A fortnight before 18 people were murdered by the military in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, a local magistrate warned a government minister that Manchester’s organised workers were fast becoming ‘a most formidable engine of rebellion’. In the two centuries since, the city has done little to refute this charge. From its powerful movements for women’s suffrage, trade unionism, and nuclear disarmament to its assistance in developing punk and rave culture, nonconformity is deeply rooted in the birthplace of both capitalism and communism.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Manchester’s football fans made one of the boldest stands against modern football. In the north Manchester area of Moston stands Broadhurst Park, the grounds of FC United of Manchester (FCUM). In normal times, the 4,400-capacity stadium would be covered in flags referencing everything from the Stone Roses to the Spanish Republic, while thousands of Reds will be belting out an eclectic mix of chants – based on Ewan MacColl, Yazoo, Sex Pistols, Woody Guthrie, The Charlatans, and The Carpenters’ ‘On Top of the World’, to reference but a few.
Despite being in the Northern Premier League—the seventh tier of English football—the passion of the crowd will impress anybody used to the relative passivity of the top-level game. For people sick of corporate interference in football, the experience of an FC match leaves a glowing impression, and it’s easy to understand why. ‘If we could bottle this stuff,’ FC fan Jonathan Allsopp writes in The Red Thread, ‘we’d make millions. But we’re not into that, we’re more about ‘making friends not millionaires’, as one of the best banners around the ground says.’
Won’t Pay Glazer, Or Work for Sky
The origins of FCUM lie in a tradition of organising among Manchester United fans. In the nineties, supporters had already established a defence committee for Eric Cantona following his confrontation with convicted criminal and BNP sympathiser Matthew Simmons, and strong organisations like the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) had also heaped on the pressure to successfully see off Rupert Murdoch’s 1998 takeover bid. In 2004, however, American businessman Malcolm Glazer had been steadily building up his shares at United to over 16 percent.
Glazer, a neighbour of Donald Trump who had previously described by an American judge as a ‘snake in sheep’s clothing’, eventually launched a full bid for ownership of the club. The bid was fraught with obvious danger: for starters, Glazer only had around a third of the £800 million needed to buy United. His intention was to buy the club with loans, repaying the debt through the club’s profits – profits that would no doubt be made back by inflated ticket prices for supporters. With United being Glazer’s financial security, any default in payments could see United being taken over by hedge fund managers – or worse.
In response, United fans organised mass demonstrations and pickets. Merchandise stores were ransacked, and the property of club directors were vandalised. Groups like the Manchester Education Committee released statements threatening to ‘initiate a civil war’ against the club’s board, saying: ‘For too long, the wishes of Manchester United fans, and football fans in general, have been ignored as clubs sacrifice everything at the altar of commercialism.’
Despite this huge movement, Glazer eventually got his way, and United fans were unsure of their next steps. Writing in the Red Issue fanzine, John-Paul O’Neill—author of the authoritative Red Rebels: The Glazers and the FC Revolution—sketched out the possibility a breakaway club: one that would be owned by supporters, would never carry a sponsor on the front, and would actively help their local community. At a Red Issue fundraiser at a Rusholme curry house, booze-fuelled discussion over the future raged throughout the night. However, in An Undividable Glow, FCUM stalwart Rob Brady said that the meeting was ‘beery but different’:
The conclusion was that a meeting should be held the following Thursday. At this meeting, the many strands of the intifada we were now in would be voiced. A football club of our own provisionally entitled “FC United” would be a prominent element in the options Reds faced.
At the time, O’Neill writes, it was ‘impossible to imagine’ just how unrealisable the idea of a dissident, fan-owned club sounded. Brady, a bricklayer and editor of the socialist United fanzine A Fine Lung, had no illusions about the graft required, writing that ‘the work ahead was going to break up marriages… Form a football club? Form a fucking football club? How? By going to the magic wand shop and wishing one?’
This Is Our Club, Belongs to You and Me
However, a meeting held in the Methodist Central Hall, a Manchester trade unionist go-to venue, elected a steering group. In June, Karl Marginson—a fruit and vegetable delivery man and former Rotherham player—was appointed the club’s first manager, and their first game—a 0-0 draw with Leigh RMI—was held in July. From their adopted ground of Gigg Lane, which was shared with Bury FC (a club killed by corporate greed in 2019), the club built itself up.
Despite several ongoing years of struggling on the pitch, FC’s 16-year existence has still seen four promotions, three league titles, two league cups and a county cup. The fact that they didn’t flop was a source of embarrassment to some – such as Alex Ferguson, the man who had infamously told fans to ‘go and watch Chelsea’ if they disapproved of the Glazer takeover, who stormed out of a press conference when asked if he wished to congratulate Karl Marginson for steering FC to promotion.
One of the most memorable nights of FC’s history was on 5 November 2010, when they competed against Rochdale in the first-round proper of the FA Cup for the first time ever. After FC took a 2-0 lead, Rochdale—a club 97 places above them—soon equalised. In the 93rd minute, however, FC’s Mike Norton ended up putting past a last-minute goal which saw the club get into the second round of the Cup – and Reds staging a euphoric pitch invasion.
This Love Is Different Because It’s Ours
But even amidst the euphoria and chaos of what was an unthinkable result, not a single FC United player or official spoke to news-hungry BBC journalists – in solidarity with their colleagues who were on strike in defence of pay and conditions. This is because FC has always been about much more than a league place. The club’s left-leaning fanbase could tell you—or, indeed, chant to the tune of ‘Peaches’ by The Stranglers—about ‘punk football’, and the pride they feel in their ownership of their club.
Time and time again, FC has gone far beyond what can be expected of most other twenty-first century football clubs. In 2014, they became a football first in ensuring their staff were paid the Living Wage. Five years before that, mindful of the global economic crisis, FCUM offered ‘pay what you can afford’ season tickets, a model of inclusivity that was so popular that it has continued to this day.
A much-loved fixture of home games has been Course You Can Malcolm, a kind of afternoon nightclub that raises money for FC, showcases unsigned musicians in Manchester, and often highlights certain social causes. Every year of FC’s existence has seen a Big Coat Day, where fans collect warm clothes and essential items for homeless and vulnerable people across Manchester, and the club has been a staunch supporter of refugees in England, regularly holding Calais collections, and unambiguously explaining why in matchday programmes.
The club’s fans also have a solid record of anti-fascist activism, with many well-known figures on United’s terraces being veterans of Manchester wings of the Anti-Nazi League, Anti-Fascist Action, and established organisations like FC United Against Racism and Fascism, which was one of the more direct opponents of the English Defence League’s first forays into far-right politics from 2009-2011.
Making Friends Not Millionaires
This unique mix has undoubtedly made FC United friends from across the world. The club has made forays abroad, having played the Stockholm team of Djurgarden, Detroit City, the South Korean fan-owned Bucheon FC 1995, Lokomotive Leipzig, Dynamo Dresden and Babelsberg in Germany, and even the legendary St. Pauli—who invited them to their Millerntor stadium as part of their centenary celebrations—and to the top-tier Portuguese club Benfica, who came to play FC for the first match at Broadhurst Park in 2015.
The Ken Loach film Looking for Eric also brought the club into broader national attention. Based around a suicidal postman whose imaginary interactions with Eric Cantona and the loyalty and support of his colleagues and fellow United fanatics help him turn his life around and stop his family being exploited by gangsters, Cantona took the press interest in his film to praise the solidarity of FC United fans, calling the club ‘a bit of a dream, a bit of a utopia. But I like the dreams they have, because it means a lot.’
Cantona’s right – it is a bit of a dream. But it’s one that has sustained itself through tremendous difficulties and overcome serious hurdles. Over the past few years, FC United has overcome bitter internal struggles that has, at points, threatened its very future. It has faced a global pandemic by essentially turning its ground into a gigantic food bank for people who need assistance. And with the recent manoeuvres of the European Super League—fronted by Joel Glazer, of all people—their stance against the corporate ransacking of football seems more relevant than ever, and that there is a better way to do football. We can only hope others follow suit.