It’s almost ten years since a group of Manchester United fans, disillusioned with the corporate greed taking over the game and, in particular, their beloved club, set up FC United of Manchester.
When the Glazers assumed control at Old Trafford in May 2005 it was the final insult for hard-core supporters. But this protest movement against big business in football wasn’t just about the new owners from Florida. This was about ticket price hikes, astronomical wages and a growing disassociation with the club they’d grown up with and the players they’d spent a lifetime idolising.
At the time, FC United were written off my many as a fad that would be over by Christmas. Today they are thriving and are just weeks away from moving into their new £6 million home at Broadhurst Park in Moston, a couple of miles down the road from Manchester United’s original base in Newton Heath.
Alongside their new stadium, which will hold 4,500 fans on match days, there will be all-weather pitches, function rooms and classrooms to provide for the first team, the women’s team, the youth team and the wider community. The fans have raised nearly £3 million to make it happen. It’s an exciting moment in their history; the year when they move from being a nomadic club without a place to call their own to one with a brand new, purpose-built and permanent home.
On the day I visit, FC United face AFC Fylde in the third round of the FA Trophy. It’s a home tie but they’re playing at Curzon Ashton FC’s Tameside Stadium where they’ve been for much of the season. As I arrive there are a few people around but not many. I’m met by the club’s press chief Andy Walker who takes me to the top of the ground’s main stand where the tea urn is getting some pre-match action. Also there is former bookie Mike Platt, looking resplendent in a suit and tie, who has been a loyal volunteer at the club for the last eight years and now sorts out the half-time draw.
“I just love the freedom,” Platt says when I ask him why he switched from supporting Manchester Utd to volunteering at FC United most weekends. “I just love the camaraderie. I love the caring, the understanding, the passion, that you don’t get at big football any more.”
After 40 years of going to see Manchester Utd play both home and away, Platt tells me how he fell out of love with with the club because of massive wage demands and a sense of disconnection with the players and club officials. I ask him if he’s looking forward to moving into the new stadium at Broadhurst Park. “Yeah, it’ll be alright,” he says. “But the journey will be far better than the experience of being in there. The journey’s been great. ”
Walker talks about the delays the club has faced getting into a new home, a venue in which they were supposed to play their first match before Christmas. He reckons they’ll be able to play their first game there by the end of March, once the main stand is finished. It’s being built from steel salvaged from Northwich Victoria’s old ground and there have been “logistical issues” regarding the construction. “We could have built it from scratch but it was the right thing to do,” he says.
I ask Walker how the delays will affect the club’s bottom line.
“It doesn’t matter,” Platt says, walking past. “It does matter,” Walker shoots back. He explains that their business plans had included an earlier moving in date and every week they’re based elsewhere represents lost revenue from gate receipts, food and drink sales, function room and classroom hire and all-weather pitch hire.
With about half an hour until kick-off, flags are appearing around the ground and the buzz in the air is intensifying. The top of the main stand is buzzing too, filling up with co-owners waiting for the biggest match of the season so far. The bar next door is usually open but there’s a party here today.
“We didn’t think we’d get this far in the FA Trophy so they’ve booked a wedding,” Platt says.
“I find a quiet corner with Andy Walsh, FC United’s general manager, to find out what he thinks of the last ten years and what he hopes the next decade will bring.
As I start asking a question, Walsh politely interrupts me to ask Walker whether he’s got a picture of “Spenner”, otherwise known as goalkeeper James Spencer who is warming up on the pitch. Spenner has just returned to training after a year out with a cruciate ligament injury. Walker agrees that it’s a good idea to get a photo of all four goalkeepers and he heads down to the pitch to sort it out.
“He’s a bit of a head-the-ball really,” Walsh says, referring to Spenner. “Like any keeper worth their salt.”
“They’re a different breed aren’t they,” I suggest.
“I was a keeper as well,” Walsh says, laughing. “So was Andy Walker.”
Ten years on, how would you summarise where you are now?
“Kris Stewart, who was the founding chairman and chief exec at AFC Wimbledon, said to us at the Apollo before we created FC United that it’d be incredibly hard work, but it’d be exciting and you’d have the time of your lives. And that’s all been true. We were very bitter and mournful about losing the battle to stop the Glazers taking over at United and [felt] a great sense of loss really. Still now. But our greatest achievement is building something positive out of that loss. And while it still hurts me that the Glazers are still in control at Old Trafford, I’m immensely proud of what our supporters have achieved here.”
When you look at everything now, with the new stadium just weeks away from being ready, and everything that’s happening on and off the pitch, is this more than you thought you could achieve when you started out?
“Yeah, simply,” admits Walsh. “Yeah.”
Did you have any idea that, some day, you would be at the point of building a £6 million stadium?
“No. Didn’t have a clue,” says Walsh. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. All we knew was we were against the way that football was going and the Glazers were the bitter cherry on top of that cake. It was the thing that sparked a number of people, including myself, putting our season tickets in. It wasn’t an easy decision for any of us.
“I’d already applied for my season ticket and my then 11-year-old son and my dad, who are both coming to FC now, both said ‘well, we’re not going back, you’d better go and un-apply for the season tickets’. I had to go to Old Trafford and put a letter in withdrawing my application and it took me a good 15 to 20 minutes sat in the car park to actually pluck up the courage to go and do it, which sounds a bit daft, but it was a gut-wrenching feeling handing that letter in.
“My kids saw Old Trafford before they saw our house because Old Trafford was between our house and Salford Hope Hospital. The football club defines you. Luke Chadwick, who was playing for Cambridge last night, formerly a United player, contacted Cambridge and said I want to play for you before I retire because you’re my hometown team. It matters to people, and people who don’t follow football don’t understand that. But it’s a cultural thing, and I’m very proud to be part of it as this club, I’m very proud that this club holds true to what we believe to be Manchester values of fairness, openness and democracy.”
When you look now at ten years of the Glazers, do you feel vindicated? Do you feel regret?
“The regrets are to do with the Glazers taking over and the fact that the football authorities have such poor governance that they allow somebody who has nothing to do with the football club, no care for the football club, to come in and use the football club’s assets themselves to perform a leveraged buyout. That’s the regret.”
Walsh adds: “I’m immensely proud of what we’ve done here. I’m still a Man Utd fan and I’ll be a Man Utd fan till the day I die, but I’m not going to support the Glazers’ business model. If they’ve created business models of that nature in football I want nothing to do with it. But I’m still a United fan. So it’s a difficult question for many of us to face. It’s difficult for people who still follow United to understand. But if football defines you, then I’m proud that this football club defines me because of the openness that there is here and the commitment that people have shown. If a couple of thousand people can build their own football ground and have the impact that we’ve had, that should give encouragement to football fans at any club that they too can build a club that they can be proud of. Don’t complain about your owners, do something about it.”
I wonder if FC United will grow further when they’ve got that new ground, the permanent base and the community facilities.
“We expect so. We don’t know,” says Walsh. “But that’s the hope. I can’t see it waning. The interest in the football club has grown. You look at the interest we’ve got on social media, just leading up to this game today, the number of people who’ve got in touch today is just incredible. We’ve got a huge periphery of people who support us. Out of our 1,500 season ticket holders, at any one time there’s 400 of them that don’t come to the game. They’ve bought a season ticket because they want to be part of the club.”
Are you loving it?
“Not all the time, no,” says Walsh. “Sometimes it’s very, very hard. The first two or three years was an absolute nightmare, to be honest, because I was battling with handing my season ticket in, and it was hard work. It’s still 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Again, talking about Kris Stewart [AFC Wimbledon founder], I rang him about six months in and I said ‘when does it let up?’ And he just laughed and said, ‘didn’t I tell you about that? It doesn’t’.”
What would it mean to get to the final of the FA Trophy?
“Ask me that question when we’re a bit closer,” reflects Walsh. “We’ve got a big game today. You don’t think about finals, you think about the game. Not being trite or anything but you start thinking about anything other than the game you’re playing, that’s the day you lose.”
By now the ground is full and the fans in the packed-out terrace on the opposite side are in fine form, belting out songs and creating a frenzied atmosphere. The players respond and batter AFC Fylde in the first half, scoring three unanswered goals to lead 3-0 at the break. As the skies darken the away side digs in and scores after weathering a period of pressure, then FC United take control and see the match out to win 3-1. The ensuing pitch invasion is spontaneous and joyous but there are still some sensible heads around.
“Please leave the pitch,” a voice says over the tannoy. “It is against FA rules and you could get your club in trouble.” A fan standing by the touchline laughs and shouts to one running pitch invader: “Get off the pitch, man. You’re 48-years-old.” The pitch invader beams and keeps going. It reminds me of something Andy Walker said before the match. “It’s different when you’re a co-owner.”
Photos by Guy Kilty