day was a few beers and a few laughs then I could probably get that by heading down to the pub with a mate and watching United on the box.

There is much to be proud of as we approach eleven years of age. We’re in the highest position that we’ve ever been in the league following four promotions. We’ve moved into a wonderful new ground, largely paid for by the club’s members, and are being watched regularly by crowds of over three thousand. We have over five thousand members, the highest number in the club’s history. We are more popular than we have ever been and the club’s phenomenal community work continues to out-perform clubs much further up the football food chain. Yet deep down, something doesn’t feel quite right, the loss of the oddball subversiveness of CYCM symptomatic of a wider malaise that has also seen the increasing blandness of the once thought provoking match day programme, the failure of the Board to tackle awkward questions from club members and a series of embarrassing cock-ups like the ridiculously over-publicised visit of a Tory minister to Broadhurst Park only days after dozens of FC United supporters had proudly taken part in an anti-Tory rally in Manchester (something which attracted no official comment from the club).

images-48Yes, it’s great that so many new supporters, many from Moston and around, attracted by affordable prices and atmosphere, are coming to watch FC. The potential of this football club is huge, but growth should not mean a watering down of our principles and radicalism. The danger is, if we’re not careful, that as we increasingly sand down the lumps and bumps and chisel away at the sharp edges, we might end up with a rather bland, squeaky clean, smoothly run football club that upsets no one, secures revenue streams and sponsorship but ultimately loses the very thing that made it beautiful in the first place; its rebel heart. Or maybe I should stop being such a miserable bugger; perhaps everything will be fine in the end, it’s all part of the “forming, storming, norming and performing” process typical of developing organisations as any management theorist worth their salt would tell us. We’ll be back watching bands and munching on cheese and onion pies in that left wing loony bin before we know it. I can’t help worrying though.

images-47The FA Cup match at home to Chesterfield seemed to encapsulate our recent off-field problems and the split in our support. The debate about how best to protest (or indeed even whether to protest at all) against the decision to screen the game on a Monday night on BT Sport dominated the pre-match build-up. On the night, a couple of hundred of us remained outside the ground for the first half and registered our displeasure with the Football Association and BT Sport with banners and songs, the rebel heart of the football club beating loud and clear. Inside the ground, sadly what should have been a celebratory event for the club, the first really big match at Broadhurst Park, became a largely joyless occasion. Apart from the defiant songs of the last ten minutes it felt just like any other “plucky underdog versus league team” FA Cup match.

At the end of the game I hung back a bit and waited for the terrace to clear before making my way out. I’m not sure why, maybe I was just trying to extract maximum value from my ticket having only seen half the game. As I wandered by the sausage stall in the far corner to the right of the St Mary’s Road End one of the servers shouted over to a couple of pitchside BT Sport cameramen offering them some left over sausages for free. The angry protest songs (and banners) berating BT Sport and the FA, seen and heard all over the ground, not to say all over the country, had clearly not registered with our new banger-selling friends. Those new moderately priced “quality” sausages look like proper revenue stream material to me but I can’t, even for one millisecond, imagine those gorgeous veggie hotdogs out of a kettle that they used to serve in CYCM being offered up in such principle-sacrificing fashion. We’ve come a long way as a football club in ten years. But like any journey, the direction of travel is just as important as the distance covered. We must remain vigilant comrades.

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From → Culture, Politics, Sport

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