Rewind to 2005, at the Manchester Apollo meeting, where the notion of a new, supporter-owned club was born. Could such an idea become a reality?
An origin story
According to the Athletic’s Mark Critchley, in the presence of more than a thousand of Manchester United’s more radical fans, a question was asked:
What would happen to this new club once the Glazers sold up?
The precocious question, asked only a few short weeks after the £ 790 million ($959.5m) leveraged buyout, was ahead of its time (via The Athletic). Today, it is in season.
Not too long ago, the Glazers announced they were “commencing a process to explore strategic alternatives” to their ownership of United.
FC United of Manchester, a club established to oppose the Glazer takeover, celebrated the news with “cautious optimism”.
Red Rebels without a cause?
The announcement did bring the seemingly ambitious question asked at the Apollo back to centre stage. After all, if a protest club has nothing to protest, does it not lose its purpose?
FC United chief executive Natalie Atkinson begs to differ. She says, “Journalists keep asking me: ‘If United gets sold, will everybody flock back there?’
She offers a simple answer to the now cliché question, “Well, no.”
For Atkinson, the anti-Glazer angst was merely a by-product of a more profound desire for a sustainable, fan-owned football. The FC United chief executive says:
“We have nearly 3,000 members that own a football club, and we make decisions collectively.”
“It’s about the broader message, a democratic view of how we run the club so that everybody has a say, that we’re affordable, and that we have a standing within the community.”
This is the overarching tent of FC United. It has guided the club for almost two decades and has become a culture from the top down.
A club for the people
The grievances with today’s United and the modern game are echoed among club members, including a declining atmosphere at The Theatre of Dreams, overeager stewarding, and the “social cleansing” of local fans.
FC United’s vision was founded upon seven core principles, vowing that the club would:
1. Democratically elect its board by its members
2. Take decisions on a one-member-one-vote basis
3. Develop strong links with the local community
4. Make admission prices as affordable as possible
5. Encourage young, local participation
6. Strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism
7. Remain a non-profit organisation
FC United supporter, Matt Haley, is drawn to the notion of an affordable, community-minded alternative to the Red Devils. He began drawing a line in the sand when he had to turn down an offer for a ticket to the 2005 FA Cup semi-final. It was a rude awakening of how inaccessible top-flight football had become. Haley says, “I wasn’t earning a lot of money at the time; I was just out of university, and I had literally been priced out of the game.”
A curious Haley attended FC United’s first-ever match at Leigh RMI. It was enough to steer him away from the Red Devils. He has not stepped foot in Old Trafford since but has amassed a collection of FC United memories spanning nearly two decades. These nostalgic moments included watching FC United’s four promotions and run to the second round of the 2010 FA Cup. While the club may only sit at mid-table of seventh-tier English football, Haley speaks affectionately about the club’s involvement in the local community.
One heart with no bad blood
It requires little effort to frame this tale as one of an empire and mutiny. In reality, it is not simply a matter of drawing a line between United’s pre-Glazer fanbase and placing two camps on either side of the divide.
“Even since 2005, there’s been lots of fans that have done both,” says Sam Mullock, another founding member and the club’s former deputy chair. He echoes the same sentiments as a line in a chant frequently heard at Broadhurst Park: ‘Two Uniteds, but the soul is one’.
Breaking of bread still a work in progress
One certainty when it comes to mending relations between the two clubs is that the Glazers era will have to end. This end is seemingly on the horizon.
However, even if the Glazers sell and a multi-billionaire change of ownership occurs, the need for an affordable, sustainable fan-owned football will remain. Hence, the battle will go on.
Atkinson says, “FC United is a club in its own right, and that’s the message for me.”
“Yes, we know where we’ve come from. You don’t forget our starting point and our history, but we’ve got to make our own history now.”
Journalists far and wide will do well to retire the tired question, “If the Glazers leave, will you return?”
A far better question will be, “Where to now?”
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