We’ll carry on through it all…
Having previously only visited Cardiff to watch some men in red kick a ball around, my first trip there since 2005, a few weeks ago, provided a welcome opportunity to have a proper nosey round town for the first time.
More than a decade on, it’s easy to forget that the Welsh capital played a small yet notable role in the birth of FC United of Manchester as is described in the opening chapter of An Undividable Glow, Robert Brady’s wonderfully meandering account of the formation and first season of FC United. The book is essentially a love story but unlike Thomas Hardy’s most popular classic it opens not with a detailed description of Gabriel Oak but instead recalls how not far from the madding crowd that had assembled for the 2005 FA Cup Final, under a bridge near the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the red Mancunian version of The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” was sung for the very first time.
As well as pausing by the river to reflect on some early FC United history another Cardiff sight to behold was a statue of the Welsh Labour politician Aneurin Bevan perched at the head of the city’s main shopping street. Bevan was, of course, the founder of the National Health Service in 1948 and amongst many wonderful quotes from his distinguished political career (including one where he described Tories as “lower than vermin”) the one that has lodged itself in my mind is his assertion that “the NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it”.
Rarely has that quote felt more relevant than now as the latest NHS crisis unfolds and brings with it the usual calls that the health service is “unaffordable” and will only survive if it abandons its founding principle of being free at the point of need and starts charging people for visiting A&E or to see a GP. Meanwhile the scapegoaters trot out, yet again, the myth that freeloading health tourists are somehow costing the NHS millions. Sadly, the key point in all of this that we have a government that simply does not possess the will to support the NHS in its current form is ignored. To them a system that Bevan described as an “example of real socialism” is anathema, something to be “reformed”, “restructured” and flogged off to their big business mates.
In many respects it’s surprising that the NHS has survived for as long as it has given the fate of so many of our services and industries. Yet this magnificent creation that is there for all of us in our times of need, without having to worry about a bill, and treats everyone with compassion and kindness regardless of their economic or social status, somehow remains more or less intact, not quite swept away by the prevailing obsession with profit.
And there’s a similarity here with FC United of Manchester isn’t there? Because it is also pretty remarkable that this football club has managed to make it not only to our first Christmas but another eleven after that all the time swimming against a tide that suggests that the only way to achieve success in football is to find someone who is minted and prepared to spend a shed load of cash on winning things.
Even in our own league, only a few months ago AFC Telford United decided that they could no longer compete with the likes of AFC Fylde and Salford City as a supporter owned football club and voted to seek outside investment; fan ownership viewed as a weakness rather than a strength. Meanwhile the crisis that has enveloped FC United over the last two seasons has led many supporters to question whether we too can compete at this level of football and keep our founding principles and commitment to affordable football intact. What about having a shirt sponsor to boost revenue? Or maybe another 50p on the programme price?
But amidst our concerns about our future, the best thing about the club since the election of a new board last June is that it feels like “our” football club again. The board are giving us all a nudge to say, come on, we can’t do this all on our own, this is a collective effort. They are sharing information with us and want us involved in the running of the club again. They want our views, our knowledge and expertise and, as ever, a few bob, if you can spare it, would be nice too. The days of us sitting back and saying “we’ll leave it to them, they know better” are thankfully over.
If the packed to the rafters latest edition of Course You Can Malcolm before the home match with Salford City last Saturday was anything to go by then the club is much the better for this new found openness. In a slot called Rubbing it Red some supporters spoke passionately about their involvement in the club and its future, embracing the spirit of participatory democracy that has swept through the club in recent months. Where once we’d have been content to let the board and Chief Executive get on with things supporters are now collectively, via a new progressive board, taking charge of the club’s destiny.
Charlotte Delaney, daughter of playwright Shelagh Delaney and a writer herself, spoke poignantly of growing up in Manchester and Salford and Pam and Sarah from the Hummingbird Project, a High Peak based grassroots organisation set up in 2015 to help refugees, made a welcome return to Malcolmses collecting donations of underwear, socks, hygiene items and cash for refugees surviving the winter months in Europe and Syria. They described themselves as being “bowled over” by FC the last time they visited CYCM in July and were back for more. The admiration is mutual.
This was all topped off with a storming set by the young Mancunian band Cabbage, about to start a UK tour, who had the room bouncing with their brand of politically charged post-punk; opening with Uber Capitalist Death Trade and finishing with a cover of These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ that had the Malcolmses audience singing along. With their “Born in the NHS” t-shirts it was clear to see which side of the NHS debate they’re on and it’s terrific to see a young band unafraid to take a stand on the issues of the day. They clearly enjoyed the occasion as much as the audience if a Facebook post after the gig by one of the band’s members is anything to go by; “playing at FC United this weekend has galvanised inspiration in me richer than the thousands of records I’ve sat in awe at in my bedroom growing up”. Whilst the band were playing, a cabbage was being raffled off as a prize – rumours of our brassica-lintedness may not have been exaggerated.
All of this was played out in front of a banner that roared “We are those lions” recalling an industrial dispute from many moons ago and a defiant woman by the name of Jayaben Desai, small of stature but a lion of the trade union movement. Meanwhile next door in the other third of the main stand function room Wolves, rather than lions, were the cause of much merriment as a packed bar chortled at the 1990 League Champions’ exit from the FA Cup whilst tucking into some pre-match nosebag. Likewise the bar under the St Mary’s Road End was also rocking both before the match and at half-time. A bumper crowd of 4,158 packed into Broadhurst Park last Saturday, the highest attendance for a league game since moving to Moston and the fifth highest in the club’s history.
Although events on the pitch didn’t quite work out as the vast majority of the crowd would have liked (Salford City won 3-0) it nevertheless felt like some of the intoxicating joi de vivre of the early days of FC United was back as a cacophony of old and new songs filled the air including an ace new one to the tune of the Stone Roses’ Waterfall…”we’ll carry on through it all, playing punk football”. Dissecting business plans and debating the finer points of the club’s electoral policy is, of course, important but sometimes you just want to go to the match and enjoy yourself. On Saturday it felt like some of the fun had returned to FC. And if you wanted Bevanite evidence that there are folk left with the faith to fight for FC United then here it was in spades; board members, staff, volunteers, supporters and players united as one.
It was a perfect riposte to those who seemingly would rather that the present board fail to turn things round. The day before the Salford City match, and no doubt mischievously timed to inflict maximum damage, half a dozen members of the old board released a statement of breathtaking arrogance (even by their standards) absolving themselves of any blame whatsoever for any of the mess that the club is currently trying to dig itself out of. The statement comprised over a thousand words but unfortunately, once again, not the five letter one that many of us were looking for. And it’s clear that they are not the only ones who are delighting in the club’s current woes if the Twitter gloating of the club’s former failed fund raiser is anything to go by. The irony of a member of the board of Supporters Direct, and someone who is partly responsible for the financial mess that FC United are in, openly criticising the board of a fan-owned club was seemingly lost on this odious individual.
As a lovely footnote to all the positivity and togetherness in evidence last Saturday it was great to see Cabbage and the Hummingbirds buzzing off each other too. So much so that the Hummingbirds will be collecting for refugees at Cabbage’s forthcoming Manchester gigs at the Gorilla club and the Academy. Isn’t that lovely? In the world of hot desking and third sector hubbery it would probably be called “networking” or summat but I prefer to think of it simply as people being brought together through a shared love. Love of a football club, of Manchester, of music, of the NHS and of our fellow human beings regardless of which side of arbitrary borders they are born on. There’s still much to do at FC United to turn things round but Saturday was a tremendous start. After a year that has tested our resolve let’s at least allow ourselves a collective smile at what happened last weekend. The faith to fight for the future of FC United is well and truly alive.