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Nine years after their much publicised beginning, FC United continue to thrive in an alternative footballing environment

 

fc united 5

 

‘‘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. 

Moyes’ sacking ten months into a six year job proves he was the wrong man all along

 

When it eventually came, there was no real surprise. Maybe a slight element of sympathy for a decent football man, but there will be few tears shed by United fans across the country. Over the season David Moyes’ sacking became more obvious, more inevitable. The decision had backfired.

In this emphatically disastrous season for Manchester United, perhaps the hardest decision is which statistic to use to portray just how out of his depth David Moyes has been. This campaign was the first time in which both Liverpool and Everton have done the double over the Reds in the same season, not to mention the fact that local rivals Manchester City also completed this feat with consummate ease. United were set to finish seventh under the Moyes’ stewardship, they have previously never finished outside of the top three in the Premier League. Manchester United took just seven miserly points out of a possible 39 against the other top seven clubs in the league, in arenas where Ferguson once thrived. This will be a season that lingers long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

Without wishing to patronise, there is something a little sad about seeing someone drowning under the weight of mammoth expectations, especially with the spotlight honing in on him. While many assumed it would be difficult for Moyes to retain the title in his first season, no one expected such a sheer collapse both in terms of results and performance. Throughout the season United and their manager have portrayed a side burdened by their history, when it’s something that should be embraced and used as a springboard for future success.

The calls emanating from many former United players, in particular Gary Neville, were to give Moyes time. However, as results became progressively abject, these voices of support seemed borne out of duty rather than genuine belief that things would get better. There was simply no evidence that Moyes was assembling a team capable of returning to the top of the league. The Maroune Fellaini signing proved a severe error of misjudgement, whilst the arrival of Juan Mata in January failed to lift performances, suggesting it was a move designed to quell growing fan frustration rather than one to fit into a particular playing system implemented by the new boss. Stability should not come at the cost of progression, merely to make United a martyr for the cause of crumbling football loyalty.

More than anything the sheer lack of good performances under Moyes was the most worrying aspect. There were brief flickers in the Champions League, with victories over Bayer Leverkusen and a second leg comeback against Olympiakos giving occasional moments of hope amidst growing despair. Yet the league form equated to embarrassing at times, especially against the sides in the top half of the table. Solid wins against sides below them in the league were too often offset by morale crushing defeats, which left United back at square one. Not one single player apart from David De Gea showed any real signs of improvement from the last campaign, and there was no clear system in place.

Adnan Januzaj’s rise was a shining light, but even his performance levels and number of appearances began to tail off towards the latter stages. The declining form of Michael Carrick was particularly alarming. Moyes was successful in tying down Wayne Rooney to a new deal, but the rest of his transfer business left a lot to be desired.

Although he was left a squad many argue had plenty of deficiencies, Moyes has now had two full transfers to address such issues, to no real avail. The chase of Cesc Fabregas was ill-judged, and the only summer signing Fellaini was a waste of £27 million, with the Belgian not in the mould of a United player. There was more excitement around the arrival of Juan Mata in January, but the poor form of the Spaniard instead served to highlight the fact that United’s new boss was struggling to squeeze the very best out of top class players. Nemanja Vidic announced mid-season he would join Inter Milan in the summer, whilst Rio Ferdinand has appeared discontented throughout. Academy graduate Danny Welbeck’s comments that he was thinking of leaving highlighted Moyes’ poor man-management skills more than ever, the final nail in an already nail-ridden coffin. An inability to work with top players and a clear lack of subtle tactics were his downfall, a poisonous mixture for any manager. His lowering of expectations, most notably ahead of the home game to Liverpool, who he described as favourites, will not have helped his cause either. This is Manchester United.

Changes in United’s squad are needed in the summer, but in the latter stages of the season the signs suggested that Moyes would not be the right man to oversee such an overhaul.

The continuous failure of Manchester United under Moyes suggests that he was never the right man for the job. While it’s undoubtedly easier to judge that in hindsight, it appears Sir Alex Ferguson left his most patent error till the very end. You get the impression Ferguson’s mind was clouded by thoughts of dynasty and a smooth succession, an idealistic world where one strong Scotsman takes after another, bound by terms of contract to rule English football for another 20 years.

Perhaps everybody in the boardroom forgot to mention the fact that David Moyes was trophy-less in a modestly successful tenure at Everton, where cautious tactics and a strong team ethic ensured they were a match for any team, despite their failure to ever win at the homes of any of the big four teams under Moyes. What his Everton team lacked in glamour they more than made up for with earthy grit. Yet United have always been team who look to thrive off moments of genuine inspiration, something that was not often found at Goodison Park. Old Trafford was once a haven for relentless comebacks and virtuoso football. Instead this season it has appeared more like a breeding ground for mechanical, nervous football devoid of any real spontaneity.

Ferguson’s error may have cost United not only in the short term, but in the long term as well. With both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola being seen as genuine candidates to replace Sir Alex the first time round. While it is unclear whether Guardiola ever received a concrete offer, there was clearly a window of opportunity after his departure from Barcelona and his subsequent sabbatical from the game. Jose Mourinho’s advances for the role were less discreet. When Real Madrid defeated United controversially in the last 16 of last year’s Champions League, the Portuguese boss was so gushing in his praise of Ferguson and United as an institution that it was hard to see it as anything but pandering to the United hierarchy to consider him for the role once the great man had left. Yet United went about the recruitment process with blissful ignorance, clearly set in their own ways. Mourinho has often got himself into bother with ill-discipline, but it’s worth remembering that Fergie was no stranger to finding himself the wrong side of the law.

This time round, the options are a little thinner on the ground. Borussia Dortmund’s vibrant boss Jurgen Klopp has already ruled himself out of the running, an early dent for the Reds. Current Holland coach Louis Van Gaal appears to be the front runner, but with a World Cup in mind this summer the may find it difficult to map out United’s new strategy and sign new players, whilst concentrating on the largest tournament in football.

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side have surpassed all realistic ambitions and expectations to go toe to toe with larger domestic and European rivals, but his inability to speak English means he still remains a little unsuited to the job. Ryan Giggs, who will take over Saturday’s game against Norwich City as caretaker manager, knows the club like no one else does, but his lack of experience will count against him in equal measure. Aside from that Antonio Conte of Juventus and Rudi Garcia of Roma would prove interesting options, but whether they would be prized away from the obvious lure of Champions League football from their current clubs in Italy remains highly questionable.

The mess that United now find themselves in could well have been avoided with the appointment of a manager used to winning trophies in the first place. They now find themselves in unfamiliar territory of appointing a new manager just ten months after their last was placed in charge. While many other successful clubs sack managers on a regular basis, often at the first signs of failure begin to emerge, United do not have experience of upheaval. They must tread carefully when deciding their next move, and they cannot afford to have another season like this current one. For that, they must appoint someone with a track record of winning, and someone who has a clear football philosophy that will suit the club. Perhaps Sir Alex ought not to let his ego get in the way this time when looking for a suitable candidate.

John Stanworth: Lancashire’s silent mastermind?

‘‘IF I had to choose one quality, it would be character.’’ These are the words of Lancashire’s Academy Director John Stanworth, the man who has been there from the very beginning.

It is a quality outlined by Lancashire’s rising star Luis Reece, an Academy graduate who has been with the club since 2008.

The opening batsman enjoyed a stunning debut season in 2013 after breaking through from the second team, scoring eight fifties in 16 innings with a staggering average of 55.53. But the left-hander has not always had things his own way.

‘‘With Luis, he has had some serious wake-up moments,’’ Stanworth explains.

‘‘We signed a left-arm seamer in his final year as an academy player that stopped him getting him games, which was a slap in the face for him.’’

Reece’s cricket coach in the Leeds-Bradford University team reinforced the message that his bowling may not take him to the standards that county cricket demands.

However, these successive blows did not deter Reece, serving instead as an incentive to make the most of his abilities and work hard on his batting.

The fruits of his labour came to the fore in the 2013 season; his total of 722 championship runs was bettered only by overseas veterans Simon Katich and Ashwell Prince at Lancashire. The 23-year-old’s success is just the tip of the iceberg for a club who promote from within like no other.

The academy opened in the winter of 2002, with great success. Out of the first 15 players, 12 made it professional, with players like Kyle Hogg, Tom Smith, Simon Kerrigan and Karl Brown all emerging.

‘‘It wasn’t so much that they were technically better, it was the content of their character, their desire to improve their game’’, Stanworth claims of these players, who have each made their mark on the club.

A close relationship with head coach Peter Moores remains a vital part of the process.

‘‘The work I have got with Peter Moores is a really strong one,’’ Stanworth says.

‘‘He gives a top to bottom approach. He knows what he wants, he communicates that to the players and to the coaches that work alongside him, so I’m able to drip-feed that down to academy players.

Academy players will see that the vast majority of our first team are filled with people who not too long ago were in academy shoes’’.

With a new deal that keeps Moores at the club till 2015, Lancashire fans can expect plenty more young stars to rise from the club’s well-oiled youth system.

One of the most difficult things in sport is bridging the gap from academy level to the first team. It is Stanworth’s job to manage this jump: ‘‘As you step up things happen much quicker, so it’s not the fact that you can’t adapt it’s just the suddenness of that need to adapt, so although we can present artificial challenges where you are preparing them for that level, the actual reality of it is quite a thing’’, says the former wicket-keeper.

It is therefore up to Stanworth to work on the mental aspect of a young player’s game: ‘‘Mentally you do make a shift. If I do my job properly, it’s not a big step to move from those various levels you have described, from academy to second team, from second team to first team.

The system we have seems to get over those mental hurdles quite quickly; because we were one of the first counties to do twelve-month contracts we involved these younger players in a pro-environment early.’’

Despite the constant production of academy players to a successful first team, one that won the Championship on the last day of the 2011 season with graduates Karl Brown and Stephen Croft at the crease, England honours have somewhat eluded this group.

Simon Kerrigan was called up to the fifth test against Australia this summer, but with figures of eight overs 0-53, it is a debut he would rather forget.

Brown, capable of producing some delicious shots, was one of a few Lancashire academy players to represent England under 19’s, but has found consistency harder to come by at professional level. It is something that may change in the years ahead, with Lancashire’s vibrant second XI winning two competitions in 2013.

Hasseeb Hameed, recently called up to the England Under 19 squad, is highly regarded, ‘‘Hammeed excites me in the same way that I was excited when I worked with a John Crawley as a coach and saw Mike Atherton,’’ proclaims Stanworth.

It is a bold statement, but one that portrays the Lancastrian’s genuine belief in his new batch of talent.

Hammeed isn’t the only exciting prospect, big-hitting Liam Livingstone has signed a one-year deal with the club, whilst Rob Jones, Alex Davies, Harry Dearden and Saqib Mahmood have all shown potential in a group that carry ‘high’ expectations and provide each other with excellent competition.

‘‘One of the strengths of our academy is that there is no pecking order, just cause somebody’s in the England set-up doesn’t give them the right to be selected.’’ the 53-year-old says.

The success of the academy is something that ultimately ‘satisfies’ Stanworth, but there is no time to look back, as the next wave begins to build, and the potential for these players to ‘deliver at next level’ is where the excitement comes from for Lancashire’s eternal Academy mastermind.