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Never mind the ballots, here’s the six point three

04/03/2016

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Around the time that Fergie fell out with his mates at Coolmore many moons ago someone wrote in one of the United fanzines that there was once a time when Alex Ferguson could have popped round to his house, taken a dump on the front room carpet, wiped his arse on the curtains and he would still have asked him if he fancied a brew. Well, a few years back it’s probably fair to say that I felt much the same way about FC United of Manchester’s General Manager Andy Walsh. Okay so that might have been a bit of an exaggeration but a slice or two of Battenberg cake might have been nice and, to be honest, thinking about it, we could have done with some new curtains at the time. Alas, it’s all mere fanciful conjecture now as Andy recently announced that he will be stepping down at the end of this season after eleven years in charge of the club.

Walsh has worked tirelessly at the helm of a club that has become the largest supporter owned football club in the country and now plays in a ground of its own. In the early days he was our leader, our “El Presidente” and there was even a mercifully short-lived terrace tribute to him to the tune of the Frog Chorus. Some of the more Sunday supplement types even went as far as calling him a “visionary”. We joked about a helipad but trusted him, as one of the leaders of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association’s successful campaign against Murdoch’s takeover bid, as one of the best men for the job.

Looking back, the height of my Walshism was perhaps the morning after the glorious Bonfire Night victory over Rochdale in the FA Cup in 2010 when FC United refused to take part in the BBC’s Football Focus programme in solidarity with members of the National Union of Journalists at the BBC who were striking over attacks on their pensions. It made me proud to be an FC fan that even after perhaps the greatest night in our relatively short history we were showing some good old fashioned off-pitch solidarity, the rebel heart of the football club beating loud and clear. Leave your politics at the turnstile? Bollocks to that. It seemed to epitomise Walsh’s own background as a lifelong trade unionist and former chair of Greater Manchester’s Anti Poll Tax Federation.

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I think at that point in November 2010, and FC United historians may wish to correct me here, the vast majority of FC United’s Glazer defying founder members, with a few exceptions, were still on the bus with the destination board indicating that we were bound, with much giddiness, for Ten Acres Lane. Planning permission for our new home in Newton Heath, the very origins of our first love Manchester United Football Club, was secured later that same month. Happy times. But the next five or so years have felt very different with a gradual waning of Andy’s standing in my eyes and those of others.

Away from the club Andy’s profile is perhaps higher than ever. There are few more eloquent or passionate speakers on supporter ownership and issues affecting modern football and he is regularly quoted in the press and interviewed on the radio. Indeed his name is now recognised well beyond Manchester and it would be no surprise if he found a future role at an organisation like Supporters Direct or more generally in the cooperative movement. On occasions I have attended work conferences and sat through drab presentations by assorted “motivational” speakers, usually successful sportsmen or women or business “leaders”, and thought how they pale in comparison to Andy. Many times I have listened to Walsh speak and gone away inspired.

Yet FC United are not where we are simply because of the actions of one person. It has been an extraordinary collective effort to build a football ground in north east Manchester with half of the £6.3 million total cost raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowdfunding by supporters and other admirers of the club’s ethos who were prepared to back something that they passionately believe in. Andy Walsh was, of course, at the forefront of the community shares campaign but arguably it was events on the pitch and FA Cup success in late 2010 that really kick started the take up of community shares after a quiet first couple of months. The club’s profile rocketed after Rochdale and as a result many people were persuaded to invest in the club who may not otherwise have been interested or aware of who FC United were.

A few months after Rochdale on a lovely spring morning in 2011 I saw Andy Walsh on the bus on my way to work. In fact, as I glanced round at my fellow passengers I saw several Andy Walshes. On the back of that morning’s Metro, the right wing comic that serves as reading material for the nation’s commuters, was a full page advert for the Cooperative movement and there beneath a slogan inviting readers to “join the revolution” was a picture of Andy, gazing into the distance, surrounded by a group of FC United supporters in the main stand at Gigg Lane, Bury. At first I felt a sense of pride that here was the football club that I co-owned spearheading a campaign for the wider cooperative movement. But later, as I picked up a discarded paper and looked more closely at the picture I couldn’t help but feel a little unsettled by the image of Andy, at the centre of the picture, standing above those huddled around him. An almost messiah-like figure surrounded by his disciples. Was I the only who found that picture a little disturbing? It seemed a strange visual image to present to the outside world and at odds with our one member one vote set-up.

Unknown-45For a while I ignored those supporters who reckoned that Andy had “too much power”. I ignored the tales of Andy phoning someone minutes after they’d posted something even mildly controversial on the club’s internet discussion forum. I ignored the comment of someone close to him that he would be willing to consider shirt sponsorship as a means of generating revenue for the club. And I even ignored the accusations of “jobs for the boys” as longstanding mates were appointed to paid positions within the club. How naive I was.

Some supporters have been in tears and others have declared themselves “mortified” at Walsh’s impending departure such is the loyalty that he inspires. Many have paid tribute by remarking that FC United wouldn’t be where we are today without Walshy. Well, of course, anyone who has been the head of any organisation since its birth and for more than a decade is bound to have shaped that organisation. It almost goes without saying. I think that what they’re trying to say is that perhaps we wouldn’t be the biggest supporter owned club in the country playing in National League North in front of crowds of more than three thousand in our own ground if it wasn’t for Andy Walsh. But surely the beauty of FC United has been that this has been a magnificent collective action?

As Daniel Taylor pointed out in his excellent piece in last week’s Guardian Walsh has become an increasingly divisive figure with many founder members having left the club at various points over the last five years citing the increasingly dictatorial manner in which the club is run as a major reason for their departure. Over the last twelve months the club has struggled financially to adjust to life in our own ground and made a series of monumental blunders that have seriously dented its ability to raise further funding from its co-owners but there has been not one word of apology from the General Manager for any mistakes that have been made. In fact, the word “sorry” appears to have vanished from his vocabulary. To some he now personifies a football club that handles criticism, no matter how politely or thoughtfully expressed, with all the grace of a stroppy teenager. The club has appeared to be run Andy’s way or no way as a largely ineffectual Board has struggled to exert any authority. So much for supporter-owned democracy.

I remember being shocked that only around 500 members voted at the club’s Annual General Meeting in 2006, a turnout of about 24% of our adult membership at the time. I’d signed up for democratic socialist football and expected us all to be champing at the bit to exercise our newly found democratic rights. But little did we know at the time that this would represent something of a golden age for democracy at FC United. For the first few seasons I not only voted but also, as something of a saddo, printed out the Board meeting minutes at work and took them home to read. It was interesting back then to get a glimpse into the day to day workings of a football club, our football club. How many other football fans around the country were privy to this sort of information about their club? Much of it was mundane, of course, but some of it sticks in the memory like the Board discussing a complaint from Bury about damage to a number of seats in the Manchester Road End following the FA Vase match against Quorn. To be honest, I’m surprised there wasn’t significant structural damage to the MRE such was the delirium after what we thought was a late winner by the nine men of FC.

Unknown-47But over time I read the Board papers a lot less frequently and gradually fell out of the habit of voting as I kept forgetting to print off the papers. And it seems like I wasn’t the only one as by 2011 we were unable to summon up more than 300 members to vote at the AGM which represented less than 13% of our adult membership. The same was true in 2012 but the independent review of the club’s governance that year remarked that “the Board is in agreement that the club’s strength and character is determined by its adherence to democratic principles” and added that “co-owners must accept responsibility through participation, standing for elections, volunteering for sub-committees and exercising their right to vote”.

Whilst we keep talking a good game about democracy the reality is something very different. In the recent members’ survey there was overwhelming support (94%) for our club’s structure as a one member one vote Community Benefit Society. Indeed 35% said that “one member one vote” was the club’s most important founding principle and nearly a quarter of members said that they became a member to participate in the running of the club. But at the last AGM in November 2015 barely 10% of adult members could be bothered to vote. In fact since 2012 the AGM minutes no longer include the actual number of members who voted in the Board elections and for resolutions, it’s almost as if we’re too embarrassed to share the data. Meanwhile an ex-Board member I spoke to recently admitted to a sense of relief that they are no longer on the Board (we’re hardly encouraging participation are we?). And recruitment to sub-committees has often been on a nod and a wink. Whither the club’s strength and character and democracy?

The mess that we find ourselves in with the increasingly tense “them and us” relationship between the Board and co-owners is undoubtedly part of Walsh’s legacy. But it’s also the fault of all of us that pay our membership fee each year. When was the last time you voted? Do you read the minutes of Board meetings and other papers? How much scrutiny do you really put the Board of FC United under? For the vast majority of us the answer to the last question is probably “very little”. And, to be honest, if that’s the case then it’s perhaps no surprise if the Board becomes increasingly complacent and a gaping “democratic deficit” opens up. It’s up to all of us to make this supporter-owned democracy thing work, we can’t simply leave it to the Board and General Manager. Yes, there will perhaps always be a proportion of FC’s membership who may not wish to actively participate in the running of the club (some of those who joined solely to invest in community shares for instance) but only one in ten of us bothering to vote at an AGM? Come on, let’s be honest, however we try to dress that up, it’s a serious embarrassment. It doesn’t take that long to read a set of Board minutes or AGM notes and resolutions – it’s our responsibility to do it.

Unknown-46But it is true that the General Manager and Board could have done more, much more, to address the “democratic deficit”. How about being able to pick up meeting papers and being allowed to vote at home matches? A ballot box on the membership stall perhaps? Or given that we’re now in the twenty first century what about online voting? Last autumn’s members’ survey was done online and despite being the size of a novella over 1,600 members at least started to reply. This is more than four times the number of voters at the last AGM and proof that online voting has the potential to boost participation in elections significantly. Or what about broadcasting AGMs and other meetings on the club’s television or radio channels? Or how about all Board members, not just a few, having the decency to respond to serious questions raised by co-owners on the club’s own internet discussion forum, something which was designed to improve accountability?  And if we’re talking about the Board properly representing our fan base how about a space or two for one of our younger members? Down the years the average age of pretty much all our Boards must have been forty summat. But suggestions like this have often been waved away without any proper explanation. Whilst the focus was on raising the £6.3 million to get us into Broadhurst Park democracy undoubtedly took a back seat. “Never mind the ballots here’s the six point three million” became our rather uninspiring punk anthem.

Ultimately, when it comes to Walsh’s stepping down, I’m left feeling a bit like when someone’s leaving card comes round at work and you’re not sure what to write as you used to think they were sound but recently you suspect that they might be the one nicking your milk from the fridge and there was that time when they were a right dick at the Christmas party. Thanks Andy for your determination, drive and all the sheer bloody hard work you’ve put into this club and all those times when you’ve inspired us to perhaps give a little more to get us to Broadhurst Park. Good luck with whatever you decide to do next. But leadership’s not all about talking and directing. Sometimes you have to listen as well, particularly when supporters have genuine concerns about the running of the club, and also display a humbler side and acknowledge when mistakes have been made and apologise. And occasionally you have to have the grace to say thank you to people who you may have fallen out with but who have grafted hard for this football club too.

In those respects you have failed woefully and in doing so have almost brought the club to its knees. Because of that I’m very pleased that you are stepping down. At least the club can now move on. We as co-owners need to reclaim and restore our football club to ensure that it rests on strong democratic foundations and rediscovers its defiantly Mancunian rebel heart. I suspect we’ll need more than a four week e-mithering, Twitter-bothering crowd funding campaign to sort this one out.

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