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June 3, 2015

Fan power

The Community Empowerment Bill takes its final steps towards becoming a fully-fledged piece of legislation later this month with the Stage 3 debate in the Scottish Parliament. At Stage 2, the Greens succeeded with an amendment to give football fans more powers to take control over their clubs. The SFA didn’t like that and it remains to be seen whether Scottish Government does. But the passion of true football fans is a force to be reckoned with – stories like FC United of Manchester remind us of that.



David Conn, Guardian

All tickets have been sold to see FC United of Manchester officially open their new Broadhurst Park stadium on Friday with a friendly match against a Benfica team.

That is a simple statement about an upcoming match but it takes a little pause to assimilate what it means. This is the club formed by rebel Manchester Unitedsupporters who in 2005 decided that the Glazer family’s debt-loaded takeover at Old Trafford marked a final outrage too far.

From discussions in a Stretford pub, Rusholme curry house and a public meeting at Manchester’s Apollo venue, they have built a football club of their own, won four promotions, now to the tougher semi-professional level of the Conference North, built a fine £6.3m stadium – and, brazenly, booked the eagles of Lisbon to fly in and christen it.

At a trial-run practice match between players present and past held at the stadium in beaming sunshine on 16 May, FC United fans who have lived this 10 year journey which started at Bury’s Gigg Lane variously hugged, cried, sang or stood speechless in disbelief. A large part of the impact is not only the crazy reality that they have built their own ground but the thought and care that has gone into the design and detail.

Fans who have fled the expense, compulsory seating and increasingly passive nature of the Premier League experience, as much as investor-owners’ exploitation, made it clear that if they ever had a home, they wanted to stand and sing. So partly in wistful homage to their raucous formative years, the new ground has a terrace behind one goal and a standing area in front of the main stand seats, like the former Old Trafford paddocks. Wood cladding on the designed front of the stadium references railway sleepers and United’s Newton Heath train company origins.

There is a long bar area in the main stand, which will be used for club and local community functions, plus splendid 3G facilities and two grass pitches to be shared with the flourishing local club Moston Juniors, and other public use.

  The wood cladding on the outside of Broadhurst Park references railway sleepers and United’s Newton Heath train company origins. Photograph: Steve Allen/Manchester Evening News

The same attention to detail runs through the whole FC United enterprise, which is no doubt surprising to those who scoffed, including Sir Alex Ferguson himself, who sneered that these fans seemed to be getting above themselves.

It is a reminder that the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, which Andy Walsh, the FC United general manager, formerly chaired, was in fact a very organised and well-run campaign group, protesting against football’s red-toothed commercialisation.

The fans still sing “Glazer, wherever you may be, you bought Old Trafford but you can’t buy me” – but anger at the game’s financial takeover is largely taken as read now. The talk and atmosphere at Broadhurst Park is passionately positive about doing things the right way, and there are plans to progress further.

“Of course we are still totally motivated by challenging things we believe are wrong in football,” said Walsh. “But this is about demonstrating a better way. Now, 10 years after we started, we’re welcoming Benfica to our new ground having just won promotion to the Conference North. You have to pinch yourself sometimes. It’s the power of people.”

Adam Brown, another founding father and key force behind the stadium’s funding and construction, was in 1997-99 appointed as a respected academic and fans’ representative to the Labour government’s Football Task Force – whose administrator was Andy Burnham, now favourite to become his party’s leader. Brown often felt sore that his two years’ work, producing rigorously researched arguments for real change to football’s structures, largely foundered on the force of Premier League wealth and lobbying.However FC United, and British football’s many fan-owned clubs and democratic trusts, have grown out of thinking developed then, with Supporters Direct formed to promote mutual ownership.

The rebel United supporters could in 2005 draw on mutual models already developed for clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City and the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust, which owns 21% of the Premier League club and elects a director to its board.

FC United have taken the concept further and formed specifically as a community benefit society, owned equally by each of its 4,200 paying members. This central duty to benefit the community is felt more keenly, given that there was some local resistance in the area to the stadium being built on common space, and the disruption a football club could bring.

The partnership with Moston Juniors is part of the community duty and their chairman, Paul Mitchell, says they have facilities – including changing and function rooms within the stadium – beyond those they ever hoped for. FC are also committed to encouraging wider participation in football and other sports – working with schools, colleges and social organisations, last year reaching 2,000 people – particularly aiming to help young people struggling for work or training.

  FC United’s is primarily concerned with helping the local community, and also works with schools, colleges and social organisations. Photograph: Steve Allen/Manchester Evening News

“One member, one vote is a fundamental part of what we’re about and I think that is what has held us to these principles,” said Brown. “The members set the rules, directly elect the board and keep us to the core aims of the club.”

He is proud of the community shares scheme, which raised £2m from fans towards the new stadium, without compromising the democratic ownership. It is a money-raising model seen as a blueprint for other clubs and since extended to the majority fan-owned Wrexham and Portsmouth. The shares do provide for a potential dividend and for a proportion of the money to be available to withdraw once the stadium is built, and the club are running at a sufficient profit, but most fans saw it as a way of contributing what they could.

Scott Fletcher, chairman of ANS, a £50m turnover IT management company, is an FC United fan who acknowledges he contributed “a six-figure sum” to community shares, while happy to remain a member with only one ownership vote.

“It is similar to a charitable donation,” explained Fletcher, who has served on the club’s board. “But the capital is protected and the organisation is held to a sustainable model. I believe one member, one vote is essential; nobody can do what happened to United, where the soul of the club was sold for the benefit of financiers.”

The £2m raised in community shares enabled FC United to access financial grants, which all require a public benefit in return. The Football Foundation, which redistributes a fraction of Premier League and Football Association TV income down the football pyramid – another outcome of the Task Force – contributed £150,000 towards the stadium and £500,000 towards the 3G and grass pitches, based on a development plan to more than triple participation. Sport England’s iconic facilities fund provided £918,000, based on guaranteed community use of the stadium and the commitment particularly to encourage more women and girls, young people, disability groups and ethnic minorities to play sport.

Manchester city council, which had earmarked capital investment for Moston, a disadvantaged area to the north of the city, provided a £750,000 grant for the stadium and a £500,000 loan at commercial rates, to achieve what it has described as “huge social and economic benefits”.

Other smaller grants still left a shortfall and the club raised £460,000 from fans’ donations and crowd-funding, and £325,000 from supporters via a loan stock scheme. There is still £200,000 to raise over the next year.

FC United have incorporated an irreversible “asset lock” over the stadium and other value in the club, which means its member-owners cannot profit individually from a sale in the future; any surplus money would be distributed to the community.

The building of the football club itself, to raise a team from the North West Counties League second division, to promotion this season as champions of the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League, has been a process of relentless improvement. Unusually in the hard-bitten non-leagues, they have remained loyal throughout to the same manager, Karl Marginson, despite serial play-off disappointments that would elsewhere have led to a firing.

Marginson, a former professional with Rotherham United who was a qualified but inexperienced coach in 2005, has demonstrated commitment to the club’s values, and a capacity to develop, his management now extending to first team, reserves and post-16 scholars. Having worked with Damian Hughes, a sports psychologist, Marginson explains they now recruit players based on “attitudes and behaviours”, to mould a collective spirit throughout.

  FC United manager Karl Marginson, left and Darren Lyons have been at the club since its inception in 2005. Photograph: Steve Allen/Manchester Evening News

“It is a fine balance,” Marginson said. “We want footballers to be super confident on the pitch but be humble, have their feet on the ground, as people. I’m a totally changed person since 2005; I have learned so much. It has taken time to reach stability and that itself is attractive to players.”

Jerome Wright, who came to the club in 2006 after suffering rejection at 16 by Oldham Athletic, has played more than 300 games for FC United. He said he and other players have been offered much more money by other non-league clubs than the £150 per week they are paid on average, but they stay because they feel valued.

“I’ve been offered money which would change my life financially,” Wright said, gazing at the new stadium. “But I believe with all my heart I have had an experience here better than most footballers in the world.”

Benfica have special prestige in United lore, having been the opponents when Matt Busby’s team secured their first European Cup victory on the same day, 29 May 1968. The Benfica link with FC United was made by one of the coaches, Paul Bright, and last year the club looked after Benfica’s under-19 team when they played Manchester City. Benfica volunteered a return favour and so find themselves bringing a B team over for an occasion when 4,500 people will be pinching themselves.

At the trial game one supporter, Michelle Noonan, called over to Brown. “I can’t stop crying,” she said. Asked why, she was quiet for a while. Then she replied: “Because I can’t believe that out of so much anger and hatred we have made something so good.”