The comment assent to the news that FC United of Manchester finally to now have the green light to start building their brand new stadium in the Moston area of the city seems to have been something along the lines of, “And about time, too.” It was in March of 2010 that the club first announced its plans to build a ground of its own in Newton Heath, but after a volte face by the city council a year later brought about by a change in council funding the plans had to be redrawn and even these have proved to be fraught, with an attempt to undermine the new application by a section of local residents, which was approved by Manchester City Council in October 2011, and further lengthy delays before the green light to actually start building it was finally granted earlier this week.
It might well be argued that this final great leap forward has come just in time for a club that was starting to feel the effects of not having a home of its own. At the time of writing, FC United are in eleventh place in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League, seven places above the relegation places and five points from the play-off spots in what looks like being a tight division this season. The club’s ground-share at Bury’s Gigg Lane is expensive, and further complications are to be found in the fact that they have to move matches if they are to clash with home matches to be played by their landlords. It’s a situation that is obviously a long way from ideal, but there is something equally important – if also more difficult to quantify – in the very fact of having a home of their own. The club’s identity over the eight years of its existence has been clear enough, but the lack of a home has frequently felt like the missing piece of a jigsaw. Now, and the time period anticipated for building work means that it all could or should be ready by the start of next season, that jigsaw is set to be completed.
One of the club’s well-worn mottos may be the statement, “Making friends, not millionaires”, but the club has found fierce resistance to its plans along the way, and the embers of that resistance continue to glow even now. One of the club’s more implacable critics over the last couple of years or so has been one Councillor Henry Cooper, who has, to coin a phrase, occasionally found himself splashed all over the website and pages of the Manchester Evening News with regard to his oppposition to the club. At the end of March 2012, Cooper, who was first elected to the council in 1991, announced that he would be leaving the Labour Party over the council’s decision to back the project, stating that, “The residents who live around here, in the Charlestown and the Moston areas have been treated like dirt.”
A year and a half on, Councillor Cooper seems to retain what might be described as “a keen interest” in the club’s activities, and earlier this week he called for an investigation into why the local council is paying the £100 a day for the club to keep a community café which had been threatened with closure open, of all things. Cooper, who lost his seat as deputy chair of the fire authority over his departure from the Labour Party and now apparently doesn’t have anything better to do with his time, was quoted by the Manchester Evening News this week as having said:
I just wanted people to know that FC United are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart – they are being paid for it like they are for everything else. They are using students from Manchester College and training them so they won’t be paying them. Now the council are going to refurbish the cafe – they didn’t offer that to the last person who ran it. I’ve sent a complaint to the internal audit to investigate. FC United will be running the council next.
There is, of course, another way to look at this. It might be suggested that this café is a community-minded venture and that an organisation with experience of community work of this nature would be extremely well-placed to carry out this work, a notion which may well be borne out by reports that the club was the only organisation in a position to take on the management of the cafe as an interim measure at short notice. It has also been argued by the council – and it’s a different slant on the argument to talking about all of this as if there is anything sinister about it – that this payment is to cover the costs of running the café in the first place. The council went on to add that in its statement in response to his claims that, “The tendering process has now begun to find a permanent occupier for the cafe, and we would welcome any interested parties to get in touch.” Perhaps Councillor Cooper would like to do it himself. It is clearly a subject that he feels very passionate about.
Such sideshows, however, shouldn’t be allowed to detract from something far more significant. That the club has got this far has been a magnificent achievement, and a lot of people deserve many congratulations for having made it this far. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for the club to further demonstrate that there is another way, not only in terms of how the club manages itself as a football club but also in terms of how it engages with its community. There can be little doubt that the opposition of some within that community to the club being there in the first place deserved to be heard, but the decision has now been made and it is to be hoped that the club will prove itself to be worthy in terms of the way that it works for its its new neighbours. We have seldom seen any evidence to indicate that the club will behave in anything other than an exemplary manner in this respect.
Just as there are so many bad news stories within football in this country that we often feel obliged to report upon, so must the good news stories be written up as well. If there is still anything resembling the faint trace of a beat at the heart of football in this country in the twenty-first century, then FC United of Manchester are one of its clearest examples. This is a football club that has set out a stall to do things differently, to stand by its principles and to promote another way of acting in the frequently grubby business of running a football club. And at the start of next season, it will have a facility to be proud if, which it has worked extremely hard for, and which will stand as an example of the principles for which the club stands. All involved in making it a reality deserve our most heartfelt congratulations.
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