The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk. It would make a great Christmas gift for a non-league friend or relation!
‘Love will tear us apart’
A little over ten years ago, over a fragrant feast of South Asian cuisine, a small handful of disaffected, increasingly hostile Manchester United fans were busy deconstructing the state of affairs at their beloved Old Trafford following the club’s takeover by Florida billionaire Malcom Glazer. They were getting more bitter by the day. The mists obscuring the deal were beginning to clear, revealing the depth of debt the club was being plunged into to secure the takeover.
The despair at the numbers being touted provoked an extreme response. That evening, over the curry-house table, the idea about forming a fan-owned breakaway club was first mooted, a suggestion that impartial observers might have merely put down to the intake of successive pints of Kingfisher. Two public meetings later a steering group was swiftly commissioned and within two months, I July 2005, the new club was playing its first friendly.
A decade on, FC United of Manchester can bask in its extraordinary success, the most impressive ascent by a fan-owned club yet seen aside from that of AFC Wimbledon. Having started that first season in the North-West Counties Football League Division Two, three back-to-back promotions saw the club fly up the pyramid at an unparalleled velocity, roared on by an average home gate of between 3,000 and 4,000, numbers utterly alien to sub-Conference football.
Champions of the Northern Premier League in 2014-15 after four consecutive play-off disappointments, FC United reached a new altitude – that of the Conference North, just two steps off the Football League. Nosebleed time. This on-pitch milestone was dwarfed by an off-pitch achievement as they were handed the keys to their very own stadium.
Broadhurst Park, in the north Manchester suburb of Moston, is something of a handsome beast. It certainly doesn’t appear a hotbed of anger and dissent. Obscured by a row of mature sycamores, it looks more like a newly completed tertiary college, all glass and wood cladding. The wood is significant; it resembles railway sleepers, an allusion to Manchester United’s origins as Newton Heath, a club formed by local railway workers in 1878. The fact that Broadhurst Park is less than two miles from Newton Heath, but eight from Old Trafford is not insignificant, either. Keeping their distance.
Since forming, FC United have played the vast majority of their home games at Bury’s Gigg Lane ground. On the occasions that their matches clashed with their landlords, they used the facilities at a range of local clubs – Altrincham, Radcliffe, Hyde, Stalybridge and Curzon Ashton. It was the equivalent of being a long-term fixture on your mate’s sofa, but having to find another sofa when he had his girlfriend over [Asst Editor – sounds familiar to Blues’ fans and the analogy is an interesting one!]. Now those nomadic days are over.
‘Welcome to the Costa del Moston’ cries one of the club’s officials, raising an arm to the spotless, perfectly blue sky, with the synthetic fibres of the new 3G pitch shimmering in the sunshine. The hurt and mistrust that fuelled the club’s formation is now conspicuously absent. Successive promotions have healed those wounds in double-quick time; no more do the faithful look back in anger towards Old Trafford.
On the way here, I went looking for what FC United ran away from. The Megastore at Old Trafford is a potent symbol of what the ‘Guardian’s’ Barney Ronay describes as ‘a sport that has turned itself inside out for television, marketing, profiteering owners and the rest’. You have to pass thirty-eight tills on your way out, thirty-eight ways to efficiently, and rather significantly, reduce your bank balance.
When he took over, Malcolm Glazer and his equally eager sons, took the world’s richest football club and, using huge loans to complete the process, overnight flipped it into the club saddled with the deepest debt. When they refinanced after just a year, the annual interest alone totalled £62 million; it was the mother of all mortgages. The Megastore is a cathedral of commerce, a tourist attraction that keeps the cash for those mortgage repayments spilling in on non-match-days.
There’s no Megastore here at Broadhurst Park. The merchandise manager is currently wheeling a clothes rail across the car park from a shipping container. He’s en route to one of the corners of the pitch, from where he’ll hawk his wares before pushing a hopefully lighter rail back again.
A couple of primary school-age lads, old-style autograph books tucked under their arms, wait patiently outside the main entrance for their favourite players to arrive for this evening’s game against Worcester City. Their heroes are approachable heroes. Fans of Premier League clubs have to contend with a blurred glimpse of a player as he speeds in or out of the stadium car park in an unfathomably expensive sports car. Here, the players have time for their young admirers. FC United’s captain, Jerome Wright gives one a hug and asks him how his week at school has been since he last saw him. I follow Wright into the bowels of the new stadium and, retiring to the empty main stand, he explains the appeal of a club for whom he’s the longest-serving player.
‘This is going to sound cheesy, but it’s a very special place to be. A lot of the lads have been offered double or triple the money to play at a higher level. But these boys chose to stay.’ Wright is amongst those who’ve been offered higher-level football, but is content to spend his day working in the Wythenshawe head office of Timpson (‘they do your keys, your shoes and your phones’). That salary pays the bills. The modest cash from his football is his pocket-money.
‘I broke my arm two years ago. At the time I was doing fencing for work and I couldn’t work for three months. Because I was self-employed, I lost my house and my car went. Behind the scenes, a small group of supporters organised a gig after a match. The manager phoned me and insisted I came a game and a party afterwards. There, they auctioned off signed boots and signed programmes and all the money went to me. I could finally pay my bills.’
The fans’ benevolence confirmed that Wright couldn’t be anything other than an FC United lifer. ‘I was here when the first spade went into the ground where the centre circle is,’ he gushes. ‘I was so excited. It was just grass. It was just a field.’
We gaze out towards the far side of the pitch where the ladders are out. The faithful are hanging up their flags with statements of defiance and principle. ‘2 Uniteds, 1 Soul’, says one; ‘Makin’ Friends, Not Millionaires’, says another. The people up the ladders are the people who put Jerome Wright’s life back on track. ‘If any person involved at FC United ever needs a favour and they come to me, I’d jump up and do anything that needed doing. Anything.’
Below us on the touchline, casting a beady eye over the first players warming up on the pitch, is another man for whom FC United has significantly recalibrated his life. Karl Marginson has been the club’s first-team manager since that initial friendly in July 2005. He was working as a van driver. Once the working day was done, he could apply his brain to building up this brand-new club. ‘For the first two years, it was managing a football ‘team’. Then, when we started to realise what we could achieve, it became more about managing a ‘club’.’
Marginson took up the reigns at the age of thirty-five after a playing career as a sturdy midfielder for a small handful of Football League clubs and a larger number of non-league sides in the North West. A dyed-in-the-wool Manchester United fan – ‘I still am. I didn’t have the opportunity to become disenchanted because of my own footballing career. So it wasn’t a massive turning away for myself like it was for quite a lot of our supporters. I went along to the steering group meeting and couldn’t believe it. They were talking park-and-ride schemes and such like. It was mind-blowing.’ He knew he wasn’t looking at the faces of wildly idealistic dreamers and hopeless fantasists. ‘No, there was too much intelligence in that room. There was too much commitment. That was never really a question.’
Marginson hung up his van’s keys after five years of juggling the double lives of delivery driver and football manager. Since then, he’s been employed full-time by the club. His ten-year tenure is in marked contrast to the managerial merry-go-round at Old Trafford. In came David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, showing themselves to be ill-equipped to fill a certain Glaswegian’s shoes. It’s not the sands shifting under the feet of Premier League managers, either. By Christmas, six Conference managers will already have exited stage left.
As long as he avoids notching up the club’s first-ever relegation, Marginson – lionised later this evening in the chants of the FC United faithful – will continue to be the occupant of the manager’s office come the end of the season [Asst Editor – see the Wanderer’s update at the end of this article to get the up-to-date managerial situation at the club – and don’t be too surprised at what you read!].
If Marginson wasn’t a particularly disaffected, disenchanted Manchester United fan, there are thousands around Broadhurst Park who were. I’m off to meet one of the more vocal ones now. In the top row of the main stand to the press box sits Steve Bennett, known to everyone around the place as Swampy. Over the years, he’s undertaken various roles at the club, but is best known as the match-day commentator for the club’s own online radio station.
Tonight, he’s accompanied by Ian ‘Burkey’ Burke, BBC Radio Manchester’s non-league reporter and unarguably the most chipper co-commentator in the land. Should Swampy need to now the age, birthplace, shoe size or, quite possibly, favourite pizza topping of the Worcester number six, Burkey has the answer at his fingertips.
Sitting next to Swampy, I discover it’s a real treat to watch a man in the flesh with an inbuilt live commentary. I now understand those curious diehards who watch games with the earphone of a transistor radio – or, these days, an iPhone – screwed deep into their ear, listening to someone else’s interpretation of a match that’s going on right before their eyes.
Alongside the plentiful left-wing allusions that are liberally scattered into the commentary, Swampy and Burkey also send themselves aloft on some surreal flights of fancy. No other football commentators make a sharp turn to ponder the history of the Bee Gees’ childhood Manchester home, or deduce which former breakfast TV presenter a certain player’s hair most closely resembles (they both agree it’s Anne Diamond). We’re all the richer for these digressions. Think ‘Test Match Special’ with no cake and a Trotskyite subtext.
The soundtrack to an at-times feisty first half is the massive chorus of the St Mary’s Road End. It’s the kind of high-volume singing rarely heard in non-league. The fans’ uncontained pride at their new, permanent base – after hopscotching around Greater Manchester – means that one of their favourite songs now takes on extra poignancy. ‘This is how it feels to be FC,’ they chant, adapting Inspirational Carpets’ most famous hit. ‘This is how it feels to be home / This is how it feels when you don’t sell your arse to a gnome.’ While articulating their joy that their transformation from nomads to homeowners is complete, the song still can’t resist a dig at the bearded billionaire whose takeover inadvertently shaped their destiny.
FC United’s sponsor-free, crimson kit also harks back to times past, a design intentionally redolent of Manchester United’s late-1970s strip. That would have been the era when the main movers and shakers behind the scenes here at Broadhurst Park would have, as teenagers or younger, fallen in love with a team crammed with United legends like Gordon Hill and Stuart Pearson, Sammy McIlroy and Gordon McQueen. Clearly a case of discovering something they had lost.
By half-time, former Coventry striker, Lee Hughes, who’s leading the Worcester front line, has curled a shot into the far corner of the goal and been sent off, having grappled one of the opposing midfielders and placed his hand around his throat, before, seeing the approaching referee, quickly patting his opponent on the head as if he is play-acting. Nice try. Still a red card, though.
Swampy removes his headphones, ready to explain the inevitability of FC United’s rise. Although not among the original diners, he was present at that first mass meeting. The forward momentum ever since has been irresistible. ‘I grew up with Manchester United. It’s in my blood. It was in my heart and soul. After the anti-Glazer campaign, which had been lost in all fairness, it was very hard to think of any reason why you’d like to go back to Old Trafford. You don’t cross a picket line and that picket line’s not been crossed ever since. I can’t see myself crossing it for any reason at all. A free ticket? Free hospitality at Old Trafford? Not for me any more.’
The headphones are back on for the second forty-five, a half the home side dominates. It looks certain that they’ll grab a point with four minutes left, but Sam Madeley puts the ball over from two yards. Perhaps he was dazzled by his Swampy-baiting, Barbie-pink boots. Two minutes later, ten-man Worcester launch a swift counter-attack and it’s 2-0. Game over.
The rampant ambition, the upward trajectory of progress, might have to take a breather for this season. Tonight’s opponents, who’ve been in the sixth tier for more than a decade, have shown them the canniness, the sporting nous, required for survival. This season it’ll simply be a case of settling both into this level of football and into their new stadium.
After eleven harmonious years, 2015-16 was the most turbulent season yet for FC United. Although their Conference North status was maintained despite a mid-season flirtation with the relegation zone, all was not happy behind the scenes. Not only did the influential general manager, Andy Walsh, announce his intention to stand down, but the ‘Guardian’ reported that the backdrop was one of ‘legal action, resignations, protests, gagging orders and the overall feeling that FC are locked in an identity crisis.’ Choppy waters are lapping on the shores of Utopia.
UPDATE BY THE WANDERER
The 2016-17 season proved to be another one of consolidation, with a second consecutive 13th place finish in Conference North. The current season has been more difficult. By the middle of October, FC United were out of the FA Cup and in the relegation places. On 24 October 2017, the following appeared on the official website:
FC United of Manchester have announced that Karl Marginson will leave his post as manager by mutual agreement, and with immediate effect.
Both the club board and Karl Marginson have agreed that this is the right course of action in the best interests of both parties.
The board said “we’re sure that all FC United members and supporters will join us in thanking Karl for more than twelve years of fantastic service to the club. What the club has achieved on the pitch during this time, winning four promotions, has been wonderful and much of that has been down to Karl’s hard work and keen eye for spotting talented young players. Whilst off the pitch Karl’s love for the club and embracing of its values has been there for all to see. Such loyalty and commitment is all too rare in modern football and this has been a difficult decision and one that is tinged with sadness. We’ve had a disappointing start to the season, certainly not one that we were hoping for and we feel that the time is right for a change to enable us to improve our league position. It goes without saying that Karl will always be welcome at this football club and we look forward to seeing him back at Broadhurst Park.”
Karl added “to manage this football club has been a privilege and an honour, so it’s a very sad day for me to be leaving. What we’ve achieved on and off the pitch over the last twelve years has been brilliant - it’s a special football club and one that will always hold a place in my heart. I will always be a supporter of the club. I’d like to wish everyone at the club and its supporters all the very best for the future”.
FC United’s popular centre forward Tom Greaves takes over as caretaker player manager until a new permanent first team manager is appointed. Greaves is appointed the new Manager of FC United on 21 November 2017, along with Jack Doyle as Assistant Manager and Tom Conroy as First Team Coach.
Updated 16:52 - 17 Dec 2017 by GAFC News