The rise and rise of FC United
In the first of his regular columns for Guardian Unlimited, Tony Howard - one of the founder members of FC United - gives the lowdown on the club's birth and start to the season
Wednesday October 5, 2005
Many said it couldn't happen, but almost five months after the Glazer family invaded Old Trafford, FC United of Manchester - the club formed by disgruntled supporters of Manchester United - are top of the North West Counties Division Two table and have an average attendance of over 2,000. Not bad for a club that only played its first match in July.
It's been one hell of a ride, mind. During the public meetings held in Manchester in May when the club was merely a possibility, AFC Wimbledon chairman Kris Stewart promised those who backed the vision that we would have the time of our lives. He wasn't wrong.
At those meetings, £100,000 was pledged and a name selected by founder members. Despite the FA turning down the initial first choice name of FC United because it was "too generic" the club at least had a starting point.
A vote then took place via the internet and postal service to select a name. AFC Manchester 1878, Manchester Central and Newton Heath United were all out-voted and Football Club United of Manchester was born.
Despite press reports linking the club with Brian Kidd and Sammy McIlroy the job of manager was given to Karl 'Margy' Marginson, a fruit and vegetable delivery driver by day, but someone who knew the non-leagues inside out.
Open trials were then held in a South Manchester suburb and a squad of 30 selected. "Those who came ranged from lads turning up in Audi convertibles to lads on bikes," says Margy. "Some wrote to us from Australia or New Zealand because they wanted to play for United. It was amazing to see the numbers of those who applied."
Of those who attended the club's first training session, 18 came from the open trials. The players gathered on the field at the back of a Manchester high school came from a variety of football backgrounds. Jonathon 'Joz' Mitten - whose great uncle Charlie was a member of Sir Matt Busby's first great side, the one that won the 1948 FA Cup - turned down contracts with Conference North sides to be United's No9. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, Matt Weston had played the previous season for Manchester's Sunday League side FC Lokomotiv.
No one knew what to expect from the first game on a sunny Saturday, July 16 - a friendly at Leigh, near Wigan. But 3,000 turned up and, for the first time in football history, a celebratory pitch invasion greeted a 0-0 draw in a friendly.
Nearly as many turned out for the club's first ever league game at Leek CSOB. The all-ticket affair saw 2,500 United fans travel to sleepy Staffordshire, eat all the pies, buy all the programmes and take all three points. It also saw United fans greeted with open arms by pub landlords and locals alike - a new experience for those of us used to keeping our heads down on visits to opposition towns because of the hatred the country feels for MUFC.
What's more, our eyes have been opened to a whole new ball game - one arrogantly overlooked by so many of us. The game that sees people doing everything for love not money. And it is a joy to speak to the likes of Stan at Leek or Billy at Blackpool Mechanics. Genuine people running a genuine game.
Despite official figures from Manchester United claiming less than 100 people gave up their season tickets following Glazer's takeover, a large proportion of United's hardcore away following have traded trips to Highbury, or Barcelona for Bury, following the ground share agreement struck up with the League Two side.
Some have left Manchester United behind completely, others, unable to break their bond with Old Trafford, have split their time between the 'two' Uniteds. As Jules Spencer, another founder memeber, says: "We're a broad church."
A watershed moment came when 2,266 fans snubbed the Manchester derby in favour of FC's clash with Blackpool Mechanics. In that crowd were 600 under 18s, granted free entry in line with the club's policy of encouraging young, local support - a long forgotten demographic at Old Trafford.
The attraction of turning your back on what was once the biggest day in Manchester's football calender? As FC fan Chris Porter explains, it's a soul thing. "It's all about the match-day experience," he says. "It's about standing with your mates, singing songs, having a laugh and basically enjoying yourself doing what you used to do at Old Trafford before you became a 'customer' rather than a 'fan'."
There are other differences too. FC United play 4-4-2 not 4-5-1 and have scored nearly 30 goals in eight games so far. And, after every game, the team join a crowd of fans in the pub for a drink or 10. The club's adopted song, Under the Boardwalk, is sung in unison, with players linking arms with supporters. It's a utopia of how life should be. Can you imagine Rio Ferdinand sharing a drunken embrace with Brian the bricky from Salford? Exactly.
As Margy's 'Fruit and Veg Army' sing every week: "We don't care about Rio, he don't care about me. All we care about is watching FC."
Where the ride will take us we don't know, but we'll have a top time getting there.
* For more information on FC United visit the club's website: www.fc-utd.co.uk. Home games are played at Gigg Lane, Bury and admission is £7 adults and £2 children.