Thursday, May 04, 2006

NW Enquirer: The FC United experience

Source: NW Enquirer

FEW gave FC United much of a chance when it was formed by a group of disguntled Old Trafford regulars for whom Malcolm Glazer was the final straw. But a year on the club is thriving: attendances are booming and the team has just won promotion. Author and journalist Mark Metcalf followed them home and away and discovered a real people's club...

A small but not insignificant number of long-standing Manchester United supporters are this month celebrating the success of FC United of Manchester. [FCUM] This is the club they established to protest against the increasing commercialisation of football in general but the Old Trafford club in particular.

Their new club, not yet a year old, has romped to promotion and a first league title. No matter that it is the North West Counties Division Two trophy that has been collected; to put together a new club, get players and coaching staff from scratch, buy some new kit and balls and find some sponsors is a huge achievement in itself. But in addition to root out a pitch to play on and to get a crowd of even a few hundred would have been a success - but to get crowds running to over two to three thousand, to get promoted, to win the league!!!

Amazing and highly satisfying for all those who’ve swapped the ‘glamour’ of visits to Anfield, Highbury and Stamford Bridge for away matches with Flixton, Chadderton and Cheadle Town.

Ryan Giggs has been replaced by Joshua Howard and Wayne Rooney by Rory Patterson, as fans favourites, and being the superstars that they aren’t then they love it.

Instead of roaring on Manchester United club captain Gary Neville FCUM fans are also having to get used to backing a Manchester City fan, Dave Chadwick, as their skipper and whilst Neville is believed to be on just under £60,000 a week Chadwick is getting by on a decent wage packet of £40,000 a year as a window fitter as well as “some expenses for a few beers after each game”. An engaging character Chadwick had like most of the players got involved after a phone call from FC United’s manager Karl Marginson just weeks before the season was due to get underway.

And whilst Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is rubbing along with a salary of £3.5 million a year spare a thought for Marginson who gets out of bed at 3.00am on six days a week to deliver fruit and veg in a job that earns him just £19,000 a year but means he is “finished just after dinner time and can concentrate on my football” for which he clearly has a talent, and one which, unlike Ferguson, has seen him lead his team to a league title this season.

Playing down his role Marginson says that after he attended one of the steering group meetings in May 2005 “it wasn’t that difficult getting players involved. I played at Division Two level and the things they were talking about at that meeting wouldn’t even be discussed at Division Two clubs.”

“I knew the belief was there. It has been very enjoyable, there has been no backbiting, it has been about getting this club up and running, it is a community club.”

Jules Spencer was one of those on the ‘self-appointed’ steering group. He admits that at the start the aim was to “bring together fans from different backgrounds” that could “in a matter of weeks get things sorted and get a team into a league”.

Determined however that the club would be run democratically a Special Annual General Meeting was held in July 2005 and along with others Jules put himself up for election to the board of directors. He was successful, a board of 11 was elected, nine had of whom had been on the original steering group.

Half the positions on the board will be up for re-election shortly, 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.

Jules said that “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 work together”.

He admits that 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 2nd place was as good as anything I can remember”.

And what of those fans that have torn up the North West Counties figures for record attendances? Don’t for 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 standing next to their mates, kids running around at the front of the stand and a healthy sprinkling of families.

At the Chadderton away game on April 19th April that was played at Oldham Athletic’s ground over 90% of those present in the 2,352 crowd were backing FC United, resulting in “record gate receipts for us” said the Chadderton Treasurer Ian Cefferty “helping after expenses to put around seven thousand pounds into our coffers”. Chadderton’s previous highest gate of the season was 101.

Three days later at Gigg Lane, Bury where FC United have played their home games this season the players picked up the League Trophy in front of 6,000 fans.

And people are enjoying themselves, which is after all what the game of football is all about. Martin Walker, a former Manchester United season ticket holder for many years remarked that 2005-06 had “been one of the best seasons ever for watching football” whilst for Chris Hammond, speaking at a Supporters Group meeting in early April, “the great thing about FC United is the community element, we’ve got a little community building up, and there’s lot of ideas flying around, probably too many, but we’ve got to give them a try.”

Meanwhile Rob Petts praised the example of AFC Wimbledon. This was the club established after the Football League agreed that Wimbledon could uproot from their South London home and re-locate to that hot bed of football Milton Keynes in 2004. The one time Manchester United season ticket holder said “Without their example it would have been a lot more difficult to get FCUM started,” Petts provided a perfect summary for why the club was established when he said that “fans are being priced out of the game. Football has got to change; it’s only a matter of time before the G14 super rich clubs fall 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. “

It’s not just silverware, it seems, that FC United are blazing a trail for.