Stories and pictures of the beautiful game.
Stalybridge, in the outskirts of Manchester – on a normal National League North match day, only a few hundred spectators visit Bower Fold, home of Stalybridge Celtic FC. But today is special, today FC United of Manchester pay a visit and will be supported by the majority of the 1,775 fans on site. They are vociferous as always and self-confident, but there is also a lot of melancholy in one of their recurring songs:
“This is our club, belongs to you and me
We’re United! United FC!
We may never go home, but we’ll never feel down
When we build our own ground, When we build our own ground.”
You could see this song as a form of coming to terms with the past: in the wake of US billionaire Malcolm Glazer taking over their beloved club in 2005, Manchester United fans founded FCUM. They run their new club democratically and non-profit (“belongs to you and me”).
The line “We may never go home” expresses the sadness about losing Manchester United as they loved it. Many FCUM fans still have a bond with ManUtd – you can tell by looking at the merchandise they’re wearing at the Stalybridge match, even some kids who were clearly born after FCUM was founded are wearing ManUtd jerseys.
But the FCUM supporters are a very heterogeneous group – there are fans of all ages. The atmosphere is relaxed, you can tell that this is a place for friends to meet, enjoy their time and sing together. There is a lot of tongue and cheek involved, especially when burly men suddenly sing a song two octaves higher than their vocal chords should allow them to.
Within 10 years, the club has moved up from the tenth division to the sixth. During that time, they had to play in four different stadiums, but recently built their own: Broadhurst Park was opened in May of 2015, so the condition “when we build our own ground” is fulfilled and the line slightly rephrased to ”now we’ve built our own ground”. So are FCUM at home now? Is it time to settle down? And where is this journey going to take them?
The Stalybridge match was lost – 0:1 on a penalty in minute 51 and a red card for good measure. The greatest efforts on the pitch and on the terraces were to no avail. The club is in mid-table now, solid for a newly promoted team.
“We have to consolidate”, says Des, who is an FCUM board member – pro bono of course, just like the others. He confirms that, yes, the new stadium means the club is finally at home. The club doesn’t have to spend money on renting training facilities across town anymore, and all FCUM teams (first team, women, youth teams) are finally united at one place for the first time. The club could also start building a football academy.
The stadium’s current capacity is 4,400, but the aim is to have 5,000 in the end. That would also be the ideal attendance figure, but Des admits that this would be quite ambitious for Non-League Football – even for FCUM, who have a strong following.
When German “cult” clubs become overly popular, their fan bases constantly worry that the club’s identity and values will be diluted, that the newcomers are attracted by but don’t contribute much to the atmosphere. Des doesn’t share this fear: Broadhurst Park is supposed to attract new fans, and that is something „we should not be afraid of but welcome. It’s up to the longer standing members of FC to ‘educate’ (where needed) the new fans into the ways and beliefs of FC United and all that we stand for.”
It’s also not like massive amounts of saturated consumers are passing the turnstiles at Broadhurst Park – quite the opposite: a lot of the new fans never even went (i.e. were never able to afford to go) to a live football match before. Des is quite happy with the home games at the new ground so far, there is plenty of terracing and it was designed “to keep the noise in”. Even fans traveling from Germany are excited about the experience.
And where will the club be in years? “Consolidation” I’m reminded, “we’re still trying to adapt to the league that we’ve just been promoted into!”
From the next promotion onward, players would have to be hired full time – who will be able to pay for that? Would the members even want that?
Remember, it’s them who decide “when we step on the breaks“.
After all, that’s why FC United of Manchester was founded in the first place, as a polar opposite to the top flight alienating a large chunk of their fans with its excessive commercialization.
And the most important goals are completely off the pitch: Des hopes, that “the club is stable financially and that we have been successful in fully integrating the club into the local community”.
He’d also be a wealthy man, he claims, if he’d get a British Pound every time somebody asks him about what would happen, if FCUM drew Manchester United in the cup. And I may have made a fool of myself by asking the exact same question, and by inquiring what messages the fans might want to display at Old Trafford.
But many might not even be that excited, says Des, ManUtd is just a totally different world, and “being an FC fan is not about going back to Old Trafford and making a statement, being an FC fan is about owning your own football club and running that football club in a manner that is sustainable” FCUM fans embody their messages every day by what they do.
Yes, there are of course many FCUM fans and members who are also Manchester United supporters. But many stopped watching Premier League football, before FCUM was even founded. The reasons are well known: overpriced tickets or unsuitable kick-off times. But despite turning their backs on the TV leagues, many of those folks still consider themselves ManUtd fans (“hearts are still there”), and some of them even go to Old Trafford. But Des points out – and that appears to be part of the FCUM mentality – that “there are no rights or wrongs in this”, it’s up to the individual, and nobody sits on a moral high horse being judgmental.
For years, football professionals were telling them that simple football fans couldn’t run a club. Ten years after founding FCUM, they are moving into their own ground, and they are incredibly happy and proud. And keep singing: “now we’ve built our own ground, now we’ve built our own ground“
And many fan groups or football trusts now approach them and ask how they are actually doing all of that, how you run a club that is owned by its members. Des wishes all of them well and hopes for a bit of a domino effect: “Surely this is the best way forward for football.”
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