Friday, May 26, 2006

To The Faithful, Departed


Article by The Editor

The ridiculously named FC United of Manchester is officially one year old on July 5th. This time last year, discussions were well underway to form the club in the wake of the Glazer take-over. It has been more successful than anybody could have imagined, winning promotion at the first attempt and attracting crowds of over 4,000. While the reaction to FCUM has been mixed amongst fellow United fans, the North West Counties club's aims and ethos are to be lauded.

The club was formed by a steering committee of just a few fans. But the following built quickly, spreading to those not only those sickened by what had happened to Manchester United, but fans disaffected by the commercialisation of top flight football in general. Indeed, in terms of following they are already the 88th biggest club in the land and growing rapidly.

The attraction is simple - everything that the Premiership no longer represents; standing, camaraderie, sport for the sake of sport and certainly not big business. This ethos was reflected in the club's constitution from the start - FCUM is a fan owned democracy that takes no shirt sponsorship and offers reasonable tickets prices.

Yet some United fans are antagonistic towards their newly crated cousin. Anti-FCUM banners have been seen at MUFC matches, with many Reds seeing the side's fans as 'splitters' or 'traitors.' But that attitude misses the point. Even though FCUM is a new club, which this reporter is yet to attend, their supporters still consider themselves to be Manchester United fans who refuse to go to Old Trafford while it is in the hands of the Glazers. It's a sentiment that many Old Trafford regulars fully understand.

Yet, the trend for fan owned democracies is growing rapidly, as a counter-balance to the multi-billion pound contracts in the Premiership. FCUM followed AFC Wimbledon down the path of mass ownership, the South London side's fans having seen their club stolen by greedy businessmen then transplanted to Milton Keynes. Bournemouth, Lincoln, Chesterfield, Exeter, York, Brentford, Telford and Stockport all now apply the same model. Abroad Real Madrid and new European champions Barcelona are democracies too, proving that it's a model that can work at all levels.

Why does it work? Because the fans, who fund the club, have a real say in the running of the club. Yes, there are different levels of commercialisation, with Real Madrid all about the mighty dollar at the other end of the scale from FCUM, but the same principle is at the heart of each club.

Barcelona on the other hand has always refused to take shirt sponsorship, despite doubling their revenues in the four years that Joan Laporta has been president. They may well change that policy but not the club's democratic ethos. Ticket prices at many of these clubs are also extremely reasonable, with television rights effectively subsidising entry to the stadium. Run by the fans, for the fans.

Not that fans can expect to have a say in running Manchester United soon, even if the Glazers' business model fails. It may be a pipe dream, despite the excellent efforts of MUST to generate enough cash to bid for the club one day. If the Glazers fail to pay back the debt by the earmarked dates, the club will be asset striped by the banks, leaving just the Manchester United name and little else. In that scenario, of catastrophic failure, the fans could come to own the club name but none of the bricks, mortar or players.

Meanwhile, FCUM will begin next season in the North West Counties Division One, nine rungs on the football ladder below MUFC. They now have the right to enter the FA Trophy, and with restructuring of the football pyramid ongoing, the club could find themselves in the professional leagues earlier than predicted. Interestingly, entry into the FA Cup will be possible in 2007/8 so a meeting between the two sides might come sooner than anybody expects.

It seems likely that FCUM will continue to grow, while the club's big brother across town is haemorrhaging fans who can no longer afford the sharply rising ticket prices. Indeed, the FCUM phenomenon ought to worry the suits at Old Trafford; they failed to sell all 4,000 new season tickets on offer for next season, ironically around the same number of people who are regularly attending FCUM matches.

It is to be hoped that one day both clubs and fans can be re-United, when Glazer and his cronies have left. Until that day most FC United fans still consider themselves to be a branch of MUFC. Here's to the faithful, temporarily departed.