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United we stand

It's hard to believe that AFC Wimbledon will be kicking off their fourth season in August.

The club born when the owners of former FA Cup winners Wimbledon upped sticks from South London to Milton Keynes in the first case of football franchising to be seen on English shores is undoubtedly in rude health. The fans left behind have successfully sought to retain ownership of the tradition and soul of the club by setting up AFC, starting from scratch way down the football pyramid.

Two successive promotions and an inaugural campaign that hauled 111 points, maddeningly not enough to gain progression, has helped to heal the wounds caused by Koppel and co.

Not that it has been easy of course, but within a highly organised and dedicated fanbase, already used to fighting the odds and the destructive plans of previous owners, were the characters and wherewithal to succeed.

It's a situation that Manchester United fans now find themselves in. Routinely ridiculed and maligned for being Guildford-dwelling souvenir hunters, the real United fan couldn't be further from that stereotype.

That myth was dispelled some ten years ago with the launch of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association. Initially set up as a reaction to a ground announcement during a home match against Arsenal, ordering fans in the K-Stand to remain seated or face ejection, the group were well placed just three years later when the spectre of Rupert Murdoch loomed into view.

The subsequent defeat of Murdoch's bid to take over the club is one that resonates with Kris Stewart, the Chairman of AFC Wimbledon.

'What the Manchester United fans did when they defeated Murdoch was an incredible thing. It remains the greatest victory a group of fans has managed and it must be terribly debilitating to defeat one of the world's most powerful men only for another to appear in Malcolm Glazer.'

A view echoed by Independent journalist and Sports Writer of the Year, David Conn, writing in his lament for the beautiful game, Searching for the Soul of Football.

'It may well be that the fans will see off Glazer eventually but the depressing thing is they'll fight this battle and there'll be another, and another.'

Enter FC United of Manchester. Luc Zentar is the acting secretary of the newly-formed club and doesn't waste any time in explaining why the club has come into being.

'I am sick of football and what it has become: the money; the arrogance; the lack of connection between the players and the fans; the way we, the supporters, are treated; the Gestapo-like environment. I can't stand the fact that is costs £36 to get in to a ground with no atmosphere, where you can't stand, can't shout, can't fart, can't even sit with your friends,' he explains without taking breath.

'And then Rio Ferdinand, who earns £75,000 a week, gets banned for eight months through his own stupidity and has the gall to demand over £100,000 just to carry on.'

It's a formidable charge sheet and one that doesn't even include Malcom Glazer and his sons.

We are bringing football back to the community. I can't stand the fact that is costs £36 to get in to a ground with no atmosphere, where you can't stand, can't shout, can't fart, can't even sit with your friends.
Luc Zentar, FC United
Zentar held a season ticket at Old Trafford for 17 years but no more. This summer he turned his back on the Premiership, Champions League and all its attendant glory and looked south for inspiration of a better way.

'The fans of AFC Wimbledon, and those at AFC Telford and Leigh RMI, have been immense. There has been a lot of work - an incredible amount and possibly we have had even less time than Wimbledon fans had - but to have their input and guidance has been invaluable.'

This 'guidance' has covered all aspects of how to form a supporters'-run club from scratch in a matter of weeks, as Zentar explains.

'There is so much to consider. Obviously we needed a manager but then you think 'he needs a contract. How do we do that?' AFC Wimbledon have ensured we don't forget anything.'

The culmination of this union is a friendly at AFC Wimbledon's own ground - purchased at a cost of almost £3million - in Kingston-upon-Thames, just two miles from the Dons' spiritual home in Plough Lane. The match on July 23rd is expected to attract a capacity crowd of 4,500 - not bad for two clubs who didn't exist four years ago.

As Stewart admits, the experience had reminded him of the emotion he felt three years ago.

'It was an incredibly intense time - we had the rawness of the FA Commission's decision to allow Wimbledon to die and then the incredible rush to create a legacy.'

Does he have any advice for the newly formed club?

'Just to keep believing. They are doing really well - they have done much like we did, though they did have the sensible idea to charge a fiver for trialists to help cover the cost of putting a team together. I think the biggest reality check is where they are now.'

'The moment you think 'Wow this is really happening!' It's easy to stick your head up and really enjoy the buzz of making history - even taking the kicks in the teeth, which we as a club experienced when we were refused permission to enter the Ryman's League, (the club were eventually accepted into a feeder league - The Combined Counties) but then the realisation hits: 'People are relying on me!''

Personally Stewart has had to make changes but admits these were more than worth making.

'My life has changed beyond recognition. Of course there are times when I think life could be so much easier, but I dread to think what I would be doing if this hadn't worked. This is a much better job than the one I had.' Stewart, formerly an accountant, had the good fortune to be made redundant the day before the Commission snootily declared AFC Wimbledon would not be in the best interests of football.

'There are good jobs and bad jobs, but mine was sh*t. In fact, as an accountant, there are bad jobs and worse jobs and mine was in the latter category definitely. So, yes, there were sacrifices but to have the opportunity to do this job is certainly worth it.'

Zentar too is finding that setting up a football club is not conducive to a normal life.

'I have my own T-shirt printing and DVD business but it's safe to say I have had to shift my priorities a lot.'

Fan power got AFC Wimbeldon up and running and inspired others to try and reclaim ownership of their clubs.
Fan power got AFC Wimbeldon up and running and inspired others to try and reclaim ownership of their clubs.

With 4,000 members already signed up, FC United look to have all the ingredients to join the growing fan movement that is hoping to reclaim the game but, as ever, a dissenting voice is never too far behind.

The fact that FC United's position is markedly different to the situation Wimbledon fans found themselves in has led to some accusing fans of disloyalty and even claiming the new club devalues what AFC Wimbledon has achieved. It's an accusation, Stewart feels, that is ridiculous.

'A football club getting off the ground in a matter of weeks with 4,000 members, however many thousands of pounds in the bank, a web presence, a ground, a friendly that has supporters from across the world phoning us up, all day and every day trying to buy tickets? No, I don't feel devalued!' Kris explains, trying to suppress a chuckle.

'In many ways what these fans are sacrificing is even greater. We didn't have a choice. But they did not have a single cataclysmic event to focus their minds, more a culmination of things and remember these fans are turning their backs on the Champions League.'

'I am just delighted that if what we did as AFC Wimbledon is encouraging anyone who is a Manchester United fan to think harder about what's happening at their club - or indeed at any club in the country - then we have done what we set out to achieve.'

The final word must fall to FC United of Manchester.

'There is no masterplan,' explains Zentar. 'We are bringing football back to the community. This is purely about providing cheap, enjoyable football. If we don't win the European Cup within the next twenty years then so be it. I am fed up of families having to spend half their weekly wage just to see their team. My only dream is to get football back to what it should be.'

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