FC United of Manchester: The True Heart of a Football City
The celebrations were long and loud for Manchester’s poor relative on Saturday despite a 0-1 loss to Workington Athletic Football Club in England’s Evo-Stik Northern Premier League.
Earning a little over $200-a-week, the semi-pro players of FC United of Manchester couldn’t get too crazy over the weekend; most had to be back at their day jobs on Monday morning.
It’s a world away from Old Trafford, just 15 miles to the east, where their EPL peers are earning salaries of $200,000-a-week.
But many in England’s second city will argue that this is where the heart of football’s most storied club beats the strongest.
Owned as a cooperative by the fans, the breakaway team was formed a decade ago as a direct result of American businessman Malcolm Glazer’s controversial takeover of the club.
But what began as an act of rebellion has turned into the growing realization of a dream of returning football to a purer, less cynical time – back to pies and mash over prawn sandwiches.
With a slim victory last Wednesday, FC United won its fourth promotion in its short history, making Saturday's loss meaningless other than as an additional opportunity to crack open the cheap champagne.
The latest step up the ladder to England’s non-league Conference North brings the Football League just two more promotions away. It means FC United will play against Stockport County, who were a League One side as recently as the 2009-10 season.
The big teams – Manchester United and Manchester City foremost among them – will argue that corporate sponsors are part and parcel of today’s game and that the vast sums being injected into the game make it all the more of a spectacle for the fans. It is the Bulovas and Unilevers of the world that are the face of the modern Red Devils, not the working men’s clubs and the miners. The city’s premier sides are, after all, owned by a sheikh from Abu Dhabi and investors from Florida.
At FC United, the fans maintain a voice because they run the club. They voted not to splash a sponsor’s name across the team’s red shirts that resemble those worn proudly by the likes of Charlton, Best and Law. They have kept ticket prices low, at something like $12 an adult and $3 for kids. A season ticket scheme recognizes the fans’ working class roots by allowing them the choice to pay what they can afford.
These are not the actions of greedy people, but of football lovers who weren’t content just to complain about the distance their boyhood clubs were putting between them and their traditional support. They decided to do something about it when the Glazer family swooped in spite of the antipathy of Sir Alex Ferguson, an avowed socialist one would have thought would have more sympathy for a club borne out of a common goal to keep the game from turning its back on the communities – and pockets – of the folks who bled red for generations.
As one FC United supporter wrote to The Guardian recently: “Football is pricing out working-class fans, especially youngsters. It’s now a birthday treat for them to watch their club when it should be a birthright. Fans of all clubs should not let petty rivalries stop them from organizing together to take back the their game from the greed merchants, spivs and crooks of the modern game.”
When FC United was first formed in 2005, a BBC Radio pundit Alan Gowling famously predicted they wouldn’t last until Christmas. Ferguson described them as “sad” and insisted that he was still “not interested” after the minnows first promotion season. He may yet live to rue such disrespect.
Up to now, FC has played at Bury’s Giggs Lane stadium but next season they hope to move to their own, purpose-built Broadhurst Park ground in Moston, north-east Manchester. They will play a friendly against Benfica’s B team in May to commemorate the occasion. Of the $10 million it took to build the stadium, more than $3 million was raised by the fans themselves.
It’s a long way to the top in football, but who would bet against FC United going all the way?
And on that day Manchester United and FC United meet, as they surely will, it will be the pretenders to the crown and not the pampered mercenary princes of Old Trafford that represent the true sprit of the team built by Matt Busby and shaped by Alex Ferguson into the most beloved in the world.