March 23, 2011
One day in May 2005, a disgruntled group of 12 Manchester United fans shared a curry. As they ate naan bread and poppadoms, they talked about plans to set up a breakaway club in protest at the sale of United to the Glazer family. It would be run as a co-operative and staffed by volunteers.
The idea for FC United had been around for years but this curry house chat directly led to the club being formed. This season, nearly six years on, the team reached the second round of the FA Cup.
The beginnings of the club feature in a new book examining how people across the country are coming together to achieve things, and get a sense of community.
Author Henry Hemming believes there has been a revival of small groups in Britain, be they book clubs, bee-keeping societies or fan-owned football clubs. He says instead of experiencing community in the traditional ways, in neighbourhoods or institutions like the church, we are finding it in groups with people bound together by a common interest or concern.
“I set out to write a book about broken Britain,” says Henry, who is a London-based journalist and broadcaster. “A lot of evidence in recent years has suggested that we are less well connected to the world around us and that institutions that previously brought people together, like the church, have lost influence.
“There is this idea that people lead lonely lives in which they don’t get involved with other people. I found, in fact, the opposite is true. People are getting together but just in different ways.
“They don’t meet in the street or in the church, they meet because of common interests. It’s possible to know very few of your neighbours but to experience a sense of community through the groups you are involved in.”
The emergence of FC United demonstrates his point perfectly, he claims. “It’s a remarkable example of what people can do when they work together and form their own group.
“If you wanted to set up a football club today most people would assume you would need lots of cash. Instead FC United was set up and run by volunteers. It grew out of people investing their time and energy into it.”
Henry himself plays five-a-side football (“badly”), attends a reading group and a creative writing class. “This idea that people sit at home and watch TV on their own just doesn’t add up.
“If you speak to the national federations of sports or the governing bodies of organisations you can see that more and more people are taking part in
activities and joining groups.
“There are at least 900,000 civil societies according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Yet we rarely hear about the people that are part of these groups.”
In his book, Together, Henry looks at a variety of groups including ramblers, rotary clubs, allotments associations and literary societies. He attributes greater mobility as one reason why people are getting together more, but states that the rise of the internet has been the key driver of the growth in small groups.
“It makes it easier to find people who share your interests. It has played a big part because groups can form
online, meet up and then promote themselves and attract more members on the internet.”
So, who are these people who have the time on their hands to dedicate hours to small groups? “People in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are more likely to join up. People are living longer and enjoying longer and more active
retirements. That has played a big part in this trend.”
Henry spent three years researching Together. His findings appear to make pleasing reading for the government, who are hoping to inspire us all to take more of a role in our communities through the Big Society. But the controversial idea to get groups to provide services is not something Henry believes can work.
“I think there is a subtle difference between what is happening in terms of small voluntary groups in Britain today and the government’s idea of a Big Society.
“I don’t think small amateur groups could take over a service. It’s not practical to imagine, for example, a reading group running a library because of the hours involved and the level of professionalism needed.” But, surely, in the case of FC United, a group of fans owning their own club and running it according to their principles, is exactly what the Big Society is all about?
“The club began as an independent project. It was created in reaction to something, as a protest, and that was the attraction and what drew people together.
“That is very different to running something for the government.”
So if this growth in small groups won’t help the Big Society, is it a good thing? Henry certainly thinks so.
“We become healthier and happier when we come together as a group,” he says. “We can achieve more together than we can on our own, it gives us a sense of belonging, and offers us a break from our busy lives.”