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Red Rebels – A book review

Submitted by on September 15, 2017 – 5:18 pmNo Comment

Red Rebels cover

Roughly two-thirds of the way through Red Rebels: The Glazers and the FC Revolution the tone of the book changes from a rollicking, scarf twirling love story imbued with Mancunian rebelliousness to almost Private Eye style, forensically detailed investigative reporting.

The story of how a group of Manchester United supporters who having fought and lost the battle to save the football club they adored from a hostile takeover went and formed their own football club, FC United of Manchester, has been well documented down the years. But when that story is told by the person credited with founding the club then it’s worth paying attention.

There will be many outside of Manchester unfamiliar with the name of John-Paul O’Neill. He’s the editor of the United fanzine Red Issue, which even though it no longer exists in print form continues to ruffle self-important feathers on Twitter, and it was his piece in the fanzine in early 2005, as a leveraged buy out of United by the Glazer family loomed large, that first posited the idea of FC United.

Thus setting in train a chain of events that saw, only weeks after the takeover was complete, the newly formed FC United taking to the field, in red, white and black, to compete against Leek County School Old Boys in the North West Counties Football League in front of a crowd of 2,590 (the Staffordshire side typically attracted gates of about 50). Red Rebels provides an insider’s account of the formation of the club as JP describes the painstaking graft of the original steering committee to get the club off the ground, despite the early doubts of many, including O’Neill himself, that they had sufficient time to do it.

Walsh_NotForSale

What little football there is in the book relates mainly to FC’s first few seasons as we gallivanted round Lancashire mill towns and secured three consecutive promotions to the Northern Premier League. Typically described as “disenfranchised”, “disaffected” or “disgruntled” in away match programmes the truth was that we were having a whale of a time and it shines through in the book.

That many time-served Reds, with years of following United round Europe, describe these years as amongst the best of their football supporting lives tells its own story. There was an element of “if you can remember it then you weren’t really there” about the joi de vivre of the club’s early days so it’s nice to be reminded those times and read a few new stories as well. The book is worth reading for the little Roy Keane anecdote alone.

The final third of Red Rebels examines the less publicised story of how FC United’s members and supporters were betrayed by its chief executive, board and an assortment of hangers on many of whom were given well paid roles at the club that they simply weren’t capable of performing. Although it’s only really been in the last two years that the club has been mired in internal strife, arguably the rot set in in 2011 with the disappointment of the club losing out on Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath, the site which FC were originally granted planning permission by Manchester City Council to build our own ground on. But the council, pandering to the powerful interests of nearby Manchester city’s Abu Dhabi owners, went back on their decision, blaming it on the new Tory government’s cuts to local government spending.

It was a huge kick in the teeth for the club which had already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, painstakingly raised by supporters, on planning, legal and other fees associated with the new build. It should have set alarm bells ringing there and then about the club’s management. Why was no deal signed with the council that protected our interests? How could the club’s management team be so frivolous with the Development Fund money that we had collectively grafted for years to raise?

There were other events around the same time that should also have prompted concern such as the shoddy treatment of the volunteers running the unique pre-match event Course You Can Malcolm. So it felt apt that, earlier this month, JP was able to sell the first few copies of his book and take part in a brief Q&A session at the first ever Course You Can Malcolm event to be held under the St Mary’s Road End terrace, given that the previous board had informed us that events involving live music could not take place there.

Frickley Athletic v FC United of Manchester

O’Neill kicked off a rebellion against what he perceived as abuses of power by the club’s management team and board in the summer of 2015 a short time after FC, recently promoted to the National League North, had moved into our new Broadhurst Park home with a prestigious friendly match against a Benfica team. As the match was played out in front of a packed crowd, surfing on a wave of promotion-and-new-ground giddiness, on a balmy late May evening it felt almost too good to be true. And it was.

Over the next few months a mind boggling series of revelations of shambolic management and nepotism, barely believable at first, were made by JP O’Neill on internet forums. It kicked off with the board’s lies regarding the 50p increase in programme price for the Benfica match, plainly in breach of the club’s principle of avoiding “outright commercialism”; lies that resulted in the resignation of the programme’s editor after he had been shamefully hung out to dry by the chief executive.

It was the wake-up call that the club’s supporters and members needed and what started as a one man rant on a Zola-esque forum thread entitled “J’accuse” culminated, less than a year later, in mass board and staff resignations and Andy Walsh stepping down as chief executive after eleven years at the helm of the club.

Picture by Russ Hart

Picture by Russ Hart

Indeed there were echoes of Emile Zola’s exile for speaking out when O’Neill was incredibly denied membership of the club he founded, his criticism of the board and management team interpreted as online abuse and intimidation, until he was exonerated by an independent report ordered by the new board in the summer of 2016. By this point the rebellion had gathered sufficient momentum that the biggest turnout in the club’s history had elected an almost entirely new board in June 2016.

It was a remarkable twelve months by the standards of any football club. Yet until Danny Taylor’s piece in the Guardian in March 2016 (FC United of Manchester: how the togetherness turned into disharmony) to the outside world, it must have appeared that all was well at FC United; the team playing in front of crowds that regularly exceeded three thousand had managed to secure their highest ever league placing. One of my few gripes with the book is that it occasionally ignores the roles played by others in the battle for the club’s soul.

For instance, despite JP’s best efforts to attract national press attention, it was actually an article on the A Fine Lung website (Bath time at FC United) that prompted Lung reader Danny Taylor to get scribbling as the calls for the board and management team to step down were now emanating from a significant chunk of the club’s support. Taylor’s article was a watershed moment as, for the first time, the turmoil at the heart of the club, was laid bare for all to see.

It’s ironic that it was left to Danny Taylor to report this given that the darling of investigative football reporting, his Guardian colleague David Conn, was a longstanding patron of the club’s Development Fund and was tweeting from the St Mary’s Road End terrace only days before Taylor’s article was published. In fact, not only did Conn ignore the story of managerial incompetence and rampant nepotism that was right under his nose but he also, under pressure from FC United’s so-called Press and Communications Officer Andy Walker, apparently tried to persuade Taylor not to publish the story in order to protect friends of his at the club from the likely fall-out.

David Conn

David Conn

A theme of the book, as it has been of much of O’Neill’s writing over the last two years, is the need for the club to be run as professionally as possible – the desire to simply “wing it” that characterised Walsh’s leadership was no longer sufficient for a club that now has a multi-million pound facility to look after. Indeed the difference between our former nomadic existence and having our own £6.5 million ground to take care of is stark, much more so than perhaps any of us imagined.

Towards the end of the book this starkness is magnified by a quote from Damian Chadwick, the club’s chief executive, about Broadhurst Park that I had to re-read several times to make sure that I’d properly understood it. Chadwick, who was the former venue controller at Bolton Wanderers before he joined FC and plainly knows a thing or two about football stadia, reckons that if he had £7 million to spend it would be better “to knock the place down and start again”.

Hang on, that’s the football ground that for months and months we sang about, talked about, got ridiculously excited about and invested hundreds and thousands of our hard earned cash in, some of it money that we could barely afford, simply because this was us showing the world that this is what a football club should be. And yet it is this partly finished, could-do-better football ground that is the main source of our current financial problems which, in turn, threaten the very existence of our club. It could almost make you weep.

FCUM_ground

The debt that the club has incurred in building its own ground, in the form of more than £2 million worth of investment in community shares by the club’s supporters and money borrowed from the council at a time of austerity, mean that the club’s finances must be managed expertly over the next few years. It’s no longer sufficient for the club to merely break even but we must, through a more commercial outlook, generate a level of profit that will enable interest payments to be met and debt repaid. But despite our financial problems the seven core principles of the club’s manifesto remain in tact and the task for future boards will be to ensure that the practicalities of running the football club fit with its underlying ideology. It won’t be easy but at least the future of the club remains in our own hands.

As O’Neill highlights, there is a cruel irony in the fact that the football club that was formed partly as a protest at Manchester United being taken over and plunged into debt is now fretting about being able to afford the interest payments on loans from the council. Let’s hope that we can find our way out of this mess. In the meantime this excellently written book, as difficult to digest as it may be for some, provides a salutary reminder of how we got here in the first place.

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