‘‘I am an FC fan,
I am a Mancunian,
I know what I want and I know how to get it,
I wanna destroy, Glazer and Sky,
Cause I, wanna be, at FC’’.
Bury FC’s Gigg Lane is a temporary home for FC United of Manchester, but on every other Saturday it certainly doesn’t feel that way. As their team battle to a 2-1 victory over a stubborn Matlock Town, their eighth win a row, FC fans provide their own rendition of Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols, a swipe at their former love, the somewhat better-known Manchester United. With around 2,000 fans in attendance, they create an atmosphere rarely seen in the higher echelons of the English game. Flags are a constant fixture in the main home section, whilst banners cover the two uninhabited stands. ‘Making friends not millionaires’, one reads. It neatly encapsulates the manifesto of FC United, a club built by the fans, for the fans.
At the end of the game, the bond between the fans and the players becomes even clearer for all to see. Fans swarm towards the front of the stand, whilst the players do half a lap of honour, shaking hands with the supporters that have helped to shape the team they play for. It is akin to the relationship fans and players share in Germany’s Bundesliga, where the feeling is more of mutual admiration than grudging acceptance of one another. The Bundesliga model has many similarities to the way in which United are run, albeit on a grander scale, where clubs must be controlled with at least 50% plus one of votes on important decisions, by their members, the fans.
FC United have now spent nine years in non-league football, and crowds remain unwavering in their loyalty, showcasing the strength of a supporter-run institution. Much like supporting Manchester United, players move from team to team, but the fans remain the one constant.
United were famously formed in 2005, as a rebellion against English football’s modern ways. ‘‘Changing kick-off times for the benefit of television, soulless all-seater stadia full of ‘new’ supporters intent to sit back and watch rather than partake in the occasion, heavy handed stewarding and ridiculously priced tickets’’, all playing a support role to the main enemy of the piece, the Glazers.
The Glazer family controversially acquired a stake in Manchester United in 2003, much to the dismay of many fans of the club, once it was realised the debt they would be have to take on, after years of being debt free. The majority of United fans chose to live with the decision, but a substantial amount, enough to form the beginnings of a new team, decided it was time to defect, with Glazer shares standing at 57%. It’s a decision they have not lived to regret.
‘‘It’s been brilliant. A refreshing change both on and off the pitch. On it with players who actually care about the club and the supporters, being able to mix with opposition fans, the chance to stand with your mates on the terrace. Off it, the fact that we as members own the club and directly shape its future…no one can take that away from us, which is the most important thing of all’’, says Michael Holdsworth, from the North West and Lancashire supporters’ group.
FC are effectively the polar opposite of the way current Premier League clubs are run, democratically owned and controlled by its members, the fans. There are seven core principles that help to define the club, as outlined by the official website; the board will be democratically elected by its members, decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis.
The club will develop strong links with the local community, admission prices will be affordable as possible, young participation will be encouraged by the club, the board will strive to avoid outright commercialism, and the club will remain a non-profit organisation. The rules appear to have been strictly adhered to since the emergence of the club, helping to form a distinct community feel around Gigg Lane. Michael credits this spirit to a number of different factors, ‘‘we’re all here for a common goal, to show that there is a better way for football.
‘‘The fact that ordinary supporters own the club democratically for the benefit of supporters and the community gives us that family spirit and feeling. The atmosphere crowd-wise is down to the fact that ordinary people and youngsters can afford to come along and watch the games, as well as the type of people a club with our ethos attracts’’.
The early years of FC United proved an unmitigated success, and despite promotions stalling, they are still very much on an upward trajectory. Given the strength of the club’s foundations from the very beginning, a rapid rise up the leagues was somewhat inevitable. The inaugural season in the North West Counties League division two resulted in a title, with 6,032 fans flooding Gigg Lane to celebrate on the final day. The next season followed the same pattern, as United clinched division one. Promotion to the Northern Premier League division one north proved no obstacle. Despite being denied a hat trick of league titles by Bradford Park Avenue by just one point, United gained by promotion by virtue of a 4-1 victory over Skelmersdale United.
For the first time in their history, FC United failed to gain promotion at the first time of asking, narrowly missing out on the play-offs on the last day of the season after a sterling effort towards the end of the campaign. The following season saw United’s most disappointing league effort to date, a middling 13th place. That disappointment however was offset by a trip to Hamburg to take part in St Pauli’s 100th year anniversary celebrations, United’s game with Germany’s famous anti-fascist club ending in a 3-3 draw.
The 2010-2011 season for United proved a bittersweet pill. The FA Cup was the scene of arguably the club’s greatest achievement, as they overcame League one side Rochdale, 97 places above them in the football pyramid. Victory resulted in a meeting with another League one side Brighton and Hove Albion, and once again United would not be moved, securing a 1-1 draw. In front of a huge crowd at Gigg Lane United eventually bowed out, but nights like these will live long in the memory.
But the joy was slightly short-lived with the news that the proposed new ground at Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath was cancelled, with the local council citing funding cuts as the reason for the decision. Failure to get planning permission for a new ground was a hammer blow for the club, compounded by three straight play-off final defeats in three years, which left them tantalisingly short of promotion to the Conference North.
Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season and things are once again moving apace for United. In a race for promotion, they also have their new stadium to look forward to at the start of the 2014-2015 season, a 5,000 ground stadium in Moston. United’s general manager Andy Walsh believes the move to the new facility will have a seismic impact.
‘‘I think as a club we need to get established in the new ground. That’s going to have a big impact on us, nobody can underestimate the big change there is going to be to the football club when we move to the new ground. We are effectively going to be a new organisation really.
‘‘We’ve got a facility to run as well as putting on football matches and that really is the prize because running the facility will allow us to achieve our ambitions for developing community support and access to community sport for people in Manchester’’.
Andy describes the opportunity to build the new ground as the ‘real prize’, and it is particularly special given the difficulties United have had in securing their own home, ‘‘we gained planning permission at Ten Acres Lane in 2010, but within four or five months we had to shelve them because of changes with government funding and we had to look for a new site which we found in Moston, North Manchester.
‘‘We went through a new planning application, and we had some legal challenges on that as well which delayed us by a couple of years. We started building in November 2013 and we are roughly halfway through that programme now.
‘‘So yeah it has been a long, stony road but it’s been fantastic. Our membership is now as high as it’s ever been. We have over 3,200 members, we have got over 1,000 season ticket holders and we’re sitting at the top of the table. So it’s good times at the moment’’.
A move towards a new stadium would be all the more sweet if it coincided with promotion to the Conference North, a league that stands just two levels away from professional league football, an attainable goal. But despite the unparalleled joy that promotion can bring, there is a feeling that success is not the central thing that breeds happiness for the supporters.
‘‘I certainly still think we’ve got a great chance of going up automatically and we can beat anyone in the play-off places. I must admit, I’m not all that worried. If we don’t go up, we don’t go up. As nice as it would be to play in a higher division, I do like this league’’, says Michael.
Going into the final league game of the season, United once again find themselves in familiar territory at the top end of the Northern Premier League first division. They currently sit one point behind Chorley, and the current league leaders must win away at Buxton to claim the title. The crunch tie between the two sides earlier in the month ended in a 2-2 draw, and the last day is bound to be dramatic. Andy Walsh, like all United fans, projects an element of caution when discussing future goals.
‘‘How far we go on the pitch is a question everybody asks us, and really that’s down to the management. We’ll give the resources that we can, within the football club to the manager and to the players to see where we can go. I always have the view that clubs tend to level out where their crowds are. When you’ve got a crowd of roughly 2,000, then you talk about the top end of the Conference, possibly getting into League Two but as a football club that is a realistic ambition for us’’.
Football ownership is becoming an increasingly divisive and thorny subject in the English game. Clubs such as Blackburn Rovers, Notts County, Portsmouth and Coventry City have all been cast under the spell of little-known owners promising big money, all have fallen from grace in ugly fashion. A report released in November 2013 revealed six out of 72 football league clubs are facing ‘critical financial pressure’, with many others struggling.
FC United’s fan-owned model has proved to be a viable alternative for clubs across the land, with the likes of AFC Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Exeter City all choosing the same mode of ownership. At the other end of the spectrum, FC Barcelona have proved that clubs owned by their fans can still keep up with the game’s conglomerate giants, and have success at the very highest level. All the current examples point to fan ownership being a better way of running a football club, and Andy hopes that this will happen across the UK in the future.
‘‘I’m confident it will happen. This is a growing movement. You look at ourselves, you look at Chester, you look at Scarborough, you look at Wimbledon, you look at Exeter, you look at Portsmouth, it’s a growing movement.
‘‘We’re still trying to find the best model, and it’s not a panacea to all evils of the game, but supporter ownership is a better way of running a football club than the traditional model of running a football club’’.
John Horricks, however, from the Moston supporters group is less hopeful that there is change round the corner, ‘‘I think all clubs should be owned by the fans as they are the club. Unfortunately I can’t see it ever happening unless the government stepped in which isn’t going to happen. Money is the king, and football is now a very big business’’.
Given the community spirit that engulfs FC United, it feels a sad waste that all clubs are not run in this way, designed as a pillar of the community rather than a company run to satisfy the needs of its rich hierarchy. But despite appearing as a mere footnote on the footballing landscape, clubs like United provide hope that all fans still have the ability to wrestle power and decide their future. United’s accomplishments in their brief history reinforce the message that success in football strays further than the glitz of the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, dominated by the modern day super clubs and their vast network of resources. FC United’s way is not the norm, but everything about their manifesto and their subsequent success says there way is a viable way.