Somehow or other, it was always going to end up this way. If there is such a thing a cohesive protest movement within modern football, a considerable proportion of it surrounds FC United of Manchester, a club borne more than a decade ago of the weariness that some supporters have felt at the direction that the game has taken since broadcasters bought the game. This is a club that decided from inception that it would have principles that it would stick to. These principles were seldom likely to be challenged as the club rose from the North West Counties League to the National League North, levels of the game at which the glare of the media spotlight usually feels more like a soft hum, but earlier this week they were tested again in a tete a tete that has grabbed national headlines.
One might argue that it all started on Saturday afternoon, when the team defeated Sporting Khalsa in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup. It was always likely that their name would be one of the most scrutinised when the First Round Draw was made on Monday evening, and this was amplified further when they were handed a home draw against Chesterfield in the next round of the competition. FC United are of course, one of the big news stories of the round, but the club has only appeared at this stage of the competition once before, in, 2010, when it defeated Rochdale by three goals to two before losing to Brighton and Hove Albion after a replay following a draw at Withdean.
Along with Salford City and Didcot Town – a club with a Manchester United link thanks to the involvement of several members of the Class of 92 and the lowest ranking team left in the competition playing Notts County and Exeter City respectively – FC United were selected for live television coverage, with their match to be played on the Monday night of the First Round weekend in front of the cameras of BT Sport. It’s not the first time that FC United have had to acquiesce on kick off times. The aforementioned Rochdale match was played on a Friday night. But the reaction of the club was a lengthy missive against this plan coupled with a request for the match not to be played at this time. Monday night is, after all, a midweek night to all intents and purposes and having to travel to Manchester from Derbyshire on a Monday night would be a considerable disruption to Chesterfield supporters of nothing else.
This request was summarily dismissed by the Football Association, so the match will be played, like it or not, on the Monday night. No rationale has been offered for the initial decision, and there has never seemed to be any specific formula behind why some matches are selected for live television coverage and others are not. It’s difficult to interpret the behaviour of the FA over this as being anything but contemptuous towards at the very least towards FC United and quite plausibly also towards Chesterfield and their supporters. FC United’s standpoint over kick-off times is fairly well established, and is surely common knowledge of within the Football Association. So why, of the three matches that were selected for live television coverage, was the only match that would feature a club that would be institutionally and culturally unhappy at being picked to play on a Monday night selected? Contrary to popular legend, however, the club is not implacably opposed to appearing live on the television. In fact, the club has a resolution relating specifically for live televised matches, which take the following into consideration:
1. The time of kick off proposed.
2. The travelling times involved for the fans (FC fans for away matches, opposition fans for home matches).
3. The impact of a no decision on the other club.
4. The benefits to our club to be derived from this exposure.
5. The impact of any additional money in helping the club achieve its aims.
When the Rochdale match came calling, the club considered the advantages of playing the match on a Friday night – with the next day not being a work day for most people, only a short journey to be made across Manchester and the club needing as much money as it could, this match went ahead live on the television. The Chesterfield match, however, has been a different matter. Monday night and Friday nights cannot merely be equated as “week day” fixtures because on a Monday the majority of people have work the following day. The journey from Chesterfield is around an hour and a half rather than a hop across the city. And whilst the club still does need money – all non-league football clubs need money – the need for it now might not necessarily be as pressing as it was five years ago. Some – perhaps many – Chesterfield supporters might be glad of the fact that they will get to watch the match on the television, but FC United’s concerns are obviously aimed towards match-going supporters. Previously, a total boycott of the support was brought about by a decision on the part of the Northern Premier League to move a kick-off time to satisfy a live streaming service that the league had involved itself with.
Of course, there might well be a case for saying that the club was aware of the rules of the competition before it started and that it could either have not entered in the first place or could forfeit the match because of its kick-off time. To suggest this as a reflex reaction, however, overlooks the distinct overtones of the Football Association’s dismissive and high handed decision. What, exactly, does it say about who this tournament is being played for that this decision could have been reached? It certainly doesn’t seem to have been for the best interests of the supporters, in particular those who have to travel north west from Chesterfield. And playing matches in the First Round of the competition at all on Friday or Monday nights when a majority of Non-League players are part-time and have day jobs would seem to indicate that the players themselves have to bend to the will of the FA, rather than the competition being molded around their best interests. It’s impossible to say, given the secretive nature of the way on which these decisions tend to be made, but it certainly looks from the outside as if the only group whose opinion really matters when it comes to this is that of the broadcasters themselves. To that extent perhaps we might reflect that the Football Association has done FC United’s job for it.
The scruples and obligations of all football clubs are not equal, though, and FC United was not the only non-league football club to find itself being treated in such a manner by the governing body this week, albeit for almost diametrically opposite reasons. National League club Altrincham was drawn to play Barnsley, and its match was initially selected to be one of eight “Mobile Match Of The Day” matches to be recorded for the BBC on the Sunday afternoon of that particular weekend. The club would have made £12,500 from it and was happy for this to go ahead, but the FA removed Barnsley – who have a league match the following Tuesday night – from it when the Football League club objected to it, a decision that may well interpreted as a policy by which clubs can object to kick-off times and dates so long as they are big enough. Altrincham were public in their anger at missing out on this amount of money, but their protests have been similarly brushed aside. The only consistency over these two decisions seems to be that all football clubs may be created equally, but some are more equal than others.
The fact of the matter is that television has been an intrinsic part of football for more than half a century, and this, with the very best will in the world, is not going to change at any point in the foreseeable future. There will always be those who will hold those with ethical beliefs up to unreasonable standards – and usually standards that the critics themselves do not even care about – in order to point score. Such point-scoring is merely hyperbolic and easy to dismiss. Any football club is a collection of the voices of hundreds or thousands of different people, and there is no rule which say that all of them have to agree every single issue. It probably is the right decision for FC United of Manchester to go ahead and play this match in front of the cameras, on the Monday night, and it seems reasonable to say that the club and its supporters are, just as those from just down the road at Altrincham, justified in feeling as if its concerns or hopes have been written roughshod over in order to keep television companies happy, and this will inevitably leave a sour taste in the mouth of many.
Perhaps it is a truth of football in the twenty-first century that the game in this country is in thrall to television and its money to the exclusion of most other considerations, and perhaps FC United of Manchester are raging at the dying of the light in seeking to keep kick-off times for their matches to times that are most convenient for supporters. Having principles and choosing which battles to fight as well as the extent to which to fight them go hand in hand. FC United of Manchester have made their point. It seems inconceivable that, when the paymasters of English football arrive at Broadhurst Park for the match in a couple of weeks’ time, it seems that the club’s supporters won’t make their feelings known over all of this in the most vocal manner possible.
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