At this point of the season, comparing league positions between two teams that are just about to play a match certainly feels as if it matters less than it might have done a few months ago. Points won in April may have no greater actual significance than those won in October, but it can certainly feel like it when nerves start to jangle in anticipation of promotion or silverware, or in the face of the cold, steely glare of relegation. Form books can go out of the window as players that have been struggling throughout the previous nine months find an extra jolt of energy at the prospect of not having their contracts renewed or the indignity of having to drop a division.
It is entirely understandable if FC United of Manchester go into their home league match against Stamford this afternoon with more than a little on their collective minds. They’ve been in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League for six seasons, now, and have been beaten in the play-offs at the end of three of those. A couple of weeks ago, they were seven points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand, but that lead is now down to two points, although that game in hand is still in place. Their opposition this afternoon is fourth from bottom in the table, the final relegation position in the table, but there are four teams above them within three points of them, and just four weeks ago the strugglers held the league leaders to a draw on their own turf. With just one point from their last three matches, FC United hit patchy form at exactly the point of the season when a team chasing a trophy can ill-afford to.
On Tuesday night, they play their final home league match of the season against mid-table Stourbridge, a team who provided them with one of the mere five league defeats that they have suffered this season. Victory this afternoon would mean that a win on Tuesday night would see them lift the title but it does, for the time being, remain a possibility that their final league match of the season could be a straight shoot-out for the league title. In one of those tricks of irony that fixture list writers occasionally pull out of the hat, they travel to Cumbria on the final day of the league season to play a Workington side that sits in second place in the table, with Ashton United lurking just below them and still in with a chance of snatching the title. The club’s destiny remains in its own hands, but the margins of error are getting slimmer and slimmer. For all the outstanding work put in over the course of this season, the history books will come to record success or failure based upon, depending on the way that results fall, either the next four days or the next seven days.
The achievement of being at the top of the Northern Premier League with a couple of matches of the season left to play in this of all seasons shouldn’t, however, be understated. This season, FC United have been even more nomadic than usual, having ended their ground-sharing agreement with Bury to play an even more nomadic existence than usual, at the homes of nearby Stalybridge Celtic and Curzon Ashton as delays to the completion of their new Broadhurst Park ground. Work at Broadhurst Park is now just about complete, and the club will open it at the end of next month with a friendly match against Benfica. With the completion of this job has come significant media attention. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the political leanings of all concerned, both the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have written gushing articles about club and its new home over the course of the last few days. For those whose eyes are usually drawn towards the glitter and sparkle of the Premier League, this conflation of championship challenging and a new ground seem to have been an enticing combination.
That such distractions have been set to one side for so much of the season by the players and coaching staff is an enormous credit to all concerned. With everything going on around the club coupled with the disappointment of finishing as runners-up in the league at the end of last season and being beaten in the play-offs, this season might well have been excused as a transitional one for the club on the pitch. Yet here they are, knowing that two wins from their final three league matches – and, much as their last three results might have inspired more doom and gloom than has been knocking around the place for most of the season, there remains an onus on Workington and third-placed Ashton United to grind out results this afternoon as well – will see the club finally promoted into the Conference North.
So, the nerves of most FC United supporters will likely end up shredded this afternoon but, whether we view the very existence of the club itself or the construction of a ground according to the principles that founded it for the benefit of the community that it is very much a part of, FC United of Manchester have already won their biggest victory of the season. Those battles on the pitch matter, of course they do, but from one step of removal from it all, it’s difficult to not swell with pride on behalf of all of those that have taken control of their own destiny and proved that it is possible to run a football club a different way, as free as possible from crass commercialisation and the avarice that seems to infect so much of modern football. And here’s the thing. Those nerves, days like this, whether they end in elation or crushing disappointment, are what we’re all in it for in the first place. Stomachs may be twisted into knots. A bit of sick may come up. But both on and off the pitch, FC United of Manchester’s destiny is very much in its own hands today, and that is perhaps the most valuable commodity that any football supporter, football team or football club can ever enjoy.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.
You can give Twohundredpercent a taste of its own medicine on Facebook by clicking here.