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Red Rebels – an excerpt

Submitted by on December 7, 2017 – 6:03 pmNo Comment

Red Rebels cover

FC United founder and former AFL contributor JP O’Neill has written a book about Manchester’s battles with the Glazers and the subsequent football club that rose amongst the flames. And then imploded somewhat. Red Rebels details it all from the (non-Magnier owned) horse’s mouth. For details on how to get hold of a copy click HERE.

JP has given the Lung an exclusive extract. Here it is:

The contrast with the exuberance and enjoyment of FC United’s early games couldn’t have been starker, and FC United suddenly filled the role of a very convenient scapegoat for everything that was wrong at Old Trafford. Andy Walsh had heard of one supporter, wearing an FC shirt on a random weekday, being berated at a petrol station by the ex-hooligan leader Tony O’Neill, in what seemed like a complete reversal of his attitude in Hong Kong. Word started spreading that Tony was planning much more. The NWCFL cup draw had pitted FC against Cheadle Town – Tony O’Neill’s local club – and he was rumoured to be encouraging his goon squad to attend. The fixture was subsequently postponed and moved to Curzon Ashton’s new ground at short notice, officially on account of the inadequacy of Cheadle’s facilities. It ultimately passed without incident.

Tony O’Neill had a regular column in the fanzine United We Stand, in which he expounded upon whatever topical issues tested his patience that month. In October’s edition, he made clear that his targets now included FC United, whilst stating numerous lies about FC supposedly refusing to play at Cheadle as the reasons for the game being moved. He wrote:

“All [Cheadle’s] hard work getting ready for their big day and pay day was wasted because the Chelsea of grass roots gave it: ‘we’re the big club and we don’t like going to Cheadle so we’re demanding a change of venue.’ … You arrogant bastards. Just who do you think you are? You left MUFC and took your dummies with you, with shouts of ‘we don’t like the way football is going.’ YOU then turn round with your superior: ‘we’re FC United and we dominate this league so do as we say and we’re telling you to change the venue regardless because we’re a massive club and we rule.’ The words ‘Chelsea’, ‘Abramovich’, money and ‘arrogance’ all come to mind.”

File photo of Manchester United fans protesting against the proposed sale of the club to US tycoon Malcolm Glazer.

For whatever reason, FC United was now The Enemy and, although Tony O’Neill was then serving a lengthy ban from attending games following a conviction for hooliganism, his influence still extended deep within the club’s support. All manner of acolytes immediately fell into line with his diktat, whilst it was noticeable that others who, until then, had been happily attending FC games suddenly stopped.

Coincidentally, at the same time Tony O’Neill was taking aim at FC, Manchester United’s marketing director Peter Draper pointedly claimed in an interview with the Manchester Evening News that there was no difference between the two clubs:

‘It’s only a question of scale. The most interesting thing [about FC] is that they aren’t letting anybody in for free. They will have a sponsor in due course. If they win promotion they will want to buy better players. In order to fulfil that wish they will start to sell nice butties rather than curly ones.’

In reply, Jules Spencer accused Draper of ‘spectacularly missing the point,’ adding, ‘We have never had an issue with commercialism, only the nature of it and where the money is ending up.’ Only two months after MUFC had benefitted FC by waiving the opportunity to exert their trademark, it was clear that FC United was now very much in the sights of those running Old Trafford.

At the start of November, FC were due to play Eccleshall in Stafford. A few days earlier, Manchester United were in Paris for a game against Lille. There, I was warned by one long-standing Red to ‘be careful’ if I was going to the FC game that weekend. This person said he’d been invited to go on a coach Tony O’Neill was planning to run to the game, and it wasn’t for the purpose of making friends with anyone. However, Fate had already intervened, as the Red Army General had been arrested at Manchester Airport whilst trying to make his way to Paris with a flightload of his travel company’s customers. This breached the terms of his banning order, as he’d not been granted the dispensation to travel. He was briefly remanded in custody, thus scuppering any immediate plans he may have had for the weekend, and was convicted of breaching his ban the following February.

In spite of this, in early 2006 Tony O’Neill was involved in a series of meetings with Manchester United officials, as later relayed in an interview with UnitedSupporteren, the magazine of United’s 40,000-strong Scandinavian branch. He expressed surprise that ‘somebody with my background’ was able to talk to the club about the idea of building a supporters’ social club close to Old Trafford. A website appeared, announcing that Paddy Crerand had agreed to be the putative club’s patron, and calling for people to invest in bringing the idea to fruition. Around the same time, an official Old Trafford branch of Manchester United suddenly sprouted up, its registered address being the same as Tony O’Neill’s office. Branch status granted whoever ran it access to match tickets. It had once been almost inconceivable that the club would authorise such links to a banned hooligan. Not anymore.

Glazers3-Fergie

Following the Glazers’ reception at Old Trafford the previous summer, I was made aware that a well-known Salford gangland figure had been approached by someone purporting to represent United’s security company. This person had requested that the gangster act as unofficial protection on the street in a bid to ensure that no similar incidents happened to the Glazers in future. Though the gangster spurned the invitation, it wasn’t clear whether the vacancy was subsequently touted out to anyone else. It also wasn’t clear what the quid pro quo for any such arrangement might have been.

Tony O’Neill continued his campaign trying to undermine FC. In March a young, female journalist from the Sunday Mirror turned up at Gigg Lane eager to speak to several people about their role within the club, including my own. At this stage, I was editing the match programme, having been asked to fill in by Andy Walsh on an interim basis, but this wasn’t widely known. Whilst others at the club such as Luc, cooperated with her purportedly positive article about the club, I realised that there was no way my name should’ve come onto her radar.

Red Issue’s vast network of contacts was put to work to find out what she was up to. Very quickly, word came back that the journalist had been sent to Belfast in December to cover George Best’s funeral and get some reactions from people on the street. It was alleged that she had come across Tony O’Neill there. Red Issue later learned that the trainee journalist had filed a story to the Sunday Mirror attacking named FC United officials for alleged misdemeanours. Fortunately, a suspicious staffer checked the proposed story with those concerned; it was then promptly spiked.

With the Sunday Mirror’s big expose not materialising Tony O’Neill took it upon himself to publish and be damned. He turned up to FC’s championship party against Great Harwood with a load of leaflets detailing the very same story the Sunday Mirror had declined, which he handed out on the stadium forecourt. These named “Luc Zentar – Vasco Wackrill – J P O’Neill and others” as having been “given permission to sell FC United T-Shirts using the name of your club so they could take the profit”. His leaflet also quoted a strangely unnamed Steering Committee member as supposedly having said: ‘I wasn’t spending 3 months of my time setting this up for nothing.’

Sir Bobby Charlton, second from left, points the way to Bryan, Joel and Avram Glazer in 2005

His allegations weren’t taken as seriously as he might have hoped. The banal truth was that Vas and Phil Bedford had run a T-shirt business for years. After accounting for their company’s sponsorship of FC, they had actually paid the club more than they’d turned over from any sales. Meanwhile, Luc, Tony Pritchard, Chris Robinson and I had started a similar business in late 2004 but, in part due to the time three of us devoted to setting FC up, had already taken the decision to close it down. So much for the ‘mystery’ of the Sunday Mirror spike; there simply wasn’t a story to be had.

Despite this, the M.E.N. still thought the matter newsworthy, and followed up with an article by Stuart Brennan claiming ‘unhappy’ supporters were planning ‘to press for a change at autumn’s annual meeting to forbid any such dealings’. Two anonymous fans ‘who feel strongly enough to do something about it’ were quoted voicing their disgust. No such resolution was ever submitted.

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