The Grass May Not Always Be Greener

by | Jan 5, 2016

Yesterday, the redoubtable website A Fine Lung posted a lengthy article about the ongoing situation at FC United of Manchester which may have come as something of a surprise to a lot of readers who aren’t overly familiar with recent machinations within this particular football club. When, having just secured promotion from the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League as the champions of that division, the club moved into its Broadhurst Park ground at the end of last season, the story surrounding it was celebrated as a one of the few feelgood stories in the second half of a season that had few of them going on elsewhere. What seems to have happened since then, however, is that a schism has started to develop between a section of its fan base and those running the club.

It’s difficult to comment on the specific situation at FC United of Manchester, other than to say that I implicitly trust A Fine Lung and others that have spoken out about their discontent concerning several decisions that the club has taken over the course of this season. Perhaps there is something about having a sense of idealism – and FC United of Manchester was from the outset an idealistic project – that is only ever likely to end in disappointment, but can feel difficult to avoid the belief that there is a lot of disillusionment about at the moment, as well as a sense that much of the campaigning momentum which took a long time and a lot of effort from a lot of people to build is rapidly being squandered or allowed to drift away.

One of the key issues that society as a whole needs to face up to over the course of the next few years is that internet discourse has dulled our sense of moderation, and this certainly seems to be the case at FC United of Manchester, where the fact the atmosphere has turned so toxic and so personal so quickly is probably the biggest concern of all at the moment. We live in an era during which social media, instant messaging and internet anonymity make it easy for voices to be heard, and this is, broadly speaking, a good thing. It also, however, comes with attendant costs. Debate of all forms has become cruder and more extreme, whilst listening to opposing points of view now seems to be very much out fashion, in favour of having to listen – often, it can feel, whether we want to or not – instead to those who choose to shout the loudest. In the face of such disillusionment, those running the club need to address these concerns, openly, honestly and publicly.

Another club at which realpolitik might be considered to have come to clash with idealism this season has been AFC Wimbledon. This season, as previously documented on this site in some detail, the club has reached agreement to sell its Kingsmeadow home to Chelsea so that the Premier League giants have a permanent home for their academy teams and their women’s team. It’s a complicated, convoluted story, but the upshot of it is that Kingstonian FC of the Ryman League, who were formerly the owners of the Kingsmeadow but who were separated from ownership of it by entering into administration in 2002, will end up needing a new home because Chelsea do not want a tenant at the ground.

There have been many who have been critical of Wimbledon over all of this, but one aspect of the story that has been interesting to witness from a distance has been the extent to which many of the club’s supporters wish to be treated only as “just another football club.” It can feel as though holding that club to a higher moral standard than other football clubs – even when we consider that the moral standard that we would hold most football clubs to would be very low indeed – may be somewhat unfair. Critics of this may argue that such clubs can appear happy to play up to this image while there are no difficult decisions to be made. It may well, for example, be argued that Wimbledon have benefited considerably over the years from the goodwill that the circumstances surrounding the inception of the new club engendered. None of this, however, detracts from the overall point that the situation Kingstonian in 2016 has been known of for more than a decade. The seeds of the club’s current predicament were sewn in the club’s overspending during the late 1990s rather than in the subsequent administration and the sale of Kingsmeadow to the Khoslas.

Other supporter-owned clubs are facing difficulties of their own at the moment. AFC Telford United – and we’ll have more detail on this story over the next couple of weeks or so – sit at the bottom of the National League North and a proposal to sell shares in the club has been proposed by its managing director Lee Carter, who has stated publicly that, “We cannot carry on as we are, the trust has to change.” At a level lower than this, Lewes FC, supporter-owned, run by individuals with undoubtedly flawless intentions and once heralded as a club to which others of a similar size should consider an example, are hopelessly adrift at the foot of the Premier Division of the Ryman League, staring relegation in the face.

To at least some extent, however, mentioning Telford and Lewes in the same breath as FC United and Wimbledon is a symptom of the same issue as the idealism mentioned above. Other than being owned by supporters trusts, the former two clubs have little to nothing in common with the latter two, although we – and that in itself is a word to be used advisedly – have a tendency to lump them in together. This is not a test that would be applied to other ownership models of football clubs in this country. Perhaps, however, the issue at hand isn’t the model itself, but is instead our own hopes and expectations of the governance or management of those clubs. The truth of the matter is that, regardless of perception, regardless of how a club may wish to manage itself, regardless of any other considerations whatsoever, all football clubs exist within the bubble of an entire structure that is rapaciously capitalist. Hoping that this will be any different in the foreseeable future feels a little like hoping that dark matter will suddenly become visible to the naked eye.

In the case of FC United of Manchester, perhaps the herculean effort required to get Broadhurst Park built came to obscure something within the club that had changed. Perhaps having that goal, a single unifying objective behind which everybody involved with the club could unite, masked other other clashes of personality, and now that this objective has been completed old differences are rising to the surface. Perhaps those running the club are making mistakes and alienating a section of the fan base in the process. What we can say for certain is that the club won’t become what dissenters want it to be – and, we presume, at least used to believe it could be – if they walk away from it all now. They need to state their case, as A Fine Lung has done, and within a democratic organisation seek to persuade others of the strength of their case. To have a football club with any principles whatsoever still makes this club an exception to the rule.

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