Dragging us down (again)
“Ninety five was not enough” sang a section of United fans in K Stand at a match in the spring of ’93. I can’t recall precisely which match it was but it was around the time that a young Liverpool supporter, Tony Bland, finally lost his life. The poor lad had been in a coma for nearly four years after sustaining irreparable brain damage at the Hillsborough disaster and as his life-prolonging treatment was withdrawn he became the ninety sixth and final victim of the disaster. At twenty three years of age he was a year younger than me; yet another young life tragically cut off in its prime simply as the result of attending a football match.
Being an overly sensitive soul I wrote a piece for the United We Stand fanzine that condemned the chanting and wondered why, with all the songs in the United songbook, we should choose to sing something so heartless. United fans were better than that weren’t we? The piece was entitled Dragging Us Down, a rather unimaginative nod to the Inspiral Carpets’ single of around that time, Dragging Me Down, taken from their ridiculously underrated Revenge of the Goldfish album. A few United fans responded in the next issue with one memorable one urging me to “fuck off and watch netball” if I wasn’t prepared to put up with songs like that. It was apparently all part of the whole United-Liverpool rivalry; they sing about Munich, we sing about Hillsborough, they sing about Shipman. And so it goes on and on. I clearly needed to man up.
Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century and I’m putting pen to paper, well, finger to keyboard, grumbling about football songs once more following FC United’s trip to Shropshire earlier this month to take on AFC Telford United. This time the feeling isn’t one of anger, it’s more of shame to be honest. As the game petered out with us trailing to a smartly taken second half goal a section of our support in the Frank Nagington Stand decided to comment on our opponents current financial difficulties with a few choruses of “Telford’s going bust” to the tune of the done-to-death Euro ’96 anthem “football’s coming home”. On the football phone-in scale of near-permanent football outrage it probably barely merits a mention but set in the context of the last year or so of FC United’s existence it feels rather like lobbing a few stones at a neighbour’s shed from the safety of your own greenhouse. Because, let’s face it, we’ve hardly covered ourselves in glory when it comes to managing our own finances have we? We are in something of a financial pickle of our own. And, anyway, whatever happened to our “making friends not millionaires” sense of solidarity that we used to have with fellow supporter-owned clubs? I know it hardly ranks with songs about people dying but aren’t we meant to better than this?
Buried in the thousands of words worth of written updates provided by FC United board members for September’s board meeting is a comment from one board member, not given to hyperbole, that brings home the seriousness of the mess left behind by the mismanagement of the previous board. Referring to the situation that the new board inherited this summer it notes that “it would be difficult to imagine a more challenging starting position and I believe many organisations would simply have folded in similar circumstances, particularly in the light of the accompanying financial challenges”. Four months on and the new board have done much to address these problems but the financial position of the club remains a major concern. Already the new Chief Executive, due to start in the next few weeks, has spoken of it likely being the end of the 2017-18 season before the club regains a stable financial footing.
Of course there’s nothing new in football clubs experiencing financial difficulties and ultimately folding or going bust. It happened to Telford United in 2004 but they were resurrected in the summer of that year by the Telford United Supporters’ Trust who became the club’s owners and started over again as AFC Telford United. As recently as the 2014-15 season they were only one promotion away from the football league and their well appointed six thousand capacity ground, the New Bucks Head, a few miles west of Telford in Wellington has the feel of a place that perhaps expected to be hosting football at a higher level than this by now.
Yet despite excellent facilities and tremendous support the club is beset by financial problems as was starkly laid out in a recent statement by the club’s board that questioned whether supporter ownership was, in fact, the right model to enable the club to compete effectively at this level of football. They expressed a desire to seek external investment instead; supporter ownership portrayed as something of a handicap that prevents them from competing with the likes of Salford City, Kidderminster Harriers and table topping AFC Fylde who only a couple of weeks before had splashed out a club record transfer fee, “a five figure sum”, on a highly rated player from Alfreton Town. In contrast, the board of Telford reckoned that their own club required a five figure sum, £50,000 to be precise, simply to get them through the next two months and launched a campaign, called “Back the Bucks”, to secure the future of the club.
So it was for this reason that, with both clubs already out of the FA Cup, the match against FC United was brought forward from February to October and it worked to some degree as the attendance of 1,706, including around four hundred away supporters, was their largest of the season so far, and bucket collections before and during the match raised around two and a half thousand pounds, a tremendous sum. On a day when supporters of Charlton Athletic and Coventry City marched together and briefly stopped their match by chucking hundreds of plastic pigs onto the pitch in protest at despised owners bleeding their clubs dry, it was a pity that some FC United supporters felt unable to show some comradely solidarity with a fellow supporter-owned club in difficulties.
But the “Telford’s going bust” song was merely one example of the idiocy on display that day. During the first half the same fans responded to a Telford fan banging a drum with a song about banging women. Of course, it can be brushed off by some as mere match day “banter” but, again, aren’t we meant to be better than this? Contrast it, for instance, with the experience of the two women from the Hummingbird Project who came to speak at the Course You Can Malcolm night in July and who, whilst thanking the club for its support, remarked on how much they had enjoyed the evening and how comfortable they had felt in a predominantly male environment. This is a football club that celebrates the role of women in football, the sort of FC United I want to be part of. Meanwhile most of the idiots chanting “Telford’s going bust” probably missed the tannoy announcement at half time thanking FC United fans for their contribution to the bucket collections as they were apparently in the concourse beneath the stand singing songs about the Pope and the IRA. Words fail me on that one.
I’d like to say that the incidents at Telford were merely isolated occurrences but, let’s be honest, for the last year or so, there has been an accumulation of unpleasant incidents, particularly at away matches, often involving intimidation and abuse of fellow FC supporters and often characterised by bigotry, misogyny and fuckwittery that should have no place at this football club. Yes, taken as individual incidents they can be laughed off as banter, drunken frolics or as the actions of a tiny minority but when they happen time and time again over a longer period then it’s apparent that they are symptomatic of a wider malaise that must be addressed. The old board, to a large extent, chose to ignore the problem and let it fester. Maybe it’s partly a consequence, that we should have anticipated, of our move to an area of Manchester where 31 percent voted for Ukip in the 2015 local council elections (compared to 7% across the city as a whole)? Either way, the new board with their commitment to reasserting the principles on which the club was founded must tackle the problem before it’s too late.
As Telford debate their future as a supporter owned club there is much to look forward to at FC United with a new Chief Executive about to join and the club reasserting its founding principles under a progressive new board. But there is a considerable amount of work to be done too. Clearly we’re a very different supporter-owned beast to AFC Telford United but the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the National League North means that consolidating our position in this division for a few seasons would represent a notable achievement. Off the pitch the return of a matchday Course You Can Malcolm earlier in the month, at the invitation of the board, was a very welcome antidote to the increasing small mindedness of some of our supporters. But when decent Reds are talking about not attending matches for fear of abuse and intimidation then enough is enough.
This coming Saturday is People United Day the club’s annual celebration of the multicultural diversity of the local community and the wider Manchester area that reinforces our proud and principled commitment to develop strong links with that community and to discriminate against none. It’s one of the most important dates in the FC United calendar and one that offers a timely reminder that discrimination of any form will not be tolerated at the club as people from all walks of life should be able to enjoy football without fear of intimidation or abuse. This isn’t mere lip service to a nice idea, it’s woven into the very fabric of this enlightened working class football club; our principles are not to be sacrificed for an extra few quid. And we won’t be dragged into the gutter.
Now, hang on a minute, what channel did you say the netball’s on……..?