Forever Young – FC United of Manchester and survival

by Stuart Howard-Cofield

FC United 2FC United of Manchester suffered the heartache of defeat in a third successive Evo-Stick Northern Premier League playoff final last weekend, losing 2-1 to Hednesford Town in front of a bumper crowd of over 4000.

The early history of the club included three back-to-back promotions, but FC United now appear to have found themselves at a level of competition that is providing a real challenge to their progression. The red rebels will be vowing to try and win automatic promotion in next season’s campaign, to avoid having to face the playoffs for a fourth time.

Back in April, the club held its annual “Youth United” day. A day of family and community-friendly events culminated in free entry to the match versus Worksop Town for both children and students from colleges local to their temporary home of Gigg Lane, Bury. Youth groups, football teams, dance troupes, families and groups of young mates added to the crowd and a carnival was created.

Average attendances have actually slowly declined season upon season, but have settled just below 2000 – still healthy for a club in the seventh tier of English football that exists without their own home. But, like most clubs at any level you could name, enticing more fans through the gates is a constant battle. Just ask FC United’s landlords, Bury FC, about their problems.

In the current age, football from leagues all around the world is available to watch from the comfort of your own home, or down the pub – be it through official means or not. That makes days such as Youth United day (and also Senior’s Day, which the club runs as well) important fixtures in the calendar and similar to schemes that many other football clubs run to bring in the punters.

But FC United of Manchester is not an ordinary football club. Originally formed as a protest vehicle against – or at least an alternative to – the Malcolm Glazer takeover of Manchester United, ticket prices, football as business and modern football in general. FC United are a giant amongst the clubs that currently surround them and looking around Gigg Lane during the match, despite the overriding blue of the seating and the stands that show the identity of their landlords, it is clear to see the roots of FC United.

Red, white and black flags adorn every spare railing and wall space; Red Issue, that most (in)famous of Manchester United fanzines is sold outside the ground; a “mega-cabin” sits at the entrance, the non-league version of “big” United’s imposing megastore, selling all manner of United-coloured paraphernalia. Manchester United is woven in to the very fabric of the shirts, flags and scarves and hearts and minds of this still fledgling club.

As seen in the match programme, an article charting a Manchester United supporter trip to the 1968 European Cup Semi-Final second leg in Madrid ended with the words, “[this story] goes to show the deep United history that exists at the club our fans have created. Hopefully, that red thread will continue for years to come.”

But will that “red thread” continue?

The club’s raison d’etre was to provide a haven for disenfranchised Manchester United supporters. Will this history in fact become a burden and continue to shape the future of the club? The Glazer family have stuck it out so far and appear to have ridden the storm at Old Trafford, with success still being delivered to the faithful. Can FC United continue to draw from that particular source or will the well run dry?

At an AGM back in 2006, following the club’s successful start to life, future hopes were laid out. These included building their own home and developing and consolidating an average attendance of 5000.

Setbacks have hampered both of those visions, but the issue of settling in to the club’s very own ground does at least appear to be nearing a climax. Planning permission has been granted to build in the working class Manchester suburb of Moston, not far from the original home of Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club (the precursor, of course, to Manchester United). A site actually within Newton Heath had originally been targeted, but later shelved due to council funding issues.

The Moston Community Stadium is planned to be built on Ronald Johnson Playing Fields (in another act of near-synergy with the parent club, remember Ronnie Johnsen?), the current home of the Moston Juniors U18s football clubs – who are entering in to partnership with FC United and will be accommodated at the sports complex that will accompany the stadium.

This new plan has not been without its problems and some local residents objected to the removal of one of the few green spaces in the area. Fears were aired as to parking and traffice problems, large crowds and litter – resulting in the case being taken all the way to judicial review, eventually falling in favour of the club.

A new battle for FC United, therefore, is that of trying to get all the locals on side. The club has proved many times that it can be a force for good and will bang the community focussed drum loudly, hoping to win over those opposed to the club’s arrival.

Since its inception, the club have been incredibly inclusive. A banner hangs along the Les Hart Stand at Gigg Lane, pronouncing, “making friends, not millionaires” and even a cursory glance through the club programme shows adds substance to that claim.

Alongside interviews with new players proclaiming how the supporter’s passion convinced them to join the club are stories of youth projects, tales of the players and club staff on bowling trips with the ballboys and girls (crew) and more senior supporters stating that they have rediscovered their joy of going to the match.

FCUM are never shy of tackling large social problems, either. Another article in the programme on Youth United day told of a supporter who was kicking off his stag weekend at the match. This particular supporter is gay – and as chair of the Gay Football Supporters Network he discussed the difficulties faced in tackling homophobia in football.

In giving voices to these issues, once again the ethos of the club is on display – embracing all and committed to changing both the image of football supporters and the way in which a club can be run – for the benefit of the community and a force for social change.

Making friends in lots of places, consolidating links with AFC Wimbledon and other fan-owned clubs in Britain and even influencing and assisting the growth of similar clubs elsewhere in Europe – such as Spain, where CAP Ciudad de Murcia and UC Ceares have used their example to help shape and reinvent their own club’s destinies. All positives to draw from the FCUM experience.

Yet, as inclusive and welcoming as the club and its supporters are, football remains tribal at its heart. There is still no getting away from the fact that running deep in the veins of every FCUM supporter and to be found in every weave of the fabric of this club there is the DNA of Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson issued a broadswipe against the club in “The Official Manchester United Diary of the Season” in 2006, saying “I wonder just how big a United supporter they are,” and accusing the breakaway reds of self-promotion.

FCUM’s formation already causing friction between some sets of supporters, Sir Alex’s comments didn’t help – and FC United spokesperson commented, “whether the fans stopped going to Old Trafford on a point of principle, or because they could no longer afford the prices, they did so with a heavy heart and remain Manchester United supporters. Those supporters deserve better than this.”

And indeed, those divisions still exist. Supporters who believe FCUM’s fans to be “traitors,” those who follow FCUM who can’t understand why others didn’t also make a stand, those who follow both. Not forgetting that there are supporters who simply can’t afford the trips to the Premier League and attend FCUM as a cheaper “red” alternative.

As a team with such deep-lying ties to Manchester United, though, where will the continuing support come from? Does FCUM continue to mine solely from disenfranchised Reds?

Displaced Manchester City fans are unlikely to identify with them and be enticed, and the “parent” club is such a divisive one that in truth, it probably disconnects them from a lot of football fans. FC United have even become a coveted scalp at non-league level, due to the ties that bind them to Manchester United.

So does the future hold a place for FCUM, less as a band of red rebels and more as a third Manchester club in its own right?

This question brings to mind the short-lived story of Manchester Central, a football club formed in 1928, who played in the Belle Vue area of Manchester in what would eventually become the city’s speedway stadium. East Manchester had been stripped of its football clubs in the preceding decades (City moving from nearby West Gorton and Ardwick and United from Newton Heath), surely there was room for another club to step in?

The club was successful enough to enable the tendering of an application to join the football league. After a couple of failed attempts in 1929 and 1930, Manchester Central DID eventually gain permission to join the league (replacing Wigan Borough, who resigned from their place), only to find that both the red and blue sides of Manchester had combined to formally oppose the move – claiming that a third Manchester club would damage attendances. Manchester Central’s application was duly rejected again, and the club disappeared.

The Manchester City and Manchester United of today will not see FC United as such a threat to their existence, but there is still a place for an alternative Manchester club.

Today’s football audience – and indeed whole football landscape – is a very different beast to that of previous eras. TV and internet access to all the top sides, new football fans can watch any team in the world they like and profess to be supporters – never having to miss a game. Demands for success, for superstars, for the Champions League all create obstacles for lower league football clubs in their quest to even survive.

But there is still no real substitute to watching football live amongst a lively set of fans. That is why grounds still pulsate to the sound of football fans and that is part of even what the tv armchair fan wants to see.

FC United’s vibrant atmosphere wins plaudits from opposing fans and players alike – and it may just be the thing that keeps everyone coming back.

No television broadcast of a game at Parkhead, for instance, however impressive, can ever portray the true sense of being there on a special European night. This thing that FCUM have may not be the size of Parkhead – but it is its own brand of special – and the feeling is that the club holds no such pretensions for now. That would only bring with it issues such as television schedules, high wages and a loss of control for its owners.

The football on display is naturally not the same standard as that which would be found treading the boards at the Theatre of Dreams, but the effort of every player is always appreciated, attacking football always encouraged and because of this there is great mutual affection between players and supporters.

Looking around me on Youth United day, I see smiling faces – my son, whole families, raucous youths and old-stagers alike. Replica shirt and scarf bearers, old school rattlers and black coat wearers. All incredibly happy with their lot.

All making one hell of a racket.

Naturally, promotion is the aim – although eluding the club at the moment – but the targets remain level-headed. The days of league football, of regular television offers to change match times and of massive wages may be light years away – but, actually, some of these very issues may even start to raise their heads often within just one move up. Kick off times for the playoff finals were moved both this year and last (perhaps to cash in on FC United’s support?) and a higher division would probably mean having to raise player costs.

So, tempering ambitions and staying around the level that they currently are may be the best way to ensure that the club can continue to be run the way it is – by the supporters and for the supporters.

It is those supporter-owners that will make the decisions on any of the questions above that appear in FC United’s future. Promotion to the Conference North has to wait for at least another season, but there is still much to look forward to.

The sense around the club is that of one which understands its place in the natural order of things. It is a club which feels that building a solid foundation in the local community as a force for good is the best way to sustain itself and even move forward.

It has taken a long time and plenty of soul-searching about this football thing since I left Old Trafford and became a founder member of FC United – but on Youth United Day, surrounded by future generations of football fans, I think I finally got it.

3 Responses

  1. Paul Caulfield says:

    A well-argued piece about FC United, though the old (and possibly cliched)question remains. If all the supporters wanted was to follow a local club with cheap admission and reasonable beer prices, they could have chosen one of the following: Ashton United
    Curzon Ashton, Stalybridge Celtic, Droylsden, Mossley, Hyde, Flixton, Trafford, Salford City; all of which would have welcomed the extra support. At least with their own ground, FC United are doing it the ‘right’ way, by investing in their own stadium rather than ground-hopping, hiring or buying other peoples’ And the promotion-decider I attended at Gigg Lane with Bradford PA a few seasons ago, was a special occasion.

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