This Monday, fan-run FC United of Manchester host Curzon Ashton at their new Broadhurst Park ground. There’s more involved than three points in the newly branded National League North, as Howard Hockin and Tony Dawber explain.
As a Bank Holiday fixture, it couldn’t be more fitting. This Monday, FC United of Manchester host fellow new arrivals to the rebranded sixth-flight National League North, Curzon Ashton, for a derby game at their new Broadhurst Park.
It wasn’t that long ago that Curzon Ashton, from Ashton-under-Lyne in Tameside, Greater Manchester, were hosting the homeless FCUM, the club created by disillusioned fans of Manchester United in 2005.
Tameside Stadium, Gigg Lane, Bower Fold… an itinerant decade was left behind when FCUM unveiled their own ground with a curtain-raising friendly against Benfica in May 2015, 47 years to the day after George Best bamboozled the Portuguese club in the European Cup Final at Wembley.
‘More than 1,800 people helped raise over £1.8m towards the cost of the new stadium,’ said FCUM press officer Andy Walker. ‘That night some came to the ground in tears, literally.’
The £5.5m stadium is situated in Moston, east Manchester a goalkick away from Newton Heath where the original Manchester United were formed by railway workers in 1878.
‘Up until then, we had effectively been an event management group, moving from place to place. Broadhurst is a rebirth, a totally different situation.’
Moston has had its economic and social problems but FCUM could become a symbol of a rise from the ashes of post-industrial decline.
They are already working hard to build links with schools and community groups in the area, and plan to develop the ground further.
But however far they go, FCUM will not stray from the principled stance they take and the basic ethics of being a fan-owned club.
‘We don’t have a shirt sponsor,’ said Walker. ‘The fans vote on it each year and each year they have voted no.’
‘The Premier League is a brilliant marketing exercise but the performance of British clubs in Europe tells another story. British clubs were far more successful in Europe before the Premier League was founded.’
FCUM’s own creation is directly linked to the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazer family from May 2005. Remarkably, the manager appointed when FCUM were created, Karl Marginson, is still in place ten years later. As Walker points out, only Arsène Wenger has been in his job longer.
By July 2005, more than 4,000 people had pledged money to FC United, the club had over £100,000 in the bank, and the journey had begun.
As FCUM supporter Sean Passant explains, ‘I was involved from day one. As the rumours about the Glazers grew I knew a few people on forums were talking about a club of our own. I went to the first meeting at the Methodist Hall and knew it was the right thing to do.’
‘Truth be told, the Glazers were just the straw that broke the camel’s back, I wasn’t happy with the way United operated, the match-day experience and fans treatment in general. It was only going to get worse. The more FC United grew and developed, and an alternative way of doing things become more and more evident, I actually began to despise what United has become. It hurts me to say that because I genuinely love the spirit and ideal that this great club used to stand for but it has become so bloated, so commercial and so exclusive that I don’t recognise it any more.’
On their formation, FCUM were admitted to the second division of the North West Counties Football League, level ten of the English football league system.
‘The first three seasons were just like going back to my childhood: noisy, packed terraces, slightly scary, very exciting,’ describes Passant.
‘That kinship, that bond had been lost with all-seater stadiums and TV-driven cleansing of the game. We had it back and it just felt amazing.’
The club overcame local protests and a judicial review to get the green light for the new stadium on the Ronald Johnson Playing Fields in Moston, having previously abandoned plans for a stadium at a separate site at Ten Acres Lane.
The old leaseholders, Moston Juniors, are being accommodated at the new complex with three pitches and a clubhouse.
Fellow fan Stuart Jones takes up the story: ‘I feel such pride at the building of our ground, over £1m raised with a pioneering Community Shares scheme. Moston needs investment. Here there will be health and community facilities that locals can access all week. This model of ownership is being replicated at clubs like Portsmouth but it needs to be run correctly. We’re not saying it’s perfect, it has its flaws, but it’s a massive step in the right direction for football which has lost touch with the fans over the last 25 years.’
For Stuart, it has been an emotional but fruitful journey: ‘I made the switch to FC United in 2007. My dad used to talk about it all the time and he was desperate to get to a game. Sadly he died from cancer in 2006 before being able to get to a game. It took me a year to pluck up the courage to go. My first game was against Chorley in October 2007. That first ‘Bring on United’ chant sent shivers down my spine and from that moment I was hooked. For me, the atmosphere is fantastic home and away. I wouldn’t change it for anything.’
And, according to Stuart and Passant, a future of professional league football may not be everyone’s ideal.
‘In ten years’ time,’ says Jones, ‘the aim would be league football but will we want the trappings of extra regulations as we go up the ladder? I’ve already heard fans say they’d like to go up as far as the Conference Premier – the renamed National League – but avoid the other trappings. We need our way of ownership to get out to as many people as possible to see it as a viable option.’
Passant agrees that climbing up the leagues is not a primary aim: ‘I think that our manifesto and ethos will prevent us from galloping up the football pyramid. The new ground will provide more revenue but I want us to use it to develop the club on a broader spectrum.’
‘I’d like to see us spread our net wide and build links with the local community. With the changes in education and health services, with so many things being franchised out, I genuinely see no reason why FC United couldn’t help the community by running a nursery, a primary school or a walk-in health centre.’
‘I really hope that once people see the pounds coming in, they don’t crave promotion. I’d rather we sell off one or two top players to league sides and use all the revenue to improve the lives of Mancunians.’
The last word goes to FCUM Chief Executive Andy Walsh, another who has been there since day one.
‘We are Mancs and it is the values of this city and its cultural and political history that have driven us to where we are,’ he said.
‘You go back to Peterloo and people fighting for the right to vote and being cut down for their troubles. The industrial firsts, innovation, invention, rebellion, political reform and social reform – it’s in our DNA.’