Thursday, November 18, 2010
Andy Hudson describes the joys of following a community, co-operative football club - and travels with FC United of Manchester fans to experience one of the greatest nights in their short history:
A curry house in Rusholme sounds an unlikely setting for a revolution, but over chapattis came final consensus that modern football was out of touch with its fans. The story of what happened in 2005 when Malcolm Glazer knocked on the door of Old Trafford and demanded the richest club in the world be saddled with huge debts has been well documented, especially during the week that FC United of Manchester introduced themselves to the nation by defeating Rochdale, who currently play a whole four divisions above them, live on TV in the FA Cup. Suddenly the media and football fans were either queuing up to love them or lining up to run them down.
We live in a time where football fans have less say than ever in how their football club is managed but over in Manchester it is the fans of FC United that make their own decisions. All members have an equal say in what happens and if they don't agree then they will display that first through debate and then through a 'one member one vote' system.
The decision to move the Rochdale game for television caused debate across the members' base - many were in favour of the move while there were those who refused to attend due to the change from a 3pm kick-off on Saturday. For a club that sinks every spare penny they have into the development fund for their new stadium, the £67,500 TV money makes a significant contribution towards running costs after yearly losses. Make no mistake, FC United are far from flush with money, and still refuse to consider a shirt sponsor. Being without their own ground brings many problems, such as paying rent to Bury FC for the use of Gigg Lane and fixture clashes with their landlords resulting in home games already having to be moved to other dates. Agreeing to move a game so that it can be televised on a Friday night, 5 miles from where they usually play, is different to a forced change when the game is in London for example; something that fans of 'big' clubs have experienced on a regular basis in the past.
Where FCUM really lead the way in how football clubs conduct themselves is through their community schemes. The club is a co-operative and their groundbreaking initiative to raise funds for the stadium development at Ten Acres Lane, Newton Heath offers fans a chance to buy community shares and own a part of their community's regeneration. As General Manager Andy Walsh stated, "This is a landmark opportunity to invest in a club bringing football back to the heart of its communities and leave a lasting legacy for future generations". Newton Heath suffers from a number of problems, such as education, skills and employment issues, activity provision and crime. Football can play a role within communities as part of a broader regeneration strategy and FCUM have prioritised developing projects with socially excluded young people, providing positive and healthy activities and providing education and skills development. FC Community Coach Steve Bennett explains that "working within the community of Manchester is an integral part of the work that FC provides. We work in inner city schools with every age group and support multi-sports, nutrition and out of school activities. FC encourage parents to bring their children to the games and we often put transport on to get them to Bury, in the hope that when the move is made to Newton Heath there is a strong fan-base of young kids."
FCUM were one of the first clubs in the country to offer a pay-what-you-can-afford season ticket, which raised more money than charging a set price the previous season, and as part of the TV agreement with Rochdale they managed to agree on a reduced ticket price for the match so that attendance was more affordable to both sets of fans.
The fans actively participate in anti-racism projects and are one of the few teams to be invited to play in the annual Antira football tournament, organised by the fans of the German club FC St Pauli, where anti-fascist and anti-racism ideas are discussed and networks and friendships forged with fans from teams such as Sampdoria, FC Winterthur and Fortuna Düsseldorf. To many FCUM fans the politics are of utmost importance, this being a club that for some time have actively encouraged gay and unwaged supporters to attend their matches.
Under the direction of Robin Pye, FCUM have recently launched a 16 week apprentice scheme aimed at 16-19 year olds, of either gender, who are out of employment and not in further education. The focus is not on personal football ability but on developing skills that one can use on a personal level and within the community. There are a number of FCUM volunteers working on their coaching badges, which the apprentices will also work towards, and sessions are regularly arranged for kids across all areas of Manchester. Manager Karl Maginson, who sold asparagus as a fruit and veg man when he first became manager of FCUM, now spends his week travelling around Manchester with Roy Soule, another member of the FC management team, coaching in schools, youth offenders institutes and prisons as two of ten community coaches who also run FC's Community Sports Leaders Award.
This volunteer sense strongly prevails at FCUM. Not only do members help out on match days but you'll often find the office staffed by folk doing a few hours of work here and there. It was estimated that 200 volunteer hours managed to get FCUM Radio (http://www.fcumradio.co.uk/) on-air during October 2010 and along with live radio commentary of every match there is also streamed 'television' coverage available online.
The atmosphere so loved by the watching television audience for the Rochdale match wasn't a show for the cameras. Karl Marginson once described FCUM as a 90/90 club, where "90% of the fans sing for 90 minutes". I've been to the glamour grounds of Rochdale, FC St Pauli and Ramsbottom United and Margy is wrong: it's more like 99% of the fans singing for over 90 minutes. Before the teams make their way out for kick-off there's the chant of "bring on United" which reaches a crescendo just as the teams emerge from the tunnel. The noise then continues unabated for the rest of the match. The difference between attending a Premier League match and going to watch FCUM is simple: the atmosphere is vastly improved watching FC; whereas most Premier League grounds struggle to produce 6 different songs during a match, you are likely to witness over 15 at FC; and you get flags at FC. Lots of them. For those with any experience of German football, the fan culture is more aligned to our Teutonic cousins than to our fellow countrymen.
And what specifically of that Rochdale match? I joined the Stockport branch for the day, meeting up at a pub for a 5.30pm coach departure time. I arrived at 2pm expecting the pub to be quiet. Giddiness had gotten the better of some of the members (I mean when was the last time you were able to watch the team you co-own make their FA Cup First Round debut?) who were already flowing with beer. A packed pub then embarked on a slow coach journey, Manchester's traffic allowing us to progress at a speed similar to that of the Cup winners on their open-top bus trip in May, before ditching us outside of Spotland and the Krypton Factor like challenge of getting served inside the Church Pub, just along from the Willbutts Lane stand which had been given over in it's entirety to FC for the evening.
Standing just to the right of the ESPN commentary team, Jon Champion (who had made a special appearance on the live FCUM Radio commentary the week before against Ossett Town) and Craig Burley (who had been making a brew for the FCUM Radio team prior to kick-off), at the back of the stand I witnessed a tornado of red, black and white cascade down below me. The night was freezing and the steam rising from 3,200 voices singing in unison could have powered Stephenson's Rocket to far flung destinations such as Vancouver and Sydney where official supporters' clubs were watching live. Nicky Platt scored just before half-time and the guy in-front had me in a massive bear hug. Jake Cottrell scored a tremendous goal just after half-time, a goal that would be analysed over-and-over again if it were scored in the Premier League, and the noise volume of the crowd seemed to double. Whereas most fans would be subdued if their team were then pegged back to 2-2, the Punk Football that The Red Rebels sing about was displayed; defiance, a "you've equalised, so what?" attitude prevalent and the singing continued. And then there was Mike Norton bundling the ball from the 'keeper to score with seconds left. Voices eventually started to crack; throats would be sore.
FCUM will play Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup Second Round. Many FC fans immediately cast their mind back to the 1983 FA Cup Final. That year they supported the overwhelming favourites; this year they support the overwhelming underdogs. Steve Bennett, who is also the radio commentator for FC told me, "I fond memories of that game as it is my first FA Cup memory, but now we are FC United of Manchester. The spirit and camaraderie between the two groups of fans is already apparent as a number of Brighton fans have been up to FC. This is an opportunity to express ourselves and show that community, co-operative football is the way forward. We're still on a high after beating Rochdale and the management of FC will be going into the game feeling they can win. From the fans perspective it's all about the weekend, meeting new fans and flying the flag for co-operative football clubs. The more we can achieve the better it will be for the co-operative movement within football."
The FA Cup party continues but the real one began over 5 years ago when these fans started something that every football fan wants: a club that appreciates their love.