For many years there were two football teams in Manchester: United and City. Now there are three. FC United of Manchester was set up in 2005 after American businessman Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United in a hostile takeover. Some of the Manchester United supporters decided that they did not want to be part of the Glazers’ worldwide business empire. They went away and formed a new team, FC United of Manchester which would be owned by its fans and would embrace the original ethos of community football.
Football has always been about community: clubs sprang from works or church teams, and were locally based. Manchester United, for example, was originally formed as Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway F.C. in 1878 by the workers in the Carriage and Wagon Works of the railway depot. It was not until 24 April 1902 Manchester United was officially born. Football supporters were working class men who worked on Saturday morning and then spent the afternoon at the match. Identity was linked to class and the area in which you lived, worked and socialised.
By the 1980s everything had changed. Many supporters were often skilled workers, (still mostly men, though) working in banking and IT or were teachers, NHS workers, electricians or plumbers. With more money, they were more likely to drive to the ground rather than walk and lived in the more prosperous suburbs of Greater Manchester rather than the inner city.
It was not just the fans who were changing but the game itself as global business interests turned their attention on buying up UK football clubs. Manchester United was first targeted by global entrepreneur, Rupert Murdoch, in 1998. The MU fanzine had given birth to the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association which organised to stop Murdoch taking over the club. They successfully challenged his bid at the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
Andy Walsh, General Manager of FC United, like many football fans in Manchester, sees himself part of a tradition that goes back more than a century. His father took him to see Manchester United when he was a child and it became an important part of his life as a child, young man and adult. Active in his trade union and community he sees this as ” very important to me, everything I have done in political campaigning is about empowering people to improve their own life”. He wrote and sold the club fanzines and was involved in the Independent Supporters Association. Andy says it is not just about the game, but that “fans have a respect for the history and culture of the club. People who are fans define themselves by the clubs they follow.”
The writing was on ,the wall after 1998 Andy believes, “After stopping Murdoch we went back to MU and Peter Kenyon and asked them to organise a management buyout to stop the club being taken over.” It did not happen and it was then that the Glazers came on the scene. They began by buying shares in 2002/3 and by 2005 they had taken over the club.
Andy explained to me why some of the fans were so opposed to the Glazer takeover. “It was supported by a large burden of debt and the only way to pay it off was to rachet up the ticket prices and exploit the supporters.” The ISA challenged the Glazers by trying to get the team management, David Gill and Alex Ferguson ( whom the Glazers wanted to keeP), to resign in order stop the takeover. At the same time the ISA were talking to a merchant bank to finance a supporters’ takeover.
The Glazers responded by upping their offer and the ISA then called for a boycott by fans asking them not to renew their season ticket. Andy says; “Tens of thousands of fans marched down Warwick Road. It was one of the biggest demos ever seen at a football ground”. But it was not enough and the Glazer takeover rolled on.
The MU takeover was only one of many as the mega rich were able to buy up football clubs and the lucrative television rights that went with it. Andy sees it as a ripping off, not just the fans, but the entire heritage that goes with the football clubs. “Their sole purpose is unpacking the value laid down in football clubs over generations by ordinary people who care for the clubs. They only care about the value of the game in cash terms rather than the value of the game in terms of the impact on its local community.”
Looking back nearly ten years later Andy believes that there were two key reasons why it was MU supporters that led the challenge to the mega rich taking over the game of football. “It is a mixture of cynicism and bloodymindedness. Part of the Mancunian DNA going back centuries. It’s not surprising in a city with a history of suffragettes, of Chartism and the foundation of the TUC, combined with invention, industry and creativity.” But he also thinks that fanzine culture played a major role. “We had three fanzines. They wrote authoritatively and informatively about the history of MU, and they educated supporters about the politics and business of the game. MU fans were more knowledgeable about what was going on in this country and internationally than any other club.”
Out of MU came FC United and at the moment they are building their own stadium in Moston, North Manchester which will open next year. Central to the philosophy of FC United is its financial status: the club is a co-operative which, Andy says, means that “under our constitution we are bound to discharge our committment to improve the local community before we even put a winning team on the pitch.” The supporters own the club, and this is shown by the money raised to build their new ground. It will cost £6 million pounds, of which £2 million was provided by fans and another £1 million was given in cash donations.
FC United are breaking new ground in using the co-operative model to fund their club which reflects their vision of football as more than just a game. Andy says, “it is about empowering people to have an influence over something they care about but mindful of football’s ability to play a positive role in the community, bringing in people, to improve lives in a positive way, to play a role as a vehicle for improving lives and opportunities.”
This inclusion policy includes offering some of the cheapest match tickets in their league as well as providing a range of educational and fitness courses to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in the community.
FC United have just become the first English footbal club to pay the Living Wage to their employees. Andy says; “It takes a club like us, in the seventh league, to do this. It will have a positive impact on peoples’ lives. The Premier League pay their leading players £1,000 per hour but they won’t pay their cleaners £7.85 per hour.”
Andy believes the move to their new ground in Moston will give them the opportunity to build on their work with the community. The ground will offer facilities not to just the first team but also the women’s team, the youth team, local junior football clubs as well as classrooms, function rooms and meeting rooms that local people will be able access.
To sum it all up he sees the mission of FC United as one that is all about change . “It is about fighting for change, showing what we can do as football fans and holding up a mirror to Manchester United and the Premier League.”