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Running on empty?

06/10/2018

A look back at FC United of Manchester’s 2017-18 season

Possibly inebriated and no doubt a little emotional having just witnessed FC United’s stirring second half comeback to draw 4-4 at Spennymoor Town last December, FC United board member George Baker volunteered to run this year’s London marathon to raise a few bob for the club’s Development Fund. It was George’s first ever marathon – in fact, until he started training he’d barely run for a bus, so to get from Greenwich to The Mall via the Isle of Dogs, on a warm April day, in little over six and a half hours and, in the process, raise three thousand quid for the club was a tremendous achievement. Typical of so many fund raising initiatives, big and small, by supporters down the years that have contributed to us building and now developing our own ground. And as if that wasn’t enough endurance-busting punishment for one week George was at the club’s monthly board meeting barely twenty four hours later. Running a marathon? Pffttt. Try running a supporter owned football club when you’re skint.

The American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass reckoned that “if there is no struggle, there is no progress”. He may be right but heaven knows what old Fred would have made of FC United of Manchester’s thirteenth season which, apart from a brief winter interlude, felt like one long monotonous slog on and off the pitch with plenty of struggle but precious little in the way of progress to show for it. It was a season where it felt like we were always one-nil down to someone or other whether it was Curzon Ashton, Telford, Chorley, Nuneaton, Leamington or Alfreton. Even Manchester City Council. The list went on. One bloody nil. Here we go again. You could have swapped the reports from the matches against any one of those teams and no one would have noticed; an early-ish goal conceded and then much huffing and puffing as FC tried to string a few passes together and move, with limited success, in the direction of the opposition’s goal. It didn’t make for pretty viewing.

Yet there was a brief, glorious spell in December and January when FC took on the best sides in the division and the football was a joy to watch – a youthful FC side, with marauding wing backs and two up front, playing attacking football and seemingly not knowing when it was beaten. It was a purple patch that coincided with supporters (finally) being allowed to enjoy a beer or two in view of the pitch which certainly did the Broadhurst Park atmosphere no harm at all. For a few weeks it felt like we’d got our mojo back on and off the pitch. Harrogate were well beaten at Broadhurst Park in early December after a magnificent second half display and, after hard earned draws with play-off chasing Brackley and Spennymoor, Salford were vanquished 3-2 at Broadhurst Park on Boxing Day and then in the return fixture on New Year’s Day FC twice came from behind to grab a well deserved point at the eventual champions.

But apart from that spell the football was grim and through February and early March it felt like we’d given up scoring goals for Lent as we failed to score for five consecutive league games culminating in a 6-0 tonking at Harrogate, the club’s heaviest ever defeat. In fact away from home we managed only a couple of victories all season and went almost a year without winning away from home on a Saturday afternoon before clinching a crucial late win at Tamworth in early April.

The season’s pivotal, and arguably most controversial, moment was Tom Greaves’ appointment as manager towards the end of October as we parted company with, up to that point, our one and only manager Karl Marginson. After a woeful pre-season our early season league form was relegation material as a mere eleven points were gleaned from the first fourteen matches with only a free-falling North Ferriby below us in the table. Only the two FA Cup ties against Stockport County had set the pulse racing – a nine man FC eventually emerging victorious in a third qualifying round replay. But it was the limp exit from the FA Cup in the next round at Telford, a golden chance missed to earn a decent pay day in the first round proper, that was perhaps the final straw. The story went that chief executive Damian Chadwick wanted Marginson out a month earlier but the board dithered and, with one eye on supporter reaction on social media, let him have another few weeks. It didn’t work.

A refreshing emphasis on youth was apparent from the beginning of Greaves’ period in charge, with the average age of the side that played Telford in November only 22, and this was born of a vision shared by the board and chief executive that in the long run football success and financial sustainability could only be married by building an exciting young team, in the best United tradition, and providing opportunities for those players to go on and play professionally whilst earning the club a bob or two in transfer and other fees.

Indeed the transfer fees from the sale of Nathan Lowe and Jason Gilchrist to Southport enabled the club to generate an operating profit, no mean feat at this or any level of football, but the size of the profit was nowhere near enough to service the club’s debts some of which are due to be repaid very soon. Urgent action to boost revenue and/or reduce costs was called for but board meetings, too often, were bogged down in operational detail whilst any strategy for steering the club through choppy financial waters was lacking. And as discussions with the council regarding the more restrictive elements of the lease and section 106 agreement moved at the pace of an arthritic snail we remained seemingly unable to sneeze too loudly at Broadhurst Park if there was so much as a game of tiddlywinks going on within a six mile radius of Sport City. Meanwhile the Middle Eastern human rights abusers and their footballing project, long since granted the freedom of east central Manchester, continued to cash in on money spinning early summer concerts at the Etihad.

That Greaves and his inexperienced management team managed to keep FC in National League North after that start to the season and with little room to manoeuvre on the transfer front is to their credit. But the overspend on the playing budget which was wildly out of control by October and persisted for the remainder of the season was a cause for concern particularly with the repayment of loan stock totalling more than £300k due in 2019 not to mention interest payments on the half million pound loan from Manchester City Council – both loans taken out to meet rising costs when Broadhurst Park was being built. Hence the commotion the evening before the final away match of the season at Alfreton as, with safety from relegation secured with a win against York earlier in the week, it was deemed financially prudent not to continue overspending on the playing budget and those players not on contracts were informed that they would not feature in the side for the rest of the season. Two players took to social media to vent their anger whilst three others offered to play for free.

The pressure was evident too in the boardroom as three board members stepped down in the spring with two of them citing the difficulties of juggling home and work life with the considerable demands of being a board member and a third firing a departing Keano-in-Saipan-esque broadside born of frustration with missed targets and the perceived failure of the board to properly hold the CEO to account and act in the club’s best interests. The need for the board to focus on strategy eventually came to a head as the season closed as an independent report that initially reviewed the relationship between the board and the chief executive also made a number of recommendations regarding its future structure.

Despite the scrap to avoid relegation and the sizeable financial challenges ahead there was a heartwarming reminder in March that we are still able to offer a helping hand to some of the most vulnerable people in our local community. The club again opened it doors on Christmas Day to offer some festive comforts to local homeless people but this year that commitment expanded as the club’s community team worked alongside a number of initiatives to help homeless people across the city including providing support (in the form of warm clothing, food and blankets) for a local mosque which had opened its doors to provide warmth and shelter for rough sleepers during bitterly cold weather. Meanwhile other initiatives such as the Sporting Memories group continued to excel (and there are plans to take this on the road to care homes and sheltered housing and work with those who can’t necessarily make it to Broadhurst Park every week) and the twelfth annual Big Coat Day was again a success.

The women’s team, under Luke Podmore’s guidance, built on the success of 2016-17 and had a remarkable season that culminated in an illustrious treble; finishing as champions of the North West Women’s Regional League Division One South and retaining both the Manchester FA Women’s Cup and Argyle Cup. In doing so they scored an incredible 175 goals in 28 matches across all competitions with centre forward Jess Battle netting 47 times. What was equally as impressive was how all the players took the initiative of securing sponsorship for themselves thus ensuring that the women’s team paid for itself. Next season the women will compete at the fifth tier of the women’s game and will play on the main pitch at Broadhurst Park.

For the men’s team, although there was another Manchester Premier Cup win to savour, the bare statistics of the league season were a sixteenth place finish on 50 points – a mere four points above the relegation zone. And as we cast an eye over the teams in this division next season the job looks arguably tougher and, at this stage, it’s difficult to identify three teams that will definitely be worse than us. It’s going to be another tough season on and off the pitch no doubt. But maybe, with much hard work over the summer to assemble a decent squad that can compete strongly at this level whilst playing attractive football and, for the first time, to construct a business plan worthy of the name, there’s a glimmer or two of hope that the struggles of recent times might finally produce some progress on and off the pitch.

The next five years, like the mid-section of a marathon, will be crucial to the long term future of the club. Will we hit the wall between now and 2023 as financial commitments sap our energy levels? Who knows. It’ll take more than a few jelly babies and an isotonic sports drink to see us through our next running challenge but, like our marathon fundraiser, don’t bet against us.

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