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Jan 28, 2010

Love football, hate debt: The FC United story

Back in 1998, a substantial number of Manchester United supporters launched a protest movement against media magnate Rupert Murdoch's proposed takeover of their club. In 2005, many of those same supporters protested against US businessman Malcolm Glazer as he tried to do the same. In contrast to the success of the anti-Murdoch campaign in getting the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to overturn the takeover, the protests five years ago were, of course, in vain. Malcolm Glazer bought the club and brought in family members as non-executive directors on the board.

Despite the initial indignation, the widespread anger around Old Trafford became significantly less pronounced as United delivered success on the pitch and gave those who stayed loyal to the club little to complain about. As predicted, ticket prices increased, but so did demand for seats as Sir Alex Ferguson established a team that won three Premier League titles, the Champions League, the FIFA World Club Cup and the League Cup.

In recent months, though, supporters' animosity has been growing again. While the Glazers publicly backed Ferguson when he refused to sell Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2008, many believe the manager has not been given enough backing following the departures of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez last summer. Ferguson suggested the relative lack of investment that followed was down to a lack of value in the market, but the news that the debt created by the takeover has ballooned to over £700 million and the publicity surrounding a £500 million bond scheme have sown doubts and provoked substantial anger in those fans who "Love United, Hate Glazer".

The current situation comes as little surprise to Andy Walsh. A lifelong Manchester United fan - "I always have been and always will be" - Walsh was the figurehead of the anti-Murdoch campaign that achieved its aim during the 1998-99 season which brought the team's famous 'treble'. In 2005, Walsh was also part of the original steering committee that founded a new club, FC United of Manchester, following the Glazer takeover, an event that proved to be the final straw after years of feeling that football was being taken away from local communities.

"I think the current situation at United is a scandal," he said. "We did everything we could as supporters at the time to stop the Glazers. We said the only way that the Glazer business plan could operate would be to increase prices but that, even then, there was a danger it could take the club under.

"We contacted The FA, Premier League etc and asked them to step in, and they all said, 'No, no, we're quite happy - everything the Glazers are saying is sustainable'. To actually see it go this way, there's no satisfaction. It's really just a scandal that the authorities, including the government, have allowed this situation to transpire.

"I think it's not just a Manchester United problem now - this is something that has afflicted the game. There's over 40 clubs have gone into liquidation or administration since the advent of the Premier League. There's going to be more - Crystal Palace this week, possibly Portsmouth, possibly Liverpool.

"Right the way from the top to the bottom, there seems to be a very loose regulatory framework."

Walsh, who works full-time as FC United's general manager, has revealed that the malaise surrounding the current state of the English game has led to supporters of a number of other sides getting in touch to ask about the process of founding a new club.

"At the time of the original takeover, we put a campaign together and we wanted to demonstrate that fans could run a successful club and create an alternative. If the Glazers' business plan was to increase ticket prices, that would mean more and more fans would be disenfranchised, so we wanted to have an affordable alternative. We wanted to refocus football's purpose towards being part of its community and not just a place for rich investors.

"We've already had enquiries from [fans of] other clubs, including Portsmouth, about our experiences and asking for advice on what to do to go about setting up similar enterprises."

FC United have followed in the footsteps of AFC Wimbledon - established in 2002 in reaction to Wimbledon FC's relocation and transformation into MK Dons - and both clubs have enjoyed a huge amount of success in climbing the football ladder. AFC Wimbledon are now in the Blue Square Premier, looking to make it into the play-offs and reach the Football League, while FC United were promoted in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and are now in the Unibond League Premier Division, six divisions below the Glazer-run United. Walsh, though, stresses that they have no intention of living beyond their means to ensure further progress.

"Three successive promotions took us into the Unibond. We won a couple of trophies along the way and we play at Gigg Lane with crowds in excess of 2,000 in a league where the average is 250, 300. We've over 1,000 season ticket holders and 2,000 members.

"If we get enough supporters to sustain a higher level of football, we'll go for it, but we won't bankrupt the club with high wages. At the moment, we've probably got the lowest wage structure within our league but the added bonus for the players is that they're playing in front of 2,000 passionate fans every week.

"We're currently not doing so well in the table but that's because we're so many games behind everybody else - but we've still got 2,000 members and we've still got 1,000 season ticket holders, and that's the strength of supporter ownership. My belief going into this - and which has been strengthened because of this - is that the future for football is supporter ownership and supporter involvement."

Few clubs in the global game could offer a better advertisement for supporter ownership than Barcelona, who won every trophy available to them in 2009 including a Champions League triumph over United, and Walsh believes that football will increasingly become the game of the people.

"There needs to be a system in place that gives those people who care most about their club a stake in their club. That may require legislation; it certainly requires stricter regulation from the football authorities.

"There are lots of different models for setting up supporter-owned football clubs. It's not just ourselves and AFC Wimbledon - you look at Exeter and the success that they've got. It needs the support of organisations such as Supporters Direct to get off the ground and so people can share their experiences, but I certainly think it is the way football is going to go so that we have a sustainable future, free from the boom-and-bust system that we've got at the moment.

"There's no better example than the current European champions to show that the idea of supporter-owned football clubs is serious and can mean success at the highest level. All you need is the will to get there."

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