In the autumn of 2011, shortly after taking part in a one day strike in protest at the proposed changes to NHS pensions and the wider destruction of the NHS proposed in the Health and Social Care legislation which was then passing through parliament, I was chatting about the NHS, over a beer, with the finance director of a central London hospital. Whilst she admired the strikers for standing up for what they believed in, her view was that there was “no alternative” for the NHS other than to face up to the bleak financial reality of years of “efficiency savings” following the financial crisis of 2008. It was a view that was widespread at the time, and still is, amongst senior NHS figures. A view that says that we must pay for the global financial crisis by slimming down public services like the NHS; it’s considered the “the right thing to do” in the circumstances.
Meanwhile, across town, protesters from the Occupy movement were camped out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London, for once, felt like a vibrant place to be, alive with discussion and bubbling with new ideas and the hopes that a better society could be salvaged from the wreckage of a failed capitalist system. In cities and towns around the country there were similar tented protests. So it felt doubly dispiriting that, in contrast, the person in charge of the purse strings at a high profile London hospital should adopt such a narrow minded view of the crisis faced not only by the NHS but all public services.
The slimming down of the NHS during the last half dozen years has almost inevitably meant that the quality of care that patients receive has suffered. It’s apparent in the longer waiting times for routine operations and in the struggles of Accident and Emergency departments to cope. It’s apparent too in the increase in the numbers of patients who are forced to stay longer in hospital than they should because huge cuts to funding for social care often mean that there is nowhere for them to go. A recent audit at Plymouth Hospital found that 27% of beds were taken up by people who were medically fit to leave. And it’s apparent too in the lack of time patients are able to spend with their GPs, in the rationing of healthcare such that certain procedures are only available to those who are in the most pain and in mental health services across the country that are stretched to breaking point. And still we are told by a whole host of senior NHS figures representing NHS England, provider Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups that there is no alternative.
This situation is the culmination of more than two decades work by both Conservative and Labour governments. The Tories began the process in the early nineties with the break up of the NHS into purchasers and providers of healthcare; a system referred to as the “internal market” and the first step to encouraging greater private sector involvement in the NHS. The NHS, as an example of socialism in action with everyone arriving through the doors of a hospital treated equally regardless of their economic status, has long been anathema to the Tories particularly those in thrall to the market.
Later on in the nineties a Labour government despite, to its great credit, bringing funding of the health service back into line with that of other western nations, continued the process of marketisation and privatisation with the advent of semi-autonomous Foundation Trusts free to adopt a more business-like approach to managing their finances, an expansion in the use of the Private Finance Initiative to build new hospitals, a huge increase in the use of management consultants and the introduction of a system of financial flows misleadingly labelled as “payment by results”.
That there is a “market” at the heart of the NHS is a point completely lost on the vast majority of patients and members of the public. And that this system is estimated to cost somewhere between £4.5 billion and £30 billion a year to run (to pay for accountants, analysts, contract negotiators, legal advisors, computer software etc) depending on which study you believe, is barely mentioned by any senior NHS figures, politicians or think tanks when discussing how the health service could save money. Remarkable given the near obsession with cutting costs. Having worked in NHS finance departments for over twenty five years I am struggling to think of a single significant benefit that this market system has brought to patient care.
And now along come the new kids on the block, the so-called Sustainability and Transformation Plans or STPs which break the NHS down into 44 regional “footprints” and provide the means by which NHS England hopes to extract a further £22 billion worth of savings by the year 2020. This is on top of the £20 billion already squeezed out of the system in the first half of the decade; a programme of efficiency savings that was referred to as QIPP or Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention and sold us the notion that somehow the dire economic situation following the global financial crisis of 2008 presented the NHS with an “opportunity” to simultaneously strip £20 billion out of its budget and improve the quality of patient care. That the QIPP “challenge” was inflicted on the NHS at the same time as a major reorganisation of services following the Health and Social Care Act simply rubbed our noses in the dirt.
The Sustainability and Transformation Plans are based on work that has been going on across the country for several years now looking at “reconfiguring” health services labouring under such nonsense-names as “fit for the future”, “healthier together”, “shaping a healthier future” and “better services, better value”; words stripped of their true meaning to concoct meaningless slogans fed to a public too busy whipping themselves into a frenzy over cake baking on the telly to be unduly concerned about the potential closure of their local Accident & Emergency department.
Delve into the small print of the plans and they talk of how “difficult decisions lie ahead”, of how local health services in each “footprint” will “look very different following transformation” and, with almost breathtaking arrogance, that this represents “the right thing do” and the only way to ensure financially and clinically sustainable health services. It’s true that local health services will look very different in many areas of the country if these plans come to fruition – but certainly not in good way. It’s likely, for instance, that the number of A&E departments nationally will be “reconfigured” to between 40 and 70 as these plans kick in; there were 140 A&E departments around the country in 2013. So we’re all going to have to get used to longer journeys to receive emergency care in future. For many of us, instead of a relatively short ambulance journey across town this could well mean a twenty or thirty mile trek to the nearest big town or city.
This ideological assault on the NHS has brought us to the current situation where more than eighty per cent of hospitals are in debt and during the last financial year the NHS as a whole was £2.5 billion in deficit. To put that into some sort of perspective, when the Tories came to power in 2010 the health service was breaking even. Ironic that the party that prides itself on “balancing the books” should make such a mess of the finances of the NHS.
It’s perhaps worth pausing at this point to recognise that the dire financial situation that the NHS currently finds itself in is far from accidental or somehow inevitable as the government would prefer us to believe – it is the result of a stark political choice, pure and simple. The government has chosen to starve the NHS of much needed funds with the result that since they came to power in 2010 they have overseen the biggest sustained cut to the amount of money that we spend on health care since the birth of the NHS in 1948. As mentioned earlier, the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 through substantial investment in the NHS brought the amount that we spend on healthcare into line with that of other leading European nations. Six years later however, we now spend 8.5% of our gross domestic product on healthcare, considerably less than the Netherlands and Germany who spend around 11% and also less than the likes of Greece, Portugal and Austria.
This fact alone makes a mockery of the argument that is continually trotted out that the NHS is overspending, that it is inefficient and that if only those bolshie doctors and nurses, instead of protesting and walking out on strike, worked a little bit harder then we would not be in this mess. Far from being the result of inefficiency on the part of its hardworking clinical staff the financial crisis that the NHS currently faces is ultimately the product of a world view that huge multinational banks are too big and too important to fail but the health of the nation is not. That we can justify spending billions on weapons with the capability to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people but refuse to adequately fund our health service is difficult to stomach.
By rights we should be on the streets protesting at this government’s dismantling of our heath service. Far from being unaffordable a fully functioning NHS is absolutely essential to a successful economy. How can we hope to have a booming economy if people are too ill or too frail to work? A point that is often overlooked in the debate on affordability is the fact that for each one pound that we invest in the NHS we receive three pounds worth of benefits to the wider economy.
And where does this notion that the NHS is somehow grossly inefficient come from because it’s simply not borne out by the evidence. A comprehensive report by the independent Commonwealth Fund in 2014, for instance, hailed the NHS as the best healthcare system out of eleven of the world’s wealthiest countries. Switzerland was second and Sweden third with the likes of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, the USA and Australia lagging further behind. The NHS scored highly for the quality of the care it provides, its efficiency and the low cost at the point at which it is used by patients. In terms of overall costs the report found that the UK spent the second lowest amount on healthcare; about £1,990 per person compared to nearly £5,000 per person in the US.
Yes, the NHS has its faults, but let’s face it what other organisation of similar size doesn’t? It’s a vast organisation that sees and treats around one million people every thirty six hours. However, despite the many pressures it faces it is a wonderful system that blends quality, access, efficiency and affordability and it bears comparison with any other healthcare system in the world. In fact, it does more than that, it’s the top of the pile which is a fantastic achievement.
On the other side of the pond, meanwhile, the US health system, frequently held up as a role model for the NHS, demonstrates the failure of applying market principles to healthcare. The US spends around 18% of its gross domestic product on its insurance-based healthcare system yet nearly 50 million people are uninsured, up to 100 million have insufficient insurance to cover their needs and life expectancy and infant mortality lags well behind that of other western countries. The health policy expert Allyson Pollock has described the US system as “islands of excellence in a sea of misery”.
So it comes as no surprise that when we finally get a political leader who challenges this deeply entrenched view that there is no alternative to austerity that, of course, it scares the hell out of other politicians and the press barons and broadcasters who fail to hold the government to account, protect this mainstream view and in the process label anyone who makes the case for an alternative, be they a politician or a striking junior doctor, as some sort of extremist. In the last few weeks, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised that a future government under his leadership would scrap the pointless and expensive NHS internal market. This is a potentially huge step that signifies the rejection of more than two decades of the NHS snuggling up to big business; a real “game changer” in management-speak mumbo jumbo. And it takes strong political leadership too a world away from the timidity of the likes of David Cameron and Theresa May too afraid to stand up to the might of huge multinational companies keen to grab a slice of the billions spent annually on the NHS.
The NHS has been around for nearly seventy years, is something that we should be proud of and provides proof that putting people before profit can work. I’m tired of hearing politicians on all sides trot out the same arguments about how the health service must make efficiency savings if it is to survive. And I’m tired of this political gobbledygook being swallowed unquestioningly by those who run the NHS, its chief executives and directors and senior managers in the name of not rocking the boat and preserving their careers. All of us who work in the health service are there because there are times when people suffer ill-health or accidents and need someone to treat and look after them and we should speak out on behalf of these people. At last there is a politician who is prepared to do this and who is prepared to consider a different approach to managing the health service.
So excuse me if I don’t entrust the leadership of the political party that created the NHS to a former lobbyist for the giant pharmaceutical firm Pfizer. Owen Smith? You’ve got to be joking. Instead I’ve voted (for the second time in just over a year) for someone with the balls to actually begin to tackle the problems that face the NHS and actually commit to restoring it as a public service free from the clutches of big business. And the same is true of education, transport, the environment, defence and workers’ rights. What Jeremy Corbyn represents for me is the hope that we can collectively build a better world after a generation and more of neoliberal politics that has tried to convince us that socialism is dead and that subjecting public services to the rigours of the market is the only way forward. I was proud to vote for him last September and even prouder to do so again now.
At various points over the last few weeks a number of people have, with a look of pity usually reserved for a pet who’s curled out a turd on the front room carpet, said something along the lines of “I suppose you’re voting for Corbyn again then are you?” to me. And yes, I have. I did it on the same day that my ballot paper was emailed to me. I couldn’t give a monkey’s about whether he sings the national anthem or how deep he bows in front of the monarch or how he dresses because frankly if you care one iota about the future of the NHS you’d be stark raving bonkers not to vote for him. It feels like, to coin a phrase, “the right thing to do”.
A year on from football supporters across Europe expressing their solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers and showing the power of football to unite us all, here is a piece that I’ve written for the FC United of Manchester website (please click on the link below) that looks at the club’s ongoing support for refugees and asylum seekers and reflects on the recent visit of the Hummingbird Project to Broadhurst Park and the wonderful work that the club does with asylum seekers who are victims of torture. Refugees welcome? Don’t be daft, of course they are.
“Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavoured to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us” Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
There’s been a deflating familiarity to the sight of a succession of Labour MPs announcing their resignations from the shadow cabinet recently, in the wake of the European Union referendum. A bunch of careerists with an inflated sense of self worth, droning on about so-called bullying and intimidation, their views woefully out of touch with the party’s membership and their resignations timed to inflict the maximum amount of damage. At FC United of Manchester we have endured a year of flouncy exits from the boardroom that left us, until recently, with a depleted board of only four.
Thankfully though, a Painean common sense has prevailed and after a year that has seen the club brought almost to the brink of financial collapse members have signalled their desire for change and have elected a progressive new board. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future and even a soupçon of positivity has returned, if I’m not getting a bit too carried away with it all. Surprising then that the BBC, having pretty much totally ignored events at the club over the last year, chose this time to stick a piece on their website entitled “FC United of Manchester: the protest club at war with itself?” You’d almost think that someone was stirring the pot a little here.
But, hey, what do I know? On the day that the board election results were announced I was dawdling round a field on the outskirts of Budapest, on a baking hot afternoon, gazing at communist-era statues and monuments. These, often huge, stony representations of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and an assortment of Hungarian communists once took pride of place in the main streets and squares of the Hungarian capital before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. At the tiny kiosk at the entrance to the park an old radio rather forlornly played some of the propaganda anthems of the time. Memento Park, as it’s called, represents a sort-of theme park to a flawed ideology that promised much after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945 but merely replaced one dictatorship with another.
In my all too frequent glass-half-empty moments during the last few months I’ve often pictured an empty post-FC-United-apocalypse Broadhurst Park becoming something of a monument to the slightly bonkers notion that supporters can run football clubs. People would get the tram out to Moston, pay what they can afford at the turnstile, dispense with their politics and whilst admiring the shiny third-sector-hub-ness of it all would reflect on the bitter irony of a football club that while it constructed its own football ground destructed the egalitarian and democratic principles on which it was founded. “Look at those daft buggers” people would say “thought they could run a football club better than the businessmen”. Over the tannoy would play some of the fans’ favourite songs interspersed with clippings from old speeches by Comrades Walsh and Brown urging supporters to dig deep yet again for “one last push” to get the ground completed both utterly convinced that their five year plan would ensure the healthy future of the club.
That this gruesome vision of the future has been held at bay owes much to the club’s original founder John-Paul O’Neill’s persistent whistle blowing over the last year or so and the membership’s gradual awakening from its hibernation, in the nick of time, to finally seize control of the destiny of this football club. Eleven board members have been elected, only two with previous experience on the FC board, and the old guard swept from power with the promise of a new era of glasnost at the club; the board operating with openness, transparency and honesty. Already, in recent weeks, there have been welcome public apologies to O’Neill regarding the club’s denial of his membership and to the former programme editor Tony Howard over the club’s shambolic handling of the increase in the programme price for the Benfica match.
One of the new board’s first actions was to announce that the friendly match against Rochdale on Saturday 30th July will pay tribute to the hundreds of volunteers, past and present, who give up their time and skills week in week out to make the club what it is. And on the Friday night before the match some of the volunteers from the much missed pre-match Course You Can Malcolm event that took place at Gigg Lane for many years and raised thousands for the club will stage a CYCM type event with music, poetry, food and beer. A refreshing attempt by the club to heal the rifts that have developed in the club’s support and to move forward as a united body of supporters. But at FC United no silver lining is complete without a humungous cumulo nimbus looming large; the news of the return of CYCM has already had some of the “that Malcolmses/A Fine Lung lot are planning to take over the St Mary’s Road End and turn it into a communist prayer room or summat” conspiracy theorists foaming at the mouth.
Reconciliation and healing clearly won’t be easy. Already some of those loyal to the old board have spoken of a board election campaign damaged by “bullying” and have expressed annoyance with those supporters who refused to renew membership and season tickets for the new season until after the board election results were announced. But who exactly were the bullies and intimidators in the recent election campaign? Tim Worrall and Sam Mullock with their feisty talk of reconciliation and their vaguely threatening deployment of the rarely-seen-at-FC-United word “sorry”? Adrian Seddon for many months a calm and considered presence on the club’s official discussion forum and himself the victim of a despicable attempt by another board candidate to undermine his candidacy? Or was it Nathan Ellis-Scott, at last a youthful presence on the board, browbeating us into joining him in the clubhouse to sing Kumbaya? Or perhaps the dastardly pitch trespasser George Baker antagonising his critics by offering to shake hands with them at the EGM? What a bunch of bastards eh.
Or maybe it’s simply those supporters who held off renewing their memberships and season tickets until after the Board election results were announced that really raised hackles. That’s their right of course. I daresay there are many supporters who have invested a lot in community shares and in the development fund down the years, sometimes money that they perhaps couldn’t properly afford but they did it because FC United was something that they passionately believed in. So if people suddenly feel a little reticent when it comes to parting with their hard earned cash then that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Besides it wasn’t that long ago that many of us vowed “not one penny” in different circumstances. We are certainly not cash cows to be taken for granted.
Speaking as someone who renewed their membership and season ticket long before the election campaign I’m absolutely delighted to see a fresh board elected with, perhaps for the first time, a wonderful blend of youth and experience. In contrast to my usual pessimistic persona I have a, perhaps naive, faith in the power of democracy and I trusted the membership to get this one right. But I’m tiring of the regular and unsubstantiated claims of online bullying and intimidation directed at those who have called for change at the club. Not all internet criticism should be dismissed as the work of “keyboard warriors”, “knobs on the forum” or as mere “sniping from the sidelines”. Of course, there are many examples of internet discussion descending into the gutter but it’s also true that the internet can be a tremendous force for good offering space for thoughtful contributions that can often be lost in the clamour of public meetings. Arguably there would not be an FC United of Manchester without the internet and Andy Walsh and Adam Brown’s Not For Sale book demonstrates how the world wide web, in its early days, was used by Manchester United fans to fight the Murdoch takeover bid in 1998-99.
One such product of the internet was the pamphlet distributed at the Stalybridge match in April which called for greater democracy at the club and was produced by a collective who care deeply about the future of the club. A recurring theme in all of the articles in The Pamphlet was that co-owners of the club must play a greater role in the club’s democratic processes. Whilst it was critical of the board, it was also critical of all of us, the members, for not participating sufficiently in meetings and elections and for failing to keep a watchful eye on our elected representatives. We had, as Mickey O’Farrell so eloquently expressed in one of the articles become “lazy utopians”, happy to sing the praises of supporter ownership but not do the hard yards of actually making it work. Arguably, three months on, the pamphlet has been successful in its aims.
Take the turnout at the board election for instance. Okay so 671 voters out of a membership of more than five thousand last season isn’t necessarily anything to shout about but it represents the highest number of voters at any board election in our history and follows the General Meeting in May where more than 820 of the club’s co-owners voted on a plethora of resolutions and members’ votes which represented about 18 percent of the club’s adult membership at the time. Again, it’s not really trumpet blowing territory but there are plenty of football clubs at our level that would love to have that many supporters attending matches let alone engaged in the running of the club. To put this into some context, at the Dons’ Trust, the supporters’ Trust that holds a majority stake in AFC Wimbledon, 578 members voted in the elections to the board at their 2014 Annual General Meeting. So at a football club that took more than twenty thousand supporters to Wembley recently for a play-off final and one where the majority of the electorate voted online they attracted fewer members to participate in their 2014 General Meeting than us. When viewed this way it suggests that we’re perhaps not too shabby when it comes to participation in elections but clearly there is huge scope for improvement.
Hopefully the reinvigoration of the club’s democracy will knock on the head, once and for all, the notion that simply looking to increase the club’s membership (4,000, 5,000, 10,000 where do we draw the line?) is of itself a good thing. Yes, the membership team have done sterling work in boosting membership numbers and this does of course give us greater weight when looking to secure external funding. But it is also apparent that booming membership numbers have been both a strength and a weakness significantly diluting the strength of the club’s democratic processes if many of these new members treat us like, say, joining the Phone Coop, as a cause that they believe in and are willing to support financially but have no intention of ever attending a meeting or voting. A smaller membership but one that is more engaged in the running of the club and keen to hold the board to account must surely be preferable to a much larger membership that is predominantly apathetic?
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film director 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. And as someone who is now on the board said on a train journey home last season “thank fuck for FC United”. As the country votes to turn its back on its neighbours, choosing instead to swallow the small-minded rhetoric of right wing politicians, and the political party established to represent us threatens to self-destruct, we buck the trend in proudly demonstrating that ordinary working class people can build something that emphatically demonstrates that a better world is possible. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon who are 77% owned by their supporters’ Trust, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters. 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 in our short-ish history. But at least now there are encouraging signs that we can once again get on with doing things differently. And common sense has returned. Onwards.
We laughed again as Chisty recounted the story of her phone call home in March last year that began with her sister proudly proclaiming “hey, we beat you guys”. Bangladesh had just beaten England in the cricket World Cup, knocking them out of the competition, and the “Land of Bengal” was celebrating a famous victory. Chisty had rolled her eyes in exasperation the first time she told me this but aside from the gentle ribbing about a cricket match those five words perhaps inadvertently but neatly encapsulate the oddly schizophrenic existence of anyone who ups sticks and moves to another country; the emigrant who leaves behind family, friends and their “home” and the immigrant who tries to build a new life and set up a new “home” in a foreign country. Where is home anymore? Who is “you”? Who is “we”? How does it feel to be caught adrift between two worlds separated by several thousand miles and different languages, cultures and social norms?
Chisty has lived pretty much her entire adult life in London having arrived from Bangladesh on her own, with a suitcase and enough cash for a couple of weeks, as a nineteen year old in 2008. After nearly eight years living in the capital, a city she loves, she thinks of herself as a Londoner. I first met Chisty nearly two years ago when she joined the finance department of the central London hospital where I worked until recently. She’s one of many interesting people in a work place that, like many in London, is wonderfully diverse; people from different countries, cultures and religions, rubbing along together, sharing experiences and learning from each other. This bean counters’ United Nations produced a slightly lopsided cultural exchange that meant that I got to learn about Bengali music and food and the more spiritual strand of Islam known as Sufism, whilst Chisty listened to me banging on about FC United of Manchester and The Smiths.
I’ll admit before meeting Chisty my knowledge of Bangladesh was scant and often cricket related. It’s one of those places that only ever seems to be in the news when something bad has happened; flooding perhaps or an earthquake or the collapse of a badly constructed factory building killing and injuring hundreds of workers. But the chances are if you have a root around in your wardrobe or through your drawers at home that you’ll probably find several items that were “made in Bangladesh”. The huge Bangladeshi garment industry makes cheap clothes for a number of high street retailers like H&M and while it offers one of the few employment opportunities for women the “cheap” clothes come at a high price in the form of punishingly long hours, low pay and appalling working conditions.
Chisty’s own “made in Bangladesh” story intrigued me, as it’s not only a mixture of the determination and courage that characterise so many immigrant stories but is also remarkable in that it is the story of a young single woman breaking all social norms and leaving behind family and friends to build a life of her own in a foreign country. She’s undoubtedly one of the most determined and resourceful people that I’ve ever met. Her story intrigued me so much that I suggested writing something about it and after a brief exchange of text messages we found ourselves, amidst the post-work hubbub, in a pub round the corner from Victoria railway station chatting over drinks.
Like most Bengali kids she grew up in a large extended family and although she only has one younger sister she has many cousins; her dad has a brother and two sisters and her mum has five brothers and five sisters. It “feels like a big family” she says and she refers to her cousins as brothers and sisters; “we are so close to each other”. The busy house that she grew up in comprises five flats with four other families sharing the same space. The adjustment to living a more solitary existence in England is something that she has found tricky at times.
She was raised as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country that remains deeply conservative and patriarchal with few opportunities for women to live independently. She went to girls’ schools and although lessons were taught in Bengali, the national language, from an early age she began to learn English in addition to other subjects including Islamic studies and home economics. Her future, had she not left when she did, would likely have been another tale of unfulfilled female potential; getting married as soon as possible and settling down to a life of domesticity, raising children and cooking and cleaning for her family.
Despite improvements in living conditions in recent years, Bangladesh is still a poor country where women’s employment rates remain very low and where the mobility of women and girls is seriously curtailed by concerns about safety on the streets. Even now Chisty’s mum will not go out at night alone. It’s something that we take for granted but just being able to walk the streets, particularly at night, without fear for her safety is one of the things that Chisty most enjoys about living in London. She says that she has rarely encountered any abuse during her time in England. The worst case was someone shouting at her in the street to “fuck off back to your own country” but incidents like this have been very rare. Chisty herself is wonderfully open when it comes to matters of race or ethnicity – she jokes that, as far she is concerned, a future boyfriend could be as green as the witch in the Wicked show that plays in the theatre next door to the pub we are in.
Chisty’s attitude to her religion is more relaxed than many Muslim women; she doesn’t wear a hijab or any other form of Muslim dress for instance. Instead she prefers to adopt a more philosophical stance as a humanist, living as good a life as she can but always being kind to and respectful of others. The decision not to wear a hijab is something she feels strongly about; she dislikes the hypocrisy of some Muslim women who criticise her for not wearing one but will openly flirt with men whilst claiming to be devout Muslims.
Back home her parents wouldn’t even let her wear jeans outside the house. But in contrast she now lives a life not unlike that of many twenty-something Londoners working in a busy office during the day and heading out in the evening to enjoy the capital’s night life with friends. She loves make-up, clothes and girlie nights out and she’s part of that generation that has embraced social media, with her penchant for selfies and hashtags, and has used dating websites to try to find a partner although with her admiration for the likes of Chris and Liam Hemsworth she’s arguably set a very high bar. She’s a talented singer and musician too and sang and read poetry on national radio and television as a child in Bangladesh and has auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent over here. But most of all she enjoys the freedom of living in England and living her own life, being who she wants to be rather than who others expect her to be; girl power in action. “I always liked Western culture and wanted to come here (England) and study and change my life and do something for my family and set a good example”.
Her life in London hasn’t always been such a frantic social whirl though. From arriving in England in 2008 to completing her degree in accounting and finance at university in the summer of 2014 she studied hard and worked part-time doing shifts for the likes of Asda, Burger King and Sports Direct, often trekking across town on long bus journeys as it was cheaper than taking the tube. During those six years she admits that she barely went out at all, her life consisting simply of lectures, working, bus journeys, studying at home and sleeping.
“Home” was one of the many (more than a dozen) shared rooms in rented houses that Chisty has lived in during the last eight years most of them in the low-rent fringes of east London such as Ilford, Dagenham and Leytonstone where new arrivals to London often settle down. Life was often difficult for a young, single Bangladeshi woman sharing a house with others. There was an Indian vegetarian family who wouldn’t let her cook meat in the house and a Nigerian couple where the woman worked night shifts and the man would invite his mates round to listen to music and drink late into the night; some of the men would follow Chisty to her room as she went to bed. And a woman who even threatened to kill Chisty and her friend as she mistakenly thought that they had reported her to the local council and that she was about to lose her home as a result.
In her first few days in England Chisty found it tough adjusting to the early autumn after the sweltering heat of Bangladesh. With only one thin sheet that she had brought with her and no heating to keep her warm at night (she was too shy to ask for any bedding) she fell ill during her first few weeks in the country and was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. She spent two weeks in hospital (“the nurses were lovely” she adds) and early on, as she was made to wear an oxygen mask, she thought she might even die. The nurses wheeled her out of the ward so that she could ring her parents to tell them that she was fine.
Only days before her stay in hospital Chisty had left behind her large extended family at the airport. “Everyone was crying” she says but having said an emotional goodbye she refused to look back as she made her way to the departure lounge. Going to England was something that she’d dreamed about for a long time and she wasn’t about to change her mind now. From a very young age Chisty had dreamed of coming to England; as a child she drove her parents mad singing a song that was popular in Bangladesh about buying a plane ticket and flying to England. She watched lots of British and Hollywood films and television programmes (including Fawlty Towers) and became fascinated by life in the seemingly more glamorous west where it looked like there was a life for a young woman beyond one of cooking and cleaning and getting married. She longed to be able to support her family so that they didn’t have to depend on anyone else financially.
As she tucks into a chicken burger and another glass of cider Chisty describes how she was born and grew up in the city of Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city. It’s an old river port city in the south-west of the country, about six hours drive from the capital city Dhaka, and lies close to the world’s largest mangrove forest, home to the famous Bengal tiger. Until getting on that plane to come to England Chisty had not travelled outside Bangladesh before. In fact she hadn’t travelled very far at all with her family as they simply couldn’t afford to go far.
By the age of sixteen Chisty had completed her secondary school certificate (equivalent to O Level or GCSE) and then went on to do a further two years at college before applying for a place at university. But having failed to get a place on a Business Administration course at her local university a newspaper advert for a national competition offering the prize of a part-funded scholarship to study in England caught her eye. She passed an exam and was one of only 300 selected for a scholarship from more than fifty thousand who sat the exam.
At first her whole family were very resistant to the idea of leaving home at such a young age and flying to England; “what is she going to do to earn money, be a prostitute?” one of her aunts asked. But eventually her persistence paid off and she was able to persuade them that this was what she really wanted to do and that no one was going to stop her. Unfortunately though her dad had a stroke shortly before Chisty was due to leave and she spent most of her last days in Bangladesh at his bedside in hospital. She describes herself as a “daddy’s girl” and even now she speaks to her father by phone on a daily basis and he rings her each morning to make sure that she is up for work.
After arriving in England and after having paid half of the scholarship fee (two thousand pounds) she discovered that the whole thing had been a scam. The promised “school of business” had done a runner with everyone’s money, the building where it was meant to be lay empty. Two thousand pounds gone just like that. A big setback but Chisty wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her dreams and she dusted herself down and enrolled on another accounting course. There must have been times like this when she felt tempted to give up and head home? “No, I’ve never regretted coming to England. There have been difficult times but I’ve always tried to stay positive and look forward, I’ve never felt homesick”.
A couple of years later she was in a position to look for degree courses but with her parents unable to support her education she was forced to take out two substantial loans (which she is still paying off) to get her through two years of study at university. The middle year of a three year degree course was spent on a placement in an NHS finance department in central London and after graduating in the summer of 2014 she looked for her first full-time job and successfully applied for a job in the finance department at the hospital where I used to work. She loves the NHS and would like to continue working in a finance role in the health service. Indeed she is studying to become a qualified accountant and hopes to become a Finance Director in future. You certainly wouldn’t bet against her.
Yet despite having lived in London for nearly eight years, a place which she now refers to as home although she won’t be able to apply for British citizenship (something that she can’t wait to do) for another two years, Chisty has fallen foul of a new Home Office rule, introduced this April, that holders of tier 2 skilled worker visas like her must earn more than a certain amount per year (with some exceptions) to be able to remain in the country even if they’ve lived here for several years. So after years of grafting to build a new life in a foreign country, years of studying and working to be able to afford to study, years of not going out, years of gruelling bus journeys from the arse end of town to work shifts in city centre burger joints, years of sacrifice to try to ensure a better future for herself and her family Chisty is now faced with the very real prospect of having to leave the country if she cannot find another job that pays more. Her life is on hold, uncertain where exactly her future lies. All she knows is that she desperately wants to stay in England, in London, her home.
This arbitrary threshold has been introduced purely as part of the government’s desire to be seen to be tough on immigration. It’s something that “we” the British electorate demand apparently. As the curtain comes down on the often toxic European Union referendum debate where fear of immigrants has once again being stoked up, all too often, the focus of the debate on immigration is on numbers and hardly ever considers the lives and thoughts and feelings of those individuals like Chisty caught up in the process. Why is it felt appropriate, for instance, to measure the contribution that someone makes to our society simply by referring to how much money they earn? Chisty has already demonstrated her industriousness and determination in spades and has so much more to offer this country culturally, socially and economically. She loves living in England; this is no story of someone who struggles to integrate and there’s an effervescence and love of life that no artificial borders or barbed wire or arbitrary immigration rules dreamt up by faceless bureaucrats should be able to restrain.
So, finally, to return to cricket and the so-called “cricket test” posed by Norman Tebbitt back in the eighties, deliberately designed to cast doubt on the Englishness of those migrating to Britain from commonwealth countries; who does she want to win in a cricket match between Bangladesh and England? She laughs again and says that despite everything, despite her love of England and English people and despite London now being her home and the place where she wants to live the rest of her life, she would still want Bangladesh to win of course. And why not? Why not be proud of your roots? Her large extended family and friends back home in Bangladesh and her new friends in England should certainly be very proud of Chisty, our very own Bengal tiger.
It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week. You may have missed it. Even for those of us who work in the NHS it can slip by barely noticed. Mental health struggles to attract the attention or funding that it merits; cancers, strokes, gastric bands and broken limbs tend to capture the public’s imagination more than troubled minds and even now there is a tendency for us all to view those suffering from depression or anxiety as simply needing to pull themselves together rather than seek the treatment and advice of experienced healthcare professionals. Yet it’s estimated that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
That statistic refers to human beings not football clubs but nevertheless it’s apparent that FC United of Manchester is exhibiting many of the symptoms of being mentally unwell. I’m no psychiatrist but I would suggest that the highs and lows of the last twelve months, the mood swings and bouts of depression (sometimes accompanied by heavy drinking), the paranoia of certain board members mistaking debate and scrutiny for bullying and harassment, the delusions of grandeur and the occasional psychotic episode are indicative of a wider malaise. And if the events of the last week or so are anything to go by we now also seem intent on deliberate self-harm with one board member flouncing out of the club with a despicable, unprovoked online attack on a fellow co-owner. If we lay back on the therapist’s couch and subjected ourselves to a spot of psychoanalysis I’m sure our birth from protest and rebellion and our schizophrenic “two United’s but the soul is one” existence would be diagnosed as likely contributors to our present ill-health.
One evening a few weeks ago I listened to a radio programme about the current crisis in child and adolescent mental health services. In truth, I was merely channel hopping trying to avoid Liverpool’s comeback against Borussia Dortmund on 5 live whilst washing the pots. The programme spoke of how half of all mental health problems in adults begin developing in childhood with patients often speaking of difficulties that started at school or college; promising futures that were knocked for six. One psychotherapist reckoned that one of the major reasons why kids today are more susceptible to mental illness than many of us were when we were younger is because of image. There is often a huge gap between the fantasy lifestyles that young people project on social media and the reality of their day to day lives. The bigger the gap the more likely it is that mental health issues will arise. Take the obsession with body image, particularly for young girls, and the incidence of anorexia. Or kids from the selfie generation, obsessed with physical attractiveness, suffering from depression because they’ve got bad acne.
And this is a bit like what’s happened to our young (and sometimes we forget how young we still are) football club isn’t it? Not that we’re busy squeezing our spots but that progressively over the last few years we’ve witnessed a widening of the gap between the image of FC United projected to the wider world by the Walsh/Brown modernisers and the altogether more mundane reality that we are a non-league football club in Manchester that is struggling to adapt to life in its own home. The modernisers’ fantasy lifestyle embraced third sector hubs, social enterprise and talked of changing the whole of football and overthrowing capitalism and the reality gap was stretched so wide that the likes of Sherrard, Walker and Ramsey were able to saunter in, barely noticed by many, and allowed to release their poison drip by drip.
Look at the club’s public profile over the last twelve months; until Daniel Taylor’s article in the Guardian at the end of March there was not an inkling to the outside world that there was anything wrong at the club. Amidst the proud boasts of record crowds, “shining example” Broadhurst Park being crowned the best new non-league ground for 2015-16 and becoming the country’s largest supporter owned football club internal dissent was brushed off as the work of “troublemakers” and “thugs”. Indeed there was even a ham-fisted attempt to get the Guardian to pull Daniel Taylor’s story so concerned were the likes of Andy Walsh and Andy Walker that the truth would out. So low did we stoop that on the final day of the season, following an on-pitch protest calling for greater democracy at the club, the club’s official Twitter account was involved in an unseemly spat with one of the club’s co-owners merely for having the temerity to voice his opinion on the pitch invasion.
For me, the reconvened General Meeting last Sunday marked the beginning of us closing the gap. At the end of an often acrimonious twelve months which has seen the resignation of the club’s General Manager and seven Board members in recent weeks, the meeting was attended by around four hundred of the club’s co-owners. The debate was lively but as the details of twenty three resolutions and thirteen members’ votes were discussed and voted on, over the course of four hours, the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get this football club back on track was clear for all to see. Meanwhile the empty chairs on the right hand side of the stage told their own story of how some former board members viewed the club’s democracy.
I also sensed that some of those in attendance were possibly beginning to appreciate the extent of the damage wrought by the chumocracy that has been allowed to develop as an assortment of chancers, bluffers and worming careerists have brought the club to its knees; an affront to the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which FC United was founded. An update on the club’s finances revealed that without the television and prize money from the FA Cup match against Chesterfield in November the club would have run up a deficit well in excess of £100,000 during its first year at Broadhurst Park and as the season closed it was forced to ask the bank for an overdraft. The holes in the club’s cash flow are plain to see in the financial figures for the first three quarters of the year; the loss of goodwill following the programme price increase for the Benfica friendly match a year ago has had a significant impact on contributions to the Development Fund, barely a third of home matches were sponsored and income from use of the club’s brand new facilities was well below plan reflecting the failure of a paid fund raiser to do the job he was paid thousands to do.
Undoubtedly we can turn this around, as the response of supporters to the recent calls to get involved in various volunteer-led groups has shown, but you suspect that if things had carried on for much longer then we probably wouldn’t have had a football club left to support; a simply gobsmacking situation for a club repeatedly held up as an example of how supporter ownership can work. When the dust settles a huge debt of gratitude must surely be shown to the club’s founder John-Paul O’Neill who has been blowing the whistle on this shambles, persistently and in forensic detail, for several months. His tactics may not have always sat easy with many (but as we learnt from 1998 and 2005 any battle for the soul of a football club sometimes requires more clandestine operations; the Manchester Education Committee anyone?) but I don’t think anyone can now question that he has the best interests of the club at heart.
It was interesting too to hear Chuks Akuneto speak towards the end of the meeting about on-pitch matters and in particular the club’s youth team. Chuks is an experienced player and coach and was a member of the FC United coaching staff for eight years, including a stint as first team coach, until he left the club in 2015. His last role was as coach for the club’s academy programme and he spoke passionately of the failure of any youth team player to make it onto the pitch for the first team last season, even for just one minute. A damning indictment of the club’s youth policy and a failure to meet one of the club’s founding principles.
Our present state of health is not good but the debate at the general meeting, whilst heated, served a much-needed therapeutic purpose in reasserting our democratic rights as members. By signing up as members of this football club we become its custodians and it becomes our responsibility to love it, cherish it and nurture it into achieving its full and very beautiful potential. This is no ordinary football club that relies simply on blind loyalty, we are part of a democratic organisation that requires participation and vigilance to ensure that the club, in everything it does, remains true to its founding principles.
So this is a rather driving-to-Cornwall-in-the-rain way of saying that if there is one tiny bit of advice that I might offer to those standing for election to the board at the Extraordinary General Meeting on 25th June it is to keep the gap between the image of FC United projected to the outside world and the reality on the ground to an absolute minimum. Yes, I know there are times when we won’t want to wash our dirty laundry in public and might wish to take the positives from any given situation, I’m not naive enough to fail to appreciate that. But after the shambles of the last twelve months most of us are crying out for openness, honesty and transparency and for that reality gap to be wafer thin. The members’ vote at the general meeting that stated that “the membership has no confidence in the transparency of the club or executive” was supported by 53% of voters thus rubbishing the notion that those who have criticised the board in the past year or so are simply part of a “small but vocal minority of troublemakers”. Although the voting results from the general meeting announced this week were disappointing overall, that vote on our confidence in the board’s transparency should give critics heart and should be carefully noted by all future board members. Please no more self harm and no more hallucinations about taking over the world. National League North will do for now. Let’s mind the gap.
The morning after the Hillsborough inquest ruled that the ninety six football supporters who lost their lives at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final were unlawfully killed I was on a work training course. At a coffee break as people made small talk and fiddled with their phones the conversation turned, as it so often does these days, to football. After a brief natter about city’s Champions League match the night before someone mentioned that that day’s edition of the Sun newspaper had relegated the Hillsborough news story to page ten; along with that other Murdoch paper the Times the only titles not to lead with the day’s big news story.
Another lad, who looked to me like he probably wasn’t old enough to have been around at the time of the disaster, remarked that he thought that, despite the inquest jury’s verdict, thousands of ticketless, drunken football supporters trying to force their way into a football ground must have been partly to blame for the disaster. “What were the police expected to do?” he asked. And before you know it I, who up until that point had barely said a word, was doing what I’ve done on countless occasions over the last twenty seven years when people start spouting off about Hillsborough; I was off on one trying to explain what really happened that day. As I went over the police incompetence, the design and layout of that end of the ground, the lack of a ground safety licence, the utterly inadequate response of the emergency services and the lies spun over and over and over by police, press and politicians for more than a quarter of a century I could see the lad’s eyes glazing over. A few minutes later, my rant over, everyone went back to fiddling with their phones.
It’s a measure of the industrial scale of the establishment’s efforts to shift the blame for the tragedy that so many people (and I’ve come across so many down the years both in person and via social media) were prepared to believe, and some still are, that the Liverpool supporters were in some way to blame. The families knew they weren’t to blame and those of us who had stood on that same Leppings Lane terrace and experienced first hand the South Yorkshire police at their worst knew that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Now, after so many years, it’s finally been acknowledged officially and unequivocally that the fans were not to blame.
For those raised on a diet of televised Premier League football played out in happy clappy, ultra-safe, plastic stadia it must be difficult to contemplate what happened on that terrace. Going to the match nowadays is barely recognisable from the late eighties when fans were treated like animals, penned in on terraces and herded to and from grounds. Take tickets for instance. The accusation trotted out endlessly down the years has been that a significant number of Liverpool fans turned up at Hillsborough without tickets. But we forget in these times of having to buy a ticket to watch even the most mundane top flight football match that back then the FA Cup semi-final was one of the few games a season you needed a ticket for; at the majority of games fans were able to pay on the gate and it was affordable enough for groups of kids to go together. Booking weeks in advance by credit card is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Shortly after the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings were released in 2012 I wrote about a trip to Hillsborough (here) to watch Manchester United only two months before the disaster. I’d used the panel’s impressive website, including more than 450,000 documents relating to the disaster, to look at how the police planned for the visit of United fans to Hillsborough in February 1989. The phrase that kept appearing in the planning documents over and over again was the need to “maintain order”. Nowhere was there any mention of the comfort and safety of spectators. That represented the mindset of the often abominable South Yorkshire police force at the time.
United took a huge following of more than fifteen thousand supporters to Hillsborough that day, one of the last big Red Army days out, and the central pens on the Leppings Lane terrace were packed (but the ones either side less so). What people who hadn’t been to Hillsborough before wouldn’t necessarily appreciate is that once you had made your way through the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end of the ground it looked like the tunnel directly in front of you, leading into the central pens, was the only way to get onto the terrace. There were no signs to suggest otherwise. It was a fundamental flaw in the design of that part of the ground but one that could have been simply addressed on busy match days by stationing police officers at the entrance to the tunnel to direct supporters to the outer pens. It wasn’t difficult and the tactic had been employed on previous occasions.
It wasn’t just inside the ground that the South Yorkshire police’s lack of care for supporters was in evidence. As an out of town United fan I had travelled to the match from Chesterfield but that was of no concern to the police officers on Sheffield railway station after the match as, having been bussed back to the station from the ground, we were ushered towards a Manchester-bound train. I tried to explain that I needed to get another train but was wrestled onto the train by two officers accompanied by the words “I don’t care where you live, you’re getting on this fucking train”. It was an occupational hazard of going to watch football back then. Football supporters really were the lowest of the low; replacing the miners as the new “enemy within”. And it was apparent that the South Yorkshire Police force felt that it could get away with almost anything after Orgreave and the miners’ strike when an army of police officers was used to crush the year long struggle. Just as it was at Hillsborough their role in the miners’ strike was one of enforcement and control rather than public safety.
A few weeks after the Hillsborough inquest began in Warrington in March 2014 a solicitor from one from one of the firms representing the families got in touch with me. They had seen my blogpost and wanted to talk to me about my experiences of attending matches at Hillsborough and whether I thought that the police and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club could have done more to ensure the safety of spectators. As I answered questions and provided as much detail as I could, a quarter of a century on, I found myself, at times, struggling to comprehend some of the experiences that I was recounting as they seemed so far removed from the modern day experience of attending football matches. Did we really stand on those decrepit, piss-soaked terraces, penned in behind fences, often in the pouring rain and treated like shit by police forces who really didn’t give a toss about our welfare? Did we really do this week after week?
The lies told by the police, press and politicians seeped into the public consciousness to such an extent that they became believed. Irvine Patnick OBE, the right wing Tory MP for nearby Sheffield Hallam was one of the sources for the Sun’s notorious coverage of the disaster. He spoke of the “mayhem caused by drunks” and that policemen were punched and kicked as they tried to help. Thatcher’s former chief press secretary, the loathsome Sir Bernard Ingham, wrote in 1996 of “tanked up yobs who turned up late” causing the disaster. “To blame the police is utterly contemptible” he added. A year later, the newly elected prime minister Tony Blair, afraid to upset his new mate Rupert Murdoch, refused to order a new inquiry into the disaster, infamously remarking “Why? What is the point?”. It was another thirteen years before the Labour government, now lead by Gordon Brown and encouraged by the admirable Andy Burnham, set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel which eventually reported in 2012.
Meanwhile an editorial in the Spectator magazine in 2004 said that there was “no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon”. It referred to the police as a “convenient scapegoat” and the Sun newspaper as “a whipping boy” for daring to tell the truth. The United fans who sang “there’s only one Boris Johnson” (Johnson was the Spectator’s editor at the time) shortly after that piece appeared were wrong on so many levels that there simply isn’t the space or the time to dwell on it here.
When you set the word of ordinary people against those of decorated senior politicians, press barons and knighted civil servants it is perhaps forgivable that people may be tempted to believe the latter. Kelvin MacKenzie at the Sun admitted years later that “the mistake was I believed what an MP said” referring to the apartheid supporting member for Sheffield Hallam.
I’ve got to admit that I’d never heard the medical term “compression asphyxia” until after Hillsborough. What a hellish way to die, the life slowly being squeezed out of you. Ribs cracking. Urine and vomit everywhere. Then collapsing and being trampled underfoot. Lifeless bodies piled on top of each other; sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, football supporters, human beings. All because they went to watch a football match. I was at Old Trafford that afternoon watching United play Derby County in a meaningless end of season fixture. At half-time there was an announcement that the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough had been abandoned and that there had been “some casualties”. There were a few cheers from both sets of supporters – at that stage, we didn’t know whether the victims were Liverpool or Forest fans. I only learnt quite how many people had died a few hours later; sat in front of the telly that night watching the news coverage there were tears in my eyes.
My own views on the disaster have led me to fall out with several United fans down the years. Perhaps the worst occasion was in 1993 when at a match a few days before the last of the Hillsborough victims to die, a young lad called Tony Bland had his life support switched off, some United fans in K Stand sang “95 was not enough”. “Well they sang about Munich” came the reply when challenged. To be honest, there are idiots on both sides as the recent Europa League clash illustrated but it’s difficult for anyone to cling to any moral high ground in the whole “they sang, we sang” Munich, Shankly, Heysel, Hillsborough, Shipman shitpile. For me, when it comes to Hillsborough, I’m a human being first and a Manchester United supporter second. If there is one group of supporters for whom the comment “it could have been us” is more than just a throw away remark it’s us. It really could have been us. That’s not an exaggeration.
As I’ve grown older I’ve mellowed a little and begun to appreciate that Manchester and Liverpool share the same fervent devotion to their red shirted football heroes. One of my best mates is a Liverpool supporter and aside from the football rivalry we share similar tastes in music, books and politics and there are few people I would rather enjoy a beer with. Football rivalry shouldn’t blind us to the important things in life and it certainly shouldn’t prevent us from offering the hand of friendship to those like the Hillsborough families who have fought so courageously or those who, even to this very day, still refuse to buy the Sun newspaper. What a boycott that has been.
Hillsborough was the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Yet for years people who should know better have rolled their eyes and gone on about, oh, well, you know, “football supporters”, “Scousers” and a “tanked up mob”. Anything to dehumanise those caught up in a horrible tragedy. My only small criticism of the Hillsborough families and campaigners is that at times it has felt like they thought it was a case of Merseyside against the rest of the country. But perhaps it’s no wonder that given everything that has happened that something approaching a siege mentality developed and some Liverpudlians were left thinking that the whole country was against them. It wasn’t.
I hope that in a generation’s time that when people discuss the Hillsborough disaster that they will no longer be boring on about ticketless, drunken fans but instead will look back and learn from one of the most inspiring, courageous fights to expose establishment corruption of this or any era. Despite countless setbacks over twenty seven gruelling years they persevered and meticulously dismantled the wall of lies that hid the truth for so many. To the families and everyone involved in the fight for justice you are genuinely an inspiration to us all. And take it from me, even beyond Merseyside, you never walked alone.
Around the time that Fergie fell out with his mates at Coolmore many moons ago someone wrote in one of the United fanzines that there was once a time when Alex Ferguson could have popped round to his house, taken a dump on the front room carpet, wiped his arse on the curtains and he would still have asked him if he fancied a brew. Well, a few years back it’s probably fair to say that I felt much the same way about FC United of Manchester’s General Manager Andy Walsh. Okay so that might have been a bit of an exaggeration but a slice or two of Battenberg cake might have been nice and, to be honest, thinking about it, we could have done with some new curtains at the time. Alas, it’s all mere fanciful conjecture now as Andy recently announced that he will be stepping down at the end of this season after eleven years in charge of the club.
Walsh has worked tirelessly at the helm of a club that has become the largest supporter owned football club in the country and now plays in a ground of its own. In the early days he was our leader, our “El Presidente” and there was even a mercifully short-lived terrace tribute to him to the tune of the Frog Chorus. Some of the more Sunday supplement types even went as far as calling him a “visionary”. We joked about a helipad but trusted him, as one of the leaders of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association’s successful campaign against Murdoch’s takeover bid, as one of the best men for the job.
Looking back, the height of my Walshism was perhaps the morning after the glorious Bonfire Night victory over Rochdale in the FA Cup in 2010 when FC United refused to take part in the BBC’s Football Focus programme in solidarity with members of the National Union of Journalists at the BBC who were striking over attacks on their pensions. It made me proud to be an FC fan that even after perhaps the greatest night in our relatively short history we were showing some good old fashioned off-pitch solidarity, the rebel heart of the football club beating loud and clear. Leave your politics at the turnstile? Bollocks to that. It seemed to epitomise Walsh’s own background as a lifelong trade unionist and former chair of Greater Manchester’s Anti Poll Tax Federation.
I think at that point in November 2010, and FC United historians may wish to correct me here, the vast majority of FC United’s Glazer defying founder members, with a few exceptions, were still on the bus with the destination board indicating that we were bound, with much giddiness, for Ten Acres Lane. Planning permission for our new home in Newton Heath, the very origins of our first love Manchester United Football Club, was secured later that same month. Happy times. But the next five or so years have felt very different with a gradual waning of Andy’s standing in my eyes and those of others.
Away from the club Andy’s profile is perhaps higher than ever. There are few more eloquent or passionate speakers on supporter ownership and issues affecting modern football and he is regularly quoted in the press and interviewed on the radio. Indeed his name is now recognised well beyond Manchester and it would be no surprise if he found a future role at an organisation like Supporters Direct or more generally in the cooperative movement. On occasions I have attended work conferences and sat through drab presentations by assorted “motivational” speakers, usually successful sportsmen or women or business “leaders”, and thought how they pale in comparison to Andy. Many times I have listened to Walsh speak and gone away inspired.
Yet FC United are not where we are simply because of the actions of one person. It has been an extraordinary collective effort to build a football ground in north east Manchester with half of the £6.3 million total cost raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowdfunding by supporters and other admirers of the club’s ethos who were prepared to back something that they passionately believe in. Andy Walsh was, of course, at the forefront of the community shares campaign but arguably it was events on the pitch and FA Cup success in late 2010 that really kick started the take up of community shares after a quiet first couple of months. The club’s profile rocketed after Rochdale and as a result many people were persuaded to invest in the club who may not otherwise have been interested or aware of who FC United were.
A few months after Rochdale on a lovely spring morning in 2011 I saw Andy Walsh on the bus on my way to work. In fact, as I glanced round at my fellow passengers I saw several Andy Walshes. On the back of that morning’s Metro, the right wing comic that serves as reading material for the nation’s commuters, was a full page advert for the Cooperative movement and there beneath a slogan inviting readers to “join the revolution” was a picture of Andy, gazing into the distance, surrounded by a group of FC United supporters in the main stand at Gigg Lane, Bury. At first I felt a sense of pride that here was the football club that I co-owned spearheading a campaign for the wider cooperative movement. But later, as I picked up a discarded paper and looked more closely at the picture I couldn’t help but feel a little unsettled by the image of Andy, at the centre of the picture, standing above those huddled around him. An almost messiah-like figure surrounded by his disciples. Was I the only who found that picture a little disturbing? It seemed a strange visual image to present to the outside world and at odds with our one member one vote set-up.
For a while I ignored those supporters who reckoned that Andy had “too much power”. I ignored the tales of Andy phoning someone minutes after they’d posted something even mildly controversial on the club’s internet discussion forum. I ignored the comment of someone close to him that he would be willing to consider shirt sponsorship as a means of generating revenue for the club. And I even ignored the accusations of “jobs for the boys” as longstanding mates were appointed to paid positions within the club. How naive I was.
Some supporters have been in tears and others have declared themselves “mortified” at Walsh’s impending departure such is the loyalty that he inspires. Many have paid tribute by remarking that FC United wouldn’t be where we are today without Walshy. Well, of course, anyone who has been the head of any organisation since its birth and for more than a decade is bound to have shaped that organisation. It almost goes without saying. I think that what they’re trying to say is that perhaps we wouldn’t be the biggest supporter owned club in the country playing in National League North in front of crowds of more than three thousand in our own ground if it wasn’t for Andy Walsh. But surely the beauty of FC United has been that this has been a magnificent collective action?
As Daniel Taylor pointed out in his excellent piece in last week’s Guardian Walsh has become an increasingly divisive figure with many founder members having left the club at various points over the last five years citing the increasingly dictatorial manner in which the club is run as a major reason for their departure. Over the last twelve months the club has struggled financially to adjust to life in our own ground and made a series of monumental blunders that have seriously dented its ability to raise further funding from its co-owners but there has been not one word of apology from the General Manager for any mistakes that have been made. In fact, the word “sorry” appears to have vanished from his vocabulary. To some he now personifies a football club that handles criticism, no matter how politely or thoughtfully expressed, with all the grace of a stroppy teenager. The club has appeared to be run Andy’s way or no way as a largely ineffectual Board has struggled to exert any authority. So much for supporter-owned democracy.
I remember being shocked that only around 500 members voted at the club’s Annual General Meeting in 2006, a turnout of about 24% of our adult membership at the time. I’d signed up for democratic socialist football and expected us all to be champing at the bit to exercise our newly found democratic rights. But little did we know at the time that this would represent something of a golden age for democracy at FC United. For the first few seasons I not only voted but also, as something of a saddo, printed out the Board meeting minutes at work and took them home to read. It was interesting back then to get a glimpse into the day to day workings of a football club, our football club. How many other football fans around the country were privy to this sort of information about their club? Much of it was mundane, of course, but some of it sticks in the memory like the Board discussing a complaint from Bury about damage to a number of seats in the Manchester Road End following the FA Vase match against Quorn. To be honest, I’m surprised there wasn’t significant structural damage to the MRE such was the delirium after what we thought was a late winner by the nine men of FC.
But over time I read the Board papers a lot less frequently and gradually fell out of the habit of voting as I kept forgetting to print off the papers. And it seems like I wasn’t the only one as by 2011 we were unable to summon up more than 300 members to vote at the AGM which represented less than 13% of our adult membership. The same was true in 2012 but the independent review of the club’s governance that year remarked that “the Board is in agreement that the club’s strength and character is determined by its adherence to democratic principles” and added that “co-owners must accept responsibility through participation, standing for elections, volunteering for sub-committees and exercising their right to vote”.
Whilst we keep talking a good game about democracy the reality is something very different. In the recent members’ survey there was overwhelming support (94%) for our club’s structure as a one member one vote Community Benefit Society. Indeed 35% said that “one member one vote” was the club’s most important founding principle and nearly a quarter of members said that they became a member to participate in the running of the club. But at the last AGM in November 2015 barely 10% of adult members could be bothered to vote. In fact since 2012 the AGM minutes no longer include the actual number of members who voted in the Board elections and for resolutions, it’s almost as if we’re too embarrassed to share the data. Meanwhile an ex-Board member I spoke to recently admitted to a sense of relief that they are no longer on the Board (we’re hardly encouraging participation are we?). And recruitment to sub-committees has often been on a nod and a wink. Whither the club’s strength and character and democracy?
The mess that we find ourselves in with the increasingly tense “them and us” relationship between the Board and co-owners is undoubtedly part of Walsh’s legacy. But it’s also the fault of all of us that pay our membership fee each year. When was the last time you voted? Do you read the minutes of Board meetings and other papers? How much scrutiny do you really put the Board of FC United under? For the vast majority of us the answer to the last question is probably “very little”. And, to be honest, if that’s the case then it’s perhaps no surprise if the Board becomes increasingly complacent and a gaping “democratic deficit” opens up. It’s up to all of us to make this supporter-owned democracy thing work, we can’t simply leave it to the Board and General Manager. Yes, there will perhaps always be a proportion of FC’s membership who may not wish to actively participate in the running of the club (some of those who joined solely to invest in community shares for instance) but only one in ten of us bothering to vote at an AGM? Come on, let’s be honest, however we try to dress that up, it’s a serious embarrassment. It doesn’t take that long to read a set of Board minutes or AGM notes and resolutions – it’s our responsibility to do it.
But it is true that the General Manager and Board could have done more, much more, to address the “democratic deficit”. How about being able to pick up meeting papers and being allowed to vote at home matches? A ballot box on the membership stall perhaps? Or given that we’re now in the twenty first century what about online voting? Last autumn’s members’ survey was done online and despite being the size of a novella over 1,600 members at least started to reply. This is more than four times the number of voters at the last AGM and proof that online voting has the potential to boost participation in elections significantly. Or what about broadcasting AGMs and other meetings on the club’s television or radio channels? Or how about all Board members, not just a few, having the decency to respond to serious questions raised by co-owners on the club’s own internet discussion forum, something which was designed to improve accountability? And if we’re talking about the Board properly representing our fan base how about a space or two for one of our younger members? Down the years the average age of pretty much all our Boards must have been forty summat. But suggestions like this have often been waved away without any proper explanation. Whilst the focus was on raising the £6.3 million to get us into Broadhurst Park democracy undoubtedly took a back seat. “Never mind the ballots here’s the six point three million” became our rather uninspiring punk anthem.
Ultimately, when it comes to Walsh’s stepping down, I’m left feeling a bit like when someone’s leaving card comes round at work and you’re not sure what to write as you used to think they were sound but recently you suspect that they might be the one nicking your milk from the fridge and there was that time when they were a right dick at the Christmas party. Thanks Andy for your determination, drive and all the sheer bloody hard work you’ve put into this club and all those times when you’ve inspired us to perhaps give a little more to get us to Broadhurst Park. Good luck with whatever you decide to do next. But leadership’s not all about talking and directing. Sometimes you have to listen as well, particularly when supporters have genuine concerns about the running of the club, and also display a humbler side and acknowledge when mistakes have been made and apologise. And occasionally you have to have the grace to say thank you to people who you may have fallen out with but who have grafted hard for this football club too.
In those respects you have failed woefully and in doing so have almost brought the club to its knees. Because of that I’m very pleased that you are stepping down. At least the club can now move on. We as co-owners need to reclaim and restore our football club to ensure that it rests on strong democratic foundations and rediscovers its defiantly Mancunian rebel heart. I suspect we’ll need more than a four week e-mithering, Twitter-bothering crowd funding campaign to sort this one out.