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FC United of Manchester: how the togetherness turned into disharmony

Submitted by on March 31, 2016 – 11:46 am2 Comments

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By Danny Taylor in The Guardian:

It has been 11 years since a breakaway group of Manchester United supporters, weary of the commercialism and gluttony of the modern-day sport, and bitterly opposed to Malcolm Glazer’s takeover, set up their own club, and all those people who viewed them with cold, suspicious eyes, from Sir Alex Ferguson down, probably realise now that movement is here to stay.

Ferguson described FC United of Manchester as “sad” and stomped out of a press conference when he was asked if he had any words about the team’s first promotion under the management of Karl Marginson, a fruit-and-vegetable delivery man. Ferguson, rising from his seat, had four: “Not interested, not interested.”

Alan Gowling, a pundit on BBC Radio Manchester and former United forward, predicted the new club would not last until Christmas, a quote that is still celebrated on supporters’ T-shirts, and the idea of leaving one United for another will always divide opinion. You might recall the scene in Ken Loach’s film Looking for Eric when a supporter of each team is drinking in a pub and they become embroiled in a beery row about the rights and wrongs. “You can change your wife, your politics and your religion, but never your football team,” the United fan says. It is followed by a killer line from the bloke in the non-sponsored FC shirt. “They left me,” he says.

Those arguments will probably continue until the year dot but they are used to it by now at Broadhurst Park, the £6.3m stadium that opened last May with the most vibrant atmosphere outside the four professional leagues and an old-school sense of belonging. “Pies not Prawns” read one banner in the early days. It felt real, exciting, progressive – united, in the true sense of the word, and very different to the Old Trafford culture of noodle partners, global tie-ups, and a badge with the words “football club” lopped off.

Yet this season has been a strange one for FC. They are 12th in the National League North, having climbed to the sixth tier of the football pyramid, and attracted a crowd of 4,150 for last Saturday’s game against Chorley. There were 10 matches in League One and League Two watched by fewer people over the Easter weekend and when FC have that kind of pulling power it is tempting to think Manchester will eventually have a third representative among the 92 professional clubs.

And yet, behind the scenes, a club built on togetherness and shared principles has been undermined by the kind of infighting that could never once have seemed imaginable. The general manager, Andy Walsh, announced last week he will stand down at the end of the season, but that is only part of a story featuring legal action, resignations, protests, gagging orders and the overall feeling that FC are locked in an identity crisis.

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The Guardian has seen correspondence from Tim Worrall, one board member, where he sums up the seriousness of it all. “The current divisions and rifts within the club represent a real business risk and need addressing urgently,” he says.

For Walsh, it is a galling way to end his time in charge. He has been an ambassador, spokesman and figurehead since the early days but, equally, there is no doubt it is ending bitterly. One former board member quit the club a couple of weeks ago in protest about the way it is being run. A current board member is considering his position, disillusioned by the direction in which the club has been heading, and the split has led to an acrimonious dispute with John-Paul O’Neill, the man credited with setting up the club in 2005. O’Neill has persistently tried to tackle the board about what he sees as the abandonment of the club’s principles and has brought in lawyers because of alleged defamation.

Others are challenging the position of Andy Walker, an ally of Walsh’s, who goes by the title of fundraiser and communications officer and has been described by Jonathan Kendal, formerly the chairman of the finance committee, as “greatly divisive”. A chant of “Walker out” was heard at the Chorley game and Kendal has emailed Worrall asking for an “urgent review” before a general meeting on 24 April. “The current divisions are extremely serious. It is a business risk for the club as a whole if the board do not examine the present divisive issues.”

All of this is happening at the same time as an internet poll shows 84% of supporters saying they have no confidence in the board appointing the right person as Walsh’s successor. For a club that always prided itself on being such a tight network, there is a level of discord behind the scenes that could never previously have been imagined and it has filtered down to all levels. The programme editor, Tony Howard, an FC stalwart, resigned because of his frustrations with the board last June. Others have stayed away as a protest, or are threatening to. “There is a fundamental deficit in democracy, transparency and accountability between the club and its members,” O’Neill says. “After battling to expose it for months I’m no longer angry about it, just profoundly sad.”

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It is a long, complex story, and not an easy subject to tackle when FC have been, and remain, a success story, frequently championed for their dedication to fans-owned clubs. Broadhurst Park has just been named the best new non-league stadium by the Football Grounds magazine, while Walsh and his colleagues have done an enormous amount of community work in the local Moston district. Walsh’s announcement about standing down referred to “a magnificent facility that I know our members are very proud of, and one that is the envy of many other clubs”. There have been four promotions in his time and he says he will remain involved in a different capacity.

It is also clear, however, that the split has become increasingly vitriolic and unpleasant. “The measure of a democratic organisation is how differing views are expressed, the nature of debate marks its character,” he said in a statement to the Guardian. “Debate and respect for others has always been part of FC United. Abuse and bullying are damaging and have no place at FC United as they threaten the very foundations on which the club’s success has been built.”

Fan_Control

Others who are aligned to Walsh say the current position is “horrific” because of the level of criticism, the growing divisions and the overall charge that the club have moved away from what it used to stand for. When the club that once boasted of “punk football” recently put out a code of conduct for consultation, giving supporters a long list of do’s and don’t’s, the crowd held up a banner adapted from an old Pink Floyd song – “We don’t need no code of conduct, we don’t need no fan control” – and questions were asked about the reaction if the Glazers had done the same at Old Trafford.

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Many members were also outraged that the club held a photo-shoot with Damian Hinds, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, during the Conservative party conference, despite a policy not to be used for political promotion and it being only a few days after a sizeable number of supporters marched against government cuts.

Like most clubs at their level, money is tight. FC are heavily reliant on fund-raising and donations and have been running a £15,000 “Kit out the Cabin” appeal for the club’s academy players. Yet in February the board voted, 7-4, to hire Dave Boyle, formerly chief executive at Supporters’ Direct, at a cost of £900 to look through the fans’ internet forums and report back on posts that could be described as harassment, unjustifiably abusive or potentially libellous from the previous nine months.

The irony is that Boyle has form himself for offensive use of social media and, relinquishing his position at Supporters’ Direct in 2011 because of a series of abusive messages on Twitter that prompted the Premier League to withdraw its annual £1.2m funding. As if that were not awkward enough, he has also allegedly posted highly offensive comments on the When Saturday Comes message board about supporters on about supporters from one FC forum.

Dave Boyle and his friend Adam Brown of the FC board

Dave Boyle and his friend Adam Brown of the FC board

His appointment smacks of “absolute bare-faced hypocrisy,” according to a recent blog on A Fine Lung, a website featuring a number of Manchester-based writers who have become increasingly critical of the FC regime. “Without a hint of irony, one of the leading lights of the supporter-ownership movement was offered a hefty sum of a supporter-owned football club’s money to snoop on the internet activity of co-owners of that very club, once the poster boys and girls of the supporter-ownership movement. This at a time when the club is struggling financially to adjust to the stresses and strains of owning our own ground.”

Boyle eventually pulled out, without being paid, and has told the Guardian it was a direct result of receiving a threatening anonymous phone call that he has reported to the police.

As for Howard, the dispute that led to his resignation had its origins in the club putting on a one-off 50p increase on the price when they opened their new ground with a visit from Benfica last May. A small thing, you might think, but remember this is a club whose ethos was supposed to be against commercialism. Howard, a founder member, is said to have been “carpeted” when he made it clear he was against the increase and the people running the club have recommended that Peter Thwaites, the voluntary HR official who puts contracts in place, inserts a confidentiality agreement for the new programme editor.

“I have drawn up dozens of contracts for club employees,” Thwaites responded in a post to the members’ forum. “Not one of these included a confidentiality or gagging clause, nor was it ever suggested that such a restriction was necessary. So why is there suddenly a need to invoke one for the programme editor? What state secrets are they ever going to be party to? Margy’s team selections?”

The post, subsequently deleted by the club’s moderators, added: “Let’s not kid ourselves here, this is nothing to do with confidentiality. This is the development of a systemic culture of secrecy, evasion and misrepresentation. Information is withheld, questions are not answered, restrictive codes of conduct are drawn up and attempts are made to stifle or silence criticism on the forums. Anyone who voices criticism of the way things are run is apparently viewed as an enemy of the club.”

Everything is likely to come to a head at the general meeting on 24 April and it will be a sorry way to end what has otherwise been a momentous season in their new home. “Publicity seekers,” Ferguson called them. It was never true – and this is one story they would rather did not have to be told.

2 Comments »

  • 1879 says:

    Following the above article and after an awkward post on a message board by Andy Walsh’s mate and former FCUM community chief Robin Pye, he received this rebuttal from a club member and ex-volunteer:

    Hi Robin, you probably don’t remember me (one of the little people I’m afraid) but I remember you very well. You personally pretty much ended my proud and deep involvement with FC in one rude and arrogant swoop.

    If the rest of you can cast your mind back, try and remember Youth United Day when it added a raucous few thousand to the gate each year. This was not an accident. Vinny, Gally, Lucy, Maureen P, myself and others worked deep into the night after work to make it happen. We created the artwork, leaflets and emails. We approached everyone we could think of and organised the whole shebang ourselves with the good natured help of each and every other member we roped in. If you poke around the photo archives you’ll see pictures of grinning young kids from Old Trafford mosques with self-made red, white and black banners proclaiming “Kill Them FC” (bullying and intimidating to the New FC, no doubt), you’ll see kids from housing estate youth clubs that no other organisation would touch with a bargepole due to their, well founded, reputations for lawlessness, we had mini-vans from schools across the city turning up. If it was young Mancunian and unloved we signed them up. They came in droves and left with smiles on their faces.

    How were we able to drag all this to Bury and ignite young people’s imaginations? We were different. We were not the same old axis of charities, local government employees and the church. We were outside all that. We were them and they were us. They knew that instinctively. That made our task easy as we were knocking at an open door. The house was full of people sick and tired of the old and bankrupt charity/government/church axis that had failed the young and disenfranchised for as long as we could remember.

    Man, was I proud of that. We all were. It was glorious, new, revolutionary and worked. You’d call it ‘social cohesion’. We’d call it a giant fuck off to an uncaring world “don’t worry about us, we’re all right, There’s the door mate” to the traditional failures.

    Jump forward a couple of years and we hear that there’s a new guy in charge of FC’s community efforts. Who the fuck was Robin Pye? No idea but he’s an Old Mate of Andy’s so he must be alright.

    YUD comes around and overtures are made. I was asked by Robin for a list of contacts from previous years. Now, this list had been built up by myself. I’d spent hours collating names and contact details of church groups, synagogues, junior football clubs, school heads, college heads, athletic clubs…you get the picture. This was not just a list, most of them had replied and we were forming relationships with them. I sent them over to you Robin.

    Robin, you sent me a curt email asking if they could be re-ordered in Excel format and re-submitted to you otherwise they’d be useless. I never heard from you again. Not one fucking word. Like I could afford MS Office at the time anyway?

    So, all thrown in the sea.

    And what were we left with? A few middle class kids who were unfortunate enough to be dragged along by Robins god bothering mates marching ’round our ground with a rainbow flag (ok, a bit more than that but tragic compared with what it was).

    From the point of view of us it was a laughable disaster. However, from the point of view of the new professional community team it was a rip roaring success.

    Why? Money.

    Robin is a grant magnet. He knows the old charity/local government/church junta inside out. In a blink we had become everything we were meant to be against. Old, money grubbing, self-satisfied and sanctimonious hypocrites. We’d lost it. We were no longer of the people but rather just another arm of charity. Parachuting into communities to patronise and ‘improve’ them in our image.

    So, Mr “Actually, it is a club built on democracy” who the fuck are you? Just another of Andy’s Old Mates who nobody asked for. Another of Andy’s Old Mates who takes the applause and then sends in his invoice. Just another of Andy’s Old pay check taking Mates like Walker, Frampton et al who never understood who we are. We are not here to suck on the tits of charity. That’s your addiction.

    Believe it or not I can see the good in you lot but your time has gone. Go now. Leave us to try and be what we wanted to be. Proud, defiant Mancunians who want to build something counter to what you lot are. Not a pale imitation of the premierships ‘Foundations’ but a new way of bonding our community together without all your old shit.

  • 1879 says:

    In the name of balance here is Robin Pye’s post:

    Daniel Taylor’s article about FC United of Manchester (How the togetherness turned into disharmony) gives a comprehensive overview of the internal disputes and debates the club has been having since the move into our new ground at Broadhurst Park.

    His article includes an accurate presentation of various criticisms about decisions the club has made in recent months and I agree with some of those criticisms.

    However, his article is fundamentally flawed because it does not get to grips at all with the fact that our club is a democratically-run fans-owned club and does not ask the obvious questions about how the democratic processes in the club are being used to make decisions about how the club is run.

    Taylor describes FC United as ‘a club built on togetherness and shared principles’ which has ‘been undermined by the kind of infighting that could never have seemed imaginable’. Actually, it is a club built on democracy and as Taylor will understand when he looks at other democratic organisations and societies, that means that disagreements (infighting, he calls it) will occur.

    Taylor describes John-Paul O’Neill, as ‘the man credited with setting up the club in 2005’. Again, this suggests that he hasn’t fully understood what FC United is. O’Neill, was of course, an early proponent of a fans-owned club for Manchester United fans, he may even be the earliest proponent of it, but our club is a fans-owned club. It can’t be set up by one person. It can only be set up by lots of people.

    Because he does not ask any questions about actual votes that have been taken in actual meetings, Taylor resorts to reporting that ‘an internet poll shows 84% of supporters … have no confidence in the board appointing the right person as Walsh’s successor’. I am presuming this is an internet poll hosted by a website where many people post abusive messages about other people who cannot find the time or the motivation to respond. It indicates nothing.

    Not asking any questions about democratic decisions that the club’s owner-members have taken does not stop Taylor from quoting ‘club founder’ O’Neill who says, “There is a fundamental deficit in democracy, transparency and accountability between the club and its members.” What exactly this deficit is, Taylor cannot explain. Neither is there any indication throughout the article about the outcome of the votes we have taken on many of the issues he discusses. So if there is a deficit in democracy and transparency, Taylor’s journalism does not address it.

    For example, in his discussion about our ill-fated ‘Code of Conduct’, Taylor writes ‘questions were asked about the reaction if the Glazers had done the same at Old Trafford’. What a shame he did not actually tell his readers that when the Code of Conduct came in for heavy criticism on our members’ forum (quite rightly, in my opinion, it was a stupid document), our democratically-elected Board members promptly withdrew it. The question I would ask is what would happen if the fans of a privately owned football ‘club’ were to oppose a proposed code of conduct on an internet forum.

    Unfortunately, the answer is of course, very likely, nothing.
    Keen to include all the issues that have spilled out into our members’ forum over the last few months, Taylor tells us that ‘the people running the club have recommended Peter Thwaites, the voluntary HR official who puts contracts in place, inserts a confidentiality agreement for the new programme editor’. The ‘people running the club’? This can only mean our democratically-elected Board members or the club employees they hold to account. These are club employees who are in the main also members and, therefore, owners of the club.

    And right there is the real dilemma that Peter was asked to help the club to address. What rules do we need so that people who are employed by the club don’t abuse the additional power and knowledge that gives them when they participate in democratic debates within the club? One approach to this could be the approach taken by trade unions, local authorities and the civil service in this country – if you are paid by the club you keep quiet in democratic discussions about the club. But how then does that fit in democratic rights as club members and owners?

    And there is the clue as to why Andy Walsh has resigned. Is he about to get involved in our debates? What does he want to say? That is the story that was sitting under Taylor’s nose the whole time.

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