FC United of Manchester plays arguably its most important match of the club’s short five-year history tonight. Facing Rochdale in the FA Cup first round, FC United will benefit from the support of more than 4,000 traveling fans. It’s a huge achievement for the club, set up in the wake of Malcolm Glazer’s takeover in 2005.
The FC United idea was not a new one in 2005. Indeed, some fans had mooted the proposal when Rupert Murdoch tried and failed to buy Manchester United in the late 1990s. This time the mood was more militant though, with the debt-fuelled Glazer takeover one factor among many that alienated supporters from the club.
Thus FC – the Red Rebels – was born in a local curry restaurant, with £200,000 raised within weeks to create a club that stands today as an icon of a growing supporter-centric anti-commercial movement. Whatever big United supporters’ feelings about FC – and many echo Sir Alex Ferguson’s dismissive comments in which he called FC “publicity seekers” – it is hard not to feel empathy with a democratic club that not only eschews shirt sponsorship but the very worst of an overly commercialised football industry.
Karl Marginson, the 39-year-old FC United manager, mirrors many supporters’ frustration, on both sides of the divide, with Ferguson’s staunch refusal to criticise the leveraged Glazer takeover that has loaded more than £700 million debt onto big United.
“Sir Alex Ferguson is manager of Manchester United, so he needs to look after their interests, but I would be different, with the things I believe in,” Marginson told the Times.
“Coming from Glasgow, the shipyards and the trade unions, as he does, it’s disappointing.
“I’m not money-driven. It would be nice to earn a bit more, but if something like that happened [the takeover] and I was looking at the genuine fans, I would have walked away.
“I totally understand where Sir Alex is coming from, but me personally, I would have said, ‘Stuff it, I’m off.’ I would have made sure the team was in as healthy a position as it could have been and I would have given my reasons for walking away.”
But if FC remains a breakaway club in many big United supporters’ eyes, then the Bury-based outfit is slowly growing an identity that is separate from the Glazer takeover. That process will accelerate when the club moves into a planned £3.5 million new home in Newton Heath.
As with every other facet of FC United, the new stadium at Ten Acres Lane is based on both the needs of the club, community and especially its supporters. Indeed fans are expected to contribute up to one-third of the build cost though an innovative Community Shares scheme.
The 5,000-capacity stadium will be the first permanent home for FC United, which regularly plays at Bury’s Gigg Lane but has also turned out at Bower Fold, Stalybridge this season.
The new stadium will help secure FC’s future by providing a sustainable income stream, with the Rebels paying around £5,000 a match to its League Two landlords.
Support remains strong though, with three promotions in five years and an average attendance that does not look out-of-place in league football. FC United attracts around 2,000 fans each week, although during the club’s first season it boasted the second-highest average attendance in English non-League football including 6,023 for a match against Great Harwood Town in April 2006.
The club’s sustainability, despite spending a large chunk of its budget on renting Gigg Lane, is underpinned by a supporter centric ticket model. The annual £12 membership is supplemented by a season-ticket pricing policy that allows supporters to name their own price. The average is a recession busting £160 this season. Or about three games sat in the North Stand at Old Trafford.
Tonight’s fixture at Spotland will contribute to an FA Cup bounty of more than £100,000 for the club, with FC’s share of ESPN TV revenue around £67,500. It will contribute not only to the stadium development fund but ongoing success on the pitch.
What chance then of David meeting Goliath in round three should FC progress tonight and further to round three? Certainly a meeting between the two red Manchester clubs is one that would be relished by both sets of supporters. The symbiotic relationship is as yet unbroken despite the growing sense of distance some FC supporters now feel.
Marginson, a veteran of 15 lower league clubs, says that FC will always be outsiders. Yet there is more than a touch of clarity in the 39-year-old’s view of his club’s bigger brother.
“What goes on in 90 minutes is the visual side, but football has a bigger and deeper responsibility to its communities and its fans, and, excuse my French, but they’re [United fans] just getting the p*ss taken out of them,” Marginson adds.
“I don’t know whether they don’t see it or don’t want to believe it. Sometimes, if you’re in love with something, it’s hard to see the bad side of things.
“I just feel something has to change and what we’re trying to do is show there is a different way for football to exist.”
Millions will view FC’s first steps into the FA Cup proper tonight. It could be another famous chapter in a remarkable club history.