Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The Guardian Sport 21 Apr 2010
Source: The Guardian
The club, formed in protest at the Glazers' leveraged buy-out of Manchester United, are to build their own ground
While Manchester United supporters were deliriously celebrating Paul Scholes's vintage winner at Eastlands on Saturday some 500 followers of FC United, the club formed in 2005 by fans opposed to the Glazer family's takeover, were singing with customary passion throughout their own fixture – a 4-1 defeat at Boston United.
Such have been the lives of contrasts since the Glazers arrived and loaded United with all that debt, now standing at more than £700m. "Big" United have nevertheless won three Premier League titles and the European Cup, while FC United have grafted through three promotions in the northern non‑leagues, to this challenging season in the Unibond Premier Division.
At Old Trafford, the Manchester United Supporters Trust's (MUST) remarkable green and gold campaign has flowered, an expression of yearning for the founding values of Newton Heath, the original United club, rather than the financial speculation of the Glazers. Now FC United have revealed that they too are planning their own homage to that history, announcing an agreement with Manchester City Council to lease land for a new 5,000 capacity stadium – in Newton Heath.
The site, the Ten Acres Sports Complex, in need of refurbishment in the deprived east Manchester district, is close to where Newton Heath, formed by working men on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway in 1878, played their early, pre-United football in green and gold. Close by, on the other side of the former brickworks, is a small housing estate, its streets named after the Busby Babes who died in the 1958 Munich air crash, including Roger Byrne Close, Duncan Edwards Court, Eddie Colman Close.
"The site is close to Manchester city centre, which is vital to us," explains Andy Walsh, FC United's general manager, "but the historic and emotional tie is important, too. FC United is a different, alternative club for United fans, and we want to be true to the original Newton Heath heritage, part of the community and accessible to the ordinary working people of Manchester."
For a supporter-owned club whose banners at the current home ground, Bury's Gigg Lane, proclaim "punk football", the stadium plans have been meticulously professional. Working with lawyers, planners and accountants, many giving their time for free, FC have produced proposals for a stadium costing £3.5m, a project which will refurbish the sports centre and provide facilities for extensive use by residents living around the ground. The council has agreed a grant in principle, and FC have also applied for funding from the Football Foundation. They aim to raise the rest by issuing community shares to supporters, which will not provide a financial return and be non-voting, so as not to disturb the club's cherished one-member-one-vote democracy.
"The prospectus is being finalised at the moment," says Walsh, the former firebrand opponent of United's plc status, and the Glazer takeover, trying not to smile at his authorship of a share issue. FC United are growing up, developing a club embodying the values the fans felt were being sucked away at Old Trafford, keeping tickets affordable for the average 2,000 regulars, and becoming deeply engaged in community work. The stadium plan will be accompanied with an "asset lock", a legal agreement that the ground will not be separated from the club in the future and sold off.
A reminder of how important such protection is, and the roots of the movement for supporter ownership, arrived last week when Wrexham's former chairman, Mark Guterman, was disqualified from acting as a company director for seven years. For the purpose of agreeing to the disqualification, Guterman did not dispute that in 2002 he "exploited" Wrexham's "property assets" – the club's tenancy at the Racecourse Ground.
The freehold was transferred to a company owned by Guterman's partner, Alex Hamilton, – who is contesting the disqualification proceedings – and the club's lease changed to allow them to be evicted on 12 months' notice. Guterman did not dispute that the "the primary purpose" of the scheme was "for my own personal benefit and that of my business associate, rather than for the benefit of the [club]".
The modern idea for supporter-owned clubs, in fact a reclaiming of most clubs' original status, was born at the Butchers Arms in Northampton in 1992 when Brian Lomax, a Liberal party member and Town fan, was bemoaning the running of the club. Lomax's notion, that supporters should own shares and have a say in the club, led to him and fellow fans forming a democratic trust. That idea impressed the Labour Government's Football Task Force, and led to the establishment in 2000 of Supporters Direct, with Lomax as the managing director, to help fans establish trusts more widely.
They have now been formed at more than 150 clubs in England, Wales and Scotland, and this season, due largely to MUST's green and gold campaign, and this season supporter ownership has become an ideal understood by the mainstream mass of fans. The facts are known more widely than ever before; the football public are aware that Barcelona and Bayern Munich are owned, respectively, by 100% and more than 50% of their supporters. Remarkably, the Labour and Conservative parties' election manifestos both carry plans to extend supporter ownership in Britain.
The efforts being finalised by the "Red Knights" to mount a bid to buy United from the Glazers represent the journey's most significant outpost yet – a selection of multimillionaires preparing to agree that a football club is not for financial exploitation, but should be owned without delivering a large return, with supporters enabled to buy a growing stake. Led by the Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill, the Red Knights are understood to be ensuring all the investors are committed to that ethos, before they sign up.
Yet the Red Knights' plans also illustrate the basic stumbling block supporters trusts have met in seeking to establish themselves in the past decade: access to cash. Several have heroically rescued much smaller clubs, including York City and Chesterfield, out of catastrophe, then been forced by financial pressures to hand them over to businessmen. Exeter City are the only Football League club currently still wholly owned by their fans, while significant stakes are held at Lincoln City and Swansea. The handing over of Notts County by its trust to the mirage of Munto Finance stands, though, as an object lesson of what not to do.
If the political parties are genuine about extending fan ownership and representation in clubs valued at many millions, they will have to flesh out detail of how, practically, it can be done. In the age of billionaire owners, ordinary fans, however committed to the mutual ideal, have struggled to find resources.
In the meantime FC United are showing what can be achieved when starting from the beginning, with loyalty, defiance, and a backbone of work.