Saturday, January 14, 2006
Source: The Guardian
As the 145th Manchester derby kicks off today, once diehard fans will have greater cares. Dominic Fifield finds the breakaway FC United thriving in a world without Glazer
Manchester is rarely less united than on derby day but, as the dust settles on the 145th spat between city rivals, a corner of Lancashire will be more intensely United than ever. Some 1,800 travelling fans will converge tomorrow upon Accrington Stanley's Interlink Express stadium, Nelson FC's temporary home for the afternoon, to bellow their support for a side clad in red and, just as familiarly, sweeping all before them this season.
The chatter among the heaving away support will touch upon the exploits of Ronaldo, Rooney and Van Nistelrooy the previous day but the names bellowed will be those of Orr, Torpey and Carden. Welcome to the new United.
Barely seven months since conception FC United of Manchester is a phenomenon sweeping through non-league football. The club formed by disenchanted supporters infuriated by Malcolm Glazer's £790m takeover at Old Trafford sit 14 points clear at the top of the Moore & Co Construction Solicitors' North West Counties League Division Two, with a goal difference to match their points tally of 49. If strides have been made on the pitch, progress off it is staggering. Those perturbed by the sudden emergence of a club dubbed, often unkindly, "The Rebels" or "Little United" might have hoped initial momentum would have dissipated by now. The reality is very different.
Some 4,328 people attended FC United's recent victory over Winsford at their adopted home of Bury's Gigg Lane, a league record that swelled their average attendance to near 3,000. Six League Two sides - Bury included - cannot match such support. A club that attracted 900 hopefuls to trials for the first-team squad last June now boasts supporters' branches from Swindon to Switzerland, north Lancashire to New Zealand. "This is about building a sustainable club for the benefit of its community, its players and its fans, a football club which is about football," said the acting general manager Andy Walsh. "We're not unique in that. There are plenty of clubs out there interested purely in the game but, from where we came from, this is a new experience."
That background was one of disaffection. Glazer's arrival last summer prompted the breakaway but many who swapped the Premiership for trips to Padiham and Castleton Gabriels had long felt squeezed out. If those involved in AFC Wimbledon arguably had no option but to form their own side following their club's defection to Milton Keynes, FC United was founded by people who had a choice, albeit gut-wrenching.
"This club is a symbol of the opposition to the commercialisation of the game," said Walsh. "Football cannot continue like it is, whether it be with the Glazers or the way those running the top-level clubs chase television money. There's no feeling of long-term responsibility.
"Some people have objected to what we've done but none of us are any less United fans. It's not been an easy decision to give up our season tickets but it's also not been easy for those who've stayed at Old Trafford. We recognise that. Time will show that Glazer is bad news for United and for football - no one has outlined how he will pay off his debt in the long term - but those of us boycotting Old Trafford joined a growing band of disenfranchised: people who couldn't afford to go any more or have been edged out by unsociable kick-off times. We've touched a nerve among fans who want to attend games yet don't want to support the business takeover of football."
Days like today will still prompt pangs of regret. A year ago the Manchester derby would have been the focal point of a season, a fixture to catch the imagination if not necessarily quicken the pulse. Karl Marginson, FC United's manager, first stood on the Stretford End in 1978.
"The derbies now are unrecognisable from 20 years back," he said. "Talking to people who went to the match at Old Trafford earlier this season, the atmosphere was dead. No life. What we've got here is 90-90 football: 90% of the people singing for 90 minutes."
One of those chants chortles "He sells asparagus, and the odd avocado," in recognition of Marginson's day job delivering groceries. "It was a gamble," said the former Rotherham striker. "We hoped to attract 1,000 through the turnstiles but what's happened instead just shows how disillusioned people are at what's going on across top-level football. The fans have had God knows how many years of being told to sit down and shut up at games. Now they can enjoy themselves."
"It's like being transported back to the 1970s," added Barrie George Sr, a City fan whose son, Barrie Jr, has excelled in goal for FC United and the England partially sighted team. His own chant rings out "Free Barrie George, he didn't kill Dando," with T-shirts of the keeper behind bars to match. George previously graced Altrincham and Radcliffe Borough, though the FC United squad boasts league experience. "There are disgruntled fans of other non-league clubs who argue people who turn up here should be watching their games instead," said Leon Mike, formerly with City and Aberdeen, "but this is a movement."
The players earn at least £50 a week, peanuts when Rio Ferdinand picks up more than £100,000 but significant in a league where most would normally go unpaid. Marginson's squad is so large it was easily split into two at training on Thursday night, one group drilled on the five-a-side pitch at Broughton Rugby Club while another shared the grass with Radcliffe Borough as a freezing wind howled across Houghend playing fields. Filming them was a French camera crew. Last week a Russian magazine reporter jostled with Dutch television journalists to cover the story at training.
"The interest is astonishing but I've spoken to former team-mates at United and their attitude is: 'The fans will do what fans want to do'," said the midfielder Mark Rawlinson, who graduated through the same youth team as the Golden Generation of Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham before spending five years at Bournemouth. "They probably look at this as 3,000 out of 67,000, and those seats will get taken by other people."
At best it would take seven years for the club to progress into the Football League, so few at Old Trafford will be quaking in their boots yet, though the impetus is inescapable. FC United are advertising for a chief executive and a club secretary on salaries of £25,000 and £18,000, with their income generated through gate revenues, sponsorship and merchandise. Some 650 season tickets have been sold. "We are effectively being run like a league team," said Walsh.
Their impact in the North West Counties League has been far-reaching. Nelson have only once hosted more than 100 spectators this term and could normally hope to take around £5,000 through the turnstiles in a season. Having drawn FC United in the divisional cup as well, they might expect receipts of 10 times that from the two fixtures. "Life is a real struggle at this level, so this offers a comfort zone for next season," said Linda Treitl, Nelson's managing director.
Some clubs whose grounds FC United have visited already this season, and whose coffers they have therefore helped to swell, have taken to recruiting ringers for the return fixture at Gigg Lane, paying for the temporary signings with money generated from the home gate. One player has featured four times against the league's newcomers this season, for three different clubs, while another side offered its players £250 win bonuses to beat the leaders.
Only one, Norton, have managed that to date in the league - "Some of our defending was unacceptable," moaned Marginson - though most have been dismissed by a flurry of goals from those in classic red. All involved will switch on televisions or radios this lunchtime to chart United's progress at City.
"This used to be the biggest game of my season," added Walsh. "I'll be wanting United to win but ours is a real football club, a real football team." Nelson awaits the phenomenon.