Mind the gap
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.