Thursday, April 20, 2006

PA Sport: Rebels fire Red Devils warning

Source: Sporting Life and

By Simon Stone, PA Sport

The founders of rebel club FC United have warned Manchester United their hard-core support is being eroded.

While 'big' United have a weekend off ahead of their do-or-die trip to Chelsea on April 29, the club spawned as a direct result of Malcolm Glazer's controversial Old Trafford takeover are preparing for the biggest day in their own short history.

With all under-18s being admitted free, there is every indication FC United will again shatter the North West Counties League attendance record at Gigg Lane on Saturday, when Great Harwood Town are the visitors.

The attraction is not the actual football but the presentation of the Division Two trophy and the chance to engage in some mutual backslapping after an astonishing debut campaign.

Launched from the shell of an idea initially raised in response to Rupert Murdoch's attempts to buy United in 1998 and constructed in less than two months, in some senses, FC United are the biggest story of the season.

Average attendances of just under 3,000 - with a peak of 4,328 for the January visit of Winsford - mean match-day interest in 'little' United not only eclipses that of every other non-league club in the north-west but some established Football League outfits as well, including their landlords Bury.

It would be a major surprise if, in 12 months' time, the FC United phenomenon was preparing to sweep through the Unibond League, and, while the fledgling club will not be permitted to play in the FA Cup next year, a tilt at the FA Vase will be attempted and who is to argue the club will not be one of the first to grace Wembley's magnificent arch.

Ten miles down the road at Old Trafford, the response to FC United's success ranges from grudging respect to outright hostility. Either way, the men who launched the new club are convinced they are having an effect on their mammoth neighbour.

"I am not naive enough to think David Gill is looking at us wondering what we are doing right and he is doing wrong but I do hope it is registering that Manchester United's hard-core support is being eroded," said Jules Spencer, formerly chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association and a founder member of FC United.

"United is run by accountants. As long as they are filling the stadium, they won't be bothered by 4,000 of us watching non-league football.

"But the signs are, within a couple of years, it will hit their radar because it is the hard-core element within any club's supporter base who will stand by them when they are not being successful."

In defending himself against charges of hypocrisy - accepting the Glazer shilling after previously decrying the American's business plan as 'too aggressive' - Gill questioned why he should be forced to give up working for the club he has supported all his life, in turn querying how FC United's followers and just give up on the Red Devils and turn their allegiance somewhere else.

The truth is, they haven't. They still follow Manchester United with a passion. They just do it from a distance.

"I am still a United fan and I hope people still look upon me as such," said Spencer.

"I just prefer to spend my Saturdays in a slightly different manner than I used to.

"It is a weird feeling because I want the team to do well but I feel so much resentment towards the people running the club.

"When they were knocked out of Europe there was the torn emotion of acute sadness at your team getting knocked out of the Champions League but part of you was thinking 'I wonder if this can affect Glazer's business plan and speed up his exit'. It is difficult to reconcile the two situations in your mind."

Spencer has vowed not to set foot inside Old Trafford until Glazer has gone and his pre-season intention to watch at least one away game had to be abandoned as his commitment to FC United started to eat into his time.

If the past 12 months are anything to go by, those plans will have to be shelved again next season as the most high-profile example of a supporter-run club in England goes from strength to strength.

"The speed of FC United's growth has taken us all by surprise," said Spencer.

"We knew there was an appetite for something like this but never could we have envisaged attracting 4,300 to a game.

"We are not claiming the moral high ground in any sense. We exist to provide people with an alternative, either to Malcolm Glazer or the escalating cost of tickets which is pricing so many families out of the Premiership.

"The key thing is, in everything we do, the supporters will have their say. Nothing, from deciding whether to have a sponsors name on a shirt, to the existence of the club, will be done without their agreement."