Sports Editor Sam Cooper met up with the F.C. United Students’ Society to see what life is like at one of the biggest non-league clubs in the country
The day started at Grey Horse Inn in central Manchester, where I was to meet members of the F.C. United Students’ Society. Beforehand, I was unsure of what to expect. I was thinking there would be one or two fans in the corner of this pub while others set about their standard Saturday drinking, but upon arrival, I realised that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Fans of all ages were packed into this small pub, each with the red and black of F.C. United on them. Some were chatting about events happening in their lives, others were watching the Ashes on a TV above the bar, and some were discussing F.C. United’s recent fortunes.
The majority of fans there are also Manchester United fans but to my surprise, there were two fellow Ipswich Town fans like myself. The supporters had been here since ten o’clock, and by the time I arrived, many were getting ready to head over to the ground.
The F.C. United Students’ Society currently consists of two members; Jake Worrall, one of the members, told me that while he’d like to have more members, this society was unique in that every member has a 100 per cent attendance record. Jake spoke of the efforts to get more university students over to F.C. United by offering a chance at affordable, live football that resembles the traditional values of the beautiful game.
Midday rolled around and we piled into a minibus to make the 4.6 mile trip to Broadhurst Park, home of F.C United.
On the ride over, I spoke with George Baker, a board member at the club, and he explained how the board is elected. There can be up to eleven members on the board at any one time, and they stand for a two-year period before needing to run for re-election. They must receive over 50 per cent of votes and have been a member for two years. This is all part of an attempt to remain a club belonging to the fans, and goes back to the reasons why the club exists in the first place.
F.C. United of Manchester started after a growing discontent towards the way Manchester United was being turned into a corporate entity, rather than a club; so, in 2005, an alternative was born. After a settling on the name F.C. United of Manchester (F.C. United was deemed too generic by the FA), the club was registered with the Manchester County Football Association on the 14th of June 2005.
The club’s manifesto says: “Our aim is to create a sustainable club for the long term which is owned and democratically run by its members, which is accessible to all the communities of Manchester and one in which they can participate fully.” The club also has a list of core principles that it strives to abide by:The board will be democratically elected by its members; Decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one-member, one vote basis; The club will develop strong links with the local community and strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none; The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible; The club will encourage young, local participation — playing and supporting — whenever possible; The board will strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism; The club will remain a non-profit organisation.
F.C. United is now the largest fan-owned club in the UK and enjoys one of the highest home attendances in English non-league football. Since its inception, the club has risen quickly through the tiers of the English football pyramid, and the team now play in the sixth tier of the National League North.
After initially sharing Bury F.C.’s Gigg Lane, May 2015 marked a turning point for the club as they moved into their new permanent home of Broadhurst Park. The ground holds 4,400 at its capacity and was built at a cost of £6.3 million, which the club funded using various schemes and grants.
Arriving at the stadium, my initial impression is that it doesn’t look stereotypically non-league at all. As a man who has seen his fair share of non-league grounds, which have ranged from a small falling-down stand to a shed placed next to a field of grass, this is clearly a cut above.
The fans that travelled over early are here to help set up. One fan is carrying the corner flags, another is helping behind the bar, and someone is preparing a small stage for pre-match entertainment.
Jake, who is one of those helping behind the bar, explains how busy it gets here before a match. The bar and stage are located underneath the St. Mary’s Road End stand and the walls are decorated with memorabilia of footballing years gone by.
The floor is covered with patches of artificial turf and a collection of chairs has been spread about for fans to sit on, ranging from benches to pink leather armchairs. The Jake’s father, another fan of the club, told me some of the stories behind the stand.
On the ironwork holding the stand up are big stencils reading ‘PROPERTY OF FCUM.’ Tim Worrall, a board member for two years until recently, detailed how when the stadium was still being built, these pieces were sitting in a construction yard and one day that yard went bust. Under the fear the council may claim the ironwork as payment towards the yard’s debts, an F.C. United fan snuck in in the dead of the night to stencil the iron bars and make sure they weren’t taken away. Despite the stadium now being fully constructed, the stencils remain as a symbol of their origins.
Hung from one of these iron bars is an Adidas Tango ball. The ball is part of the pre-match entertainment, and is a call back to a famous Arsenal penalty miss against Manchester United. Arsenal – United is the 5:30 pm kick off that day and as many fans are United fans as well, the game will be shown under the stand after F.C. United’s match.
The pre-match entertainment has taken on an Arsenal theme, with fans invited to guess how high the ball is suspended off the ground (99 inches for those wondering) and a quiz later on focuses on F.C. United and Manchester United players with a Yorkshire twist. Prizes are handed out ranging from a bottle of Jack Daniels to a signed United shirt, and a small jar of Brian McClair’s snot (don’t ask).
The fans have been piling in under this stand since one o’clock, and by the time two o’clock rolls around, it is fairly packed down there. It is very much a family atmosphere with fans greeting each other with hugs and cries of “I haven’t seen you for ages!” You could be forgiven for forgetting this is a football match and not actually a big family gathering.
With kick-off edging ever closer, I head to the main stand and take my seat. Today’s fixture is a tricky one, as F.C. United face Harrogate Town, a side that sat second in the league.
F.C. United, meanwhile, have had a difficult start to the season, and one that saw their manager Karl Marginson leave by mutual consent. Marginson had been the manager since the club’s inception, and after 12 years, the job now falls to Tom Greaves, a striker. Greaves is playing today, and he hopes to help lift his side out of the 19th spot they currently find themselves in.
There is a unique occurrence that happens as soon as you take a notebook out at a football game; seemingly everyone then wants to talk to you. The gentleman sat next to me talked about how he wished Greaves was just a manager, and compared him to the managers of Harrogate, who were very animated on the touchline. He spoke of how the team needed more organisation, and Harrogate’s first goal was a testament to this.
After a fairly even opening, Harrogate were enjoying the more dangerous chances. Goalkeeper Lloyd Allinson was needed to keep the score level but with 26 minutes on the clock, Harrogate got their breakthrough.
A corner to the far post was met by the unmarked Jack Vann who happily headed home. The goal was a fair reflection of the opening exchanges but F.C. United bounced back to finish the half well. Scott Kay and Craig Lindfield both had chances that came close.
The halftime whistle blew at 1-0 to the visitors, but it was not long before the home side were back level. After a run of three dangerous corners, Linfield met a low, whipped cross to flick the ball into the net and tie the game. The fans I had been speaking to pre-game underneath the stand where now in fine voice on top of it.
The home side were pressing for the goal that would put them ahead. Kieran Glynn fired away a low, hard shot from the right of the area that required a fingertip save from Harrogate keeper James Belshaw, and F.C. United were the side on top in the second half.
With time running out and it looking like the game would end in a draw, player/manager Greaves stepped up. Again from a corner, Greaves was in the perfect spot to head the ball in from the centre of the goal. The crowd went ecstatic as they looked to be getting one over on a team near the top of the table, but the drama wasn’t to end there.
90 minutes came and Greaves once again found the net; a quick counter-attack allowed Lindfield to square the ball into the path of Greaves. He slotted the ball past Belshaw, and in doing so scored his 100th F.C United goal. A late penalty to Harrogate was not enough to spoil the party as F.C. United ran out 3-2 winners, with Greaves becoming the club’s all-time top-scorer in the process.
Speaking to The Mancunion after the game, the player/manager was delighted: “I’ve dreamt about that 100th goal a lot over the last couple of years, and to do it against Harrogate Town, a team of that quality, at home in front of our fans and as player/manager… can’t beat that.”
When asked about his aims for the season he responded with “avoid the drop zone. First and foremost, avoid the drop. We can’t look at anything else at the minute. One result you get sucked in, one result you fly up the table so we want to avoid relegation.”
I also asked him about what challenges he faced taking over from a man who had been the manager since the club’s inception. “Big boots to fill. I’ve got a lot of respect for Margy [Karl Marginson] and he’s been great to me over the years. It was kind of dropped on me a little, but it’s something that I couldn’t have said no to. I am absolutely loving being at this club and if it keeps me here for another few years then fingers crossed. It’s a new era now and fingers crossed we can get ourselves out of this position and climb up the table.”
Finally, I asked him about what makes F.C. United different. “You just been out there, haven’t you? Did you hear them? They’re unbelievable, I’ve never played for fans like it. I’ve loved every single minute of every club I’ve been at but this club just makes you feel so special. I’ve played 240 odd games now and it still feels weird a young lad wants a selfie or something like that. Just special fans and I’ve loved every single minute of being here.”
As Greaves entered the bar where the fans had gathered he was met with chants of “Greavesy! Greavesy! Greavesy!” It’s this kind of interaction with the fans that distinguishes non-league football from the elite level. The fans know the manager and are able to have a pint with him post-match, an opportunity that they treasure.
I also had a chance to speak with Damian Chadwick, the CEO of the club about his plans for the future. “The short-term goal is to continue to be sustainable. We’ve had a bit of an issue recently financially and how the clubs been operating. We’ve had to change. I think it’s fair to say the club struggled when it came into its new £6 million ground to come to terms with it, I feel that we are doing that now and I think we are now trading on a more even keel.
“That’s in the short term, in the long-term or medium-term it is just to gradually grow within our own time and our own means. We’re fan owned so there’s no rich benefactor bankrolling it and writing cheques like confetti, so we’ll do it our own time. What I want to do is to reach out into North Manchester and beyond with our networking on football, and try to encourage Manchester lads to represent F.C. United.
“There are about six or seven that are Manchester based so it bodes well for the future, and that’s what we have to encourage. We’re not going to be signing players for transfer fees so what we have to do is to produce our own. So that’s what I’ve been concentrating on over the last few months.”
Attracting youth to the club is key for survival, so I asked Damian about how F.C. United plan to do that. “We’ve got our Manchester United connection, so we’re a well-known football club. It’s doing outreach; we go to 12 schools in the area and give free tickets away, encouraging them to come, and as you’ve seen today, it’s not sterile. It’s not the Premier League. It’s a boisterous family atmosphere where everyone has a good time, and that’s usually the case irrespective of what happens on the pitch.
“Hopefully, like when I was a kid and I got taken to the Stretford End in 1978, with the atmosphere and the feel of it tonight, young kids and kids of Moston and North Manchester and wider will come here and experience that and go ‘I enjoyed myself, I want to go again.'”
With the dust settling on the afternoon’s match, fans settled into the bar to watch their other team away at Arsenal. Two early goals for the Red Devils ensured their mood was not spoiled, and fans went home happy with wins for both F.C. United and Manchester United combining to make a perfect Saturday.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and one that harks back to football of yesteryear. As the Premier League continues to rise in terms of money and popularity, there can be no doubt that there is still a place for non-league football and F.C. United of Manchester.