Tuesday, June 19, 2007

United We Stand?

Some of you may have been wondering why I haven't been posting as much as usual on here. Well, it's partly because it's such a quiet time of year. There'll be a full write-up on the Under 21 European Championships so far on here in the next couple of days or so (Enormous excitement! England are in the semi-finals!), and I'm hoping to take a look forward to the Women's World Cup in China, too. Mostly, though, I've been reading. I've been wanting to write something about FC United of Manchester for much of the last few months, but have been scared away from the topic by my own ignorance. Hidden away in the North West Counties League, these juggernauts of the new, supporter-led protest movement have at least partially escaped my radar, but with them facing up to the realities to life in the Unibond League Division One North next season, perhaps it's time to see if we can't get under the skin of a club that is quietly becoming a phenomenon on its own terms and in its own right.

The formation of the club is in the long tradition of non-conformism in Manchester stretching back as far as the 1812 Peterloo massacre. It always seemed odd that Manchester, of all places, was the most visible face of arch-capitalism in football and, for a sizeable minority, it was all becoming too much. Much has been written on the subject of the pricing out of the game of its natural supporters, but the effect of this was to be seen at its most profound at Old Trafford. The Premier League may have brought new riches and "a whole new ball game", but spiralling wages and the requirement of the PLC to turn a profit meant that season ticket prices rose inexorably and merchandising went through the roof. Why do you think Roy Keane's comment about the "prawn sandwich brigade" became so famous? Because it touched a nerve. In a city with a proud working class tradition, the opulence on display at Old Trafford was jarring. Manchester City, so the (untrue) legend had it, were becoming Manchester's club. You'd be surprised how many people in the South of England believe that everyone in Manchester supports City.

As a PLC, and the only PLC in English football that could be relied upon to turn a profit, United always seemed likely to fall to the profiteers. Rupert Murdoch was the first to have a go, but he was seen off less by the protests around Old Trafford at the time than by the Office of Fair Trading, who could clearly see the conflict of interest in the owner of Britain's biggest commercial broadcasting player also being the owner of Britain's biggest football club. This was, of course, merely a respite. When Malcolm Glazer started to express an interest in the club, there was something faintly inevitable about the fact that he would be successful. It's easy to accuse those that broke away to form FCUM of simple anti-Americanism, but this is over-simplistic, and fails to credit those leading the protest with with the intelligence that they deserve. There was deep unease about the leveraged buyout which allowed Glazer to saddle the debt on United itself. By canny playing of the stock market rules, he managed to purchase United for a fraction of its real value, and place the debt (and, effectively, the risk) on the club itself. It set a dangerous precedent, and those behind FCUM could see that.

The formation of FCUM was more complex than merely being a reflex reaction to the Glazer take-over, though. For many, the take-over was the tipping point - the point at which unease over the direction at which United and Premier League football in general had taken. Some had simply been priced out of the market. Some were sick of subsidising the multi-million pound wages of the players. Some hated the atmosphere in the new, all-seater, Old Trafford. There were, in short, a multitude of reasons why a faction of the club's supporters broke away at the time they did, and the result of this is that the relationship between FC United and Manchester United is far more complex than is the relationship between, say, AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons. The vast majority of FC United supporters still "support" Manchester United. The pubs around Bury's Gigg Lane (where FCUM are playing until they can find a home of their own in Manchester) are often packed with people supporting "Big" United on a Saturday lunchtime when they're playing in the Saturday lunchtime match on Sky.

Without having been to one of their matches, it's difficult to comment on the match day atmosphere, but the first thing that strikes me after having looked at photographs and videos of their matches is that there is a distinctly "1970s" atmosphere to it all. The scarves on view aren't the complex multi-coloured efforts on display in the Premiership, but simple red, white and black striped bar scarves. It's written into the constitution of the club that their shirts will not carry sponsorship, and next year's shirts are based on the shirts that "Big" United wore when they won the FA Cup against Liverpool in 1977. I'm waiting with interest to see if their goalkeeper will be turning out in the blue that Alex Stepney wore in that match. Crowds have have held firm at over 2,000 (though they have fallen slightly over the last year or so) and, for the moment, they seem on course to meet their ambitious stated aim of reaching the Conference by 2009.

On the pitch, all has been rosy so far. They shot through the two divisions of the North West Counties League, losing just a small handful of matches over the course of their two seasons so far. Geography is on their side - the south has a bigger population and more non-league clubs. Looking at it on paper, going up through the County Leagues and the Ryman League and Conference South looks like a trickier proposition that going through the North West Counties League, Unibond League and Conference North. The Ryman League Premier Division alone is, as I have said on here before, an exceptionally strong league to get out of in its own right. FCUM's friends in south-west London can attest to that. Having said that, though, I would offer the same humble advice to that which I offered supporters of AFC Wimbledon earlier this season. Many Wombles supporters are still coming to terms with just how competitive non-league football is. Expectation of automatic promotion through the ranks is likely to end in disappointment at some point.

FC United face a couple of interesting dilemmas off the pitch. Supporters of other non-league clubs are already describing them as "The Non-League Chelsea" - a moniker that their supporters, many of whom have fled the bloatedness and greed of the Premier League, despise. For the last couple of years, in a league in which the average wage is seldom more than £10-20 per week, they have been able to attract decent players with an offer of £50 per week and the chance to play in front of four-figure crowds. If they continue to get promoted, though, the wage demands will increase, and hoovering up the best players will, rightly or wrongly, lead to this sort of accusation being levelled at them even more. In this respect, the question that they have to ask is this: how level do they want the playing field to be? A part of the reason for their existence is to offer affordable football to Manchester United supporters, after all. They may well find themselves having to counterbalance this against their desire to be successful. Non-league football has never been a profitable business.

Then, of course, there is the small issue of the ownership of their own stadium. FCUM currently groundshare at Bury, of course, but have their sights set on a stadium of their own within Manchester. However, the club is run as a non-profit organisation. A new football stadium wouldn't come cheap, so what do they do? Do they establish Gigg Lane as their "home", freeing up money to spend on players? On the surface, this seems like an attractive option, but again the truth is more complex than merely that. Owning their own stadium is one of their constitution's stated aims and, while a large part of their identity comes from the way in which they came into existence, owning your own stadium, as fans of Brighton & Hove Albion, Bristol Rovers and many others will tell you, is a massive part of your identity as a football club. FCUM may, if they wish to stay out of massive debt and own their own ground, may have to temper their ambitions on the pitch.

These are largely questions for the future, though. The questions that I raised above are questions that will have to be answered by those running FC United of Manchester, but we can rest assured that they will be answered with at least the best interests of their supporters at heart. Whether this proves to be in the wider interests of non-league football, though, is more of a moot point. Having said that, though, it'll be a cold day in hell before you'll see England's smallest senior clubs turning away the money that their massive travelling support brings, and their sudden arrival at the foot of the ladder has brought a much-needed splash of colour to the occasionally dour world of football's nether regions. For that, and in the hope that they can show that success doesn't have to be at the expense of ethics and morals, their existence should be celebrated rather than denigrated.


Trevor Hull said...

great article, i never knew that manchester was such a city of rebellious footballers, good research, in my opinion thats what soccer in america is lacking, the big clubs wont get better unless we start getting some little clubs to supply players and passion

John said...

I am a native Mancunian who has long lived in the south of England. Manchester has always been a melting pot of immigration, of assimilation and radicalism and I am proud of my roots. Which is why I am also a proud founder member of FC United, having been originally a Man United fan. As the author rightly reports, the Glazers were the final straw, not the cause of the schism between MU and FCUM. Dont get me wrong, I hate the Glazers with a passion, but they have released me from a bond I was increasingly unhappy with.

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