Thursday, February 01, 2007

Going underground

Source: Guardian Unlimited

The success of FC United shows that, for those who feel lost in the consumer swamp of the Premiership, there is a genuine alternative, says Tony Howard

Friday February 2, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

When FC United were formed in the summer of 2005, many felt that a return to form for Manchester United would lead to fans returning to Old Trafford in their droves. But despite the form shown by Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney et al, FC United of Manchester continue to pack them in.

Thousands of fans have no regrets about walking away from the Premiership and all it entails. They are enjoying the freedom, affordability and the surprisingly good standard of football that the lower leagues have to offer.

They are even involved in a title race of their own: FC United are in a five-way battle for the North West Counties Division One crown with Salford City, Curzon Ashton, Nantwich Town and Maine Road FC, the club formed by Manchester City fans in 1955.

In a modern-day football world in which those in silk ties take precedence over those in scarves, the mini-versions of Manchester's reds and blues offer a bright vision of a possible football future.

Wouldn't it be great if all those fans who have uttered the words "modern football is rubbish" would turn their backs on it and effectively start from scratch, as Manchester United fans have done, by creating models of how their clubs should be run? We can but hope.

Admittedly, Maine Road were formed in a different era, as a supporters' club to give fans something to do on Sundays, but why can't City fans forget their boycotts and pyjama protests (as they did to highlight the ridiculously early kick-off against Everton last season) and drive down the Mancunian Way to their own fan-run version?

In recent weeks Blackburn chairman John Williams bleating about attendances, many City fans boycotting the match at Bolton and most of their home games, and the remaining Manchester United fans complaining about Fulham's £45 tickets - which seemingly includes a stealth tax for being Manchester United - for the forthcoming Premiership contest. The United fans will still be there at Craven Cottage, but they won't be eating all the pies.

There have also been misgivings from supporters of Liverpool and Everton about their potential ground moves, which will take them further away from their proud histories and traditions. But those at the top of our national game will carry on hitting supporters in the pocket as long as the fans continue to attend.

In truth, all the protestations from supporters' groups and fan representatives ring a bit hollow - many whinge, but seldom do they follow through their threats or do anything to alter their situations. They allow the powers that be to exploit their loyalty. Until they realise that fans are the true owners of football, nothing will change.

"We can't walk away" is a common cry. Why not? If they treat you like a customer, why not act like one? Not going to Premiership matches (or the increasingly pricey football league grounds) does not mean you have to be lost to live football forever. There is an alternative, as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester have successfully shown.

One of the saddest consequences of football's big-business rebranding is the fact that very few supporters can now say they follow their team, week in week out, due to price rises and difficulties in procuring those valuable match tickets.

But the club formed by Manchester United supporters have enabled thousands of reds to carry on that tradition. Giving up the Premiership was not easy, but FCUM supporters have managed to keep the momentum going in their second season, with average home crowds hovering around 3,000 and a consistent away following of 1,500-2,000.

They are thoroughly enjoying themselves and the football ain't bad either. They currently lie second behind Salford with six games in hand, having already scored 91 league goals - thanks in part to their own Giggs on the wing: Ryan's younger brother Rhodri.

What's more, they are also putting something back into the community of Greater Manchester with coaching sessions in schools, and they recently held an anti-racism day at their home ground, Gigg Lane.

There's a model for others to follow in place. The message coming out of Manchester is clear. To those supporters who feel isolated in the consumer swamp of the Premiership, borrow a slogan from one of football's richest and most influential companies: 'Just do it.' Go your own way. You won't regret it.