By: Stuart Brennan
SIX THOUSAND supporters turned up as FC United threw a wild title party at Gigg Lane.
The rebel Reds, bolstered by an estimated couple of thousand Old Trafford regulars, came up with a madcap end to a remarkable first season in which they have proved to be "champions" in more sense than one.
The team suffered its third league defeat of the season, going down to an injury-time goal in a flat, bad-tempered match with Great Harwood, but the result was an irrelevance with the Moore and Co Construction Solicitors League second division trophy already in the bag.
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The size of the crowd, which was 6,023, was a far more significant statistic - a clear message to Manchester United and the rest of top-flight football that people will not continue to tolerate being priced out and taken for granted.
At Gigg Lane, the support sang for 90 minutes, and after the trophy presentation and lap of honour, they clogged up the A56 as the team staged a tongue-in-cheek open-top bus ride from the stadium just 200 yards to the Swan and Cemetery pub.
Skipper Dave Chadwick, a no- nonsense centre half and self-confessed City fan, lifted the trophy and then expressed his incredulity at the club's growth from an idea discussed over a Rusholme curry to a club which at the weekend attracted a bigger crowd than half of the games in League One.
"Just one word sums up the season - fantastic," said Chadwick, a double glazing fitter from Wigan whose job has become the subject of a dozen FC chants - "You buy one, you get one free, I said you buy one, he plays for FC" being one.
"I don't think anyone expected the club to build a fanbase like this. Six thousand people! Playing in front of a crowd like that is something you dream about.
"But here we have a hard-core which has stuck with us right through.
"For a new team to go top of the league straight away and then open up and maintain a 20-point lead, is a credit to the lads, but everything we have done we have done for those fans.
"This time last year if someone had told me that in 12 months I would have a few thousand Manchester United fans cheering me as I picked up a trophy, I would have thought they were on drugs."
Formed just ten months ago, FC United has, in some ways, been the biggest story of the football season, a means by which football supporters can express their disgust at the over-commercialisation of the game. But the bottom line is that supporters have flocked to FC because they can have a traditional day out at the match without emptying their wallets.
General manager Andy Walsh said: "I would have been more than happy with 4,000, but the sight of all those supporters singing their hearts out makes everything worthwhile.
"The lasting memory of the day, and of the season, for me, is the kids who have come to watch live football week after week. Hopefully those kids who watch us will go out and play football as well. We will be setting up our own reserve and under-18 teams next year."
And the club's attitude off the field has also earned them a more meaningful "champions" tag. The main sponsor of the club is the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a charity that is trying to help the thousands of victims of the poisonous gas leak in that Indian city in 1985. FC have recently set up FC United of Bhopal, a sports club aimed at bringing some joy into the lives of children affected by the shocking disaster which claimed 20,000 lives and has left 120,000 still suffering from the effects.
And the arrival at Gigg Lane of kit man George Hayden, who - with a couple of colleagues - had cycled to each of the 20 clubs in the division over the previous four days, was another symbol of what FC is all about. He was raising funds for eight-year-old FC fan Alex Croft, from Chorlton, a cerebral palsy sufferer who needs £15,000 for an electric wheelchair.
The team had emerged to collect the trophy wearing T-shirts with "Russell Delaney" on them, a tribute to the board member who worked tirelessly to help FC United get off the ground last summer, despite needing oxygen to combat the effects of the pulmonary sarcoidosis which claimed his life in November, at 47.
The game itself was a non-event, livened only by a red card on the hour for FC assistant manager Phil Power, whose casual flick of the hand at Great Harwood defender Kieran Fletcher brought on a display of histrionics.
Now the club is looking forward to next week's final league game against Padiham at Boundary Park, followed by a benefit match at Telford on May 6 in aid of badly-injured United fan Jamie Turner and the club's first overseas jaunt, to play Lokomotive Leipzig on May 12.
The ethos of FC United was summed up by the trophy presentation as nine-year-old Chantal Adams, from Dunham Massey, accompanied Chadwick to receive the trophy from league chairman Dave Tomlinson.
Chantal won a M.E.N. Sport competition to claim her place in the club's history, and was a fitting winner - she has followed the Rebels from their inception.