United they stand
Sunday Star Times
The five-year-old protest vessel of legions of disgruntled Manchester United supporters, FC have stunned fans and opponents alike this season, initially knocking over first-division Rochdale in the opening round of the FA Cup, and then forcing Brighton into a second-round replay a few weeks later. That they were eventually swept aside 4-0 on Thursday by a team four divisions above them was no great shock. The much bigger surprise has been the traction so far gained.
Wholly community-owned, FC United were formed in 2005 by Manchester United supporters dismayed over the debt-laden takeover of their team by the USA's Glazer family. At present, playing out of the Bury club ground at Gigg Lane, they have more than 2000 members on their books, all of whom have one voting share in the organisation. Volunteers look after everything from ticket sales to pitch preparation. Last year, FC won the UK's Cooperative Excellence Award.
Whereas the mega-wealthy English Premier League clubs have abdicated any thoughts of community responsibility in their rush for profit, FC have deliberately resurrected the values of yesteryear. Ticket prices at Old Trafford start at 13.50 (for paid-up senior citizens); entry prices at Gigg Lane start at 2. Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney rakes in about 200,000 a week, FC's leading goal-scorer, Michael Norton, is a tiler paid 80 a game. The manager of the team, Karl Marginson, is a fruit and vege man. The side's first goalkeeper, Barry George, worked on the checkout at a local supermarket. It's old school stuff, with the players and coaching staff happily spreading their message each week at surrounding schools and hospitals, to the delight of the local borough councils. Indeed, FC's push to buy land for a new stadium at Newton Heath has been fast-tracked, such has been the depth of the goodwill fostered.
Yes, that's right, Newton Heath, not only the original birthplace of Manchester United, but one of the most deprived areas of the greater Manchester region. Before the move across town and the change of name in 1902, the club played in green and gold, the colours now flown in an anti-Glazer protest at every Manchester United game, home or away. Newton Heath, where eight streets are named after the players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster.
FC United are going a long way towards replicating the old club's philosophy and approach. They not only have a code of conduct for players and coaching staff, but also for their own supporters. Fans are encouraged to support their own team and also (shock, horror) the opposition; to show their appreciation for good play and to respect the decisions of the match officials. Booing is a no-no. Rather than simply reflecting community values, FC are trying to drive them.
If Prime Minister John Key and his cohorts really want an idea about where their funding priorities in sport should lie, they could get a hint from these guys. Rather than chasing the bucket of gold at all costs, FC have begun to strip their activity back to what really matters. Socially unacceptable on-field behaviours such as cheating, lying and opportunistic violence have been rejected out of hand. A commitment to the community is included in the constitution.
Not that they've lacked purpose in the competitive arena; in fact, far from it. In their first three years, the Rebels won a number of trophies and consecutive promotions into higher competitions. The 3-2 FA Cup win over Rochdale last month, watched by 4000 travelling FC fans, was a breathtaking result, the winning goal coming in the last minute of injury time. And to even draw with Brighton, currently leading the English FA's first division, was considered an outrageous achievement.
So well known have FC become, that they are now being courted by other cause celebre clubs throughout Britain and Europe. They travelled to Hamburg last season to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the St Pauli side, reportedly the most passionately anti-fascist club in Germany. They were also flown to Belfast for a match against Cliftonville, Ireland's oldest football team. For a club that started out as a protest movement, FC seems to be doing a lot more than merely oppose.
They sing as well, or at least their fans do. One of the recent favourites is apparently the Carpenters song "Top of the World", which was sung solidly by FC supporters for 30 minutes after the end of the Rochdale tie. There's also an adaption of that old Sex Pistols' number "Anarchy in the UK" ("I am an FC fan"). They even churn out some former favourites from Old Trafford, particularly about former star Eric Cantona, who previously went public with his support for their initiative.
It was about a year ago that respected journalist David Walsh warned that professionalism and big business activity was ruining sport, but doubted anything could be done about it. The Rebels of Manchester have offered hope that all is not lost. They might be small, even insignificant, but they've managed to remind us what sport is all about. Not to mention how we can go about reclaiming it. The message is that communities can fight back, after all. Vive le revolution.