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Common sense

07/03/2016

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“Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavoured to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

There’s been a deflating familiarity to the sight of a succession of Labour MPs announcing their resignations from the shadow cabinet recently, in the wake of the European Union referendum. A bunch of careerists with an inflated sense of self worth, droning on about so-called bullying and intimidation, their views woefully out of touch with the party’s membership and their resignations timed to inflict the maximum amount of damage. At FC United of Manchester we have endured a year of flouncy exits from the boardroom that left us, until recently, with a depleted board of only four.

Thankfully though, a Painean common sense has prevailed and after a year that has seen the club brought almost to the brink of financial collapse members have signalled their desire for change and have elected a progressive new board. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future and even a soupçon of positivity has returned, if I’m not getting a bit too carried away with it all. Surprising then that the BBC, having pretty much totally ignored events at the club over the last year, chose this time to stick a piece on their website entitled “FC United of Manchester: the protest club at war with itself?” You’d almost think that someone was stirring the pot a little here.

But, hey, what do I know? On the day that the board election results were announced I was dawdling round a field on the outskirts of Budapest, on a baking hot afternoon, gazing at communist-era statues and monuments. These, often huge, stony representations of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and an assortment of Hungarian communists once took pride of place in the main streets and squares of the Hungarian capital before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. At the tiny kiosk at the entrance to the park an old radio rather forlornly played some of the propaganda anthems of the time. Memento Park, as it’s called, represents a sort-of theme park to a flawed ideology that promised much after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 but merely replaced one dictatorship with another.

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In my all too frequent glass-half-empty moments during the last few months I’ve often pictured an empty post-FC-United-apocalypse Broadhurst Park becoming something of a monument to the slightly bonkers notion that supporters can run football clubs. People would get the tram out to Moston, pay what they can afford at the turnstile, dispense with their politics and whilst admiring the shiny third-sector-hub-ness of it all would reflect on the bitter irony of a football club that while it constructed its own football ground destructed the egalitarian and democratic principles on which it was founded. “Look at those daft buggers” people would say “thought they could run a football club better than the businessmen”. Over the tannoy would play some of the fans’ favourite songs interspersed with clippings from old speeches by Comrades Walsh and Brown urging supporters to dig deep yet again for “one last push” to get the ground completed both utterly convinced that their five year plan would ensure the healthy future of the club.

That this gruesome vision of the future has been held at bay owes much to the club’s original founder John-Paul O’Neill’s persistent whistle blowing over the last year or so and the membership’s gradual awakening from its hibernation, in the nick of time, to finally seize control of the destiny of this football club. Eleven board members have been elected, only two with previous experience on the FC board, and the old guard swept from power with the promise of a new era of glasnost at the club; the board operating with openness, transparency and honesty. Already, in recent weeks, there have been welcome public apologies to O’Neill regarding the club’s denial of his membership and to the former programme editor Tony Howard over the club’s shambolic handling of the increase in the programme price for the Benfica match.

One of the new board’s first actions was to announce that the friendly match against Rochdale on Saturday 30th July will pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers, past and present, who give up their time and skills week in week out to make the club what it is. And on the Friday night before the match some of the volunteers from the much missed pre-match Course You Can Malcolm event that took place at Gigg Lane for many years and raised thousands for the club will stage a CYCM type event with music, poetry, food and beer. A refreshing attempt by the club to heal the rifts that have developed in the club’s support and to move forward as a united body of supporters. But at FC United no silver lining is complete without a humungous cumulo nimbus looming large; the news of the return of CYCM has already had some of the “that Malcolmses/A Fine Lung lot are planning to take over the St Mary’s Road End and turn it into a communist prayer room or summat” conspiracy theorists foaming at the mouth.

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Reconciliation and healing clearly won’t be easy. Already some of those loyal to the old board have spoken of a board election campaign damaged by “bullying” and have expressed annoyance with those supporters who refused to renew membership and season tickets for the new season until after the board election results were announced. But who exactly were the bullies and intimidators in the recent election campaign? Tim Worrall and Sam Mullock with their feisty talk of reconciliation and their vaguely threatening deployment of the rarely-seen-at-FC-United word “sorry”? Adrian Seddon for many months a calm and considered presence on the club’s official discussion forum and himself the victim of a despicable attempt by another board candidate to undermine his candidacy? Or was it Nathan Ellis-Scott, at last a youthful presence on the board, browbeating us into joining him in the clubhouse to sing Kumbaya? Or perhaps the dastardly pitch trespasser George Baker antagonising his critics by offering to shake hands with them at the EGM? What a bunch of bastards eh.

Or maybe it’s simply those supporters who held off renewing their memberships and season tickets until after the Board election results were announced that really raised hackles. That’s their right of course. I daresay there are many supporters who have invested a lot in community shares and in the development fund down the years, sometimes money that they perhaps couldn’t properly afford but they did it because FC United was something that they passionately believed in. So if people suddenly feel a little reticent when it comes to parting with their hard earned cash then that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Besides it wasn’t that long ago that many of us vowed “not one penny” in different circumstances. We are certainly not cash cows to be taken for granted.

Speaking as someone who renewed their membership and season ticket long before the election campaign I’m absolutely delighted to see a fresh board elected with, perhaps for the first time, a wonderful blend of youth and experience. In contrast to my usual pessimistic persona I have a, perhaps naive, faith in the power of democracy and I trusted the membership to get this one right. But I’m tiring of the regular and unsubstantiated claims of online bullying and intimidation directed at those who have called for change at the club. Not all internet criticism should be dismissed as the work of “keyboard warriors”, “knobs on the forum” or as mere “sniping from the sidelines”. Of course, there are many examples of internet discussion descending into the gutter but it’s also true that the internet can be a tremendous force for good offering space for thoughtful contributions that can often be lost in the clamour of public meetings. Arguably there would not be an FC United of Manchester without the internet and Andy Walsh and Adam Brown’s Not For Sale book demonstrates how the world wide web, in its early days, was used by Manchester United fans to fight the Murdoch takeover bid in 1998-99.

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One such product of the internet was the pamphlet distributed at the Stalybridge match in April which  called for greater democracy at the club and was produced by a collective who care deeply about the future of the club. A recurring theme in all of the articles in The Pamphlet was that co-owners of the club must play a greater role in the club’s democratic processes. Whilst it was critical of the board, it was also critical of all of us, the members, for not participating sufficiently in meetings and elections and for failing to keep a watchful eye on our elected representatives. We had, as Mickey O’Farrell so eloquently expressed in one of the articles become “lazy utopians”, happy to sing the praises of supporter ownership but not do the hard yards of actually making it work. Arguably, three months on, the pamphlet has been successful in its aims.

Take the turnout at the board election for instance. Okay so 671 voters out of a membership of more than five thousand last season isn’t necessarily anything to shout about but it represents the highest number of voters at any board election in our history and follows the General Meeting in May where more than 820 of the club’s co-owners voted on a plethora of resolutions and members’ votes which represented about 18 percent of the club’s adult membership at the time. Again, it’s not really trumpet blowing territory but there are plenty of football clubs at our level that would love to have that many supporters attending matches let alone engaged in the running of the club. To put this into some context, at the Dons’ Trust, the supporters’ Trust that holds a majority stake in AFC Wimbledon, 578 members voted in the elections to the board at their 2014 Annual General Meeting. So at a football club that took more than twenty thousand supporters to Wembley recently for a play-off final and one where the majority of the electorate voted online they attracted fewer members to participate in their 2014 General Meeting than us. When viewed this way it suggests that we’re perhaps not too shabby when it comes to participation in elections but clearly there is huge scope for improvement.

Hopefully the reinvigoration of the club’s democracy will knock on the head, once and for all, the notion that simply looking to increase the club’s membership (4,000, 5,000, 10,000 where do we draw the line?) is of itself a good thing. Yes, the membership team have done sterling work in boosting membership numbers and this does of course give us greater weight when looking to secure external funding. But it is also apparent that booming membership numbers have been both a strength and a weakness significantly diluting the strength of the club’s democratic processes if many of these new members treat us like, say, joining the Phone Coop, as a cause that they believe in and are willing to support financially but have no intention of ever attending a meeting or voting. A smaller membership but one that is more engaged in the running of the club and keen to hold the board to account must surely be preferable to a much larger membership that is predominantly apathetic?

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film director Ken Loach said on a recent visit to Broadhurst Park, there is a lot riding on the success of this football club; there are many people beyond Manchester willing us to succeed. And as someone who is now on the board said on a train journey home last season “thank fuck for FC United”. As the country votes to turn its back on its neighbours, choosing instead to swallow the small-minded rhetoric of right wing politicians, and the political party established to represent us threatens to self-destruct, we buck the trend in proudly demonstrating that ordinary working class people can build something that emphatically demonstrates that a better world is possible. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon who are 77% owned by their supporters’ Trust, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters. To a large extent this is a journey into the unknown with few, if any, role models to guide us. No one said that it would be easy and the next few years will possibly be the trickiest in our short-ish history. But at least now there are encouraging signs that we can once again get on with doing things differently. And common sense has returned. Onwards.

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