The success of England’s newest football club is based on a rejection of the free market model that dominates the game, and our culture, says ADAM BROWN.
A little over a year ago the newest football club in the league pyramid was officially inaugurated by its members. FC United of Manchester is a fan-owned, one member one vote, not for profit football club, which started out ten divisions below the FA Premier League in the North West Counties division two. The club, formed by disillusioned and disenfranchised Manchester United fans, was in part a furious response to the takeover of United by Malcolm Glazer and in part a rejection of the corporate free market model of football which now dominates the English game.
Although that gathering of 500 or so fans took place in Manchester’s Victorian Methodist Central Hall, continuing a long tradition of Mancunian radicalism, a very modern process had brought us to that point. It is perhaps a symbol of our times that where once factory owners, schools, churches and work colleagues formed football clubs, at the back end of the 19th century, FC United of Manchester was formed in the wake of a corporate takeover of a company, or rather of a ‘global leisure brand’, Manchester United plc. This has raised issues about the domination and commodification of cultural spheres like football by capital and the limits on the abilities of, and opportunities for, people to resist.
A bitter and, at times, violent campaign had been waged against the takeover for 18 months by the ‘Not For Sale’ coalition – the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association (IMUSA), fanzines, and Shareholders United (SU). They had been joined in opposition by the secretive Manchester Education Committee, who undertook direct actions against those collaborating with the takeover. By May 2005 SU had 35,000 members (the largest fan organisation anywhere) and one survey suggested 98 per cent of fans opposed the takeover.
The MEC attacked the cars of directors who sold shares to Glazer, invaded the pitch of a reserve team game being televised to five million people world wide, and disrupted the business of Glazer’s corporate partners. Black faxes, repeated emails and phone calls to jam lines, coordinated internet postings to jam servers, hundreds of unwanted pizzas delivered on their behalf, a skip sent to Brunswick PR’s offices, and even a couple of call girls sent to the head of Deutsche Bank. The Glazers’ Christmas party in Baltimore was cancelled after fans discovered the location and began harassing the proprietor. It was an international campaign against international capital. Partners withdrew from helping Glazer, but it didn’t stop the eventual take over.
Indeed, given the scale, popularity, variety and geographical spread of the campaign, its ultimate failure tells us something about the limits of consumer/supporter campaigns when faced with £800 million of corporate muscle.
By the time Malcolm Glazer’s three sons first visited Old Trafford on June 29 2005, the ground looked like a war zone. That night barricades surrounded the stadium, bits of the new stands were strewn across the access roads, riot police charged at fans with vans, batons and dogs as helicopters flew over head. At one bitterly ironic point, supporters locked outside heard the stadium PA playing the new owners the sounds and songs of the United crowd – songs sung by the very people now disenfranchised. The Glazers were whisked out under a brutal police guard as furious but futile missiles rained down on them.
As defeats go, this was pretty comprehensive. The largest and most extensive fan campaign in English football had come to nought. The only way that the campaign could have survived and prospered was a mass boycott of tickets and season ticket renewals. That would have undermined Glazer’s income streams so much that repayments on the massive £500m loan, which already look shaky, would have been impossible. Although promised at times during the campaign, conservatism on the part of some of the leaders – now anxious to preserve their extensive memberships – meant that no clear line was pursued and perhaps just 2-3,000 season ticket holders made the heart-breaking decision to withdraw their support.
Despite that being the biggest walk-out by fans in recent times, it was never going to be enough to destabilise the Glazer regime. Its effect on the culture of United’s support has been more dramatic as some division has now opened between those who stayed and those who left; and there was an almost complete lack of protest against the Glazers at Old Trafford last season.
FC United was formed for a variety of reasons: a general disaffection with ‘new’ football, as many traditional fans describe the post-Euro ’96 corporate game; a direct response to the Glazer walkout (‘to give us somewhere to go’; ‘to keep the community together when we’re in exile’); and to demonstrate, by example, how a football club can be run on a mutual, not-for-profit basis.
The last of these motivations reflects, in part, the fans’ experiences in defeating BSkyB’s attempted takeover of United in 1998/99. The only way to stop this sort of thing happening again, it was realised, was to take the club into members’ hands. As such the Not For Sale campaign was also a rejection of the prevailing plc model at United. It also reflects growing support for mutualism within football. The Supporters Direct initiative is testimony to this shift. This is a national body which helps fans get collective and controlling interests in their club on a democratic, not-for-profit basis.
In this drive towards fan ownership, supporters in the UK are merely asking for what is routine in many of Europe’s leading football nations (although notably, not in Italy, which has spiralled into a cess pit of corruption). Germany, Spain, France, Portugal and the Scandinavian countries all have regulations that require a controlling stake in clubs to be held by their members to prevent football clubs becoming cash cows for unscrupulous businessmen, as has happened so disastrously in England and Italy. The Labour government’s craven pandering to the Premier League, and rejection of their own Task Force’s recommendations to prevent such profiteering in English football, is an utterly shameful chapter in this story.
Indeed, the political failure to prevent the Manchester United takeover was also a motivation for FC United: ‘if nobody else is going to help us, we’ll do it ourselves’. As such, the legal nature of FC United, as well as its fan culture, reflect this background of resistance by fans and a DIY ethos summarised by some as ‘punk football’.
The club is established in the rather archaic form of an Industrial and Provident Society and its ‘manifesto’ states:
1. The Board will be democratically elected by its members.
2. Decisions taken by the membership will be decided on a one member, one vote basis.
3. The club will develop strong links with the local community and strive to be accessible to all, discriminating against none.
4. The club will endeavour to make admission prices as affordable as possible, to as wide a constituency as possible.
5. The club will encourage young, local participation – playing and supporting – whenever possible.
6. The Board will strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism.
7. The club will remain a non-profit organisation.’
FC United of Manchester Manifesto, July 2005
In March this year, at the first General Meeting of fans, members voted overwhelmingly to reject advertising on team shirts – something which could earn the club tens of thousands of pounds – preventing the players ‘becoming advertising hoardings’. Fan songs, of which there are many, also reflect this ‘politicised’ fan culture – a rejection of ‘commercialised’ football as symbolised by Sky TV, new ‘plastic’ fans, and (imposed) changing modes of consumption in the game:
Under the boardwalk / Watching FC / There’s no knob heads in jester hats / Or Sky TV
When FC United go out to play (hurrah hurrah) / When FC United go out to play (hurrah hurrah) / When FC United go out to play / It’s 3 o’clock on Saturday / We don’t work for Sky Sports any more
The following has become something of an anthem, reflecting the Manchester United past and FC United present of many supporters’ identities:
Won’t pay for Glazer / Or work for Sky / We still sing ‘City’s gonna die’ / Two Uniteds but the soul is one / As the Busby Babes carry on
Finally, this pub (rather than stadium) song borrows heavily from the pseudo para-militarism of the MEC:
Go on home Malcolm Glazer, go on home / Have you got no fucking home of your own / For 127 years, we fought you and your peers / And we’ll fight you for 100 more.
If you stay Malcolm Glazer you will see / You will never defeat the MEC / You can take your fucking debt / And your Edwards Cheshire set / Go on home Malcolm Glazer go on home
The club, which leant heavily on the example and practical help of AFC Wimbledon, has enjoyed enormous and totally unpredicted success on many fronts. Attendances have averaged 3,000 in a league which normally sees 75-100 loyal diehards per match, and the atmosphere has been widely applauded. FC were the 85th best supported club in the whole country last year, punching six divisions above their weight. Some clubs enjoyed five-times their annual turnover when FC came to play, guaranteeing a redistribution of income within the league. The home crowds reached a peak of 6,023 at the last match when the team received the trophy for winning their division in their first season. Among the crowd, 28 per cent were under 18 (reflecting a huge demand among young people for live football, people who are currently excluded by high prices, library atmospheres, and corporate structures) and a very high proportion are women, both things which buck trends elsewhere.
Playing, under a ground share agreement, at Bury’s Gigg Lane, and pay-on-the-gate admission prices of £7 for adults and £2 for juniors, are certainly factors in this equation, but so too is the freedom fans enjoy away from the overly-regulated, sanitised football at élite level. At many games, you can even stand, and change ends at half time. The club has recently appointed a Club and Community Development Officer to expand the community outreach programme, a huge commitment for a club at this level without any grant support.
There are concerns and pressures, of course. As the club grows, many fans who come to games are not members of the IPS and, as such, cannot vote, or may not even fully understand the constitution of FC United. There is clearly a need for education and encouragement to get fans to participate fully in the club’s structures. There are huge numbers of regular volunteers from among the fans, but more effort is needed to ensure that they get more out of the experience, perhaps through formal accreditation or skills training.
Ironically, the club has become the ‘Man United’ of the non league, with bigger crowds, more income and a greater ability to attract players than other clubs, a situation which will certainly exist for the next three or four years. That brings resentment, but also a responsibility on the club to ensure that it acts in interests wider than merely its own. The commitment to be ‘accessible and of benefit to all communities in Greater Manchester’ places a significant obligation on the club, and the community appointment is in part recognition of this. As it grows, FC United will also be the subject of commercial offers and interest which will test its resolve to oppose ‘outright commercialism’, not least when it attempts to get its own ground.
Standing against these pressures are large numbers of enormously committed fans, the club’s democratic structures, and its socialistic political ethos about how football should be run. The enormous ‘Hasta La Victoria Siempre’ flag spread out at many games is a symbol to these beliefs. With clubs from Stockport to Lincoln to Wimbledon now under the ownership of fans, there is a supportive context from which a revolution in football from below might just grow.
Adam Brown is an elected director of FC United of Manchester