Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A big year for FC United

Written by Nick Royle

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

With Old Trafford 23,000 below capacity on Tuesday night for Manchester United’s Carling Cup tie with Middlesbrough, FC United fans could be forgiven for cracking an unsympathetic smile.

The founders of the club, set up by Manchester United supporters disgusted by the growing commercialism of the game and the Glazer takeover, have been warning that United’s business model was unsustainable, and that there would inevitably be a backlash from those who buy tickets every week.

With a recession around the corner, and ticket prices and ancillary costs such as travel inexorably rising, their prediction seems to be coming to fruition.

However, FC United fans would be advised not to be too smug. I was at FC United’s Unibond Premier Division game on Saturday against Worksop Town, and I detected a feeling that supporters feel that this is a critical year for their club, too.

Three promotions in three years since its 2005 inception mean that FC United are just three promotions from the Football League. Already, there are tensions within the fan-run club at the price of this success.

Fans in 2005 knew what they were against. They were against Glazer, and the debt-incurring takeover. Ask those fans in 2008 what they are for, however, and you would get an array of answers.

The pragmatist wing of the club wants to continue this remarkable journey, and go all the way to the Football League. At the back of their minds is the thought that they could one day draw Manchester United in the FA Cup or the Carling Cup, and the differences in motivation between the two clubs could be shown in sharp focus to a wider audience.

The fundamentalists are happy enough to keep their integrity, and that inevitably means that the club needs to stay rooted in non-league football. What is important for them is that football is played at 3pm on a Saturday, and that their club does not sell out.

It has caused a schismatic debate at the club, as the club’s success continues. Many fans were unhappy at the Unibond’s League insistence that the players wear the sponsors patches on their shirt, and the club’s members voted on the issue at the start of the season.

One contributor to the match programme wondered what would happen should FC United reach the first round of the FA Cup. In all probability, a TV company would want to show the game, and may ask for the fixture to be moved. What would the fans do if Setanta Sports asked the game to be played on a Sunday? Would they say no in their vote on the issue, out of principle, and risk a long-term ban from the FA Cup?

And if they say yes, could they not be accused of ‘following the dollar’ as eagerly as the Glazer-owned Manchester United, albeit on a smaller scale.

It is therefore fortuitous that FC United this year may have found their level on the football pitch. After the three promotions, FC United have started the season slowly, and sit in 12th place with just three wins from nine games.

It perhaps needs a season of consolidation on the pitch for those fans to reconcile amongst themselves just what they want from their club.

They need to work out whether the FC United experiment should compromise and accept moral relativity, or risk stagnation in order to keep their fundamental ideals intact.