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Stop Mad Cow Disease

On Saturday 4th February FC United of Manchester will host fellow supporter owned football club SV Austria Salzburg in an international friendly match at Broadhurst Park. Below is a slightly longer version of a piece that I wrote for the FC United matchday programme that takes a look at the Austrian club’s history and some of the similarities between the two clubs.

images-73In early October 2005, with FC United supporters still buzzing off the novelty of owning our own football club and looking forward to a North West Counties League Division Two clash with Daisy Hill at Gigg Lane, nearly eight hundred miles across Europe another group of football supporters were in the process of forming their own club following a takeover by an unsavoury businessman. The fans in question were those of Sportverein Austria Salzburg who on 7th October 2005 successfully registered the club’s original name and emblem with the Austrian football authorities.

Following the takeover of their club by the Red Bull energy drink brand earlier in 2005 it was apparent to a section of SV Austria Salzburg supporters that, as with a post-Glazer takeover Manchester United, following their beloved football club would no longer be the same. To Red B*** (supporters of SV Austria Salzburg refuse to acknowledge the energy drink brand referring to them as Red B*** instead) they represented merely another asset in their expanding sporting portfolio which already included a high profile presence in the big money world of Formula One motor racing. But to some of Austria Salzburg’s support, however, it represented the theft of the club’s soul as Red B*** immediately announced that they would be changing the club’s name to FC Red B*** Salzburg, altering the club’s badge to incorporate the winged Red B*** logo, changing the club’s colours from violet and white to red and white, swapping the fans’ popular end, the Curva Sud, the heart and soul of the club’s vocal support and threatening to ban anyone who had the temerity to protest about any of this.

The change in the club’s colours meant little to Red B***’s Austrian owner Dietrich Mateschitz who hit back at critics by remarking that “the Red B*** can’t be violet, or else we couldn’t call it Red B***”. Astonishingly Mateschitz even tried to erase the club’s proud seventy two year history by changing the club crest so that it appeared that the club was formed in 2005 rather than 1933 declaring that “this is a new club with no history”.

unknownDespite all this some supporters welcomed the takeover and the promise of financial security for a club that was struggling both on and off the pitch. Surely a company that employed Franz Beckenbauer as its football advisor could only be good for the club? The original SV Austria Salzburg had, for most of their seventy two years, lived in the shadow of the more successful teams from Vienna and Graz and it wasn’t until the 1993-94 season that they won their first Austrian Bundesliga title and subsequently became the first Austrian team to enter the Champions League. Indeed, just as many Reds rate the Manchester United double winning side of 1994 as the finest football team that they’ve seen, so the mid-nineties also marked something of a golden age for SV Austria Salzburg as they won three league titles and also made it to the final of the UEFA Cup in 1994 where they lost narrowly over two legs to Inter Milan. By 2005, however, the club was back in the doldrums.

As the summer of 2005 unfolded a group of supporters known as the Initiative Violet-Weiss organised demonstrations and petitions in protest at the takeover and even entered into talks with the new owners but were ultimately unsuccessful in managing to preserve any of the club’s seventy two year old traditions. A derisory “final” offer from Red B*** included allowing the goalkeeper to wear violet socks! Some members of the Violet-Weiss were even refused access to a pre-season friendly with Hadjuk Split merely for wearing the club’s real colours of violet and white and when further protests took place at a league match with SV Mattersburg at the beginning of the 2005-06 season and opposition fans joined in by unfurling a banner that proclaimed “Stop Mad Cow Disease” it was quickly removed by security staff. Pillaging a football club’s traditions and history in favour of a tacky corporate logo? Oh, go on then. Pithy comments on banners voicing protest at this theft? Nah, sorry mate, you’ll have to take that down. As supporters of a club born from protest we know that feeling only too well.

images-74So after five months of protests SV Austria Salzburg rose from the ashes in October 2005, resurrected by supporters who refused to support the rebranded club, and entered the seventh tier of Austrian football for the 2006-07 season. This latest addition to the supporter ownership movement didn’t pass unnoticed in Manchester where FC United’s programme for the match with Castleton Gabriels in December 2005 featured an article on the efforts of the Violet-Weiss to form their own club. Across Europe there were similar expressions of admiration. And thus a seven storey love song began, or perhaps in the birthplace of Mozart that should be a seven storey piano sonata, that saw them, like us, enjoy considerable success in their early years as four successive promotions saw them commence the 2010-11 season in the Regionalliga West at the third tier of Austrian football. Playing at a small stadium close to the city’s airport the Violetten were roared on each week by a noisy, passionate and colourful following of around 1,300.

A further promotion in 2015 took them to the second division of the Austrian Bundesliga and saw them re-enter the world of professional football, a place they felt they belonged. But faced with much larger playing costs simply to compete at this higher level and the need to upgrade their ground to meet the requirements of this league the financial challenges proved too much and they ended the season in substantial debt and relegated back to the Regionalliga West. They currently sit in 12th place in that division but like FC are nervously eyeing the bottom rather than the top of the table as they are only six points above the relegation zone.

The club may have financial problems but, like FC United, their supporters remain determined not to succumb to the commercialisation of the modern game and so launched a crowd funding campaign in the autumn of 2016 called “tradition hat zukunft” (“tradition has a future”) to raise funds for the club.

Last January FC Union Berlin invited Austria Salzburg for a friendly match, a 5pm kick off on a Saturday afternoon, that attracted ten thousand supporters. Recognising the financial plight of the Austrians the home side, in a wonderful display of solidarity, agreed to donate all proceeds from the match to their opponents.

unknown-67A year on, FC United will also play host to the violet and whites in a friendly match on Saturday 4th February that will also kick-off at 5pm and will aim to raise funds for both clubs with all matchday revenue being shared. It’s clear already that the match has generated considerable interest amongst the Violetten (they’ve already sold more than two hundred tickets for the match) particularly as they are without football at this time of year with the “winter pause” in progress and no league match until mid-March. Speaking of the friendly David Rettenbacher, an SV Austria Salzburg supporter for nearly thirty years, said that a friendly between the two clubs “has been in our minds for a long time. We are really happy that this is happening. We feel honoured and are really looking forward to the game and a weekend characterised by real sportsmanship, authentic football and love for the game”. David added that he’s tried to make it to three FC United matches over the last ten years but each time the game has been postponed. “I hope this isn’t an omen” he joked.

Hopefully as many FC supporters as possible will get down to Broadhurst Park for what promises to be a cracking weekend, complete with a beer festival and another matchday Course You Can Malcolm event, and to show support not only for this club of ours but for another supporter owned club nearly a dozen years into their existence who have shown that fans can successfully build their own football club and bring some enjoyment back to the game. Another club, just like ours, that continues to swim against the tide of rampant commercialisation and is determined to eradicate the mad cow disease that afflicts the likes of the Glazers and Red B*** who view football as a gigantic cash cow to be milked for every last drop. Like FC they recognise too that football is about more than football and that it has a role to play in wider society in promoting social engagement and integration. Come let’s gather together on Saturday 4th February, Mancunian Reds and Salzburger Violet-Weiss, and show that a better football world is possible.

Red Friday

unknown-59Back when the makers of television programmes credited us with having at least half a brain Granada Television’s acclaimed documentary series World in Action investigated some dodgy goings on at Manchester United. It was January 1980, I was ten at the time and, to be honest, hadn’t the foggiest what was going on as the programme sped by in a blur of allegations involving shady business dealings by chairman Louis Edwards, contaminated meat and illegal payments to the parents of young footballers. But by the time the credits rolled at the end it was clear that something pretty serious was wrong, perhaps magnified by the dramatic descending chords of the World in Action theme tune, and for several weeks after I had a sense of dread that sometime soon Manchester United might cease to exist.

Indeed the allegations were serious enough for the Dibble to investigate but, of course, a few weeks later, Louis Edwards had a heart attack and died, the police dropped their charges and my doom laden scenario failed to materialise. Thirty six years on and, ever the doom monger, there have been several occasions this year when I’ve felt similarly uncertain about the future of another set of red shirted heroes that I have more than a passing interest in. One such occasion was a couple of weeks ago.

The statement issued by the board of FC United of Manchester on the last Friday of November outlined in stark terms the perilous financial position of the club barely half way through only the second season in its own ground. “Protest club may apply for overdraft” guffawed the headline to a mischievous piece on the BBC Sport website. Ironic perhaps that this news should emerge amidst the commercial frenzy of Black Friday given that this is traditionally the day that shops in the United States tend to have earned enough to cover their costs for the year and begin to move into the black as people emerge from their homes following the Thanksgiving holiday to buy more stuff. Black Friday? Red Friday more like.

It’s clear from the statement that the club needs to significantly raise its game in generating additional income during the remainder of this season if it is to meet loan repayments due next year and also fund the remaining works needed to complete the ground. Although the board statement stopped short of naming and shaming it’s not difficult peering between the lines to identify where the source of the current mess lies. It highlighted under-performing non-match day revenue, an “unrealistic” business plan, a staffing structure that was simply “not fit for purpose” and a lack of basic financial controls, HR processes and contracts for just about anything; mismanagement and incompetence on a scale that very nearly drove the club into oblivion. In addition the club had to function without a Chief Executive or Club Secretary for a significant chunk of 2016.

At the risk of raking over old turf, if we are to collectively move on, we need to properly understand how we have arrived at this position in the first place and to learn from our mistakes and ensure that they do not happen again. Perhaps Exhibit A in this process of disaster awareness ought to be the work of fiction that was the five year business plan written in February 2014 that forecasted the club’s likely income and expenditure in its first few seasons at Broadhurst Park.

unknown-60The business plan spoke of the, ahem, “exciting challenges” ahead and forecast a healthy profit in our first season at Broadhurst Park sufficient to set aside funds to pay out community shares in future years and also to establish an asset replacement fund. All very sensible it would seem. But to do this we needed to generate income from our new function room of a whopping £209k. The truth is of course that we didn’t get anywhere near this target in our first year at Broadhurst Park and without proper promotion of this new facility we were never going to (until relatively recently we didn’t even have something as basic as a marketing brochure to share with potential users of the room). It doesn’t take much to realise that it was absolute pie in the sky stuff and the idea that this marked a prudent course of action frankly laughable. Indeed the new Chief Executive Damian Chadwick described the income plan for the function room as “fantasy” at the recent AGM. In short, it was a plan built on a set of assumptions that were, at best, ridiculously over-optimistic and, at worst, grossly negligent.

There are other holes in that business plan but the function room income was the biggest one. It was the income stream on which the credibility of the business plan ultimately rested – the big unknown (we hadn’t had a function room to operate before of course) and the difference between the club making a loss or generating sufficient income to prudently set money aside to meet future loan commitments. It’s difficult to believe that this time last year we employed someone with the words “business” and “development” in their job title and paid a so-called expert fund raiser yet we were unable to construct a business plan with more credibility than an A Level Business Studies project.

Okay so it’s easy to say all this with the benefit of hindsight but why, if producing a realistic business plan was something that we were struggling with (and that certainly appears to have been the case), did we not feel able to call on the expertise of a few of our more than three thousand members to lend a hand? After all, this is what we’re meant to be about isn’t it – a collective effort, rather than the head honcho plus a few of his mates and assorted bluffers? It’s not merely a cliché to say that our membership base, with its expertise and knowledge of all sorts of issues and tasks is our greatest asset as a club, we’ve proved it time and time again. Perhaps we could have sought the advice of a member or supporter with experience of managing a football facility for a living? Someone like, say, Damian Chadwick, the then Venue Controller at Bolton Wanderers, who apparently contacted the club to offer assistance but was ignored as were others. It smacks of an approach to a complex task that was both arrogant and blinkered and very nearly put us out of business even with the windfall from a televised FA Cup first round tie with Chesterfield.

Or was it simply that this was yet another example of us winging it without a proper plan in place? If so, given the sacrifices that so many of us have made over the last eleven years pouring hard earned cash (that we sometimes struggled to afford but we did it because it was something that we passionately believed in) into the Development Fund, community shares, crowdfunding, one-off donations not to mention hours of volunteering it represented frankly scandalous treatment of a supporter base that had collectively given their all to get the ground built. Not to mention the grant and loan funding pumped in by Manchester City Council when council services were (and still are) being cut right, left and centre.

images-70Moving into a ground of our own was meant to mark a step change in how the club’s finances were managed with more reliance placed on external sources of funding be it income from sponsorship or hiring out the ground’s various facilities. A “game changer” as some stuffed shirt on The Apprentice would no doubt point out to us. But here we are again with us supporters being asked to dig deep and contribute to the Development Fund to both meet our loan commitments at the end of this financial year and complete an unfinished ground whilst the new Chief Executive and the board and staff try to get the club to stand on its own two feet as a business. It won’t be easy. But there are more than three thousand of us and we have already seen some encouraging signs in the last few weeks including manager Karl Marginson donating his fee from appearing as a pundit at the recent televised FA Cup tie between Curzon Ashton and AFC Wimbledon. A wonderful gesture from a man who instinctively gets what the club is about.

Despite its grim message, the board deserve great credit for issuing this statement alerting us to the financial mess that we are in. It would be nice to think that perhaps one or two of the previous board who oversaw this gross mismanagement could find it in themselves to hold their hands up and perhaps issue an apology to the club’s members. In the circumstances it would be the decent, honourable thing to do. But if the typically self-important Q&A session (big on bitterness but low on humility) given by a former longstanding board member at a supporters’ branch meeting in September was anything to go by then we probably shouldn’t be holding our breath. Similarly with the snide, unsubstantiated attack on a current board member by the club’s former General Manager at the recent AGM.

Unknown-45Any remaining sense of respect that I may have had for Andy Walsh (and admittedly that wasn’t much) evaporated at that meeting. He appears to have no sense of any responsibility for the mess that the club finds itself in and, as such, I’m not sure what he has left to offer the club any more beyond self-justification and cheap point scoring. For FC United to truly move on from the strife of the last eighteen months and to repair some of the rifts that have developed amongst our support Walsh (and others) must surely apologise or leave us to sort the mess out.

Glance around at the financial state of many clubs in lower league and non-league football and it is clear that FC United are far from alone in experiencing turmoil off the pitch. Falling crowds? Board resignations? Declining revenue streams? Well, that’s also been the tale of 2016 for our FA Cup first round opponents from last season Chesterfield and worsened considerably by the resignation of the club’s largest investor at their AGM a few weeks ago leaving the club uncertain as to its future with their CEO, ex-United goalkeeper, Chris Turner confirming last week that a £500k shortfall in the club’s finances needs to be plugged urgently in order to prevent the club from going into administration. Like many lower league and non-league club it has been propped up by loans from directors. At FC, of course, we have no such wealthy investors prepared to flash their cash in times of need. But whilst Chesterfield fans wait patiently for further news, uncertain as to the future of their 150 year old football club, at least at FC United the fate of the club is in our own hands. Less than thirty Chesterfield supporters attended a recent meeting to consider a potential supporter-led bid for the club. Sometimes, amidst the firefighting, it’s easy to forget the rare participatory fervour of our own supporters.

In times of strife we all look for turning points, a six-two-at-Arsenal-in-1990 moment when the future begins to take on a brighter hue. The reconvened general meeting back in May may well come to be seen as a watershed moment in FC United’s history as around four hundred members gathered on a sunny Sunday in Prestwich. We could easily have hit the canvas that day and not got back up but instead we summoned the collective spirit of that raucous Saturday afternoon against Quorn many moons ago and stepped up. The board members subsequently elected at the end of June deserve our thanks. Thanks for having the balls to stand up and be counted in the club’s darkest hour and thanks too for grafting to keep the club afloat over the last five months, for much of this time without key members of staff in place to take care of day to day issues.

images-56One board member reckons that he has spent around 20% of his time on FC United duties since being elected. Twenty bloody percent. These people have jobs to do, families to care for etc. That represents an extraordinary commitment that has cost the club not one penny. And yet there are still some who gripe about there being no discernible changes in the club’s position since the summer. The difference between having a football club to support and not having one is not simply colossal it’s mathematically infinite, off the scale. It’s mind boggling that 26% of those who voted at the recent AGM actually voted against the motion that “the club’s off-field activities are being run more effectively now than they were 12 months ago” .

Finally, eighteen months on from moving into Broadhurst Park it looks like the club is beginning to get to grips with managing not only a football team but a multi-million pound facility. We’ve now got a board and Chief Executive who have a refreshingly open and honest approach to managing the club, who don’t feel that they necessarily have all the answers and are prepared to listen to and involve the club’s members in decision making and act accordingly. The votes at the recent AGM on whether to take up a free subscription to BT Sport or whether to seek sponsorship from gambling firms are examples of that. They have and will continue to make mistakes, they’re only human and no other supporter-owned football club has been down this road before but at least they are prepared to acknowledge when mistakes have been made and learn from them.

There’s a huge amount of work to be done but the signs are encouraging with new sponsors coming on board, use of the function room picking up and on Christmas Day the ground will be opened for Manchester’s homeless to get a shower, a decent breakfast and to enjoy some of the comforts and joys of the festive season that most of us take for granted. It’s yet another example of the club reaching out to its local community in a way that few others do. It’s been a dramatic year but the stage is now hopefully set for FC United to move on – thankfully the final credits on our proud story aren’t about to roll just yet. Onwards.

Dragging us down (again)

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“Ninety five was not enough” sang a section of United fans in K Stand at a match in the spring of ’93. I can’t recall precisely which match it was but it was around the time that a young Liverpool supporter, Tony Bland, finally lost his life. The poor lad had been in a coma for nearly four years after sustaining irreparable brain damage at the Hillsborough disaster and as his life-prolonging treatment was withdrawn he became the ninety sixth and final victim of the disaster. At twenty three years of age he was a year younger than me; yet another young life tragically cut off in its prime simply as the result of attending a football match.

Being an overly sensitive soul I wrote a piece for the United We Stand fanzine that condemned the chanting and wondered why, with all the songs in the United songbook, we should choose to sing something so heartless. United fans were better than that weren’t we? The piece was entitled Dragging Us Down, a rather unimaginative nod to the Inspiral Carpets’ single of around that time, Dragging Me Down, taken from their ridiculously underrated Revenge of the Goldfish album. A few United fans responded in the next issue with one memorable one urging me to “fuck off and watch netball” if I wasn’t prepared to put up with songs like that. It was apparently all part of the whole United-Liverpool rivalry; they sing about Munich, we sing about Hillsborough, they sing about Shipman. And so it goes on and on. I clearly needed to man up.

Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century and I’m putting pen to paper, well, finger to keyboard, grumbling about football songs once more following FC United’s trip to Shropshire earlier this month to take on AFC Telford United. This time the feeling isn’t one of anger, it’s more of shame to be honest. As the game petered out with us trailing to a smartly taken second half goal a section of our support in the Frank Nagington Stand decided to comment on our opponents current financial difficulties with a few choruses of “Telford’s going bust” to the tune of the done-to-death Euro ’96 anthem “football’s coming home”. On the football phone-in scale of near-permanent football outrage it probably barely merits a mention but set in the context of the last year or so of FC United’s existence it feels rather like lobbing a few stones at a neighbour’s shed from the safety of your own greenhouse. Because, let’s face it, we’ve hardly covered ourselves in glory when it comes to managing our own finances have we? We are in something of a financial pickle of our own. And, anyway, whatever happened to our “making friends not millionaires” sense of solidarity that we used to have with fellow supporter-owned clubs? I know it hardly ranks with songs about people dying but aren’t we meant to better than this?

Buried in the thousands of words worth of written updates provided by FC United board members for September’s board meeting is a comment from one board member, not given to hyperbole, that brings home the seriousness of the mess left behind by the mismanagement of the previous board. Referring to the situation that the new board inherited this summer it notes that “it would be difficult to imagine a more challenging starting position and I believe many organisations would simply have folded in similar circumstances, particularly in the light of the accompanying financial challenges”. Four months on and the new board have done much to address these problems but the financial position of the club remains a major concern. Already the new Chief Executive, due to start in the next few weeks, has spoken of it likely being the end of the 2017-18 season before the club regains a stable financial footing.

unknown-57Of course there’s nothing new in football clubs experiencing financial difficulties and ultimately folding or going bust. It happened to Telford United in 2004 but they were resurrected in the summer of that year by the Telford United Supporters’ Trust who became the club’s owners and started over again as AFC Telford United. As recently as the 2014-15 season they were only one promotion away from the football league and their well appointed six thousand capacity ground, the New Bucks Head, a few miles west of Telford in Wellington has the feel of a place that perhaps expected to be hosting football at a higher level than this by now.

Yet despite excellent facilities and tremendous support the club is beset by financial problems as was starkly laid out in a recent statement by the club’s board that questioned whether supporter ownership was, in fact, the right model to enable the club to compete effectively at this level of football. They expressed a desire to seek external investment instead; supporter ownership portrayed as something of a handicap that prevents them from competing with the likes of Salford City, Kidderminster Harriers and table topping AFC Fylde who only a couple of weeks before had splashed out a club record transfer fee, “a five figure sum”, on a highly rated player from Alfreton Town. In contrast, the board of Telford reckoned that their own club required a five figure sum, £50,000 to be precise, simply to get them through the next two months and launched a campaign, called “Back the Bucks”, to secure the future of the club.

So it was for this reason that, with both clubs already out of the FA Cup, the match against FC United was brought forward from February to October and it worked to some degree as the attendance of 1,706, including around four hundred away supporters, was their largest of the season so far, and bucket collections before and during the match raised around two and a half thousand pounds, a tremendous sum. On a day when supporters of Charlton Athletic and Coventry City marched together and briefly stopped their match by chucking hundreds of plastic pigs onto the pitch in protest at despised owners bleeding their clubs dry, it was a pity that some FC United supporters felt unable to show some comradely solidarity with a fellow supporter-owned club in difficulties.

But the “Telford’s going bust” song was merely one example of the idiocy on display that day. During the first half the same fans responded to a Telford fan banging a drum with a song about banging women. Of course, it can be brushed off by some as mere match day “banter” but, again, aren’t we meant to be better than this? Contrast it, for instance, with the experience of the two women from the Hummingbird Project who came to speak at the Course You Can Malcolm night in July and who, whilst thanking the club for its support, remarked on how much they had enjoyed the evening and how comfortable they had felt in a predominantly male environment. This is a football club that celebrates the role of women in football, the sort of FC United I want to be part of. Meanwhile most of the idiots chanting “Telford’s going bust” probably missed the tannoy announcement at half time thanking FC United fans for their contribution to the bucket collections as they were apparently in the concourse beneath the stand singing songs about the Pope and the IRA. Words fail me on that one.

unknown-58I’d like to say that the incidents at Telford were merely isolated occurrences but, let’s be honest, for the last year or so, there has been an accumulation of unpleasant incidents, particularly at away matches, often involving intimidation and abuse of fellow FC supporters and often characterised by bigotry, misogyny and fuckwittery that should have no place at this football club. Yes, taken as individual incidents they can be laughed off as banter, drunken frolics or as the actions of a tiny minority but when they happen time and time again over a longer period then it’s apparent that they are symptomatic of a wider malaise that must be addressed. The old board, to a large extent, chose to ignore the problem and let it fester. Maybe it’s partly a consequence, that we should have anticipated, of our move to an area of Manchester where 31 percent voted for Ukip in the 2015 local council elections (compared to 7% across the city as a whole)? Either way, the new board with their commitment to reasserting the principles on which the club was founded must tackle the problem before it’s too late.

As Telford debate their future as a supporter owned club there is much to look forward to at FC United with a new Chief Executive about to join and the club reasserting its founding principles under a progressive new board. But there is a considerable amount of work to be done too. Clearly we’re a very different supporter-owned beast to AFC Telford United but the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the National League North means that consolidating our position in this division for a few seasons would represent a notable achievement. Off the pitch the return of a matchday Course You Can Malcolm earlier in the month, at the invitation of the board, was a very welcome antidote to the increasing small mindedness of some of our supporters. But when decent Reds are talking about not attending matches for fear of abuse and intimidation then enough is enough.

This coming Saturday is People United Day the club’s annual celebration of the multicultural diversity of the local community and the wider Manchester area that reinforces our proud and principled commitment to develop strong links with that community and to discriminate against none. It’s one of the most important dates in the FC United calendar and one that offers a timely reminder that discrimination of any form will not be tolerated at the club as people from all walks of life should be able to enjoy football without fear of intimidation or abuse. This isn’t mere lip service to a nice idea, it’s woven into the very fabric of this enlightened working class football club; our principles are not to be sacrificed for an extra few quid. And we won’t be dragged into the gutter.

Now, hang on a minute, what channel did you say the netball’s on……..?

Full steam ahead for FC United

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For those who may have missed it elsewhere this is a piece that I wrote for Football Focus magazine on the recent fortunes of FC United of Manchester. It appears in the latest edition of the magazine.

Alighting the tram at the stop for Newton Heath and Moston, a couple of miles north east of Manchester city centre, one of the first sights that greet you is a sign for the nearby Newton Heath Train Maintenance Depot. It’s a fitting nod to the history of the football club that now resides just up the road at Broadhurst Park. FC United of Manchester, formed in 2005 by Manchester United supporters disillusioned with the rapacious greed of the modern game, traces a proud bloodline back to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway workers who in 1878 formed their own football club Newton Heath FC that, of course, subsequently became Manchester United.

FC United has been at the forefront of the supporter ownership movement for more than a decade and is now the largest supporter-owned football club in the country by number of members. With the club’s democratic one member, one vote structure each member gets an opportunity to have their say on how the club is run and ensure that it remains true to its founding principles. It is the club’s members who set admission prices and elect the board.

Inspired by the likes of AFC Wimbledon and imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness FC United set out in the North West Counties Football League ten divisions below and a world away from the Premier League gravy train. Eleven years and four promotions later the club is beginning its second season in National League North, at the sixth tier of English football and finally after a nomadic decade playing football in a ground of its own and in its home city.

Broadhurst Park, with its capacity of 4,400 and facilities that are the envy of many, is the first new football ground in the UK to be built and funded by a supporter-owned football club; with more than half of the total cost of £6.3 million raised through donations, community shares, loan stock and crowd funding it is the culmination of an extraordinary collective effort in a time of austerity.

Maintaining the club’s principled commitment to affordable football whilst competing at a higher level and striving, wherever possible, to avoid “outright commercialism”, is a delicate balancing act. Whilst almost all other clubs at this level and beyond are happy to splash a sponsor’s logo across their shirts and many benefit from the investment of wealthy owners at FC United we are proud to say that we do things differently; the players’ shirts remain refreshingly free of advertising and there are no sugar daddies.

thumbnail_img_3113Yet FC United’s admission prices (£9 for adults, £5 for concessions and £2 for juniors) are the second lowest in the league and, in addition, the club continues with its pioneering “pay what you can afford” season tickets. Last season the club sold more than two thousand season tickets and was the fourth best supported team in the whole of non-league football with crowds of more than three thousand regularly flocking to Broadhurst Park; an incredible level of support, week in week out, at this level of football. And with a mid-table finish in our first season in National League North to those looking on it must appeared to have been a successful season.

But whilst attendances boomed and matchday revenue surged in 2015-16 the club struggled to adjust to life in its own ground. A turbulent twelve months saw the resignation of the club’s longstanding Chief Executive and seven Board members and ended with some fans staging a protest at the final home match calling for greater democracy and transparency at the club. Many members felt that while the club had been so focused on building a new home the decent egalitarian and democratic principles on which the club was founded had been eroded. The 50p increase in the price of the programme at the friendly match against Benfica in May last year, the first match at Broadhurst Park, was widely condemned as overly commercial and led to a significant loss of goodwill amongst many members.

The beauty of supporter ownership is however that, unlike disgruntled supporters at, say, Newcastle United or Charlton Athletic, we can change things and the club’s membership signalled their desire for change during the summer by electing a progressive new board that has already taken steps to heal the rifts that have developed amongst sections of the club’s support and has promised to operate with greater openness and transparency. Once again there is a sense of optimism about the club’s future but there is much work to be done.

The summer has been one of reorganisation at the club with supporters, once again, embracing the DIY punk spirit that got the club off the ground in a matter of weeks in 2005 with many supporters offering their time, skills and experience for tasks ranging from building a perimeter wall at the ground to getting involved in a range of volunteer-led groups overseeing areas like communications, governance and finance. It’s at times like this when we fully appreciate the wealth of expertise, knowledge and talent that we have amongst our members whether it involves running businesses, counting beans or laying bricks.

img_3114One of the challenges the club undoubtedly faces in the next few years is to secure its financial stability by making the most of the wonderful facilities that it now possesses; using the spacious function room to host events for the local community, businesses and other organisations and hiring out the superb 3G all-weather pitches adjacent to the ground. A new Chief Executive will shortly be appointed to oversee the club’s development on and off the pitch. On the pitch, after looking out of our depth for a large part of our first season at this higher level, most supporters would probably settle for a comfortable mid-table position again this season. But arguably it will be even tougher than last season with the likes of Salford City, Darlington, FC Halifax Town and Altrincham joining the division.

Community work is woven into the fabric of the club with its founding manifesto commitment “to develop strong links with the local community”. The club’s community work covers an impressive range of activities from the Big Coat Day collections of warm clothing for homeless people in Manchester and breakfast clubs and summer youth projects for kids to work with young people not in education, employment or training and support for older people particularly those who live alone. Just a few of the reasons why the club won the Northern Premier League’s inaugural Community Club of the Year award in 2014.

More recently the club has begun working with the Sporting Memories Network, recognising the power of people’s memories of sporting events to overcome social isolation, loneliness and depression particularly amongst older people. And FC United were the only organisation in Manchester to participate in a recent charity-run event to distribute cereal to community groups, food banks and local residents to help those who might otherwise not get a decent breakfast. Meanwhile, only a few weeks ago, a theatre production of the FC United story “Conceived in a Curry House”, featuring FC United supporters and local residents, played at the Lowry Theatre and is part of a longstanding relationship between the club and local theatre group Moston Active Drama.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this supporter ownership malarkey is such a new thing. As the film maker 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. No one, not even AFC Wimbledon, has tried to build a football club from scratch whilst being owned and run entirely by its supporters and 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 so far for this young football club. But the passion of the club’s members and collective desire to get the club back on track this summer has been clear for all to see. It’s full steam ahead, once again, for FC United of Manchester.

Urban Rush 2016

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Apologies folks, I don’t normally do this online charity thing but tomorrow (Sunday 2nd October) I’m running in a race to raise a few bob for Shelter, the charity that works to find those who are homeless or in temporary housing a decent home. Unless you wander round with your eyes closed you can’t help but notice the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets of towns and cities across the country. In addition, there are thousands struggling to get by in hostels, B&Bs or kipping down on the floor at a mate’s house. It’s something most of us take for granted, having a place called home to return to at the end of the day; somewhere safe and a foundation on which we build the rest of our lives. But imagine it wasn’t there and that foundation was removed from under us. It could happen to any of us. The government doesn’t give a shit, there are not enough votes in it for them, so unfortunately it falls to charities like Shelter to fill the gap where a caring government should be.

Anyway, to be more specific, tomorrow I’m taking part in (along with more than 500 others) something called Urban Rush 2016 (not to be confused with Ian Rush, the moustachioed former Liverpool centre forward); it’s a 15 mile run across London, from east to west, starting in the Olympic Park and finishing on the banks of the Thames in Putney. It’s an event specifically set up to raise money for Shelter and aims to raise, in total, more than £125,000. My own aim, as part of this collective effort, is to raise at least £225. There’s a link to my fundraising page below which you can click on. As you can see it’s not been very busy so far because I’m utterly hopeless at this fund raising malarkey but if you can spare anything, no matter how small, to help what I think is a decent cause then I would be very grateful. I may even stretch to giving you a nice big hug the next time we meet (but no kissing). Thanks very much.

xx

Urban Rush 2016 Jonathan Allsopp’s fundraising page

The right thing to do

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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”.

Refugees always welcome at FC United

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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.

Refugees always welcome at FC United