x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

FC United: landmark game for team formed by angry fans

Created by supporters fed up with Manchester United when the Glazers took over at Old Trafford, FC United make their FA Cup first-round debut today.

An FC United flag flies at their ground.
An FC United flag flies at their ground.

Derby week in Greater Manchester tends to have a special feel. In this instance, it is different.

The region's superpowers, Manchester City and Manchester United, come head-to-head on Wednesday. But today's clash is altogether different, pitting traditional minnows, Rochdale, against the newest addition to the city's footballing landscape.

FC United of Manchester are secessionists from their near-namesakes, Manchester United.

Five years after their foundation, they will debut in the first round of the FA Cup. Theirs is a tale of fan power, of a community railing against corporate intervention in football, of a grass-roots rebellion.

"I'm a Manchester United fan and my moving back to Manchester coincided with the Glazers takeover," Rob Nugent, an FC United director, said. "I got involved in all the anti-Glazer protest and demonstrations.

"When it became clear the takeover was going ahead, the idea of FC United was put ahead. I went to the first meeting. They asked for volunteers and I put my name forward and said I was interested in helping in any way."

Initially Nugent's talents were put to use in the back four. Released by Sheffield United and playing non-league football for Ossett Town, he was volunteered by a friend for duties on the playing staff. There was plenty of competition for places.

"There were around 200 applicants, and they whittled it down to 50 or 60 for trials," Nugent said. "There were four or five who went forward to the playing squad. I was one of the lucky ones."

Both players and supporters materialised in unexpectedly high numbers.

Formed in 2005, FC United entered the football pyramid at the 10th tier, the second division of the Northern Counties League.

With average attendances over 3,000, they won promotion in their first season. Their final game, against Great Harwood Town, drew a crowd of 6,023 to their temporary home, League Two Bury's Gigg Lane ground. "It was surreal," Nugent said.

It was the first of three successive promotions, a newly-created club quickly acquiring momentum. This is their third successive season in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. Like the other United, they are a force in their league.

"Gates are 2,000, six or seven times the level in our league," Andy Walsh, the general manager, said. "We have got 1,000 season- ticket holders, more than many clubs in League Two."

All 3,200 tickets for tonight's game at Rochdale's Spotland ground, where they face a side four divisions above them, were sold out three days ago.

FC United have a popularity, but their objectives stretch beyond the profits the Glazers required.

"Our aim is to show that fans should be running football clubs," Walsh said. "If it is a choice between a fan-owned football club and the Glazer model then it is no choice."

One is a community club, with the board democratically elected by the members. The other is not.

"I agree with the values of FC United, keeping ticket prices low and doing work in the community," Nugent said.

"I don't want to fund the corporate machine. They have taken the football club off the badge [at Manchester United] and that sums it up for me - it doesn't feel like a football club any more, it is not run for the good of the supporters any more and I don't think that is how a football club should be run."

It is a sense FC United's supporters share. "The takeover was completely against my politics and it felt that it was being stolen," Chris Cheetham, a season-ticket holder, said. "Every penny in the club, every brick in the stadium effectively belonged to the fans who had paid for it."

Following FC United is, he said, a preferable experience. "It's much noisier," he said. "People can stand up with their mates, which is very different. A lot of people don't sing at Old Trafford."

He traded watching a team whose emerging talents included Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and with senior players like Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy for non-league football, but insisted: "The two are relatively similar.

"When you see 11 against 11 at any level, you can spot your good players. We play 4-4-2 with wingers and our best players are the two wingers [Carlos Roca and Jerome Wright], who are very tricky. At this level, players with pace stand out."

Shorn of £100,000-a-week salaries, they have a greater bond with the fan base. Cheetham added: "You feel closer to the players and it means a lot more. It reminds me of the late '70s, early '80s when I started following United with my brother and my mates. There was more camaraderie then."

Nugent agrees: "When we were in the North West Counties Division Two we would go to grounds and small towns and take them over for the day."

For people like him, playing for FC United is as close as they will get to appearing for Manchester United. The allegiances of much of the squad are obvious, but there are some surprises. "The manager (Karl Marginson) is a United fan, the assistant manager (Roy Moule) is a United fan who was in the youth system in the 1960s, our first-team coach is a City fan and has a horrible tattoo to prove it," Walsh said. "So is our captain (David Chadwick), who also has a horrible tattoo.

"People play for us because we are FC United and they can play in front of 2,000 passionate fans. Footballers want to play for teams that are going somewhere."

FC United hope they are going to Newton Heath, original home of Manchester United. Plans have been submitted for a 5,000-capacity, £3.5 million (Dh20.8m) stadium at Ten Acres Lane.

"That's where we can do our community work, we can grow and will probably see attendances rise to 3,500 or 4,000 on a regular basis," said Nugent, a qualified accountant whose financial expertise prompted the move from the pitch to the boardroom. "Groundsharing with Bury is a huge financial burden. Then we could potentially take it forward and get promoted to the Conference North, the Conference and maybe the Football League."

Rhodri Giggs, brother of Ryan, is a former FC United player but contact with their disapproving parent club is otherwise limited. Sir Alex Ferguson was a vocal critic, dismissing FC United's founders as self-publicists.

"FC United and the people involved in FC United have proved him wrong," Nugent said.

"One of the famous comments he made was 'they will be over by Christmas'. We are still going strong and we have made our own little piece of history by getting to the first round of the FA Cup.

"I would hope that with his own history as a staunch socialist, Alex Ferguson would like to support FC United and the values it stands for.

"He has opposed us but I would like to think that, deep down, he agrees with what we are doing."

sports@thenational.ae

 

Comparison: Manchester United FC United
Average Attendance
75,304 1,723
Record attendance 83,260 6,023
Biggest Premier League/ Northern West Counties Div 1/trophy European Cup Supporters Direct Cup
Most appearances Ryan Giggs 847 Simon Carden 190
Record scorer Bobby Charlton 249 Rory Paterson 99