AN AWFUL lot of people seem to be getting their knickers in a twist about non-league football these days.
Some fans in Manchester, who once saved their wrath for the likes of ‘lucky' Liverpool, ‘dirty’ Leeds and ‘boring, boring’ Arsenal, now prefer to target their angst at a side in third place in the Unibond First Division North.
We’re talking, of course, about the breakaway side FC United.
Time, it seems, has done little to heal the wounds caused by the painful split when some United fans decided to form their own club in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s take-over at Old Trafford in 2005.
There is a vocal minority among United fans who come to see the self-styled Rebels as the enemy with some even going so far as to print stickers bearing the slogan: ‘Love United, Hate FC: Judas Scum’. Even Sir Alex Ferguson has had a pop, labelling FC fans as self-publicists.
The views of many FC detractors were neatly summed up in the letters page of last week’s Reporter by Terry Medford of Withington.
Mr Medford accuses FC of being a club born out of ‘spite and bitterness’ and accused its fans of revelling in knocking up cricket scores against teams with comparatively tiny resources.
As a season-ticket holder at Old Trafford, I had my own reservations about FC. A breakaway club was always going to divide fans whose strength had always come from being…well, united.
But curiosity soon got the better of me and I went along to my first FC game.
It was really quite something to be stood there that day shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of people all sharing a deep passion for something that hadn’t existed just a few weeks earlier - something they had worked together to build from nothing.
And nor had they forgotten what brought them together in the first place - their love for Manchester United.
Among the newly-created FC anthems ringing around the stands that day were old Stretford End favourites celebrating a love for United that was and remains undiminished.
Since that day, I’ve tried to go to FC as often as I can while at the same time still holding on to my season ticket for ‘Big United’.
There are two main charges critics often level at FC fans: they are ‘splitters’ who turned their backs on their team during a time of adversity and that they are the ‘Chelsea’ of non-league football with resources and attendances dwarfing those of their rivals.
Well, yes, FC do have larger crowds (around 2,500 for a home game) and consequently more money and greater player-pull, but why should they apologise for that? Their record - after last weekend - of eight wins, one draw and four defeats, hardly suggests an all-mighty force crushing all before it.
The labelling of FC fans as glory hunters seems to me the most ludicrous charge of the lot.
It is a strange kind of glory when you find yourself sat in the stands on a freezing ‘pea soup’ winter’s evening, as I did last year, watching FC battle their way to victory over Atherton Collieries in a bog in Leigh - especially for fans more familiar with watching European giants such as Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their visits to the Theatre of Dreams.
From day one, FC has been a broad church. Some fans see it as a way of protesting against Glazer rule, others as a way of enjoying football the way they used to before the terraces were replaced by sanitised all-seater stadiums.
But what all FC fans have found is a way of remaining as United fans in an age of soaring ticket prices and the relentless commercialisation.
Moving to another club was never an option. Supporting a team involves more than just watching football. It involves buying into an identity, a history, a brotherhood and a way of seeing the world.
Following a Premier League team is an expensive business these days, especially if you have children. But when the day comes that I am finally priced out of Old Trafford or forced to look elsewhere for regular football, I know I’ll have somewhere to go, somewhere where I belong.
Not all fans curdle with resentment at the thought of FC. The club has forged close links with the breakaway AFC Wimbledon, formed when their mother club moved from south-west London to Milton Keynes, and even groups such as Red Action opposing an attempted buy-out at Arsenal.
It took a Leeds fan to bring home to me what had been achieved at FC. After spotting my FC United away shirt during a recent five-a-side game, he told me that he had been hoping his club would do something similar following a summer of boardroom turmoil, but concluded: “We haven’t got the nous.”
In his letter, Mr Medford rightly warns that the future of football will depend on ‘true supporters’. But if he thinks fans are doing the game any favours by blindly shelling out for astronomically priced tickets or merchandise, he is wrong.
The creation of FC has sent out a message that there is another way. One that doesn’t mean giving up who you are.
And in the process they have struck a blow for football fans everywhere. It’s just that not everyone can see it yet.