Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Morning Star: Chalk one up for the little guy

Source: Morning Star (very similar to the NW Enquirer piece from 2 weeks back, the beginning is different)

MARK METCALF looks at a remarkable first season for fans' club FC United.

With the season played out, fans of FC United of Manchester are celebrating the success of the club that they established less than a year ago in protest against the increasing commercialisation of football in general, but Manchester United in particular.

Picture: CHAMPIONS: FC United receiving the North West Counties Division Two trophy after their home game with Great Harwood Town last month.

Their new club has just won promotion and a first league title.

Critics may point out that it is only the North West Counties Division Two trophy, but to put together a new club, get players and coaching staff, buy new kit and find sponsorship is a major achievement in itself.

To get a crowd of even a few hundred would have been a success, but to get regularly have attendances of two to three thousand and win promotion as champions is truly amazing and also highly satisfying for all those who've swapped visits to Villa Park, Anfield and White Hart Lane for away matches with Flixton, Chadderton and Cheadle Town.

Instead of roaring on Manchester United captain Gary Neville, FC United fans are now backing a Manchester City fan, Dave Chadwick, as their skipper.

"It's been awesome to captain FC United and to lead out the players in front of 3,000 fans has been brilliant," said Chadwick, who, like most of the players, got involved after a phone call from FC United manager Karl Marginson.

In comparison to United manager Alex Ferguson, who is paid £3.5 million a year, Marginson earns £19,000 by getting out of bed at 3am six days a week to deliver fruit and veg.

This means, as he says, "I'm finished just after dinner time, leaving me time to concentrate on football," a task for which he clearly has a talent.

Playing down his key role in events, Marginson, who attends the fans' steering meetings, said: "It wasn't difficult getting players involved. I played at Division Two level and the things the supporters were talking about at that meeting wouldn't even be discussed at Division Two clubs."

Jules Spencer was one of those on the self-appointed steering group that started out with the aim of bringing together fans from different backgrounds that could quickly get things sorted and get a team into a league.

Those involved were determined that the club would be run democratically and a special annual general meeting was held in July 2005, where Spencer put himself up for election to the board of directors.

He was successful. A board of 11 was elected, with nine coming from the original steering group.

Half the board will be up for re-election shortly, but no-one knows which ones, as these will be drawn from a hat, which was exactly the process used to decide that The Bhopal Medical Appeal and Sambhavna Trust would be the main club sponsor this season. It makes a change from Vodafone, Carlsberg or O2.

"On the board, there are often differences of opinion. We just try and work through these. We are honest and frank enough to disagree but still work together," he said.

"The first time FC United ran out in the match against Leigh, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and the game in January, when we got 4,000 and beat the team in second place, was as good as anything I can remember," he added

And what of those fans that have torn up the North West Counties figures for record attendances?

Don't for a second think that they're passive. This is football fever, '70s style, but, thankfully, without the background of violence and racism that often accompanied matches of that period.

There are songs old and new, dozens of them in fact. Scarf-waving supporters stand next to their mates, kids run around at the front of the stand and there's a healthy sprinkling of families.

At the Chadderton away game, played at Oldham Athletic's ground in April, over 90 per cent of the 2,352 crowd were backing FC United, resulted in record gate receipts.

"After expenses, that one game put around £7,000 into our coffers," Chadderton treasurer Ian Cefferty said.

Chadderton's previous highest gate of the season had been 101.

Three days later at Bury's Gigg Lane, where FC United played their home games this season and with whom they've just reached agreement for the 2006-07 season, the players picked up the League Trophy in front of 6,000 fans.

And the fans are enjoying themselves, which is what the game of football is all about.

Former Old Trafford season ticket holder Kevin Doyle told me that, "Every game has been a laugh," while his friend Martin Walker said: "Watching FCUM has been brilliant and actually knowing the people you're stood with has been great."

Others, like Dean Burdesell, switched to FC United, because the cost of taking his two boys and two girls to Old Trafford was financially impossible.

This coming together of fans was very aptly commented on by John Manning at the supporters group meeting in April.

"The great thing about FC United is the community element. There's lot of ideas flying around, probably too many, but we've got to give them a try," he said.

At the same meeting, Rob Petts praised the example of AFC Wimbledon, who were set up after the Football League agreed that Wimbledon could uproot from their south London home and relocate to that hot bed of football, Milton Keynes, in 2004.

The one-time Man United season ticket holder said: "Without their example, it would have been a lot more difficult to get FCUM started."

But Petts also provided a perfect summary for why the club was established.

"Fans are being priced out of the game. Football has got to change," he said.

"It's only a matter of time before the G14 super-rich clubs break away to do their own thing. I think, what has happened at Manchester United will happen at other clubs.

"We are trying to take things back to the fans and make it accessible and, in doing so, bring back the atmosphere at matches."