Back when the makers of television programmes credited us with having at least half a brain Granada Television’s acclaimed documentary series World in Action investigated some dodgy goings on at Manchester United. It was January 1980, I was ten at the time and, to be honest, hadn’t the foggiest what was going on as the programme sped by in a blur of allegations involving shady business dealings by chairman Louis Edwards, contaminated meat and illegal payments to the parents of young footballers. But by the time the credits rolled at the end it was clear that something pretty serious was wrong, perhaps magnified by the dramatic descending chords of the World in Action theme tune, and for several weeks after I had a sense of dread that sometime soon Manchester United might cease to exist.
Indeed the allegations were serious enough for the Dibble to investigate but, of course, a few weeks later, Louis Edwards had a heart attack and died, the police dropped their charges and my doom laden scenario failed to materialise. Thirty six years on and, ever the doom monger, there have been several occasions this year when I’ve felt similarly uncertain about the future of another set of red shirted heroes that I have more than a passing interest in. One such occasion was a couple of weeks ago.
The statement issued by the board of FC United of Manchester on the last Friday of November outlined in stark terms the perilous financial position of the club barely half way through only the second season in its own ground. “Protest club may apply for overdraft” guffawed the headline to a mischievous piece on the BBC Sport website. Ironic perhaps that this news should emerge amidst the commercial frenzy of Black Friday given that this is traditionally the day that shops in the United States tend to have earned enough to cover their costs for the year and begin to move into the black as people emerge from their homes following the Thanksgiving holiday to buy more stuff. Black Friday? Red Friday more like.
It’s clear from the statement that the club needs to significantly raise its game in generating additional income during the remainder of this season if it is to meet loan repayments due next year and also fund the remaining works needed to complete the ground. Although the board statement stopped short of naming and shaming it’s not difficult peering between the lines to identify where the source of the current mess lies. It highlighted under-performing non-match day revenue, an “unrealistic” business plan, a staffing structure that was simply “not fit for purpose” and a lack of basic financial controls, HR processes and contracts for just about anything; mismanagement and incompetence on a scale that very nearly drove the club into oblivion. In addition the club had to function without a Chief Executive or Club Secretary for a significant chunk of 2016.
At the risk of raking over old turf, if we are to collectively move on, we need to properly understand how we have arrived at this position in the first place and to learn from our mistakes and ensure that they do not happen again. Perhaps Exhibit A in this process of disaster awareness ought to be the work of fiction that was the five year business plan written in February 2014 that forecasted the club’s likely income and expenditure in its first few seasons at Broadhurst Park.
The business plan spoke of the, ahem, “exciting challenges” ahead and forecast a healthy profit in our first season at Broadhurst Park sufficient to set aside funds to pay out community shares in future years and also to establish an asset replacement fund. All very sensible it would seem. But to do this we needed to generate income from our new function room of a whopping £209k. The truth is of course that we didn’t get anywhere near this target in our first year at Broadhurst Park and without proper promotion of this new facility we were never going to (until relatively recently we didn’t even have something as basic as a marketing brochure to share with potential users of the room). It doesn’t take much to realise that it was absolute pie in the sky stuff and the idea that this marked a prudent course of action frankly laughable. Indeed the new Chief Executive Damian Chadwick described the income plan for the function room as “fantasy” at the recent AGM. In short, it was a plan built on a set of assumptions that were, at best, ridiculously over-optimistic and, at worst, grossly negligent.
There are other holes in that business plan but the function room income was the biggest one. It was the income stream on which the credibility of the business plan ultimately rested – the big unknown (we hadn’t had a function room to operate before of course) and the difference between the club making a loss or generating sufficient income to prudently set money aside to meet future loan commitments. It’s difficult to believe that this time last year we employed someone with the words “business” and “development” in their job title and paid a so-called expert fund raiser yet we were unable to construct a business plan with more credibility than an A Level Business Studies project.
Okay so it’s easy to say all this with the benefit of hindsight but why, if producing a realistic business plan was something that we were struggling with (and that certainly appears to have been the case), did we not feel able to call on the expertise of a few of our more than three thousand members to lend a hand? After all, this is what we’re meant to be about isn’t it – a collective effort, rather than the head honcho plus a few of his mates and assorted bluffers? It’s not merely a cliché to say that our membership base, with its expertise and knowledge of all sorts of issues and tasks is our greatest asset as a club, we’ve proved it time and time again. Perhaps we could have sought the advice of a member or supporter with experience of managing a football facility for a living? Someone like, say, Damian Chadwick, the then Venue Controller at Bolton Wanderers, who apparently contacted the club to offer assistance but was ignored as were others. It smacks of an approach to a complex task that was both arrogant and blinkered and very nearly put us out of business even with the windfall from a televised FA Cup first round tie with Chesterfield.
Or was it simply that this was yet another example of us winging it without a proper plan in place? If so, given the sacrifices that so many of us have made over the last eleven years pouring hard earned cash (that we sometimes struggled to afford but we did it because it was something that we passionately believed in) into the Development Fund, community shares, crowdfunding, one-off donations not to mention hours of volunteering it represented frankly scandalous treatment of a supporter base that had collectively given their all to get the ground built. Not to mention the grant and loan funding pumped in by Manchester City Council when council services were (and still are) being cut right, left and centre.
Moving into a ground of our own was meant to mark a step change in how the club’s finances were managed with more reliance placed on external sources of funding be it income from sponsorship or hiring out the ground’s various facilities. A “game changer” as some stuffed shirt on The Apprentice would no doubt point out to us. But here we are again with us supporters being asked to dig deep and contribute to the Development Fund to both meet our loan commitments at the end of this financial year and complete an unfinished ground whilst the new Chief Executive and the board and staff try to get the club to stand on its own two feet as a business. It won’t be easy. But there are more than three thousand of us and we have already seen some encouraging signs in the last few weeks including manager Karl Marginson donating his fee from appearing as a pundit at the recent televised FA Cup tie between Curzon Ashton and AFC Wimbledon. A wonderful gesture from a man who instinctively gets what the club is about.
Despite its grim message, the board deserve great credit for issuing this statement alerting us to the financial mess that we are in. It would be nice to think that perhaps one or two of the previous board who oversaw this gross mismanagement could find it in themselves to hold their hands up and perhaps issue an apology to the club’s members. In the circumstances it would be the decent, honourable thing to do. But if the typically self-important Q&A session (big on bitterness but low on humility) given by a former longstanding board member at a supporters’ branch meeting in September was anything to go by then we probably shouldn’t be holding our breath. Similarly with the snide, unsubstantiated attack on a current board member by the club’s former General Manager at the recent AGM.
Any remaining sense of respect that I may have had for Andy Walsh (and admittedly that wasn’t much) evaporated at that meeting. He appears to have no sense of any responsibility for the mess that the club finds itself in and, as such, I’m not sure what he has left to offer the club any more beyond self-justification and cheap point scoring. For FC United to truly move on from the strife of the last eighteen months and to repair some of the rifts that have developed amongst our support Walsh (and others) must surely apologise or leave us to sort the mess out.
Glance around at the financial state of many clubs in lower league and non-league football and it is clear that FC United are far from alone in experiencing turmoil off the pitch. Falling crowds? Board resignations? Declining revenue streams? Well, that’s also been the tale of 2016 for our FA Cup first round opponents from last season Chesterfield and worsened considerably by the resignation of the club’s largest investor at their AGM a few weeks ago leaving the club uncertain as to its future with their CEO, ex-United goalkeeper, Chris Turner confirming last week that a £500k shortfall in the club’s finances needs to be plugged urgently in order to prevent the club from going into administration. Like many lower league and non-league club it has been propped up by loans from directors. At FC, of course, we have no such wealthy investors prepared to flash their cash in times of need. But whilst Chesterfield fans wait patiently for further news, uncertain as to the future of their 150 year old football club, at least at FC United the fate of the club is in our own hands. Less than thirty Chesterfield supporters attended a recent meeting to consider a potential supporter-led bid for the club. Sometimes, amidst the firefighting, it’s easy to forget the rare participatory fervour of our own supporters.
In times of strife we all look for turning points, a six-two-at-Arsenal-in-1990 moment when the future begins to take on a brighter hue. The reconvened general meeting back in May may well come to be seen as a watershed moment in FC United’s history as around four hundred members gathered on a sunny Sunday in Prestwich. We could easily have hit the canvas that day and not got back up but instead we summoned the collective spirit of that raucous Saturday afternoon against Quorn many moons ago and stepped up. The board members subsequently elected at the end of June deserve our thanks. Thanks for having the balls to stand up and be counted in the club’s darkest hour and thanks too for grafting to keep the club afloat over the last five months, for much of this time without key members of staff in place to take care of day to day issues.
One board member reckons that he has spent around 20% of his time on FC United duties since being elected. Twenty bloody percent. These people have jobs to do, families to care for etc. That represents an extraordinary commitment that has cost the club not one penny. And yet there are still some who gripe about there being no discernible changes in the club’s position since the summer. The difference between having a football club to support and not having one is not simply colossal it’s mathematically infinite, off the scale. It’s mind boggling that 26% of those who voted at the recent AGM actually voted against the motion that “the club’s off-field activities are being run more effectively now than they were 12 months ago” .
Finally, eighteen months on from moving into Broadhurst Park it looks like the club is beginning to get to grips with managing not only a football team but a multi-million pound facility. We’ve now got a board and Chief Executive who have a refreshingly open and honest approach to managing the club, who don’t feel that they necessarily have all the answers and are prepared to listen to and involve the club’s members in decision making and act accordingly. The votes at the recent AGM on whether to take up a free subscription to BT Sport or whether to seek sponsorship from gambling firms are examples of that. They have and will continue to make mistakes, they’re only human and no other supporter-owned football club has been down this road before but at least they are prepared to acknowledge when mistakes have been made and learn from them.
There’s a huge amount of work to be done but the signs are encouraging with new sponsors coming on board, use of the function room picking up and on Christmas Day the ground will be opened for Manchester’s homeless to get a shower, a decent breakfast and to enjoy some of the comforts and joys of the festive season that most of us take for granted. It’s yet another example of the club reaching out to its local community in a way that few others do. It’s been a dramatic year but the stage is now hopefully set for FC United to move on – thankfully the final credits on our proud story aren’t about to roll just yet. Onwards.