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Testing times for FC United

Submitted by on November 6, 2015 – 8:46 pmNo Comment

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This article is from The Guardian and is the first to discuss some negatives around FC United, alongside the successes.

It mentions the ill-advised and poorly-handled Tory MP visit and subsequent photo op with club representatives, as well as the general manager’s decision to hike the price of the Benfica programme (despite production costs being the lowest in the history of the club).

By Richard Foster

The vast majority of non-league clubs would be cock-a-hoop with the concept of receiving an extra £67,000 for having their FA Cup tie televised. The inconvenience of moving the game to a Monday night would be swiftly overcome by the much-needed boost to the club’s coffers, especially if the club in question brought in 2,357 fans for their last FA Cup tie. But FC United of Manchester are not an average club, indeed their rise from their birth in 2005 to the relatively dizzy heights of National League North, the sixth tier of the English League pyramid, is little short of extraordinary.

Having achieved four promotions in the first decade of their existence, they could be pushing at the door of the Football League in the not too distant future. Such success has been well documented and is a testimony to the dedication and hard work of a brave phalanx of people who objected so much to the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazer family that they decided to set up their own club.

This was the most positive and progressive form of protest against the direction that Manchester United were going to be heading under their new owners. It was also a sum of the frustration many supporters had been feeling for years as they became disillusioned by, among many other evils, inflated ticket prices and the generic and inexorable increase of commercial interest above any genuine respect for fans.

One of the early adopters, Andy Davies, lasted all of 45 minutes of the Glazer reign. It dawned on him that he no longer felt part of the club where he had been a season ticket holder for well over 15 years. Davies had renewed his ticket for the first Glazer season but, having walked out at half time, he sold his seat immediately and has never been back. Davies sits on the FC United board and runs their development fund in his spare time from heading up the history department at Liverpool University. His decision to join the club was a product of calm, rational thought.

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There was a real sense that this club was going to be something different and act as a bold, defining statement in countering the excesses of modern football. In 2005 Tony Howard, one of the founder members, described the sense of rejuvenation that fans were enjoying: “Our eyes have been opened to a whole new ball game – one arrogantly overlooked by so many of us. The game that sees people doing everything for love not money. And it is a joy to speak to the likes of Stan at Leek or Billy at Blackpool Mechanics. Genuine people running a genuine game.”

Jim Burke is not a Mancunian but arrived in Chorlton in 2014 via Glasgow and Barcelona. After a lifetime of differing football experiences, he was immediately struck by the gust of fresh air FC United provided, as he highlights in this reflection on his first FC United match in on 26 January 2015. “In the last 10 years I have watched football at Celtic Park, Hampden Park, Camp Nou and Old Trafford, every game a big occasion, 50,000 plus at every match. Each of those games took place against a background of expensive tickets, orchestrated fun, corporate involvement and the clear impression you were there as a ‘consumer of the product’ than supporting your team as a fan. Saturday’s experience was comfortably the best match day I have had in that 10 years and probably a few prior to that.”

FC United’s admirable mantra of “making friends not millionaires” is based on core principles established at the start, such as carrying no shirt sponsorship – a feature which is enshrined in the constitution; endeavouring to make admission prices as affordable as possible; the club remaining a non-profit organisation, whose board will strive “whenever possible” to avoid outright commercialisation. The club is one of the select few in England that is truly owned by the supporters, with each member entitled to a single vote at all club meetings for their annual fee of £12. Such a level of open democracy is a rarity in football.

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But as FC United have shot up the league pyramid over the last decade, and with the prospect of league football tantalisingly close, fans and even the odd board member, have become increasingly concerned about the direction in which the club is heading. For example, in May 2015 a high profile friendly against Portuguese giants Benfica was arranged to celebrate the opening of their brand new 4,400-capacity, £8.5m stadium, Broadhurst Park, but the hackles were raised when the cost of the souvenir programme for the match was pushed up from £2 to £2.50, but more significant than the 25% increase was that this was done without consulting the members.

With combination of healthy finances, a robust infrastructure and a fanbase that many League One clubs envy, FC United are on the cusp of becoming a very attractive brand and that is anathema to many of its advocates.

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There is a sneaking suspicion that the club may be moving away from their original guiding principles and showing the faintest signs of becoming the type of club that they were set up to oppose originally, as Burke explains. “The Tory government minister responsible for social investment, Damian Hinds, visited the stadium, ostensibly to discuss the club’s success in raising funds from community shares and social investment tax relief. The fact that the visit was not publicised [to fans beforehand] and that club officials were pictured with the MP, and the tweeting of the picture by the official club Twitter account, did not sit well with many, myself included. As a friend said, ‘You can’t take their money and then refuse them a brew if they ask to pop round,’ so most appreciated that the club couldn’t refuse to meet with them but being used for what amounted to political propaganda upset many. The timing, only days after the huge anti-austerity march in Manchester didn’t help either.”

Having reached a crossroads in the evolution of the club there are some important issues to be raised and debated. The forthcoming AGM on 26 November may well be pivotal. The recent protest at not only the inconvenience to fans of moving the FA Cup match against Chesterfield to Monday night but also that the date switch was against the ethos of the club, has reassured some that there is still a soul within the club.

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FC United’s official statement confirmed the bristling sense of indignation over the switching of the game to Monday: “While recognising that TV is important to football, the club also has a stated pledge to seek to change football for the benefit of supporters, without whom the game would not exist. Having considered the club’s stated views on this issue as expressed democratically by members, the board has refused to agree with the move our FA Cup first round game.” When the FA insisted that the game had to be moved, FC United said they were “deeply disappointed by the FA’s stance and have made them aware of this.”

So in the continual battle against the forces of evil, that many football fans have engaged in over the last decade, there appears to be strong evidence that FC United are still fighting the good fight. Ironically, for the first time in its albeit brief history, they are suffering a stuttering start to the current season – losing nine of their first 14 league matches, including the last six on the trot. The dreaded R-word is coming into view and Karl Marginson, the very same manager they had when they started in 2005, is under pressure to turn round their fortunes. The decision as to how far the club will go to ensure success on the pitch, for example by breaking the wage structure, is almost nigh.

Achieving the correct balance between maintaining principles and continuing the upward trajectory up the leagues is going to have to be addressed soon. The only nagging question that remains is how long will those key original tenets continue and are there changes afoot that will undermine their “proud history of campaigning for change on issues affecting the game and its supporters”.

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