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Early doors (and late winners)

10/11/2018

You’d be forgiven for thinking that watching United’s stirring second half comeback against Newcastle would have at least brought a smile to the faces of those FC United supporters who hung around at Broadhurst Park last Saturday evening to view the match on the telly in the main bar. Watching your side get knocked out of the FA Cup at home by a team from the division below whilst having three players sent off is no great shakes at the best of times but when you factor in that we’re currently bottom of the league with only one win in our first eleven games and are struggling to recruit a new first team manager it felt like the club hit a new low at around 4.50pm last Saturday – a where do we go from here, Crystal-Palace-in-December-1989 moment. Not to mention the pain of missing out on fifteen grand in prize money that would have come in very handy with one eye almost permanently fixed on the club’s need to generate sufficient income not only to cover its operating costs but also to pay off the substantial debts acquired in completing the building of the ground more than three years ago.

So when Alexis Sanchez’s last minute header hit the back of the net there was at least a momentary silver lining to an otherwise shite day. Many of us may no longer watch United in the flesh but they will always remain our first love so excuse us, wherever we are, if we momentarily go absolutely fucking batshit when a last minute winner goes in at the Stretford End. But seemingly this wasn’t enough for one FC United supporter who took to the club’s members’ internet forum later on in the evening to whinge about how the bar was closed shortly after the match finished at 7.20pm thus denying him (and others) another beer or two to toast United’s victory. Perhaps only a perma-grump FC United supporter could turn United’s crucial late victory on Saturday night into almost instant doom and gloom. The post bemoaned the apparent loss of the “our club, our rules” mantra, took a swipe at a steward “with a big gob” for pointing out that he’d like to get home before concluding with the question “where is this club heading?” 

Which is indeed the six point five million pound question and one that has been pondered, at great length, by a recent review of the club’s organisational structure, performed by three of its members and presented and discussed in detail at last month’s board meeting. The report spoke of how the club’s development has moved beyond our initial phase as a protest club focused largely on bringing the fun (remember that, eh) back to watching football again, through a second phase which saw us concentrating almost exclusively on building our own ground to our current state of affairs which demands that we take collective responsibility for owning and running a £1.2 million turnover business and a £6.5 million pound stadium and community facility. “We, the owners, need to evolve, act like owners and take our share of responsibility” the report concludes (***subtext: grow up FFS***). More than three years since our Broadhurst Park home was opened it’s a poacher-turned-gamekeeper evolution that’s proving problematic to say the least. 

There’s been some scratching of heads amongst members since the publication of September’s sixteen page board report (half of it devoted to discussion of the structural review) about what “responsible behaviour” actually means. After all, aren’t we meant to be rebels and all that – forever disillusioned and always kicking off about something or other? The structural review reckoned that around a quarter of office time (that’s staff and volunteers) is spent directly or indirectly responding to queries from members – referring to this as one of the hidden costs of being a supporter-owned club – and highlighted the need for a maturer approach that recognises that our resources (staff, volunteers, money etc) are scarce and that, as responsible owners of a sixth tier semi-professional football club, we must make the best possible use of what we have and avoid placing unrealistic demands on precious staff and volunteer time. 

What the “can’t get a beer at 7.20pm” post represents is yet another example of how we, as members, often expect far too much of our over-stretched staff and volunteers. Yes, no doubt it would be grand to sit back and have another pint or two in the bar having just watched United win but, at the same time, it would also only be fair, as responsible employers, to let hardworking bar staff, volunteers and stewards go home and put their feet up after a long day for many – there is, believe it or not, more to life than FC United. Of course one of the main reasons for screening these early evening United matches in the main bar is to boost our match day revenue but surely this pursuit of extra coin shouldn’t be at the expense of the wellbeing of our staff and volunteers? And it certainly shouldn’t mean that staff and volunteers get labelled as having a “big gob” simply for pointing out that they’d quite like to go home after a long day.

And why prattle on about what is essentially an operational issue about bar opening times on a forum which was established for us to ask questions of board members? What have bar opening times got to do with the board? We’ve got an operational management team (albeit currently comprising volunteers) in place whose responsibility it is to look after matters like this – the sooner we all recognise this distinction between operational and strategic matters and let the board get on with focusing on the club’s long term strategy, which is what we should be expecting it to do, the better for the long term health of the club. We can argue the toss over bar opening times and the use of plastic glasses and the availability of real ale blah, blah, blah until we are blue in the face but what the club desperately needs after more than three years in its own ground is for the board and the club’s membership to collectively don our thinking caps and set out a long term vision for the club.

Where indeed is this club heading? What are our plans for increasing attendances? Do those plans include the local kids (and their families) who simply cannot afford to come and watch FC United as it is too expensive (affordable football eh?) as was highlighted by the secretary of Moston Juniors at August’s board meeting? Or are we simply intent on wringing every last penny out of our existing supporter base? And what are our plans for using the wonderful redeveloped space under the St Mary’s Road End terrace? Where do we see ourselves, realistically, in five years time on and off the pitch? Where are the exciting plans to set in front of potential new members of staff and sponsors and say to them “come and join us on this journey”? Because without that strategic vision the real risk is that we continue, month after month, flailing around, struggling to simply keep our heads above water without ever getting anywhere. And there’s only so long that we can keep doing that before we will sink. 

We can’t go on expecting hard pressed staff, volunteers and board members (some of whom are regularly working more than 20 hours per week on club matters) to be at our beck and call twenty four seven responding to queries about bar opening times, the price of pies, the availability of chips, whether the shuttle bus will be running, what time the turnstiles will open and what brand of tea bags or bog roll we’re using this week. And oh can you get back to us in the next thirty minutes please, cheers. Questions that nine times out of ten have already been answered elsewhere or in the monthly board reports that are now shared with members only a few days after each board meeting – if only we’d take a few minutes each month to read the bloody things. And yes, you’re right, most of us didn’t bother reading the board minutes in the early days either (and look where that got us) but things, as you may have noticed, have moved on somewhat since then – we weren’t responsible for running a multi-million pound facility, with all the ball-aches that brings, and servicing a mountain of debt back then. It’s exhausting simply observing this regular merry-go-round month after month on the members’ forum let alone be one of those board members obliged to respond to the questions like a new parent perpetually on nappy changing duty. And as the number of board members dwindles the exhaustion is evident. There’s a huge difference between subjecting decision makers to scrutiny and simply bombarding them with a string of questions that have either already been answered or should be directed at someone else.

Typically two board members responded within hours to this latest example of whinge-baggery on Saturday night. By rights they probably should have had their feet up in front of Match of the Day with a few cans after a long day but sadly they felt compelled to respond, not for the first time, to an entirely operational issue and had the good grace to thank staff and volunteers for their graft on what was a long and, at times, difficult day on Saturday. I use the word “sadly” because it really shouldn’t be up to board members to have to point this out to us – surely we should all be fully aware of and thankful for the considerable hard work that is going on around the club at the moment, not only on match days.

Arguably, at this point in time, the value of our volunteering effort and the involvement of members in the day to day running of the club is greater than it has ever been – whether it’s pulling pints, ringing round potential sponsors, reporting finances, organising match day operations, searching for a new first team manager or reviewing the club’s organisational structure. The latter alone has so far involved more than 200 hours of work by three of the club’s members, all experienced in this type of work, who collectively travelled more than a thousand miles to attend last month’s board meeting to present their findings. All at no cost to the club. An organisation could typically expect to pay anywhere between £500 to £1,000 per day to buy in that type of expertise – I’ll let you do the maths on roughly how much money that has saved the club.      

Can’t get a beer in the club’s main bar two and a half hours after the match has finished? Well boo-fucking-hoo. Because, you know what, this coming Saturday at Course You Can Malcolm you’ll be able to turn up at Broadhurst Park THREE hours before kick-off and, in the company of fellow Reds, enjoy live music from a local band, a quiz, possibly a guest speaker or two and locally sourced beer and food (some if it homemade) all laid on by yet more of the club’s hard grafting volunteers and all inside your own football ground. There’ll be nothing else quite like it inside a football ground anywhere in the UK, or possibly Europe, this weekend. We may be bottom of the league, out of the cup and permanently grumpy but let’s take a moment to pause and look around at what we actually do have here at this club. It may not be enough, as looks increasingly likely even at this early stage, to assure us of a fifth consecutive season in this league but nevertheless, from where I’m standing (SMRE top left if you’re asking), even thirteen and a half years on, it’s still pretty fucking special. We do alright you know.    

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