Oh, FC United!

Posted on June 13th, 2006 in Football, Published Writing

Written for Supporters Direct’s quarterly magazine in 2006, reviewing life at fan-owned football co-operative FC United of Manchester, one year after their formation in May 2005 soon after the Glazer family’s takeover at Manchester United.

When it was first reported that disgruntled fans of Manchester United were thinking of starting their own team, many in the football world scoffed. Some couldn’t see the point, whilst others couldn’t see that it would work.

There was certainly scepticism amongst many football administrators and club officials in the leagues where the new club was being touted to play. More than one thought that such a club would be little more than a three-game protest. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The people behind the idea like beating the odds. Many cut their teeth on anti-ID card campaigns back in the late 80s, and had been protesting at the increasing commercialisation at Old Trafford, and had their finest hour defying the world by stopping Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the club back in 1999. But for a group of people used to campaigning against the way football was going, how have they found being in charge?

General Manager Andy Walsh is a veteran of all those protests. An instinctive organiser with a quiet moral force that commands respect, he has been running the club with help from Secretary Luc Zentar, and more recently some additional staff. His manner has got more than a hint of a modern urban priest about it, and Walsh’s flock is a diverse bunch.

There’s die-hard Glazer refuseniks, who’ve vowed to never go back to Old Trafford, to people who can’t pull away and watch both clubs. There’s people who are sick of the way the top flight football ‘experience’ seems to have little place for them, to people who simply couldn’t afford to watch Premiership football.

All this reflects that there’s always been more to the FC United story than Malcolm Glazer. Walsh himself notes that when he was younger, his father took him to watch the club aged 5. When he wished to take his two sons, he found he struggled to be able to find three seats together for the family, and still less afford them. There’s a palpable sense that the football club, as a rite of passage for families to chart their lives, was breaking down and FC United have a keen sense of restoring that function.

Walsh says ‘we want affordability, excitement, and a sense of community’ and with over 59,000 paying to watch the club play at Gigg Lane this year, not to mention thousands who followed them sway, they’ve clearly tapped into something. They’ve even had fans of other clubs coming along similarly delighted to find a passionate atmosphere at an affordable price.

Those numbers have increased the average attendance in the North West Counties Second Division by 450%, echoing a similar impact that AFC Wimbledon had in the Combined Counties League.

What’s been a source of great delight has been the youthfulness of those crowds, with over 25% under 16. For many, it’s their first real experience of being a match-going fan.

But such numbers can create problems too, but Walsh says that their fanbase has taken an active role in self-policing. It works, he says, because the whole point of the club is to empower fans to take control and responsibility. He says too many clubs have moved away from a simple test – is something good for the club’s fans? It might be good for the manager, the players or the officials, but if it is isn’t good for the fans, then it shouldn’t be done. It sounds simple enough, but Walsh is talking about the actual fans as they exist, not a hypothetical set of fans that, as they don’t actually exist, can be made to support anything the board likes.

Indeed, that crucial step means that instead of people constantly arguing about doing what is best for the club, with the Board meaning one thing, and fans groups meaning another, at FC United, the answer is whatever the fans think. The club is constituted as an IPS, so there’s no club board and a trust board. Fans elect the Board directly, and every member owns one-share in the club.

It sounds like Barcelona, and the parallels run deeper than that. Joan Laporta shared a platform with Walsh back in 1999, when both were trying to gain power within their clubs. Laporta famously became President in 2002, whilst Walsh has had top take a different route.

Like Barcelona, the club don’t have a shirt sponsor, a move confirmed by members in a vote. As Walsh says, money is not the problem itself, but what money does, and where it goes and what you end up having to do to get it.

There’s a real sense that the club wants to like others in many respects, in other ways there’s a real sense of making a difference. Walsh agrees that there’s a sense at the club that they’re redefining what clubs can and should be, rather than simply trying to be like others, only fan-run. For example, the club aren’t against sponsorship, and the official club sponsor is the Bhopal Medical Appeal, for the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in India in 1984.

They recently played a friendly against Lok Leipzig in eastern Germany, against the advice and wishes of many people within Germany who felt that this would reward a club with far-right and hooligan reputation. Walsh shared the concern, but felt the club could make more impact by using their credibility to underscore an anti-racist message, and give a voice to the forces of progress within Lok. It wasn’t the easiest decision, but it was probably the braver one, which seems indicative of the way in which the club approach things.

Walsh says that he has a diverse board working with him, covering a range of talents, to old campaigners to entrepreneurs. He’s convinced that whilst sometimes, decisions take a bit longer, they’re better decisions for having been debated, rather than forced through by dint of personality, or shareholding.

Asked where the club’s community is, playing as it does in Bury but called ‘FC United of Manchester’ and he’s unequivocal. ‘Our community is Manchester’, and it’s clear that the club has no ambitions upon the local support from Bury or any of their near neighbours.

They also know that they are unlikely to be able to have a youth programme of any note given the comparative resources in a crowded football market in Manchester.

They can, however, make an impact upon local grassroots football by turning their fans into volunteers to assist local junior football clubs, like the one Walsh himself runs in his increasingly scare spare time. The club are also moving onto revenue sharing with smaller junior clubs who they can get to sell tickets fort matches. FCUM get the benefit from more people, and the clubs selling get some much-needed funds.

So after a year of running the club, of promotion and proving the doubters wrong, what is his own biggest source of satisfaction? He’s quick to reply that in appointing Karl Marginson as manager, they found a man who shared their vision for an exciting team playing good football and who shares their vision for what they want to club to be.

And the name? FC United of Manchester was voted on by fans and was the clear choice, as was the badge. But it has a certain…phonetic quality. Does the club name offer a statement on the rest of football? Walsh smiles with a glint in his eye; ‘Rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it?’.

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