The rise of the Red Rebels
Both original and derivative, both protest movement and progressive force, a five-year-old club makes its debut in the FA Cup first round. Followers of the Northern Premier League Premier Division may recognise the players, but the team's name is, in the words if not their order, altogether more familiar: FC United of Manchester.
The offspring of, and antidote to, Manchester United, FC United is, in the words of its general manager, Andy Walsh, "a continuing phenomenon." It is an example of people power, flying a flag of idealism. Founded by an anti-Glazer group who have turned ambitious plans into reality, FC United are attempting to demonstrate there is another way of running a football club.
Their opponents on Friday are Rochdale, but they exist because of, and in contrast to, Manchester United's American owners. Walsh, one of the founders, explained: "A number of us were involved in the Red Issue fanzine at Manchester United and just after the Glazers had announced they had secured the club we discussed the possibility of FC United being formed. It went from there. We decided to hold a meeting to see if there was the support for the idea. That was done in June 2005 and we elected a board of 11.
"We said that if there were 1,000 people supporting the idea it deserved further consideration. We were overwhelmed. Over 3,000 people sent us financial donations to get the club up and running and secure funding for whatever league we were in and we raised about £180,000 in a six-week period."
Progress on the field was similarly swift. Their first three seasons all ended in promotion, taking the newly-formed club from the North West Counties League Second Division to its current home, the Northern Premier League Premier Division. To put it into the context of the league ladder, they began as a tenth-tier team and are now in the seventh flight. Rochdale, consolidating admirably in League One, are four divisions higher. It is why, though the splinter group may be two games from a meeting with their former allies of Manchester United, Walsh dismisses the notion as "not fanciful, outlandish".
FC United have succeeded in luring disaffected fans from Old Trafford. Average attendances in their debut season exceeded 3,000 and they have sold their full allocation of 3,200 tickets for the match at Spotland.
As Rob Nugent, a player turned director, said: "For the level we play at, it is phenomenal. In the first season, for our last game when we had won the league and the cup, and we had 6,023 [fans]." It is a level of support that is the envy of clubs at a higher level, aided by a policy of affordability.
"We currently have over 1,000 season ticket holders," Walsh added. "Last year we offered people the right to pay what they could afford, from a floor price of £90. The average price they paid was around £160. We did a similar scheme this year and it was around £160 again." It is all the more remarkable because, before supporters were invited to set their own price, many were paying £140. The new economic model appears more profitable as well as more equitable.
The notion of involving the fans extends beyond that. There is a banner at Old Trafford proclaiming it part of the "People's Republik of Mancunia". FC United can make a legitimate claim to that status. The board is elected and each of the club's 2,000-plus members is an equal co-owner. One member, one vote is, Walsh argues, working very well.
"People have respect for the democratic process," he explained. "It's inevitable that votes will not be unanimous. There is a respect for the majority decision." The public participation continues in the day-to-day existence of the club.
"It couldn't run without the level of voluntary support we have," Walsh said. "Around 300 people volunteer during the week. It has empowered people, given them the opportunity to build a club for themselves. Give supporters their head and they will contribute. We are building an alternative for people."
They hope, too, to build a ground. Home games are staged at Bury's Gigg Lane ground which is both expensive, costing £100,000 a year, and too far from the centre of Manchester. Planning permission has been submitted for a 5,000-capacity, £3.5 million stadium which, in a fortunate coincidence, will be in Newton Heath, the suburb that doubled up as Manchester United's first home and name.
The funds from the FA Cup run, including a £67,500 fee for television rights for the Rochdale game, will help. FC United are well on the way to raising an initial £500,000, which they hope to augment with £1.5 million in grants that co-operatives and mutuals are eligible for and a further £1.5 million in a Community Share scheme. "It is a unique opportunity for football, because if we can raise funds this way, so can other clubs," said Walsh.
It is very different from the world of leveraged buyouts, escalating ticket prices and £200,000-a-week salaries at the other United. In an attempt to find a fairer, more inclusive, supporter-friendly way, however, they remain the reference point, the illustration of how not to act.
"FC United is part of the anti-Glazer protest," Walsh concluded. "We are integral to that. Our intention is to show that fans will not be messed around. As time passes, the decision of fans to boycott Manchester United to get rid of the Glazers is gaining ground and I don't think it would have gained so much ground without FC United.
"There are still thousands who hold their noses as they pass through the turnstiles at Old Trafford. The Glazers are a cancer on Manchester United and a cancer on the English game and as yet no one has found a cure for cancer."