They’re not quite at extreme ends of the joy versus despair end of the spectrum, but the experiences of the supporters of FC United of Manchester and Newcastle United over the last few weeks do contrast quite clearly with each other. On the one hand, FC United supporters have spent the last couple of weeks or so basking in the warm afterglow of finally lifting the title in the Northern Premier League whilst awaiting the opening of their new Broadhurst Park ground. Meanwhile, in the Premier League, Newcastle United supporters have had to put up with their team reverting quite thoroughly to type, whilst protests against owner Mike Ashley continue, although the likelihood of him leaving the club under any terms other than those that would solely benefit him seem further away than ever. In short, the contrast between these two sets of supporters is that one set is as happy as a fan base could be, whilst the other, quite emphatically, is not.
If the atmosphere hanging over St James Park is one of torpor at present, then one of the small consolations for those who are looking for something, anything, to change is that with protest ideas coming to nothing, some people seem to be thinking somewhat more laterally about how they can square the circle of wanting to continue to be football supporters whilst keeping their consciences clean, and into the meeting pot of ideas this week fell the possibility of forming a new club along the lines of FC United of Manchester. In an article written for the supporters website The Mag, it was this week suggested such a breakaway could be the only way for supporters who are heartily sickened over what has been going on at their club in recent years to retain any interest in the game. Notably, the comments underneath the piece were generally supportive of the idea, which hints that, whilst it would still be a huge leap to actually getting a new club off the ground, the idea is at least being discussed.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that such a conversation might be being held at this of all times. FC United of Manchester have been very much in the limelight over the last few weeks, and for very much the right reasons. Media praise for the club has been gushing, and the club’s presence on social media has acted as a solid reminder of the joy that the game can bring to supporters. With delays to the completion of Broadhurst Park, we might have expected this season to be a more than transitional one for the team on the pitch, but the joyous scenes which accompanied the win against Stourbridge which saw the team lift the title were certainly infectious, as well serving as a reminder of everything that the club has achieved over the ten years since its formation. Even without the forthcoming move into a home of their own, these reminders can be a powerful currency.
What underpinned the formation of this club, however, was a broader dissatisfaction with the mores of modern football than just frustration at a lack of success or ambition on the pitch. The roots of the formation of the club stretch back way further than the the arrival of the Glazer family at Old Trafford, back through the protests against Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to purchase the club and reach into a general feeling that a football club could be whatever its supporters want it to be, as long as they are the people who run it. To that end, the Glazers were, for at least some, a symptom rather than the cause of the decision to make that final split. And it is, of course, well worth remembering that making that decision to walk away from Manchester United was not an easy one for many many people. Football clubs exert a powerful hold over all of us, and breaking that hold is not necessarily an easy psychological leap of faith to make.
But here’s the thing. Forming a new football club in reaction against something might be enough to assist in getting people interested in the formation of a new football club, but this alone might not be enough to keep people interested. What for example, might happen in the event of Mike Ashley selling Newcastle United if a new club was up and running solely in protest at his ownership of Newcastle, or if, somehow or other, they started challenging for major trophies again? It’s a conundrum, because making that breaking, forming a new club and all that this entails is a commitment that isn’t entered into lightly, but in the case of FC United of Manchester the likelihood of too many people drifting away by positioning the club as representing something more politically broad than merely the disgruntlement of Manchester United supporters over the Glazer takeover.
FC United of Manchester became a genuine alternative, a football club run with a philosophy that is almost unique. It retains, for example, its policies of no shirt sponsorship and “pay what you can” season tickets, whereby, subject to a minimum payment of £100, supporters can purchase a season ticket based upon what they can afford rather than an amount dictated by the club itself. When it came to the building of a home of its own, the club launched a community share offer previously unseen in football in this country, and they get the ground built. Innovations such as these, built the foundation of a philosophy of football being for all and of building strong ties with its local community have given the club an identity very distinct from Manchester United itself. Many supporters, understandably, still carry a torch for “big United”, whilst others have severed that bond altogether. Some were never Manchester United supporters in the first place. It’s a broad church, but the key to the club’s ongoing success is that it has, whether by design or accident, built an identity entirely of its own.
There will be further Newcastle protests this afternoon at Leicester, and those protesting may well be forgiven for wondering what all of this is in aid of in the first place. If football is supposed to be a use of one’s leisure time, why should supporters have to protest against the ownership of an institution that is, for tens of thousands of people, much more than “just another business”? For a number of Manchester United supporters, this sense of disillusionment and dislocation came some years ago, but the flourishing of FC United of Manchester demonstrated that there is another way of doing things that can be successful. The team might not have always have been successful on the pitch – as can be shown by defeats in the Northern Premier League play-offs on three occasions in four years prior to this season’s league title – but what they have is theirs, removed from the increasingly lop-sided contract between club and supporter, and no-one can take it from them.
The protests against Mike Ashley have been taking place at Newcastle United for a long time, and there will likely come a point at which the supporters of Newcastle United start to drift away from the club altogether. The existence of FC United of Manchester United, as well as other clubs formed in protest, such as AFC Wimbledon and Enfield Town, surely demonstrates that the cultural bonds of a fan base can be transplanted into a new environment, and that there is another way that doesn’t involve having to apply a clothes peg to one’s nose when buying a season ticket or arguing with one’s conscience over the behaviour of those that run their club. It might not be for all, but the fact that there are some Newcastle supporters who are now starting to discuss this very notion speaks volumes, not only about the torpor of Newcastle United Football Club, but also for the condition of modern football. If those supporters wish to re-engage with the game in a truly positive sense, and with Mike Ashley having shown little intention of leaving St James Park at any point in the immediate future, a new football club for Newcastle, owned by the supporters and run for the supporters, might just turn out to be the breath of fresh air that many Newcastle United supporters need, if anybody has the gumption to push ahead and consider turning idle talk into something more practical.
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