Full steam ahead for FC United
For those who may have missed it elsewhere this is a piece that I wrote for Football Focus magazine on the recent fortunes of FC United of Manchester. It appears in the latest edition of the magazine.
Alighting the tram at the stop for Newton Heath and Moston, a couple of miles north east of Manchester city centre, one of the first sights that greet you is a sign for the nearby Newton Heath Train Maintenance Depot. It’s a fitting nod to the history of the football club that now resides just up the road at Broadhurst Park. FC United of Manchester, formed in 2005 by Manchester United supporters disillusioned with the rapacious greed of the modern game, traces a proud bloodline back to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway workers who in 1878 formed their own football club Newton Heath FC that, of course, subsequently became Manchester United.
FC United has been at the forefront of the supporter ownership movement for more than a decade and is now the largest supporter-owned football club in the country by number of members. With the club’s democratic one member, one vote structure each member gets an opportunity to have their say on how the club is run and ensure that it remains true to its founding principles. It is the club’s members who set admission prices and elect the board.
Inspired by the likes of AFC Wimbledon and imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness FC United set out in the North West Counties Football League ten divisions below and a world away from the Premier League gravy train. Eleven years and four promotions later the club is beginning its second season in National League North, at the sixth tier of English football and finally after a nomadic decade playing football in a ground of its own and in its home city.
Broadhurst Park, with its capacity of 4,400 and facilities that are the envy of many, is the first new football ground in the UK to be built and funded by a supporter-owned football club; with more than half of the total cost of £6.3 million raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowd funding it is the culmination of an extraordinary collective effort in a time of austerity.
Maintaining the club’s principled commitment to affordable football whilst competing at a higher level and striving, wherever possible, to avoid “outright commercialism”, is a delicate balancing act. Whilst almost all other clubs at this level and beyond are happy to splash a sponsor’s logo across their shirts and many benefit from the investment of wealthy owners at FC United we are proud to say that we do things differently; the players’ shirts remain refreshingly free of advertising and there are no sugar daddies.
Yet FC United’s admission prices (£9 for adults, £5 for concessions and £2 for juniors) are the second lowest in the league and, in addition, the club continues with its pioneering “pay what you can afford” season tickets. Last season the club sold more than two thousand season tickets and was the fourth best supported team in the whole of non-league football with crowds of more than three thousand regularly flocking to Broadhurst Park; an incredible level of support, week in week out, at this level of football. And with a mid-table finish in our first season in National League North to those looking on it must appeared to have been a successful season.
But whilst attendances boomed and matchday revenue surged in 2015-16 the club struggled to adjust to life in its own ground. A turbulent twelve months saw the resignation of the club’s longstanding Chief Executive and seven Board members and ended with some fans staging a protest at the final home match calling for greater democracy and transparency at the club. Many members felt that while the club had been so focused on building a new home the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which the club was founded had been eroded. The 50p increase in the price of the programme at the friendly match against Benfica in May last year, the first match at Broadhurst Park, was widely condemned as overly commercial and led to a significant loss of goodwill amongst many members.
The beauty of supporter ownership is however that, unlike disgruntled supporters at, say, Newcastle United or Charlton Athletic, we can change things and the club’s membership signalled their desire for change during the summer by electing a progressive new board that has already taken steps to heal the rifts that have developed amongst sections of the club’s support and has promised to operate with greater openness and transparency. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future but there is much work to be done.
The summer has been one of reorganisation at the club with supporters, once again, embracing the DIY punk spirit that got the club off the ground in a matter of weeks in 2005 with many supporters offering their time, skills and experience for tasks ranging from building a perimeter wall at the ground to getting involved in a range of volunteer-led groups overseeing areas like communications, governance and finance. It’s at times like this when we fully appreciate the wealth of expertise, knowledge and talent that we have amongst our members whether it involves running businesses, counting beans or laying bricks.
One of the challenges the club undoubtedly faces in the next few years is to secure its financial stability by making the most of the wonderful facilities that it now possesses; using the spacious function room to host events for the local community, businesses and other organisations and hiring out the superb 3G all-weather pitches adjacent to the ground. A new Chief Executive will shortly be appointed to oversee the club’s development on and off the pitch. On the pitch, after looking out of our depth for a large part of our first season at this higher level, most supporters would probably settle for a comfortable mid-table position again this season. But arguably it will be even tougher than last season with the likes of Salford City, Darlington, FC Halifax Town and Altrincham joining the division.
Community work is woven into the fabric of the club with its founding manifesto commitment “to develop strong links with the local community”. The club’s community work covers an impressive range of activities from the Big Coat Day collections of warm clothing for homeless people in Manchester and breakfast clubs and summer youth projects for kids to work with young people not in education, employment or training and support for older people particularly those who live alone. Just a few of the reasons why the club won the Northern Premier League’s inaugural Community Club of the Year award in 2014.
More recently the club has begun working with the Sporting Memories Network, recognising the power of people’s memories of sporting events to overcome social isolation, loneliness and depression particularly amongst older people. And FC United were the only organisation in Manchester to participate in a recent charity-run event to distribute cereal to community groups, food banks and local residents to help those who might otherwise not get a decent breakfast. Meanwhile, only a few weeks ago, a theatre production of the FC United story “Conceived in a Curry House”, featuring FC United supporters and local residents, played at the Lowry Theatre and is part of a longstanding relationship between the club and local theatre group Moston Active Drama.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film maker 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. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters and 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 so far for this young football club. But the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get the club back on track this summer has been clear for all to see. It’s full steam ahead, once again, for FC United of Manchester.